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West and the Muslim public sphere

Historical account of development in Muslim cultural expression

West and the Muslim public sphere

From late 17th to late 18th century, a new cultural space developed in Europe that posed new challenges to regimes and their ruling orders. Alongside the old culture — centred on the courts and monarchical authority — there emerged a ‘public sphere’, in which private individuals came together to form a whole which was greater than the sum of its parts. By exchanging information, ideas, and criticism, these individuals created a cultural actor — the public — which has dominated European culture ever since.

Many, if not most, of the cultural phenomena of the modern age derive from what Cambridge historian Tim Blanning calls the ‘long eighteenth century’ — periodical, newspaper, novel, journalist, critic, public library, concert, art exhibition, public museum and national theatre, just to list a sample.

Of course, almost all of these can be found in earlier periods, but it was in the 18th century that they came to maturity and fused to trigger what can reasonably be called an era of modernity. It was then that ‘public opinion’ came to be recognised as the ultimate arbiter in matters of taste and politics.

The above-stated assertion has been gleaned from German Philosopher and theorist Jurgen Habermas’s influential work, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which was first published in 1962. Differentiation between the private and the public was vital in Habermas’s analysis of the transition which took place in Europe.

In the medieval age, there was no clear concept of private property. Two interconnected developments were mainly responsible for the dissolution of the old order: the exchange of goods and the exchange of information. Together, they created a fundamentally different kind of public sphere — the bourgeoisie.

With the rise of capitalism, the seamless web of authority began to fracture and distinct public and private spheres — state and civil society — emerged. The bourgeois public sphere can be defined as the medium through which private persons can reason in public. In doing so, they perform the vital function of mediating relations between essentially separate realms of civil society.

In Europe, the transition from the old order to the new/modern social formation with public-private segregation took place through an organically-evolved process of history. In the subcontinent, however, such transition came about through the agency of colonialism, particularly after the printing press became a pervasive phenomenon, as Dietrich Reetz demonstrates in his brilliant work Islam in the public Sphere. Journals, newspapers, printed books, educational institutions, art institutions and museums etc. created a public sphere which was essentially defined by modernity. Even religious seminaries assimilated modern influences.

In the case of Europe, religion ceased to be part of the public sphere — the rational argument was its essence. But, in the subcontinent, religion as a result of the reform movements was one of the many constitutive factors of the Muslim public sphere. Institutions like munazra (religious disputation) got a new lease of life in the late 19th century, where religion had been an issue because the communal identities had been crystallised by certain policies of the British Raj. The Muslim public sphere steered clear of ‘rational’ argument — reason mostly acted in subservience to the faith in the unseen.

The same happened with Hindus and Sikhs. But our focus here is the Muslim public sphere.

The Muslim public sphere was constituted through the project of modernity and was later on sustained by people educated at AligarhCollege or government institutions like Government College Lahore, which had been projecting modernist ideals. Many of them subsequently went to England for higher education like Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Zafar Ali Khan and Allama Iqbal and, in them, Muslims of the subcontinent found their representatives. Their religious inferences were indelibly immersed in a modernist sensibility. The mushairas held under the auspices of Anjuman-i-Punjab in 1874 were a clear illustration of how modernity had influenced poetry — and these influences remain intact to this very day. The nazm has found a wider currency in Urdu literature as a result.

The obvious question then is: how Islam can be divested of the stark influences of modernity that it has ‘soiled’ itself with?

The public meetings at MintoPark or Mochi Darwaza in Lahore or protest processions, that were inalienable parts of the Muslim politics in the 20th century, had their origins in the West. These political tactics were the preferred course of action for the right-wing parties in Pakistan who have turned anti-West for the last couple of decades. So, essentially, the contemporary Pakistani ‘self’ is modern. For the last century and a half, South Asian Islam has recreated itself in the light of the ideals of modernity which cannot be jettisoned at will.

Another point worth pondering on is the fuzzy nature of the Muslim public sphere. Despite the acerbic and exclusionary feelings engendered by reform movements, like Arya Samaj, the cultural expression of the Muslim public sphere had syncretic inflection. That syncretism manifested itself in Urdu poetry and prose — with Gopal Mittal, Harichand Akhtar, Tilok Chand, Premchand and Krishan Chander — and embraced a tradition that ostensibly belonged to Muslims. Hindu newspapers like Arya Musafir and Partab were also printed in Urdu, as were Zamindar and Inqilab. This goes to show that Hindus and Sikhs were not averse to Urdu, contrary to the accepted opinion.

In the arts, personalities like Bhai Ram Singh (once the principal of Mayo School of Arts), Sita Ram, Amar Singh, Mehr Singh, Jetha Singh, Uttam Singh, Girdhari Lal and Duni Chand partook with extraordinary zeal in the Muslim (Mughal) art tradition.

Music is yet another form of art where Muslims and non-Muslims worked in tandem. The argument that Muslims contributed far more than the rest in the promotion and evolution of Indian music can hardly be ruled out. After partition, the public sphere was substantially purged, because it came to represent only Muslims who gradually became hostage to the religious right caught up with the question of culture. The complexity of that tangle is compounded when the cultural traditions intrinsic to the ‘land’ are brought forth for deliberation. It is impossible to separate Islam from western, modernist influences — and those who seek to do so are deluded.

P.S. The writer regrets for an inadvertent faux pas in the last week’s column. Yadgar-i-Ghalib was written by Altaf Hussain Hali and not Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

One comment

  • why talk about divesting islam from ‘western or modernist influences’, which islam intrinsically contributed? islam has a built-in modernistic and progressive character.

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