Two Views On Islamic Exceptionalism, And Why India Will Have To Contend With The Bleaker One

Two Views On Islamic Exceptionalism, And Why India Will Have To Contend With The Bleaker One

by Arshia Malik - Dec 22, 2022 11:01 AM +05:30 IST
Two Views On Islamic Exceptionalism, And Why India Will Have To Contend With The Bleaker OneMuslim clerics. (K Asif/India Today Group)
  • Because of its outsize role in law and governance, Islam has been and will continue to be resistant to secularisation. 

    Therefore, new India will have to deal with this exceptionalism.

An article by Swarajya Editorial Director R Jagannathan (Jaggi) about the 10 questions honest and thinking Muslims should ask themselves today is pinned to my desk.

I wrote about India's internal insurgencies but writing is not enough, as Jaggi says, these introspective questions must be debated and discussed internally, and then announced to the world at large.

At least a national discourse should get going in the English, Hindi, Urdu presses, and other regional dialects as well.

The 10 questions that need to be tackled one by one are beyond the scope of this article.

But the crux of those questions is the narrow interpretation of Islamic law, its compatibility with India's plural and open society and whether Indian Muslims will always use street veto to flex the global muscles for foreign interference by ummah countries in case the Indian Muslim interests collide with local laws and interests.

I am all for a healthy, intense convocation with honest, thinking, and ordinary Muslims including women, debating these 10 questions with the non-state actors such as the ulema and the state actors (politicians) and the conspicuously absent civil society (silent on social issues but vocal on victimhood).

Until that happens, we will have to shift focus on the debate happening away from home.

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a research professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Seminary.

He is also the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World.

In one of Hamid's Substack post, he admits Islam is "exceptional" in both theory and practice and how this fact relates to politics.

Therefore, because of its outsize role in law and governance, Islam has been and will continue to be resistant to secularisation. 

The Brookings fellow has been giving appearances in US media about his latest book The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East and the Rise and Fall of an Idea.

Hamid terms Islamic Exceptionalism as neither good or bad, just what it is, implying we need to understand it and respect it.

He further elaborates it with two factors which make Islam exceptional.

Firstly, that unlike the founders of other religions, the prophet was a theologian, a preacher, a warrior, and a politician, hence since the inception of Islam, religion and politics are intertwined.

Secondly, for billions of Muslims the Quran is the direct and literal speech of god, therefore, the text cannot be easily dismissed, no matter how much we want secular Muslims to win the war of ideas.

Though, he admits, Muslims today are not bound to the 'founding moment', they cannot fully escape it also.

Since Islam is fundamentally different — an exception — there is very little hope that it will follow the path like European Christianity's Enlightenment.

Hamid's blunt and frank conclusion is that non-Muslims or Westerners whether in majority or minority need to accept Islam's vital and varied role in politics and formulate policies, keeping the above in mind, rather than hoping for secularising outcomes that are unlikely anytime soon.

This blunt conclusion is countered by former US Navy Lt Cdr, physician, president of the Islamic Forum for Democracy, and author of A Battle for the Soul of Islam: An American Muslim Patriot's Fight to Save His Faith, M Zuhdi Jasser.

He terms Hamid as a supremacist Islamist that the leftist Brookings Institute keeps giving platforms to spew the draconian line of Saudi Arabia, which is, that the prophet's political example cannot be changed or modernised.

This should answer Jaggi's Q1 — "Must everything attributed to the Prophet, including his various actions that were dictated by his political situation at a particular time, be copied in toto now, when the objective conditions have changed?"

Dr Jasser defines Hamid's approach as that of a slick, insurgent Islamist apologist who practises 'takfirism', dismissing secular liberal Muslims as irrelevant, constantly creating obstacles for reform, while advocating neo-Islamism as the only path forward.

The blurb of Dr Jasser’s book says that in the wake of 9/11, the global attention towards Islam was one of the unsettling social shifts.

In India, this unsettling social shift has been happening since the days of Shah Bano, the forced exodus and ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits since 1989 onwards and every terror attack or street riot.

This microscopic scrutiny of Islam has increased as social media users grow and communications and connectivity are enhanced by technology making it difficult “to draw partisan lines between those who believe every Muslim is a potential threat and those who believe no Muslim could do wrong”.

The internal debate will have to include Muslim women also — the first victims of Sharia laws — interpreted since the time Shah Waliullah's father Shah Abdur Rahim, a prominent Islamic scholar of Delhi sat among the Islamic clerics who helped write Fatwa-e-Alamgiri, regarded as the principal document for the administration of Sharia in India by Sunni Muslims since Aurangzeb's time.

Whether Shadi Hamid's closed approach is adopted or Zuhdi Jasser's inclusive open one is up to honest, thinking ordinary Indian Muslims.

Arshia Malik is a columnist and commentator on social issues with particular emphasis on Islam in the Indian subcontinent.
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