Book Review: No God but God, The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan

Even for a person like me who has read a little about Islam and its history, and therefore, has some idea about its origins and evolution, the book still makes an interesting read. One has to concede that Reza Aslan writes very well.

This book provides an important introduction to Islam, without delving into depths/semantics of Islamic theology. People who have some interest in Islamic history should read it. It will introduce them to the lives and times in pre Islamic Arabia, a glimpse into the life of the Prophet, the genesis and basic beliefs of the two sects of Islam, Shias and Sunnis. There is also a chapter devoted on Sufi Islam and it’s silsilas, which a Sanatani (Hindu) like me, found most interesting. Having read a little about many of these silsilas (except the Naqahbandi Silsila, which for me is qualifies as “orthodox” 😃 amongst Sufis, at times more orthodox than even the Deobandis (remember Shah Waliullahs writings)) the other Sufi traditions are pretty close to Sanatani (Hindu) sacred texts and rituals.

Reza is an Iranian American, and belongs to a family which left Iran post the Islamic revolution. The penultimate chapter of the book provides an overview about the Islamic revolution in his country of birth, Iran, and the unique style of Islamic governance that was established there by Ayatollah Khomeini, post the 1979 Islamic revolution. This Islamic (Shia) governance framework/regime found expression in the concept of “Vilayat e Faqih” and also embedded within itself concepts such as democracy and representative government. While much can be critiqued about this conception of democratic governance, it cannot however be denied, that Iran today remains the only (well Tunisia after the Arab spring, is gradually building itself towards one) democracy in the Islamic world, howsoever imperfect.

The last chapter of the book deals with the future of Islam and Reza believes that Islam is going through an internal struggle, and like the Christian world, Islam will surely see a reformation in future. One hopes that he is proved right for Islam has had a history of intellectualism, scientific temper, adaptation and absorption of ideas. Speaking at a totally personal level, the problem in my view arose with the rise of the Asharis‘ and the complete destruction of the Mutazilite school of thought. (अरे ये एक काफिर का ओपिनियन है, मुर्शिद लोग, डंडा ले के मत दौड़ा देना 🙏😉)


Book Review: Jugalbandi, The BJP before Modi by Vinay Sitapati.

Though I had finished reading this book sometime ago, writing the book review had slipped out of my mind as I got busy with other reads. Vinay Sitapati writes a brilliant book providing a glimpse into the journey of Hindu nationalism in India – its ideological underpinnings, role of personalities and the context which facilitated/impeded its rise. It also answers academic questions about Hindu nationalism.

Despite all the misinformation that its opponents continuously proffer, Hindu nationalism is not anti-democratic or fascist. Fascists abhor democracy and elections, whereas Hindu nationalism is a product of democracy and elections. Hinduism as a religion, unlike say Islam (which has a conception of Khilafat) does not have a religious/historical conception of how polity should be organized. Concepts like ‘Ram Rajya’ do not provide a framework for organizing polity, but deal with ideals/code of conduct for rulers. Hindu nationalists like Savarkar/Lala Lajpat Rai were delighted when democratic institutions were introduced by the British – this provided Hindu nationalism the opportunity to acquire power through the twin factors of Hindu numerical majority and elections. Frankly apart from winning in elections, Hindu nationalists know of no other way to acquire political power. For them India was/is already a Hindu Rashtra for in this sacred geography Hindus constitute a majority, the issue is only of mobilizing them. It is this belief in democracy that makes the Hindu nationalists contest elections with gusto, and also accept defeat in an election and surrender power without much ado (coming back to fight another day).

Not only is Hindu nationalism a product of democracy and elections but it is a modern concept, much different from traditional Hinduism. For Savarkar (who is credited to have provided the intellectual foundations of Hindu nationalism through his theory of Hindutva), traditional Hinduism was a source of weakness rather than strength. Deeply influenced by western utilitarianism and rationalism, revolutionary nationalism of Mazzini, atheism and the rising Muslim separatism and violence against Hindus (Moplah riots after the Khilafat movement), his own experiences during his incarceration in Andamans, he became obsessed with the idea of challenging Muslim seperatism and making it as powerful as the west. He derided traditional Hinduism which he found seeped in ritualism, superstitions and caste divisions. Unlike the traditional Hindu scholars like Vivekanand who concerned themselves with the question ‘What is Hinduism?’, Savarkar sought answer to the question, ‘Who is a Hindu?’ – an answer he defined in racial terms and in terms of blood ties (slightly modified by Sangh, who define Hindus as ones who share common cultural ties). It was these ‘Hindus’ who needed to be organized so that Muslim separatism could be challenged, country kept united and India made a great power. It is hilarious when critics accuse Hindu nationalism of being Brahminical as caste divisions are a complete anathema for Hindu nationalists. In their worldview it is these divisions which sap Hindu society of its virility and resulted in India losing its sovereignty to foreigners. There is a reason why despite all disinformation campaigns launched against it by vested interests, today it is the BJP which is the most preferred party for the Dalits and the OBCs; the country has an OBC as PM and a Dalit as President. This tradition of empowering the weaker sections goes back a long time. During the Janata government of 1977, the PM choice of the Jan Sangh faction of the Janata party was Babu Jagjivan Ram, a Dalit.

