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Fifth Ummatics Colloquium: The ‘Ulama and Imperial Muslim Political Theology

January 19 @ 11:00 am - 1:30 pm


For the Fifth Ummatics Colloquium, Dr. SherAli Tareen (Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College) presented a chapter from his forthcoming monograph, The Promise and Peril of Hindu-Muslim Friendship. In this work, Dr. Tareen interrogates the multiplicity of ways in which prominent Indian Muslim scholars, especially the traditionally educated ‘ulama,’ understood Islam’s relationship with Hindu thought, life, and practice in early modern and modern South Asia, from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. It does so through an exploration of six thematically oriented chapters that explore Muslim scholarly expositions on Hindu thought. The chapter Dr. Tareen detailed in this session focuses on Hindu-Muslim doctrinal polemics. The central conceptual question that animates this project is this: how did South Asian ulama negotiate the incongruence between the premodern context of Muslim empire that informed foundational normative texts and attitudes towards non-Muslims and the setting of colonial modernity that saw Muslims in South Asia rendered into a numerical as well as a political minority? The overarching argument proffered is that while the loss of Muslim political sovereignty served as the immediate backdrop of intensified intra-Muslim contest on the boundaries of Hindu-Muslim friendship in the subcontinent, paradoxically, at stake and work in these contestations were precisely the logics and promise of an imperial Muslim political theology. 

In his presentation, Dr. Tareen related three points of the book to the featured chapter. First, the post-1857 loss of Muslim political sovereignty–an argument specific to the context of South Asia–is that sovereign power became located and concentrated within the realm of everyday ritual practice, or the idea of marking embodied difference in the public sphere with the non-Muslim “other.” This emphasized the distinctive markers of Islam in the public sphere. Second, Dr. Tareen argues that intra-Muslim debates on the question of Muslim-non-Muslim friendship boundaries cannot be canonized according to predetermined boundaries like exclusive, inclusive, traditionalist, modernist, puritan, pluralist, etc., as these scholars proved to be more complicated. The third argument is that, oftentimes, the question of interreligious friendship, or Hindu-Muslim friendship, had much more to do with intra-Muslim divisions and contestations. He focuses on the divisions between traditionalism and modernism in South Asia reflected in the broader question of interreligious friendship. 

The chapter Dr. Tareen presented in the colloquium concerns the khilafat movement in the 1920s as an anti-British colonial movement that sought to re-establish Ottoman Caliphate rule after the first World War. Gandhi and the Indian National Congress worked to solicit Indian Muslim involvement in the Non-Cooperation Movement against British colonial rule. Yet, Dr. Tareen detailed how the ulama during this time either supported or opposed Indian Muslim involvement–namely, Abul Kalam Azad, who, paradoxically, supported Indian Muslim involvement while also advocating for the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate. Dr. Tareen, in a close reading of Azad’s texts, examines how Azad’s positions had their own internal logics. On the other end of the debate, Ahmad Raza Khan (founder of the Barelvi school of thought), opposed close Hindu-Muslim relations and against a powerful imperial power, advocating instead for a more pragmatic approach with the British. As two competing imperial Muslim political theologies, Azad emphasized the role of the Caliphate as an institution to uphold Muslim political sovereignty, while Khan located Muslim sovereign power in everyday ritual distinction in the public sphere. Both, however, as Dr. Tareen points out, are impacted by the dynamics of modern secular power.

Connecting his discussion to the larger themes of the Ummatics Colloquium, Dr. Tareen raised several points. First, thinking beyond the modern state’s conceptions of sovereignty, one can consider “alternative articulations of the political that cannot be easily canonized according to liberal secular binaries like traditionalist, modernist, inclusivist, exclusivist, etc.” The next question concerns interreligious friendship, or the relationship between friendship and the political, specifically the role of Muslim and non-Muslim friendship in the political. Dr. Tareen noted the “double-edged sword” captured in his book as the question of friendship that “makes possible certain forms of collaboration, forms of possibilities, [and] access to the other” while also admitting a lack of sovereign control and power over oneself. Dr. Tareen asked how we might think about the “promise and peril” of friendship in the Islamic intellectual tradition in the modern and premodern.

