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2 Haqq, hikma and ma‘arifa: The Epistemology of Reasonableness
The Epistemology of the Truth in Modern Islam
knowledge and law, I mean theories that function on the idea of overlapping consensus as a way of establishing truth and reaching determinative results. Others
have focused on empowering autonomy and personal agency while emphasizing
communal pluralism. Still others emphasize cumulative communities of interpretation and tradition as an instrumentality to devising a way out of the problems of
modern alienation and relativism. Other theorists have adopted pragmatic and positivist approaches where they place a great deal of emphasis on shared public interests or the public good.
The main issue that I have with these various theories, and especially with theories that emphasize overlapping consensus in the Rawlsian sense, is that all of these
approaches are instrumentalities for a functional solution to the problem of knowledge and truth; however, they are philosophically and intellectually non-responsive.
Basically, these theories use sociology and some form of functionalism as a method
for answering the question ‘Is everyone wrong or is everyone right’, and ultimately
the answer they yield is ‘We do not and cannot know! Hence, whatever we can agree
on, we will pretend is correct and whatever we disagree on [and quite often religion
is placed in the category of what cannot be agreed upon], we can set aside as a private matter.’ These kinds of responses offer functional solutions to the problems of
relativism, but at least from an Islamic philosophical perspective, these approaches
are not entirely satisfying.
I will outline what I believe is a plausible approach to Islamic epistemology in
the modern age that avoids the twin evils of standardless relativism and intolerant
and despotic absolutism. In the semiotics of the Islamic heritage, there are three
critical categories: haqq, hikma and ma‘arifa. I define haqq as the true nature of
things or the inherent truthful nature and essence of things. Fundamental and indeed
inherent to the meaning of hikma is righteousness as to the relationships between
the true natures of things. It is the true measurement or, as expressed in the text of
the Qur’an, the mizan, which is the righteous balance between the nature of things.
So hikma, which is normally translated as wisdom, is truth, not simply from the
perspective of what the essence is, but truth in relation to each other and the way that
competing truths harmonize with one another [mizan al-haqa’iq]. Ma’arifa is the
way to knowing the relationship of the true nature of things.
Restated, haqq is at a level of understanding that requires juhd [striving and
struggle] – a serious form of intellectual jihad; hikma is a broader perspective of
haqq in its totality; and ma‘arifa is the instrumentalities and the mechanics of knowing. It is philosophically defensible to assert that haqq, or the true nature of things,
is constant and non-shifting; hikma, however, is not constant and is shifting because
we cannot understand the true relationship of things before we receive a certain
level of awareness and consciousness about what actually exists. For instance, if we
consider the hikma, or the righteous relationship of things within the ma‘arifa, or
the epistemological mechanics, of the twelfth century compared with that of the
sixteenth century, and then compared with that of the twenty-first century, we
quickly see that the mechanics of hikma become ever more complex and varied as
we move through time and space.
K. Abou El Fadl
However, there is an essential mathematical logic that does not ever break down
and does not vary. The equations necessary to realize this hikma become ever the
more inventive and ever the more complex, and sometimes require new approaches
to revealing the relationship of things. For instance, imagine the description of the
relationship of things when the extent of a person’s consciousness is that things are
made of fire, wind, water, or earth; then imagine a description that breaks down the
true nature of things into subatomic particles; and then compare that with one where
there is an awareness of dark matter and anti-matter. Ma‘arifa, or knowing, is the
study of consciousness required to comprehend the haqq and evaluate hikma, and
because human consciousness is constantly shifting and evolving, the constituent
elements of hikma are constantly changing and evolving as well. Ma‘arifa, by its
nature, cannot rely on naql, or transcription and transmission, but is, by its nature,
contingent and dynamic.