Now to the question as to ‘Why does the BJP win’? The answer to this question lies in what is called the ‘Hindu Fevicol’ by the author, an adhesive that binds the party and stops it from splitting. This ‘Hindu Fevicol’ is rooted not only in ideology (there are many ideological parties like the Communists, BSP etc. but they have split regularly) but in the particular understanding of history that the Hindu nationalists imbibe and which shapes their ideological worldview.  They believe that it was the division amongst Hindus that resulted in the loss of India’s sovereignty (to foreigners), and was also responsible for the division of the country. Those who visit the Shakhas would understand the constant emphasis that is placed on battles like the third battle of Panipat where Ahmad Shah Durrani despite being an outsider, gained the support of Muslims in India (Rohillas, Afghans and Shiraj-ud-Daula) while the Hindu Rajputs and the Jats did not support the Marathas, (who themselves could not put up a united front, their army having too many Generals and lacking a cohesive war strategy).  It is this understanding of history grilled into the mental makeup of the Hindu nationalists, which places a premium on keeping the outward trappings of unity intact, even though the leaders may have deep differences amongst themselves. It was a well-known fact that Vajpayee wanted Narendra Modi out after the Gujarat riots (which could have effectively ended his political career), but on his death Mr. Modi as PM walked 6 kms with his hearse during his funeral. Contrast that with how the Congress party treated Narshimha Rao after his death. The dissidents might sulk, some might quit politics (Nanaji Deshmukh) but they never divide the party (exceptions like Shankar Singh Vaghela are few and far between). When Vajpayee was sidelined by the party in the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi was quite interested in having him cross over to the Congress. When he sent his emissaries, Vajpayee is said to have just laughed it off. When asked as to why despite being sidelined he sticks to the party, he is reported to have said, ‘Jayen toh jayen kahan?’. Now wasn’t that a silly answer, for which political party would not have welcomed him?  

The book provides a historical account of the formation of the right-wing Hindu party – first the Jan Sangh and then the BJP. Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha were the first expression of Hindu nationalism as an organized political party. When Dr. Hegdewar formed the RSS in 1925, though he agreed with most of the postulates of Hindutva as enunciated by Savarkar – he differed with Savarkar on politics, which he considered to be a corrupting influence. While he wanted to organize Hindus socially, he wanted them remain apolitical. The intellectual genius that Savarkar was, he understood that politics cannot be ignored if socio-political changes have to be brought about. While he constantly pleaded for RSS to become politically active, this was declined by Dr. Hegdewar and his successor Guru Golwalkar. In frustration Savarkar said, ‘What will you do with these people who keep marching?’, ‘Make achar with them?’. That Savarkar was right about not ignoring politics, was understood by RSS only after the assassination Mahatma Gandhi when RSS was banned but not the Mahasabha, even though Godse was a member of the Mahasabha, and the latter’s role in the murder of Mahatma was more direct/pronounced. RSS realized that unlike the Mahasabha, not having a political voice to support it put it at a disadvantage. The Mahasabha had a political footprint, was represented in Parliament and also in the Union Cabinet (not so long ago when SP Mukherji resigned), making banning the outfit much more difficult. This bitter experience made Guruji and the RSS reassess their stance about remaining apolitical. So, when Shyama Prasad Mukherji approached Guruji for help to launch a political party, he agreed to support him. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh was formed on 21 October 1951, with five members of the RSS seconded to it. Thus started the political Jugalbandi of the first duo in the Hindu nationalist classical concert, i.e. Shyama Prasad Mukherji and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. This was followed by the second players of this Jugalbandi, Atal ji and Advani Ji, PM Modi and Amit Shah ji being the third pair of this political Jugalbandi. The common thread that runs through all these Jugalbandis’ is the division of labour amongst the players; one responsible for managing the parliamentary arm of the party and the other managing the party organization. The first role demanded a flair for oratory while the latter the patience of management and eye for detail.

