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Ideology and history

Islam relegated to an ‘ideology’

Ideology and history

The term ‘ideology’ has been variously defined by different scholars — from Destutt de Tracy and Karl Mannheim to Antonio Gramsci and from George Luckas to Jurgan Habermas.

The most universally-accepted definition of ideology states that, “ideologies are patterned clusters of normatively imbued ideas and concepts, including particular representations of power relations. These conceptual maps help people navigate the complexity of their political universe and carry claims to social truth”.

But here I am concerned with the inverse relationship between ideology and history with particular reference to Pakistan, which is projected as an ideological state or state with an ideology. I will be largely examining the way in which Islam has been made into ideology, which is conceptually inimical to historicity.

The relationship between ideology and history is very problematic, to say the least. An ideology is undoubtedly formed as a result of criss-crossing of historical forces. History yields ideology, but this relationship is often inverted afterwards. Once an ideology makes its way into any polity, its beholders tend to subjugate history to ideology and, in all cases so far reported, the former is re-invented strictly in accordance with the injunctions and edicts of the latter.

Thus an ideology is a supra-historical and supra-rational entity which obdurately holds its ground and thwarts any possibility of the birth of its opposite. An ideology strives to arrest the dynamic nature of the course of history; otherwise it would find it impossible to sustain itself. The continuous flow of historical events is intrinsically antithetical to the fixed frame of an ideology. Thus in any polity with ideological moorings, the discourse of history is rendered into an ahistorical narrative, which is the natural corollary of the unequivocal deployment of ideology on such a massive scale. Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the totalitarian Soviet Union are obvious examples of such states with an ideology as their socio-political determinant. All of them not only severed their links with history, but also developed a disdainful attitude towards it.

Now we had better get down to examining the ideology which is deployed as the central organising feature of Pakistani nationalism, with religion as its underpinning force. Such a packaging of Pakistani Nationalism, as Faisal Devji argues, divests itself from its historical antecedents.

During the last three decades of the 19th Century, North Indian Muslims re-invented themselves into a separate communal entity through various reform movements. To stress their distinctiveness from the Hindus around them, the Muslim intelligentsia launched a discourse to do away with all ‘the accretions and superimposed doctrines which in the course of many centuries grew up around the original teachings of Islam, and to return to the pristine message of the Prophet’. By doing this, people like Shah Walliullah Dehlvi (1704-1762) and his denominational successors strived to free Islam from all the contaminating (read Hindu) influences which had obscured its message.

An even greater exponent of Islamic Puritanism than Shah Walliuallah was Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahab Nejdi (1703-1792) [Nejd is a part of Arabian Peninsula]. His influence began spreading to other parts of the world.

Thus the campaign to purify Islam from subsequent accretions was not confined to India alone. The Ahl-i-Hadith Movement in India, the Sanusi movement in North Africa, the Pan-Islamic movement of Jamal ad-Din Afghani and the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh can be traced back to the ideational impetus set in motion in the eighteenth century by Wahab.

Reverting to India, we can also see the Deoband movement (begun in 1867) exemplifying this Puritanism. Adherents to Deoband have been both the most political and militant in their call for Islamic Puritanism in the entire subcontinent. Significantly enough Tablighi Jamaat has fixed all its attention and made it its business to purge whatever indigenous influences Islam has imbibed from the subcontinent. This has rendered religion into a mere pack of rituals.

Gradually other denominations, even one-time essentially inclusive Sufi orders, began to tread along the path leading to religious exclusionism o— the Chishtiya Order, being a case in point. Thus the zeal for religious pritanism cut across denominational boundaries and, concurrently, the tendency to create an ahistorical version of the religion rapidly gathered momentum. If ever religion is packaged de novo as ideology, it is bound to be drawn away from history. A re-packaged Islam undergirding Pakistani nationalism is an ahistorical, frozen-in-time ‘ideology’.

One very clear ramification of such an ahistorical religion being tightly wrapped in the framework of ideology is the unequivocal invocation of religious texts to validate current practices. In doing this, though, the arc of the historical continuum is lost. The Ulema, while proving their points, are forced to take giant temporal leaps between the 21st and 7th centuries, which in itself is contrary to historical practice.

If one tries to look at the flip side of this vehement propagation of purification, Islam may be said to have been robbed of its dynamism by de-historicising it. Because of all the adjustments that Islam has been making with changing time and space, it has struggled to keep its universal appeal alive. Up till early modern period, its flexibility allowed the people from other religious backgrounds to positively engage with it. With the emergence of Muslim reform movements, the distinctness of Muslim identity formed by the last quarter of the 19th century became so crystallised that it ceased to be a malleable repository of spiritual tradition any more.

Islam, having acquired myriad influences from local cultures, had enriched itself rather than being polluted. Thus the national narrative on Muslim Reform Movements taught to the youth through our history textbooks is in fact an act to deprive them of the very essence of history. That is because Islam has been rendered parochial by relegating it into an ‘ideology’, which, in its very essence, it is not.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • What were the reasons for which Muslim intellectuals sought a ‘puritanized’ version of their faith ? Was it the interaction with the industrialized British, or the loss of political power by the Muslim elite ?

    How do these trends parallel in the Hindu setting ? Why does puritanical Hinduism have nowhere as much appeal among Hindus, while the political project of Hindu nationalism has proved more influential ?

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