Let me give a concrete example, which I hope will serve as a metaphor for what
we find in religious texts in the Islamic tradition. Let us assume that we have a narrative in which a father is speaking to his children and the father tells his son something to the effect of ‘Honor my memory when I am gone by being fair to your
sister!’ Assume that in the context in which the words were spoken, being fair to the
sister involved allowing the sister to own her own horse and marry the person she
loves. Within the consciousness of that space and time, the ma‘arifa required for
understanding the ultimate hikma and truth that the father is trying to achieve can be
imagined in particularized terms. Now let us imagine that we take the same narrative of fairness in a context in which we do not have horses and we do not have
simply the issue of who to marry, but consciousness itself has shifted, and being fair
to your sister now means allowing your sister a full development as an autonomous
being, or allowing your sister a full realization of her dignity and self-respect. The
haqq, which in this case is the true nature of the objective of justice or fairness, is
the same; however, the hikma, the relational dynamics of truth, becomes more complex as our consciousness, which is a function of our human psychology, becomes
more complex, and human needs have dramatically altered. The epistemology of
knowing these higher elements [ma‘arifa] has to radically change otherwise it will
completely undermine both the hikma and the haqq.
In many ways, in the dynamics of contemporary Islam, which we see repeated
again and again, the narrative is taken in a transmission or transcription sense at the
level of ma‘arifa. But the way this ma‘arifa is unpacked ignores a very critical element and that is the element of an ever-changing and contingent human consciousness – the human ways of perceiving and understanding require innovative
conceptions of hikma if there is any hope of reaching or fulfilling the objectives of
the haqq itself. As we see in many of the dynamics of modern Islam, if we take the
narrative of the father telling the siblings to let their sister use the horse and reproduce that historical moment within our own time and space, it becomes entirely
devoid of any meaning and undermines the entire enterprise of the journey towards
hikma and haqq in the first place.
Consciousness and the evolution of consciousness are made necessary by the
reality of an ever-creative and -creating God, a constant flow of what we call
The Epistemology of the Truth in Modern Islam
mawjudat [existence] and mukhluqat [creation] – a constant flow of contingencies
and new realities that challenge the human consciousness and, in fact, wire our
brain constantly so that the equations that were sufficient to achieve wisdom in one
age become radically inadequate in a different age. If one can imagine that the equations of hikma for one age become inadequate for another, you can then say this
applies tenfold or even a 100-fold to the instrumentalities [ma‘arifa] of reaching
this hikma. Theologically speaking, Godliness means an ever-present creator and an
ever-present inventor – one who invents and creates in partnership with human
beings. As human beings enter into this partnership with the Divine, whether knowingly or not and whether acknowledging the Creator or not, they are challenged by
the magnanimity and graciousness of this partnership. They are challenged in the
words of the Qur’an by the ethics of Godliness (rabaniyya or becoming ‘ibadan
rabaniyyun). In my humble view, it is a sad form of kufr [ingratitude] towards this
Divine partnership to deny the reality and imperative of a constantly shifting and
The Wisdom of Reasonableness
Reasonableness is a virtue, but it rests on perhaps an obvious assumption. When
God commands people to pursue ethical values such as justice, mercy, compassion,
kindness, or faithfulness, I assume that these words have meanings. If they did not
have meanings, then God would be speaking frivolously, which is theologically
impossible. Furthermore, I assume that God knows that the only way these words
will have meaning for us as human beings is through the way we use language –
through the tools used in semiotics and hermeneutics. Moreover, I assume that all
Divine commands regarding doing what is good and beautiful are made with the full
expectation and knowledge that the only way we human beings can make sense of
semiotic communications is through what we now call epistemology – our knowledge structure and its system. The same Creator who created the intellect also gave
that intellect volition and choice. This fact, in and of itself, sets numerous moral
boundaries because creation is sacrosanct. So, for example, the Qur’an exclaims: ‘If
your Lord would have willed, all people on earth, without exception, would have
believed. So would you compel people to become believers?’9 In this instance, the
text confirms what is accessible to a believer through rational insight, and that is,
one cannot undo, by human law, what was created by God. This belief in human
volition is not a libertarian position. A truly libertarian position would necessarily
have to accept that the world is perfectly intelligible without an assumption of a
Creator and Lawgiver, and as a believing Muslim, this I do not concede. But does
the fact that there is Divine law mean that our rational faculties can be used only
hermeneutically in interpreting Revelation and nothing else? No, I do not believe
that this follows either. Usually, the argument goes something like this: If one
believes in an immutable, omnipotent and all-powerful God who is the Lawgiver,
then it follows that Revelation defines what is right or wrong. In other words, there
K. Abou El Fadl
is no inherent right or wrong – something is right because God allowed it or something is wrong because God forbade it. If so, the argument goes, if God would have
willed, God could have commanded whatever God pleases – God and God alone
could determine what is good or bad, and our sole role as human beings is to submit.