The Hindu nationalist project whose flowering we witness today is nearly a 100-year-old project, and has seen several trials, tribulations and ideological compromises. The ideological hegemony that Nehruvian consensus had over Indian society and polity for several decades, post-independence constrained the space for Hindu nationalism. Ideologues like Vajpayee, whose politics revolved more around parliamentary consensus than mass politics, accepted the fundamental underpinnings of this consensus and reworked Hindu nationalism around it. The problem was compounded by Godse’s assassination of Gandhi deeply harming the Hindu nationalistic project, setting it back by decades. They were reviled and declared political pariah. All focus of the Jana Sangh and the BJP in their initial decades were driven by attempts to mainstream them and acquire political acceptance in the polity. Their big breakthrough came with the proclamation of Emergency in 1975, when they became a part of the opposition front challenging the emergency, and becoming part of the Janata party. In the 1977 elections not only did the Jan Sangh (block) win the largest number of seats amongst all the constituents of the Janata Party, but in their quest for mainstreaming themselves not only did they discard their core ideology (unacceptable to others) but also accepted the least number of ministerial positions, vis a vis number of seats won. This trend of ideological dilution in the quest for political mainstreaming continued with the formation of BJP in April 1980, when Vajpayee defined ‘Gandhian Socialism’ as the core ideology of the party, much to the chagrin of many ideological purists. This dilution in ideology however did not yield the desired electoral success because majority politics in the 1980s had taken a distinctly rightward turn. The threat to national unity posed by the Khalistani separatist movement in Punjab, Bhindranwale’s call of killing Hindus, the fear of losing their demographic edge (always a super sensitive topic with Hindus with the scar of Partition) with rising infiltration (of Muslims) from Bangladesh in Assam, and the conversion of Dalits to Islam in Meenakshipuram, all made the Hindus deeply anxious. Ironically, it was the ‘secular’ Congress which understood this change in the political climate in the country and adjusted its politics accordingly – articulating right wing Hindu policies. It was the Congress leaders instead of the BJP, who were most vociferous in their condemnation of the Meenakshipuram conversions, they undertook a pogrom against the Sikhs (after the death of Mrs Gandhi) and played upon the Hindu anxieties during the 1984 general elections by running a rabidly communal campaign demonizing the Sikhs. Former Congress ministers Dau Dayal Khanna and Gulzari Lal Nanda sharing stage with the VHP were the first to demand that a Ram Mandir be built at Ayodhya as early as 1983. It took the BJP six more years (1989) before it endorsed the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. (Palampur resolution).

The Congress right-wing turn was such that even the RSS members had started collaborating with the Congress and voting for it. Denuded of RSS support, the BJP lost elections in Delhi and Jammu and was reduced to 2 seats in the Lok Sabha. Arguing that enough was enough, the RSS now openly called for a change in the leadership of the BJP, asking Rajmata Scindia to take over, and when she declined, Advani became the President of the party in place of Mr. Vajpayee. Seeped in organizational and grassroot politics, Advani was aware of the changing political atmosphere in the country, but he had refrained from seeking any course correction to Vajpayee as he was too much in awe and thrall of him. After becoming President, he gradually started asserting himself, bringing the party back to its ideological moorings. While the skeptical Vajpayee sulked, Advani led the rightwing turn in the party – Rath Yatra, alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra – all of which helped in augmenting public support, and paid rich electoral dividends. By 1995 however, the party’s electoral successes had plateaued, and Advani realized that BJP could come to power only by entering into alliance with other political parties. His image as a mascot of hardline Hindutva inhibited other political parties entering into an alliance with the party, and there was no chance of BJP coming to power under his leadership. This understanding made him make that famous and unexpected announcement in the Mumbai plenary of the party (November 1995), where he announced Vajpayee as the Prime Ministerial face of the BJP, surprising many. The rest as they say is history. BJP with its 24 alliance partners finally formed the government and ruled for 6 years before losing power in 2004. The highlight of this 6-year rule was the steps that this govt would take to to improve relations with Pakistan as well as reaching out to the Kashmiris. In this both Vajpayee and Advani were on the same page.

Now for some personalities and their stories that the book deals with. I found the stories of Advani, Rajkumari Kaul and Nusli Wadia most interesting (and poignant). Much is known about Vajpayee and his charisma; he was a leader we produce once in a century. This book needs to be read if you want to understand Advani Ji – the tragic figure that he is, whose contribution are somehow understated. Born in a rich family in Karachi, seeped in the syncretic traditions of Sindh, his mother visited Sikh shrines and Sufi Dargahs, he studied in a Christian Missionary school, (Mr. Sitapati calls him the classical Macaulayputra). His story is the story of the tragedy that partition was – an affluent family reduced to penury and forced to flee India as a result of partition. He was a man completely in awe and thrall of Vajpayee, also deeply loyal to him at a personal level. Vajpayee and Advani shared a fabulous chemistry, had immense liking for each other despite being totally different personalities – Advani was dour, afraid of public speaking, disciplined and loved to spend time with cadres, Vajpayee loved the good things of life, was probably the best orator produced in Indian politics and loved ‘high’ politics of parliament, rather than of the organization. They collaborated and helped each other to undermine their detractors, Advani helped Vajpayee to remove challengers like Balraj Madhok, ML Sondhi and Nanaji Deshmukh while Vajpayee helped Advani to cut MM Joshi to size when he was emerging as a challenger to Advani. They also had their differences, more so during the period BJP was in power, when Vajpayee sidetracked Mr. Advani in matters of governance with his PMO under Brajesh Mishra and his family calling the shots. On organizational matters however, he continued to defer to Advani, he retracted from his insistence that Narendra Modi resign after the Gujarat riots, a view Advani and the party did not endorse.

Rajkumari Kaul, (who was in a relationship with Vajpayee), had first met each other in college, developed an attraction for each other but before their affection to concretize into something more serious, had moved on in life, she marrying the philosophy professor Mr. Kaul and he becoming one of the young star politicians of India. Destiny made them meet again in Delhi, and the relationship was rekindled, Mr. Kaul not objecting to this relationship. She was as much of an intellectual as Mr. Vajpayee and her discussions sharpened/deepened his liberal tendencies. Their relationship as well as their commitment to each other was unique. RSS did not take the relationship kindly and when Guruji asked Vajpayee to break the relationship, much to his credit he refused. The RSS learnt to live with their relationship.

