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Religious Identities in South Asia

Colonialism, Modernity and Religious Identities: Religious Reform Movements in South Asia edited by Gwilym Beckerlegge;

Princely North India’ examines Muslim

Religious Identities in South Asia

communalism in several north Indian princely states. Such communalism developed later than in British India, and Cope-James Lochtefeld land ascribes this both to these states’

F
or me, opening an edited volume evokes childhood memories of the anticipation on Christmas morning. If the individual essays are the assorted gifts under the Christmas tree, one can be reasonably sure that in addition to the socks, shirts, and other practical gifts, at least one of the boxes will contain something unbelievably cool. Of course, this comparison has its limits. Holiday gifts are given individually, and generally have no discernable connecting thread, but one rightly expects such coordination in an edited volume, and providing this is one of the editor’s important tasks. In a betterdone volume the essays will be more explicitly connected, and the individual essays of consistently higher quality. Yet in any collected volume that one can be reasonably sure to find something both worthwhile and thought provoking.

As stated in the book’s preface, these e ssays are “largely based on the panel on ‘Religious Reform Movements in South Asia from the Nineteenth Century to the Present’, which has met regularly at the biennial European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies” (p vii). These particular papers were first presented at the University of Heidelberg in 2002; several have been previously published. The 10 essays are divided into two groups of five, and open with an introduction by editor Gwilym Beckerlegge, senior lecturer in religious studies at the Open University.

Connecting Narrative

As noted above, one of the editor’s primary tasks is to provide a connecting narrative for the essays. In his introduction, Beckerlegge invokes the notion of “shifting vantage points” (and of questioning “received truths”) to set the stage for the volume as a whole. The essays are divided under two overarching themes – “competition, institution-building, and the formulation of religious identities” and “responding to colonial modernity”. The first

book review

Colonialism, Modernity and Religious Identities: Religious Reform Movements in South Asia edited by Gwilym Beckerlegge; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008; pp viii + 274, Rs 650.

group of essays “offer insights into the varied ways and circumstances in which religious groups in south Asia have defined their religious identities…” (p 5), but also endeavour to present these responses as complex phenomena, and not at all historically inevitable. The second group of essays examines “the interplay between notions of modernity and understandings of religious reform movements” (p 10). In particular, this section seeks to revisit “both the concept of ‘modernity’ and the nature of India’s engagement with it…” (p 10).

Beckerlegge’s introduction skilfully connects the essays to these two general themes. It also provides a narrative that successfully leads the reader from each of these essays into the next, and highlights connections between various essays (that is, how certain themes resonate throughout). Five of these essays examine Muslims or Muslim groups, and the other five are devoted to Hindus. Though I fault neither the editor nor the contributors – scholars write about what they know, and editors work with what they have – I was disappointed that there was nothing on the Sikhs, who were deeply invested in defining religious identity and in responding to colonial modernity in the era under consideration.

On balance, the five essays on Islam struck me as stronger and more thoughtprovoking – perhaps because the material is less familiar. Historical consideration of 20th century Indian Islam cannot escape the looming shadow of Partition, and two of these essays examine factors leading to that traumatic event. Ian Copeland’s ‘From Communitas to Communalism: Evolving Muslim Loyalties in relative isolation, and to the population’s historical sense of a shared identity – factors ultimately overcome by better communication and increased migration. In ‘Islam, Irrigation, and Religious Identity: Canal Colonies and Muslim Revivalism in Multan’, Diego Abenante explores how canal construction profoundly changed Multan’s ecological, agricultural and economic patterns. All of these changes produced social dislocation, which then influenced and spurred religious change. In both cases, the authors suggest that communal alienation did not spring from some mysterious and inevitable process, but from observable and gradually changing circumstances.

Against Stereotypes

Another pair of essays examine groups that cut against prevailing stereotypes of south Asian Muslims. Martin Reixinger (‘How Favourable Is Puritan Islam to Modernity? A Study of the Ahl-I-Hadis in Late Nineteenth/Early Twentieth Century South Asia’) discusses the Ahl-I-Hadis, a “puritan” reformist group advocating “...an exclusive orientation on the primary sources of Islamic law, the Qur’an and the Hadith” (p 148), rather than following one of the four accepted schools of Islamic law. Much of Reixinger’s essay seeks to question and to qualify the assumption that “puritan” religious groups are better disposed to modernity. Daniela Bredi (‘Continuity and Change in Women’s Role in Indo-Muslim Society Seen through Female Members of the Tyabji Family’) examines three generations of Tyabji women, who were all highly educated and also socially visible – running against the stereotype of purdah. Finally, Deitrich Reetz (‘The ‘Faith Bureaucracy’ of the Tablighi Jama’at: An Insight into Their System of Self-Organisation (I ntizam)’) sketches out a fascinating i rony – the Tablighi Jama’at’s founder e xplicitly denied that he had founded any sort of “movement” or “organisation”,

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
september 20, 2008

BOOK REVIEW

but over time this anti-establishment and egalitarian movement has developed a distinctly bureaucratic internal culture. Reetz’s essay is based on recent fieldwork in both India and P akistan, and thus discusses contemporary Islam.

The essays devoted to Hindu reform movements somehow seem more circumscribed – they fit in with the overarching themes, but seem to occupy smaller “niches”. Two essays focus on the Ramakrishna Mission – Maruti Kamble describes its activities in Karnataka between 1890 and 1947, and Gwilym Beckerlegge ably draws out Swami Vivekananda’s views on art, and in particular Vivekananda’s struggle to define (or redefine)

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-an “Indian” artistic ethos. Heinz Wessler compares syncretic and anti-syncretic tendencies in Arya Samaj and the Swaminarayan movement, and Hiltrid Rustau looks at how several new Hindu movements have reinterpreted two important texts – the Devimahatmya and the Saundarya Lahari). The concluding essay by Peter Heeh (‘Shades of Orientalism: Paradoxes and Problems in Indian Historiography’) takes a wider perspective, and is one of the best essays in the book. As his title indicates, Heeh’s essay examines how history is done. He not only gives a chronological description of the major “schools” in Indian historiography, but also lays out the governing assumptions and blind spots for each.

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Since the volume’s primary organising principle is thematic (in accord with the two overarching themes), moving between essays sometimes entails jarring chronological shifts. Reetz’s essay on the Tablighi Jama’at largely draws from current fieldwork, but it is followed by Kamble’s essay on the Ramakrishna Mission, which looks only at 1890-1947. Although I tell myself it should not bother me – that each essay can standalone on its own merits – this chronological shifting was another factor subtly undercutting the sense of this work as a unified whole. Yet despite these occasional disappointments, some of its parts are very good indeed.

Email: jlochtefeld@carthage.edu

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september 20, 2008

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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