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: 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: 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: Islam on the Move, The Tablighi Jama’at in South East Asia by Farish A. Noor

Though I had read this book sometime back, actually speed read it, the recent incidents involving the Tablighis’ in the Chinese Wuhan virus episode made me go back and read this book again. This is considered to be an important work, deals with the rise and spread of the Tablighi Jamat in south east Asia. My main takeaways;

1. The book provides a detailed historical account of the growth and spread of the Tablighi Jamat in south east Asia, their foundational texts as well as theirpocket literature. He tries to answer this fundamental question if something like a ‘Tablighi identity’ or “Tablighi mindset” exists. The book also tries to provide an overview as to how other Muslims who are not Tablighis, view this movement.

2. It needs to be understood that the problem that Islam faced after the death of Prophet, was that the unifying principle of the Umma then shifted from the personality of the Prophet to his message. This message was obviously subject to various interpretations in the backdrop of the absent lawgiver. So now the Muslim community needed those who could reconstruct what the absent lawgiver would have done when confronted with this or that situation – so it was only in the absence of the Prophet that Islam became the nodal point of the Muslim community. Seen in that context, what did it mean to be a Tablighi? Explained in simple terms Noor defines the TJ as a ‘fundamentalist literalist movement that seeks to restore to the Muslim society a sense of pristine perfection of Islam at the foundational moment, when Islam was directly transmitted to the first community of believers from the Prophet itself….the core of the movement’s work lies in its missionary practices that focus primarily on the teachings of proper Muslim conduct in emulation of the life of the Prophet Mohammad and his companions (Sahaba).’ This makes up for the bulk of the TJs foundational literature. These include works by Tablighi’s founder leaders, Maulana Md. Ilyas Khandhalawi, Maulana Yusuf Khandhalawi and Maulana Md. Zakaria Khandalawi. At the heart of the corpus of foundational texts lie the 6 fundamental principles which outline the proper mode of religious conduct for the members of the movement. So the TJ is a missionary movement which seeks to ‘convert’ other Muslims to what they believe is the ‘true’ Islam. So, they believe that they alone are ‘authentic’ Muslims and others are Muslims only at the ‘nominal’ level. Apart from the foundational texts Noor also provides an insight into the pocket literature produced by the members of the Tablighi Jamat. These booklets provides important glimpses into the ‘mindset’ of the Tablighi Jaamatis. Some of the themes that find regular recurrence in these pocket books are ones like the presentation of the Salafis as regular bugbears for the Tablighis, highlighting how the world is inhabited by humans, Djinns and the Satan, and the struggles one needs to wage against the Satan, lest the temptations induced by these may derail all attempts by the Tablighis to lead a pious life.

3. In the course of his fieldwork, Noor finds two recurring themes in his interaction with people who became Tablighis. One was the wasteful and empty life they led with non Muslims and as slave to materialism before they became Tablighis and second that becoming Tabhligis was Allah’s call which saved them and drew them to the movement.

4. Seeking to imitate the Prophet has become an obsession with the Tablighis and according to them poverty and rejection of all materialism is a virtue, so is the rejection of all worldly temptations. The devil for them resides in toilets, cinemas, discos, nightclubs and other items of entertainment, poetry and fiction. They shun all new technologies and medicine as well as politics (though there are exceptions to this as the writer shows in the Singaporean Cabinet minister Sidek Saniff). Imitating the Prophet they stress on ‘dakwah’ which takes them on missions to propagate ‘true’ Islam around the world (khuruj).

5. Interestingly (more so in the light of what happened at the Markaz, Nizamuddin), India occupies a very important place in the life of the Tablighis. In his field work he found Tablighis regularly mentioning of the joy and spiritual solace that they witnessed when they visited India and during their stay there. May be this has to do because the movement originated in India.However, in none of their literature does he find reference to the fact that India is a Hindu majority country. India is presented as the centre of the world, the centre of Islam too. It is the place where Adam first set foot. Critics (mostly other Muslims who are not Tabhligis) highlight this primacy accorded to India rather than Arabia, the stress on poverty, becoming mendicants and living of alms etc a result of the corrupting Hindu influence on the Tablighis. They also condemn them for neglecting their families, especially their womenfolk and proceeding on their missionary missions (khuruj), a practice the critics argue is again influenced by Hindu sadhus. The political Islamists condemn their disinterest in politics and quietude as influences which stand in the way of Muslim acquiring political power. Noor quotes Nik Aziz, a leader of a radical Islamist party who criticises the Tablighi disinterest in politics thus, ‘They say things like ‘Muslims should only pray and leave the world to God’. That means that Muslims should avoid politics too. That is an Indian idea, all this denial of the world. If you deny politics, give up the world, then how will the Muslims ever come to power?’

6. Lastly, Noor deals with the issue of the TJ and its association with Islamic terrorism. In the recent years many former TJ associates have been found to be involved in radical Islamic terrorism. The author quotes B. Raman who argued that the movement had been at the forefront of Jihadi organisations and had been assisting radical Islamic groups. The author argues that this needs to be seen in the light of the fact that anyone can join the movement and that travelling on ‘khuruj’ provides them with a convenient camouflage to travel without getting noticed by the authorities. So many radical Islamists pretend to be Tablighis and may not be genuinely associated with the movement. While this may be true that it does not support terrorism and Islamic radicalism directly, however it cannot be denied that TJ believes and preaches that there is only one true religion i.e Islam, it also projects non believers as people who are ‘dirty’ and incapable of redemption. Inculcation of such beliefs and teachings amongst its followers does end up creating a sense of Islamic exclusivity and superiority, which in turn may/does provide a fertile ground on which seeds of Islamic radicalism and terrorism can be sown more easily.

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