Interestingly, during the earlier days of the Hindu right party, when no other industrial house would look at the party, it was Jinnah’s grandson Nusli Wadia who emerged as their main financier. Nanaji Deshmukh, who was the main fund collector of the party, was a father figure to him. When BJP came to power, many resented his direct access to the PM.

Deeply researched the book is a must read for anyone who is interested in the history of the BJP. It is surely one of the best books to come out this year.    

Book Review: The Televangelist by Ibrahim Essa

I was not very enthused when this book was recommended to me by a friend. एक तो फ़िक्शन, ऊपर से 500 पेज प्लस! But when I picked it, the book turned out to be unputdownable.

The book revolves around Sheik Hatem is a highly popular televangelist of a popular TV show based in Cairo. His popularity and his simple but persuasive style of explaining Islamic precepts and concepts, catches the eye of the all powerful President’s son who assigns him the secret mission of dissuading his brother in law from converting to Christianity. His conversion would cause a scandal in the Muslim majority country and would weaken his hold on power.

Full of unexpected twists and turns, the book provides an excellent glimpse into how Islam operates in authoritarian states like Egypt (and much of the middle east), how it is commodified and also instrumentalised by the state for their own ends. I fell in in love with the character of Sheik Hatem, who starts his life as a preacher in a local mosque and then gradually catches the eye of the establishment. He gets projected, signs contract for his TV programmes and earns his missions. The Faustian bargain is that he stay within the limits of officially sanctioned Islam. So he argues that as an officially sanctioned/approved Mawlana while he does not lie about Islam on TV, he does not delve into the whole truth/analyse the issue in all its ramifications, lest he upset the State or even bore his audience who basically love their ‘rhetorical’ Islam.

However, the dialogue that he mouths in the book are is full of acerbic wit and slapstick humour. For example; ‘President Sadat, may he rest in peace, used to say, ‘No politics in religion, and no religion in politics,”.. but my motto is ‘No politics in politics, and no religion in religion.’ At one place he teases an Egyptian Islamist that they prefer Crusader medicines (Western medicines) over Quran-approved medications. ‘So Dr. Gamal, why don’t you make us some effective medicines instead of sitting reading the Quran in your pharmacy day and night. You ought to be doing research and inventing better medicines.’

Ibrahim Essa is a popular media personality in Egypt, who has had his own run-inns with the govt. The book was converted into a movie last year (if I remember correctly) called “Maulana” and it did pretty well at the box office. The ending of the book however is pretty abrupt! Looks like the writer has a sequel in mind. Will surely wait for it.

A thoroughly enjoyable read!

Book review: The nine lives of Pakistan by Declan Walsh

I had been reading some pretty heavy but interesting stuff (one which demands note making if you really want to retain stuff that you have read) these days, “Mohajir and the Nation”, “Defending Muhammad in Modernity”, “Fateful Triangle” and “Muslims and the Media Images”. Meanwhile purchased this book…

I have been a regular reader of Declan Walsh’s articles from Pakistan and was also intrigued when he was declared a persona non grata and asked to leave Pakistan in 2013 by the Government Of Pakistan (read agencies). The logic failed me, for his stories were mostly sympathetic to Pakistan. In this book he provides the answer as to why he was asked to leave Pakistan; for reporting on Baluchistan. An old ISI hand who was tasked with trailing him during his visit to Quetta on his reporting assignment but who subsequently left the organisation, and was now seeking an asylum in Europe, finally sought him out and told him the reason of his expulsion in 2019. Personally, apart from this chapter, if you are a Pakistan watcher, there is hardly anything new that this book tells you. Walsh tries to explain the contradictions that is Pakistan (but if you ask me objectively, which country on earth is not?), where opposites like westernization and philistinism exists with traditionalism and medievalism, votaries of liberal and secular values challenge state narratives and fissiparous tendencies coexist with Pakistani nationalism.

The biographies of personalities like Jinnah, Anwar Kamal Marwat Khan, Asma Jahangir, Salman Taseer, Col Imam, Chaudhary Aslam Khan, Nawab Akbar Bughti provides the palimpsest on which are written the stories of Pakistani contradictions (and for me it’s resilience). Now if you are a Pakistan watcher, these are pretty well known figures and so are their stories. Declan’s journalistic take on these personalities and their stories had nothing new to add for me personally. So this made it a pretty easy read for me…a break from the heavy stuff I was reading which demanded making notes…(सो बिस्तर पे लेट के नहीं पढ़ सकते आप)…The book finished in a day…! But let me add, if you are not an avid Pakistani follower, then this book should be on your ‘to read’ list. It will help you understand the country better.

Book Review: Defending Muhammad in Modernity by SherAli Tareen

SherAli Tareen defines his book as ‘…the first comprehensive study of Barelvi Deobandi controversy, a polemical battle that shaped South Asian Islam and Muslim identity in singularly profound ways.’ On the title of the book he says, ‘The book is called Defending Muhammad in Modernity because the intra-Muslim conflict it details centered on the competing imaginaries of Prophet Muhammad. What image of the Prophet should anchor a Muslim’s normative orientation and everyday life? This question, at the kernel of Barelvi-Deobandi controversy assumed unprecedented urgency in the modern colonial moment. The condition of being colonized generated tremendous anxiety as well as anticipation about the aspiration of constructing and ideal Muslim public.

