Why Indian Muslims must let go of Shah Waliullah’s theological baggage

Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) is considered one of the foremost intellectual figures within the Islamic world and more so in the South Asian context. His intellectual imprint can be seen in all divisions within the sub-continental Islamic wetenschhaung: from the Barelwis to the Deobandis to the Ahle Hadees, all claim him to be their own. Within much of the literature produced on Shah Waliullah, he is considered a reformist par excellence. It is this legacy that the present article is considered about. I want to ask how his reformist ideas have panned out and whether his ideas have any value in relation to the question of diversity and pluralism. Specifically within the Indian context, I want to ask what relevance do his ideas have in the present context.

Indian Muslims

One of the first charges against Shah Waliullah is that he did not have the interest of India at heart. In trying to save the Mughals from the Marathas, he wrote to Ahmed Shah Abdali to invade India and save the Muslims here. Now, there is every possibility that one can read this act as an instance of pan-Islamism and national betrayal. But then, he is not the first or the only one to do so. We have many more such examples, where ‘foreign’ powers have been besieged by Indians, both Hindus and Muslims, to intervene for one reason or the other.

We also need to understand that the idea of nation was very feeble during the 18th century: the period in which Shah Waliullah was living. As such his call to the Afghans should not be seen as an anti-national act but rather to re-energise the supremacy of the Mughals, something which Shah Waliullah was committed to. However, it cannot be overlooked that Shah Waliullah was primarily looking at events around him through an Islamic lens. Moreover, he was convinced of the superiority of Islam over all other religious traditions. For him, the re-establishment of the supremacy of Islamic rule was a religious act and not a result of the tottering fate of an empire in India. His constant use of the word infidel to describe the Marathas and other Hindus only betrays the mind-set within which he was operating.

He was very categorical that Islam had to become the ruling dispensation of the world. And for this reason, he quite early understood the power of a centralised authority to enforce and establish Islamic regime. His notion of the caliphate therefore is central to his understanding of Islam: without the caliphate, Islam can never be enforced. Thus, rather than the caliphate being a moral compass, in Shah Waliullah, it becomes an agency in express service of Islam. Years later, Maududi would take the same concept forward and argue that the modern state was fundamentally important for the existence of Islam. For it was only through the agencies of the state that the Sharia could be implemented. Shah Waliullah would brook no opposition to the enforcement of Islam. Completely assured of the superiority of Islam, he would go on to argue that Islam had to be forced down the throat of the non-Muslims like a bitter pill. But for that to happen, leaders of non-Muslim communities who refused to accept Islam should be annihilated, the strength of that community reduced and their property confiscated.

Furthermore, when in position of strength, Muslim Imams should preach against the falsity of other religious traditions (read Hinduism). Other religious communities should be stopped from worshipping their Gods. And discriminatory social and political laws should be imposed on non-Muslims so that they are forced to convert to Islam. Clearly then, this Shah was writing from a position of power: assuming that Islam would be the dominant political force.

 However, he was also a realist and in the Indian context, he also had a solution for Islam in case the religion did not ascend to a dominant role which he really hoped for. In a context in which Muslims were to find themselves without the patronage of the state, they should strive to strengthen what Shah Waliullah called the Batini Khilafa (inner caliphate). This was necessarily a re-negotiation of Islam through a non-dominant position. Whereas in the Zahiri Khilafa (outer caliphate), he gave the ruler the absolute authority to enforce Islam as he deemed fit, within the Batini Khilafa, this role was to be played by the Ulema. Without the backing of political power, the Mullahs were to tread carefully but essentially the role ascribed to this class was the same: to become the custodian of Islam. More than anyone else, it was Shah Waliullah who gave a new lease of life to the Mullahs and thought of them as a political class. Much later, his ideas would be put into action by Gandhi who pandered to the Mullahs during the Khilafat agitation thus giving a legitimate political role to the Mullahs for the first time in Indian history.

But what were these custodians of inner caliphate supposed to do? The blueprint had already been given Shah Waliullah. He argued that Muslims had lost their prime political position because they had strayed from the true path of Islam. The rediscovery of this supposed true path lay through the study of Hadees.

Not surprising therefore that Shah Waliullah would popularise the study of Hadees within his intellectual circle. It is also not surprising that the prime mover of Waliuallahi though in the sub-continent was Deoband madrasa which is till today known for its Hadees studies. The politics behind this hermeneutical move towards Hadees was simple: it would provide the standard and the rationale through which the Islamic habitus will be created. In the absence of any law enforcing agency, Muslims were supposed to become embodied living Hadees themselves. The popularisation of Hadees studies would also serve another purpose for Shah Waliullah: it would rid the Muslims of the sub-continent of any trace of shared cultural and religious memory with other communities.

Thus more the knowledge of Hadees became embedded within the Muslim community, more the distance with other communities, particularly the Hindus. The Muslim must become puritan in order to relive the supposed lost glory of Islam. For this, purging itself of all accretions and all traces of syncretism was to become the sine qua non of Indian Muslims. As a political project, this tradition continues to this day through the activities of Deobandis, the Ahle Hadees and even the Barelwis. More than anything else, Shah Waliullah’s writings seem to be a fatal recipe for the political future of Muslims in India.  

Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com



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