Translating Islam. Translating Religion. Conceptions of Religion and Islam in the Aligargh Movement

Arian Hopf
Heidelberg 2021: CrossAsia E-Publishing
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Sohaib Ali, Department of Political and Social Sciences, Freie Universität, Berlin

Around the birth bicentennial of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898) in 2017, several volumes were published for evaluating the contributions and legacy of that foremost educationist, thinker and activist of 19th century Muslim South Asia.[1] It is, therefore, all the more commendable that the book under review succeeds in making significant advances in utilization of under-explored data and thereby offers fresh and rich detail to a major aspect of Khan’s movement. Earlier oft cited work on the religious dimension of that movement either lacked embeddedness in the wider local context[2] or despite its thoroughness[3] failed to identify any systematizing principles in Khan’s religious thought. Arian Hopf’s analysis of conceptions of religion and Islam in the Aligarh Movement enhances our understanding by embedding Khan’s thought in his contemporary milieu, tracing the triggering factors that elicited particular responses from him, and bringing into sharp relief a latent framework that guided his thinking on religion. Furthermore, the study of Khan’s views is complimented by an analysis of religious ideas propounded by four key figures linked to the Aligarh Movement: Altaf Husain Hali (d. 1914), Ameer Ali (d. 1928), Shibli Nomani (d. 1914) and Nazir Ahmad (d. 1912). Hopf mainly focuses on these five men of letters to decipher this core problématique: given that the concept of religion has undergone a long process of negotiation in diverse contexts, how had mutual encounters between the colonizers and the colonized defined religious discourse in the South Asian context, during the 19th and early 20th century. Though, for reasons of space and focus, Hopf does not attempt “a comprehensive analysis of the aspect of reciprocity and its potential repercussions on Christianity or the conception of religion in a European context” (p. 3). The study, therefore, is primarily concerned with understanding “how the concept of religion as an umbrella category came to be represented” in the Aligarh Movement (p. 6).

The book’s core chapters are grouped in three blocks. Following an opening section that introduces the topic, approach and contents, chapter 1 provides necessary background contextualization for the formation of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s evolving religious perspective. Hopf emphasizes here the deep localization of Khan in Naqshbandi Sufi doctrine, and also explores his less studied early writings on religion to posit a degree of continuity in his later thought which is often characterized as essentially westernized. After situating Khan’s early religious development in the context of Delhi’s 19th century traditionalist reformist thought, the next chapter attends to Khan’s commentary on the Bible. From the 1850s onward, Khan’s thinking had transcended inner-Islamic debates and led to the development of a framework that could accommodate a plurality of religious beliefs. However, Hopf maintains that Khan’s approach didn’t amount to a total break from his past views, and was “overlaid by a Quranic perspective” – “Islam and the Quran thus serve as a means to discover the corruption in the Bible and are applied to restore the original message of the Bible” (p. 73). According to Hopf, an accommodating pluralism on these lines had served as a basic framework for all subsequent developments in Khan’s religious thought. The last two chapters (3–4) in the first block evaluate how Khan and two other figures of the Aligarh circle had developed a negotiated approach to the historiography of Islam. Khan’s response to William Muir’s biography of the Prophet of Islam, had sought to refute the latter’s criticisms by making several adjustments in source methodology and logics of explanation (p. 90). Though by connecting Khan’s new ideas to his earlier writings, Hopf again cautions against accepting some clear break and stresses creative continuity. For instance, it is shown that Khan had adapted Muir’s approach to source criticism by taking it to be in line with the traditionalist Muslim approach to criticising ḥadīs̱ (sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet). While the ḥadīs̱ that were not considered to be in contradiction with the Quran could still be cited as evidence, the criteria for ascertaining such contradictions became relatively open-ended. Hence, in Khan’s rethinking of traditionalist principles and their application, the epistemic status of ḥadīs̱ reports was significantly downgraded. Although reason did not feature explicitly in Muir’s source criticism, Khan went further to argue for a rational evaluation of tradition. This, in turn, narrowed the scope for Khan to see Islam as immutable and allowed him to reconceive some fossilized interpretations. Hopf then supplements Khan’s views on history with a discussion of two important works by Altaf Husain Hali and Ameer Ali. Like Khan, these two authors also took an essentialized view of history that “implies a uniformed representation of Islam”. Ali’s relatively diverse historical account was meant to unite different tendencies “under one essence of Islam” or present them as deviations from an original essence (p. 156).