‘My main takeaways from the book;

1. At the outset I must commend the author for debunking in no uncertain terms this false binary, which has acquired great currency, more so after 9/11 about Sufi Islam being the peaceful, folkish Islam, unconnected to Sharia (so the good Islam which needs to be promoted) as against the legalistic, puritan and fanatical Deobandis, Ahl-e- Hadith and Wahabi sects who insist on implementation of the Sharia (so the bad Islam which needs to be managed/repressed). While it is nobody’s call that interpretive difference don’t exist amongst these schools of thought, but as an ‘adna sa’ student of Islam I find it hilarious, when Sufis are projected as people having nothing to do with the sharia/law. The Sufis do not reject the law and its imperatives, but consider it as the first step in the hierarchy which would lead them to finally attain higher spiritual fulfilment (Sharia -Tariqa – Haqiqa).

2. The book begins with the completing political theology of Shah Muhammad Ismail and Fazl-i-Haq Khayrabadi. The main polemical discussion between these two scholars centered around the themes of prophetic intercession (shafa’at), God’s capacity to lie (imkan-i-kizb) and to produce another Prophet Muhammad (imkan-i-inzir). While traditional Islamic sources and also the Quran do document Prophet’s capacity of intercession, the scope of that capacity has been a matter of intense debate. Ismail (I would argue following the Mutazalite and the Wahabi tradition) places limits on the Prophet’s capacity to intercede on behalf of the sinners. He argues that if Prophet had unlimited capacity of intercession, this surely undermined divine sovereignty thus encouraging heresies and corruption amongst the masses. On this, Khayrabadi disagreed vehemently with Ismail accusing him of insulting the Prophet. The book provides interesting original references which both scholars provided in support of their argument. Similarly, on the issue of creating another Muhammad, Ismail argued that God had the capacity to enact an exception. In his book ‘Taqwiyat-al-Iman’ he declared (his most controversial comment), ‘God is so powerful that in one moment, just by uttering the command ‘Be’, he can create millions of new prophets, saints, jinn’s, angels, Gabriels and Muhammads.” This was rebutted by Khayrabadi in his Persian work ‘Taqrir-i-itirrazatbar Taqwiyat al Islam’ with the argument that accepting the possibility of a second Muhammad equates to accepting that God can lie and renege on his promise of Muhammad’s finality. This makes the possibility of God being defective, for lying was a defect and God cannot be defective. Carrying the debate further, Ismail wrote in his work ‘Yak Roza’ that God did indeed possess the capacity to lie and that he could contravene his own promise. Men had the capacity to lie, and so to argue that God could not do something which humans were capable of doing, was saying that human capacity exceeded the divine capacity. But he drew the distinction between potentiality (imkan) and actuality (wuqu) and stated that though God did have the capacity to create a million new Muhammad’s and to contravene his own promise, he would never actually do it. So the creation of the second Muhammad was not essentially impossible (mumtana bil dhat) but only indirectly impossible (mumtana bil ghayr). Therefore, basically he was in complete agreement with Khayabadi that there had never been, or never could be another Muhammad. It was totally impossible for God to either lie or create another Muhammad but this was so because this did not fit with his theological programme.

3. The book elaborates in some detail as to what the various Islamic scholars viewed as the limits of Prophet’s normative practice (sunna) and its transgression, resulting in innovation (bida) resulting in seeking to rival God’s authority as sovereign legislator. For the Muslim scholars of the Indian subcontinent the main issue surrounding ‘bidda’ was the question as to when the customary conventions (rasm) began to oppose and threaten the monopoly of the divinely ordained order i.e. the sharia? The Deobandis were principally concerned with protecting the primacy of religious obligations against the threat of seemingly pious and spiritually rewarding rituals which though ‘permissible’ (mubah) but were not obligatory. They were fearful that the masses may mistake such voluntary act of piety as obligatory. In their view bida was much more dangerous than other sins for it could wear the mask of religion. These rasm and their practice gets so deeply ritualized in the community that anyone abandoning it ends up facing rebuke and censure. Ali Thanvi argued that the rasm of ‘fatiha’ done for transmitting blessings to the deceased (isal-i-sawab) where food items were distributed amongst family and community members had got so completely corrupted that it had become bidda. The original logic of the ritual was on feeding the destitute relatives of the deceased as an act of charity, but in the present day Ismail argued, the Indian Muslims had become ‘so attached to the specific mode of performing the ritual that the original purpose and rationale was lost on them’. Ismail stated that if food was given to the family members saying it was for charity, or was meant for destitute, many family members would not even accept it.