Dr. Hafsa Kanjwal (Assistant Professor of History, Lafayette College), in response to Dr. Tareen, asked a number of questions in thinking through the discussion in connection to the ummatic. She asked how he would define the “logics and promise of an imperial Muslim political theology” in the context of the loss of Muslim political sovereignty. For instance, was Khan’s desire to maintain ritual distinction really a competing understanding of imperial Muslim political theology, or a result of the eradication of that imperial Muslim political theology? Dr. Kanjwal further considered the relationship between an imperial Muslim political theology and an ummatic framework. How much do current understandings of the ummatic replicate the language and logics of the colonial and post-colonial state, especially as Muslims in the West, for example, are caught between the political Left and Right? On one hand, Muslims in the West are inclined to align with the Right to preserve Islamic traditional orthodoxy on matters such as gender and sexuality. On the other, Muslims seek to ally with the Left against American and Western imperialism, seeking the liberation of Muslim homelands. Such debates echo the social and religious v. political schism between Azad and Khan. Dr. Kanjwal asked, “What is at stake in these more competing imaginaries in the limits of normative friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims? How, too, are the trends of this debate haunted by the specter of, in this case, neoliberal state power? Furthermore, how do we understand normative relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the layered global context of both Muslim political sovereignty as well as abject subjugation?”

Dr. Sohaira Siddiqui (Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology, Georgetown University in Qatar) primarily focused her comments regarding the amorphous concept of political sovereignty in the modern world, contending that the “Westphalian notion of unitary political sovereignty is not sufficient to properly analyze the forms of political union and disunion that characterize the modern world.” This, according to Dr. Siddiqui, poses an opportunity for Islamic political thinkers today. Azad’s conception of sovereignty is political and tied to the institution of the Caliphate, while Khan considered sovereignty to lie in the realm of the social and religious distinction within the public sphere. Dr. Siddiqui invited us to think about “polyvalent” forms of sovereignty independent of secular modernity, especially in relation to Dr. Ovamir Anjum’s piece, “Who Wants the Caliphate?” in which he points out that only in the first historical model of the Caliphate detailed by Dr. Anjum were religious and political authority not distinguished and the Caliph held both. “In this sense,” Dr. Siddiqui noted, “political crises and realities forced Muslim scholars in different periods to articulate polyvalent notions of sovereignty that legitimized non-ideal conditions that could not realistically be overcome.” Dr. Siddiqui related her own work regarding Muslim scholars in colonial India who, while conceding the loss of political sovereignty, sought to preserve legal Muslim sovereignty. 

Dr. Siddiqui concluded with the following questions: 

“1) How do the polyvalent notions of sovereignty both complicate and assist the conversation of the caliphate as an aspirational symbol of decolonial politics as Salman Sayyid (2014) writes, and as SherAli quotes in his chapter? 

2) For those actively engaged in a process of envisioning a decolonial politics, is there a way to conceptualize these competing political rationalities as stages in the piecemeal development of an autonomous political vision or do they necessarily have to be seen as competing theologies or competing sovereignties? 

3) Towards the end of the chapter, Tareen notes the conceptual fragility of categories like traditional, modern, liberal, and conservative. Do the polyvalent notions of sovereignty as articulated by numerous Muslim thinkers throughout history reveal that sovereignty is similarly fragile? In other words, what is the argument for it remaining a productive concept that can continue to be employed for the Muslim political imaginary today?

4) When we talk about the intertwining of legal and political sovereignty, where did Azad and Khan locate the Muslim legal sovereignty in their political visions, and how important was it?”


January 19
11:00 am - 1:30 pm