Defending Muḥammad in Modernity

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SherAli Tareen
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , January
     506 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


SherAli Tareen’s Defending Muhammad in Modernity is a groundbreaking study of the conceptual problem space of “the Deobandi-Barelvi polemic,” a defining intra-Muslim dispute in modern South Asian Islam. Commentators frequently dismiss this two-century-old debate between two major Sunni religious orientations in South Asia as a petty, sectarian turf-war having little, if any, intellectual significance. Tareen shows how this seemingly arcane theological debate was “in fact animated by . . . profound questions of sovereignty, politics, and social order” (25). In practice, the critical diverging point in this polemic turns on determining whether Prophet Muhammad excelled in or exceeded his humanity.  

Tareen’s work pushes back against an earlier approach that sees 19th-century Islamic revivalism as an overshadowing of politics by religion. Scholars such as Barbara Metcalf (Islamic Revival in British India, Princeton University Press, 1982) argued that traditional Islamic scholars, the ulama, responded to the loss of Muslim political power by looking “inward” at individual reform as the last vestige for preserving Islamic culture. In contrast, Tareen highlights how two ulama groups, sharing common legal and mystical traditions, responded to the crisis of Muslim sovereignty by forming new Islamic publics through rigorous political theologizing. Instead of interrogating the theological foundations of politics, however, Tareen endeavors to illuminate “political imaginaries” in theological discourse (42). The political thus depends on contested views about how God’s sovereignty and the Prophet’s authority should manifest in the quotidian habits and rituals of the community.  

This book centers around debates that raged between prominent Muslim scholars of the 19th century. The first half of the book focuses on the early 19th-century rivalry between Shah Ismail (1789–1831) and Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi (1796–1861), influential Muslim scholars in Delhi and intellectual forbears of the Deobandi and Barelvi orientations, who set the stage for this polemical avalanche. Disturbed by Islam’s declining political fortunes, Ismail, an activist-type, placed much of the blame on the comfort and luxury-seeking lifestyle of the aristocratic classes. For Ismail, God’s radical alterity vis-à-vis humanity implied a radical leveling of all non-God beings. Tareen thus shows in chapter 2 to 4 that the driving force of Ismail’s writings was a deep concern to restore divine sovereignty in communal life by uprooting the aristocratic apparatus of social hierarchy and prestige.  

In chapter 5, Tareen foregrounds Khairabadi, an affluent aristocrat-scholar, who believed that Ismail’s ideas dangerously threatened social order by attacking “previously unassailable ranks, distinctions, and privileges.” (138) In Khairabadi’s religiopolitical worldview, individual access to God was mediated by a spiritual hierarchy of beings ranked according to God’s love. The powers of God’s beloved beings, especially the Prophet who tops the list, thus extended, rather than contravened, divine sovereignty.   

In the second half of the book, Tareen focuses on the late 19th-century writings of Deobandi and Barelvi scholars on the relationship between divine sovereignty, communal habitus, and prophetic knowledge. In chapters 7 and 8, Tareen discusses how Deoband’s top men grew obsessed with reforming the everyday habitus of the masses. Scholars such as Ashraf Ali Thanvi (1863–1943) took their aim at “heretical innovations” (bid‘a): historical practices introduced originally for pious ends in the community, after Islam’s first three generations, which the masses frequently take for obligatory religious practices. The pervasiveness of such obligation-feeling practices meant that the masses were unknowingly violating God’s sovereignty because they habitually failed to distinguish norms dictated by God from customs created by humans. In chapter 9, Ahmad Raza Khan (1856–1921), the founder of Barelvism, argued that a social practice should be judged by inherent value for piety, not historical period of origin.  

In chapter 11, these scholars debate whether the Prophet had access to suprahuman knowledge. While Deobandi scholars believed that the Prophet’s knowledge capacity did not exceed that of ordinary humans, Barelvi scholars argued that any reduction of Prophetic knowledge to ordinary human perception violated Muhammad’s distinguished status as the most exalted being. These competing assertions of Muhammad’s suprahumanity and humanity staked upon the legitimacy of hierarchy and the challenge of egalitarianism. 

Tareen’s study raises many questions about sovereignty and sectarian publics in South Asia. For example, where exactly was sovereignty located by and for these scholars? Does the reformist preoccupation with divine sovereignty in the ideal realm psychologically compensate for the absence of actual Muslim power? Or was it that the ulama, having lost a taken-for-granted king, were trying to think and imagine what it looks like to have sovereignty minus the king? In the formative pre-nationalist phase of a global transition from monarchical to popular sovereignty, were the ulama seeking to determine what kind of people can possess what kind of sovereignty, and under what conditions? If sovereignty entails violence, then who exercises sovereign violence? Is violence transferred to God’s salvific sphere, or does the community inherit the king’s violent duties? Or can we abnegate violence from a regime of sovereignty? Tareen hints at multiple possible answers, but he essentially leaves such questions unresolved.  

While Tareen does contextualize this encounter within broader historical continuities and shifts in “conceptions” of sovereignty and political order, the socioeconomic conditions of this rivalry receive almost no sustained attention. For Tareen, this absence is more about methodology than the scope of his study. He argues that we can only grasp this lifeworld’s critical terms and stakes through a “thick description” of how actors contingently take on positions of identity and difference within a discursive encounter (163). Spaces of polemical encounter must indeed shape how actors elaborate their intellectual viewpoints. But surely wider social cleavages also matter. For example, Metcalf places Deobandi religious reform in the context of rising urban and institutional forms of stranger sociability and socioeconomic predicaments faced by the ulama class (such as losing court patronage). For her, such factors also led Deobandi ulama to critique hierarchical notions and social practices historically embedded in local shrine-centered communities. Attention to such extra-discursive factors complements, rather than undermines, Tareen’s analysis, given how fundamental the ideological battle between Deobandi egalitarianism and a Barelvi defense of hierarchy appears within it.  

Nonetheless, this book is indispensable for scholars who want to engage seriously with the intellectual foundations of Muslim sectarianism in South Asia.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Saad Lakhani is a PhD candidate in cultural and social anthropology at Stanford University. 

Date of Review: 
June 14, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

SherAli Tareen is associate professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College. He is co-editor of Imagining the Public in Modern South Asia.

Margrit Pernau is a senior researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.


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