4. The most interesting chapter for me in the book was the contestation amongst Indian Deobandi and Barelvi scholars over ‘Mawlid’, the celebration of Prophet’s birthday and the practice of standing up in his honour to offer him salutations and receive his blessings (qiyam). The opponents of qiyam argue that by believing that the Prophet can make simultaneous appearances at multiple mawlid function accords him with divinity and challenges divine sovereignty. The Deobandis, as we know oppose the practice of Mawlid (as is practiced in India) with Ali Thanvi considering it bida. The main argument they advance in support of their contention is as given in point 3 above, that the practice was elevated from mere permissible to what the masses have now started believing to be obligatory. The Barelvis of course as ‘ashiq-e-Rasool’ disagree. They argue that the corruption in such practices need to be rectified rather than changing the practice in toto (as changing the dates of celebration suggested by Deobandis) or abandoning it all together.

5. What comes through quite clearly is that the scholars of both the schools, Barelvis as well as Deobandis show a great deal of distrust with regards the intellectual capability of the masses. They believe that left to themselves they are prone to go astray. They need constant guidance from the religious Ulemas so that the moral order of the Muslim society is preserved.

An excellent read.

Book Review: Delhi in Historical Perspectives by K.A. Nizami translated by Ather Farouqui

At the outset Ather Sahab deserves a big thanks for having sent me this book. I would rate this book as one of the best books on Delhi that I have read. Deeply researched with references drawn from original sources, the book provides detailed insight into the social, political (fleetingly), economic and cultural life of the city spanning seven centuries.

Beginning with the early history of the city, it divides itself into 3 chapters, Delhi under the Sultanate, Delhi under the Mughals and Ghalib’s Delhi. The vicissitudes that this world city faced, it’s days of glory, of sackings by marauders, losing it’s capital status to Agra, the revival of the glorious days under Shah Jahan and then the fury of the British, following the first war of Independence in 1857, all are brought out so lucidly in the book.

It is important to note that even when Delhi saw it’s political and economic status diminished, it never lost its cultural effervescence, an effervescence rooted in the shared cultural values of the elites of the time.

An excellent read! मज़ा आ गया पढ़ने में!

Book Review: The Shell by Mustafa Khalifa

There are some books you wait for a long time to procure (was horrendously expensive in India) and when you do manage to get it (discarded copy from a university library in the US), you do the obvious….read it in one sitting.

I had heard/read about this book while doing my research on the Syrian civil war and had them come across this statement by the Lebanese writer, Lina Mounzer who said, “Whenever anyone asked her the question, Why the Syrian revolution?, her answer was always this book”.

While the book is classified as a work of fiction, it is not purely so, for it is based on the actual experiences of the author during his incarceration by the Assad regime from 1982 to 1994 in the dreaded Tadmur prison in the desert land, north west of Damascus. Unlike Khalifa who is a Muslim, the main character who undergoes incarceration is the Christian and atheist Musa. Reading his interview, I came to know that during his internment one of his closest friend was a Christian and in this book he merged his prison experiences with the thoughts of his Christian friend to create the character of Musa.

Like Khalifa, Musa in this novel, went off to a university in France, where he studied art and film direction. When he returned from Paris in 1982, upon his arrival he was arrested at Damascus airport. Musa was initially branded as a member of the Muslim brotherhood and subjected to severe torture. When he professed that he was a Christian and an atheist and so could not be a member of the MB, the situation actually worsened for him as the other inmates boycotted him arguing that he must be a government agent and spy while the prison officials simply ignored him. It is only later that we come to know that the main reason for his arrest was that he had made a silly joke about the President in one of the parties in Paris. (Reminded me of the 2 year incarceration and solitary confinement in the Anda cell of Aurther jail, that poet Majrooh Sultanpuri had to undergo, when he had written a poem deriding Chacha ji for trying to keep India in the commonwealth).

Written in a direct diary like literary style, the novel on the one hand with its portrayal of never ending torture, killings and brutalization filled me with deep despair, on the other hand it also provided me with a glimpse into human resilience and nobleness of character, thereby filling me with hope. In his interview Khalifa says that many of his prison inmates qualify as the finest human beings he had ever met or was likely to meet. There are poignant tales of prisoners volunteering to take the quota of lashings for other prisoners who were weak or ill, higly qualified inmate doctors helping other inmates who were sick and deep rooted friendship that developed amongst inmates which helped them tide over the unending torture and brutalization launched by prison authorities. These days I have been trying to read a bit on the mental resilience training of the Navy Seals, and must say some of the techniques that the inmates used to withstand torture and not breakdown, was no less than those practiced by the Seals. The book provides a deep insight of the psychological impact that long prison sentences and torture can have on people.

Finally, all I can say is that a book like this should be a must read for those ‘maganubhaws’ who have dulled their minds to the impact that long term incarceration, solitary confinement and torture could have on people. But I guess, I am asking them for too much. Given their level of narrow mindedness, lack of understanding and empathy, it actually is too much of an ask!

Book Review: The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas by Amb. Phunchok Stobdan

Ambassador Stobdan writes an interesting and I daresay a controversial book. The main theme of the book, is the game of cultural and philosophical influence building that the Tibetans (and the Chinese) are playing in the Buddhist Himalayan region of India with a view to undermine Indian Buddhist philosophical traditions. What makes this book controversial is that he considers the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan Buddhism as an active instrument being used by China, to further its agenda of cultural domination.