The second block of chapters (5–7) moves from the sphere of intra- and inter-religion debates to the encounter between science and religion. It begins with a discussion of Khan’s project of establishing reason/science as an arbitrator that could settle incommensurable truth-claims advanced by religions. For Khan, the single true religion would exhibit full conformity with reason. Science was co-opted as an inherent dimension of Islam and it was asserted that there can be no contradiction between nature (the Work of God) and revelation (the Word of God). Hopf argues that, like Khan, Shibli Nomani also attempted to equalize science and religion. Both tried to avert a conflict between religion and science by employing an Aristotelian epistemology and claimed “synonymy between ʿaql and reason” (p. 262). In the final block (chapter 8), Hopf analyses Nazir Ahmad’s ideas for their overlap and disagreement with Khan’s theses. The latter’s views came to be criticized as mechanistic and Ahmad made the case for re-mystifying Islam. An overlap in terminology notwithstanding, Ahmad took a different approach by attempting to navigate Islam from within – while avoiding an inter-religious discourse and without taking cues from orientalist scholarship. This diverging take on Khan’s approach could have been explored further by tapping the more philosophically attuned ideas of Sir Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938). Iqbal’s quasi-modernist progressive traditionalism had sought to engage the episteme of modernity and its normative order on more or less traditionalist terms. In the 21st century Urdu sphere, imprints of his intellectual orientation can be found in the works of notable Pakistani thinkers such as – poet-philosopher Ahmad Javed, and educationist-philosopher Muhammad Din Jauhar. Delineating and elaborating Iqbalian strands of thought in the Aligarh Movement and their later incarnations will, therefore, require another study.

In his conclusion, referring to the modernizing colonial discourse shaped by factors such as “the Christian mission, orientalism, historiography, and science”, Hopf emphasizes that his study “focussed on the Aligarh movement – not as a rejection of the importance of rather traditionalist movements but for its explicit and active participation in this discourse and effort of creating a mutual commensurability”. He, therefore, suggests a similar line of inquiry for understanding the role of contemporaneous movements “like the Deobandis, Barelwis, or Ahl-i Hadith” (p. 296). Moreover, his suggestion that traditionalist perspectives should be studied for understanding their encounter with European modernity and how they responded to the Aligarh movement can also take into account how, after Sayyid Ahmad Khan, certain important initiatives by the second generation leadership of that movement had sought commensurability with the traditionalist approach. For instance, after the college at Aligarh transformed into a university in 1920 and a more wide-ranging study of Islam at the varsity became possible, the favoured conception of Islam seems to have taken a traditionalist turn. In 1926, the university had engaged Sayyid Manazir Ahsan (Deobandi), Amjad Ali Azami (Barelwi), Abdul Aziz Memon (Ahl-i Hadith), and Sayyid Sulaiman (Nadvi) for laying the groundwork of its Islamic studies program.[4] Paying closer attention to such fluctuating but consequential collaborative engagements between modernists and traditionalists can collapse some deeply entrenched dichotomies associated with these movements. Nonetheless, Hopf’s persuasively argued and insightful study makes an important contribution within its defined purview and rigorously paves the way for further research on modern Islam in colonial and post-colonial South Asia.

[1] Abdur Raheem Kidwai (eds.), Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Muslim Renaissance Man of India. A Bicentenary Commemorative Volume, New Delhi 2017; Yasmin Saikia / Mohammad Raisur Rahman (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Sayyid Ahmad Khan, New Delhi 2019; Shafey Kidwai, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Reason, Religion and Nation, New Delhi 2020.
[2] Johannes Marinus Simon Baljon, The Reforms and Religious Ideas of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Lahore 1964.
[3] Christian W. Troll, Sayyid Ahmad Khan. A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology, New Delhi 1978.
[4] Sayyid Sulaiman Nadvi, Shuzraat, in: Maarif 2 (1926), pp. 82–88.

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