My main takeaways;

1. Ambassador Stobdan is one of the few Indian diplomat and strategic expert who understands the different schools/sects of Buddhist traditions in the Himalayan region. He also has a keen understanding of the historical relationship/engagement between the Chinese court and the Tibetans. While the dominant Buddhist sect in Tibet is the Gelugpa, headed by the Dalai Lama, which was founded in the 15th century by Tsongkhapa, in the Southern Himalayas (which encompasses Indian Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan), the older tradition that of Guru Padmasambhav is revered and is in vogue. The Nyingmapa sect has been associated with this tradition as had been other older sects/traditions like the Kagyu sect headed by the Karmapa, and Sakya sect based in Dehradun. Amb. Stobdan laments that these older traditions of Indian Buddhism are gradually being overshadowed and taken over by the Tibetan Gelugpa Sect. Historically the Tibetans have always been on a constant drive to entrench their Gelugpa sect in the southern Himalayas with many monasteries of Indian sects and traditions being taken over by them. He argues that this is being done with the tacit acceptance of New Delhi and blames New Delhi for its failure to understand the future geo strategic implication of this. While many think that Tibet is the vulnerable underbelly of China, he argues that if and when the Dalai Lama and the Chinese reconcile, or when the Chinese take over that institution (as they are likely to do after the Dalai Lama passes away), this could well lead to a Chinese sphere of influence in the strategic and sensitive Himalayan region of India.

2. Amb. Stobdan considers the stay of Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees in India as having been disruptive for India China relations. A study of history reveals that the Tibetans have regularly used the Chinese court to further their geo political interests. For example, while the Tibetan delegation had signed the treaty defining the Macmohan line in 1914, at the Shimla convention, later they refused to ratify it on the ground that the Chinese, who were their suzerain authority, had not ratified it. Soon after Indian independence in 1947, the Tibetan authorities wrote a letter to Nehru (who the author says was quite stunned to receive the letter) asking him to return all those territories to Tibet that the British had incorporated into India. This included parts of Ladakh and also Tawang. This demand preceded even the establishment of Communist China. In the initial years of his exile in India, the Dalai Lama was ambivalent on the question if the areas of Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh were indeed a part of the Indian Union. It was only later that he affirmed that they were, only after his negotiations with the Chinese had broken down.

3. An important assertion made by the author is that while the Chinese have understood the important role that Buddhism could play in the furtherance of their geo-political interest and soft power, India, despite being the place where Buddha attained enlightenment, has failed to use Buddhism as a potent instrument in the fostering bonds/connectivity with the Buddhist world. President Xi is not only focusing on building the OBOR, but has also embarked on the path of making China the world leader in Buddhism. It seems that he has been influenced by his father Xi Zhengxun, who while presenting his 11,0000 word in Document 19, had warned the party against banning religious activity in China for such a ban ending up alienating people. One of his signature line was, ‘If people have faith, the nation has hope, and the country has strength’. Not only has President Xi built several temples but also taking a cue from the practices of the Chinese imperial era, he has started using Tibetan cultural connectivity to expand Chinese influence in the Indian Himalayan Belt, Mongolia, and other South East countries. The OBOR in Nepal is sought to be linked with Buddha’s birthplace of Lumbini and in Pakistan it is the Gandhara Trail which seeks to link Lahore, Taxila and Peshawar. China has reactivated the Buddhist Association of China (BAC). In 2006 China held the World Buddhist Forum, drawing monks from across the world. Almost all prominent Buddhist institutions in the world have now fallen in BAC’s fold. The World Buddhist Sangha Council, founded in Sri Lanka is run by Chinese teachers. Similarly, the prestigious WFB, (founded in Sri Lanka in 1955 by 25 nations), headquartered in Bangkok is currently headed by Masters Hsing Yun and Yi Chen from China and Taiwan. So, while China has taken a cue from the Buddhist globalization and diplomacy, as was originally practiced by Ashoka and Kanishka, India has failed to revive and support larger Indian Buddhist traditions and their philosophical heritage. In this book he suggests several steps for doing so.

4. Where I disagree with Amb Stobdan is his assertion that India extended support to the Dalai Lama as a part of an American conspiracy against China. The anti-American sentiment of the author comes through openly in the book. While it is true that the Americans did support the Dalai Lama, but to assert that they wanted to use the Dalai Lama to foster animosity between India and China (China had been getting more and more antagonistic towards India much before the Dalai Lama made his escape) is slightly farfetched.

5. The author also points out to the future complexities that the Chinese may face on the Tibetan issue. Though China had managed to keep the Tibetan issue from boiling over, and with its rising power profile around the world, most countries have downgraded their support/relationship with the Dalai Lama, the situation inside may change with the death of Dalai Lama. With his moderating influence gone, maybe we might see a new wave of radicalization sweeping among the Tibetan youth, many of whom feel that the path of peaceful struggle espoused by the Dalai Lama has failed to achieve much. Also the issue of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama after his death may become another complicating factor.

All in all, a very good read, though the book could have done with some better editing. Many a times the facts mentioned have been repeated, either in subsequent paras or in the chapters that follow.

Book Review: Understanding Libya since Gaddafi by Ulf Laessing

Ulf Lessing, Bureau Chief of Reuter’s writes an important book about the happenings in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. My main takeaways;

1. Libya was stitched together as a nation by the Alled powers after they defeated Italy in WW II, merging three autonomous regions of eastern Cyrenaica, Tripolitania in the west and the sparsely populated Fezzan region in the South. These regions had limited contact with each other. As a result, tribal and family connections continued to have primacy, inhibiting the development of a national identity. King Idris al Sanoussi, who had led a movement against the Italians, was tasked by thr British and the French to rule the present day Libya when the country became independent in 1951. The 1951 constitution established a federal system headed by King Idris wherein power was shared between the provinces and the states with the provinces being powerful enough to obstruct federal initiatives. King Idris was a reluctant ruler, and had a consensual style. So family and tribal connections continued to be more important than a larger national Libyan identity. He was overthrown in a coup by Col Gaddafi on 1 Sept 1969, who then ruled Libya with an iron hand for the next 42 years till 2011, when a popular uprising overthrew him. His Gaddafism ( if I may call it as such) was a curious mix of socialism, Islam and pan- Arabism. (You need to read his Green Book, to understand Gaddafi’s muddled ideology – a book I had but was conveniently stolen by one of my friends 😒)

2. The world seemed to be taken aback at the speed with which the Gaddafi govt was overthrown. We get a glimpse of why this happened in the book. First, Weak Army: Gaddafi kept the national army purposely weak, so that they could not undertake a coup against him. Instead, he created a police state with myriad security agencies to keep a track on each other. Instead of the army, brigades from his tribe Gadhadfa and other tribes considered loyal to him like Warfalla and Magaraha were strengthened. So when majority of other tribes revolted, his weak army and limited loyal tribal brigades could not protect him.
Second, his brand of Socialism: Any rational person knows that Socialism as a philosophy is a curse. Follow it and you are dead! Libya under Gaddafi was a state practising extreme socialism. All private enterprise was banned and to keep the population from revolting 75 percent of all Libyans were employed by the state. All the oil revenues went into funding the salaries of these employees, who basically did nothing productive with sectors like health. education and infrastructure completely neglected, fuelling anger amongst the people. The youth burdened with statism and lacking any opportunity of growth were the first to revolt.
Third, the curse of oil: Because oil money was used to fund Gaddafi’s socialism and all private enterprise was banned, Libya produced nothing and everything was imported from abroad. Oil exports ensured that Libyan currency commanded a higher value relative to the other currencies which made imports cheaper, thereby discouraging their local manufacture. All basic items consumed in the economy were imported and since private sector was declared as evil by Gaddafi, there was no domestic enterprise worth the name apart from Oil. The state had little surplus left after paying salaries to create industries even in the public sector. And even if they had been set up, they could never have competed with the cheap imports. (समाजवाद में तो ई तो होना ही है)

3. Post Gaddafi Libya has been reduced to an ungovernable chaos, the country having de-facto been divided into two states- with two separate administrations, one based in Tripoli and other in the East operating from Benghazi. While the Sherraj Govt based in Tripoli is recognised by the UN, it is Khalifa Haftar who rules in the east. All attempts at forming a national govt so far have failed. Different parts of the country are also under the effective control of militias.

4. The book also highlights the role international powers are playing in complicating and muddying the waters in Libya. While Turkey and Qatar supports the Sheeraj govt, which is considered more Islamist in its orientation, UAE, Arab states and Western powers support Khalifa Haftar. The militia driven civil war continues unabated in Libya with no end in sight soon.

A decent read, though at times tended to become repetitive. I give it a three and a half out of five.

Book Review: How India became Democratic by Ornit Shani

Ornit Shani writes well and she understands India. I had read her first book “Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism: The Violence in Gujarat” and had really enjoyed it. In fact I had read it when I was posted to Gujarat and the book really helped me in understanding the dynamics and the nuances of Gujarati society and polity.

This is her second book and is an equally fascinating account of the history of the administrative processes which let to the preparation of India’s first ever electoral roll. This was an unique exercise, conducted in anticipation of the laws to be passed for citizenship as well as promulgation of the constitution. The process began in 1947 (so that the rolls could be made ready by the time the constitution was promulgated and that the first elections were not delayed, but held in time) under the stewardship of the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) and was a unique exercise as the electoral rolls prepared so far were severely restricted (as franchise itself was limited to certain classes of people) during the British rule. On top of it, the migration (both inbound and outbound) of refugees created complications in the enrollment of voters in an area. Further, princely states were still being integrated and were therefore governed by a different governance structure and laws.

This deeply researched book also highlights the participation by the press and ordinary citizens in preparation of this roll. This in turn made the ordinary citizenry of the country an active participant in the democratic process thereby helping in furthering a political imagination based on political equality and democracy.

For bureaucrats like us it is doubly inspiring for it shows what can be achieved with a leadership and organisation that is imbued with clear vision and dedication. Since much of the book is drawn from the normal notes/drafts from the files (archived in the EC) any bureaucrat reading the book could easily relate to the language of the book too. I however wish today’s bureaucrats like us could write draft/notes with as much felicity as our seniors of the 50’s did.

A lovely read.

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