In this argument, all right and wrong comes from the sheer will of God, and if God
so willed, God could have made what is wrong right, and vice versa. God could have
ordered us to disbelieve, be unjust, tell lies, or commit murder, and it would have
been fair and good because God said so.10 But this line of thinking is flawed because
it argues the impossible. It is akin to arguing that if God would have willed, God
could have made us cockroaches, and that because of this possibility (or impossibility) such-and-such follows. The fact is that as human beings, we are subject to the
laws of humanity that are etched into our very being – these laws are embedded in
our cognition and consciousness, and are as stable and unwavering as the laws of
mathematics or the logic that defines material reality. These are laws of rational elements that allow us to have a shared language about justice, ethics, values, happiness, misery and beauty.
The Divine text repeatedly and persistently refers to ethical concepts, and invokes
intuition, memory and rational insight as means to access what is embedded and
inherent in and to humanity.11 Does the fact that the Qur’anic text makes consistent
references to ethical concepts as if they have an embedded and inherent meaning
help us avoid the debate as to whether natural law preceded Divine law, or resulted
from it? I am not sure. But I do believe that Revelation or Divine speech has to make
sense, and if God spoke in a language that is entirely self-referential, this would
create an insurmountable theological problem. If I say to my son, ‘Be fair to your
sister!’ that does suppose that I am assuming my son has some understanding of
fairness. Now, I might tell my son, ‘Be fair to your sister, and do not monopolize the
computer!’ If my son assumes that as long as he shares the computer, he is free to
torment his sister as much as he wishes, it would be fair to conclude that my son is
either mean-spirited, or an imbecile, or both. Moreover, if upon my death my son
gives his sister the computer (which by then is quite outdated), and upon forging my
last testament steals the family estate, I think it would be safe to conclude that my
son has not honored my instructions to be fair to his sister. Alas, when I told my son
to be fair to his sister, and share the computer, I was counting on my son having both
common sense and also a moral compass so that he would not subvert the ethical
message behind the lesson I sought to impart.
My point is that not only do all linguistic communications assume an epistemological context, but also that specified instructions negotiate meaning within that
broader context. So when the Qur’an, for example, invokes ethical and moral terminology, it necessarily assumes a pre-existing epistemological context in which it
operates and a moral trajectory that it seeks to engage and negotiate. When the
Qur’an sets out specific instructions about a particular situation or issue, these
instructions must be analysed in terms of the moral purpose and trajectory that elicited the instructions in the first place.
The Epistemology of the Truth in Modern Islam
It is my belief that what enabled the prescriptions of Islam, as a system of faith, to
inspire an entire civilizational phenomenon that flourished in so many parts of the
world (a phenomenon that some have called the Islamicate) were its openness and
flexibility. The Islamic path to and from God was for most of its history understood,
constructed and articulated within the prevalent epistemological parameters of its
age. It is naïve and misleading to believe that it is possible to avoid or to ignore the
epistemological parameters allowed by each cultural age. A text will invoke an
extremely wide range of responses and reactions from readers that more or less
share the epistemological universe of the author and readers. But when the gap
between the time and context of the writing, and the circumstances of the reader, is
ever more different or far more removed, it takes a great deal of learning and training on the part of the dedicated reader to try to master an epistemology that belonged
to the author at the time of writing, but is no longer accessible to the reader. However,
when the author of a text is Divine, we end up with a very different dynamic.
According to Islamic belief, God is immutable and beyond human limitations, and
so it cannot be claimed that God is subject to any epistemological constraints.
However, although the Divine author is not limited by an epistemological understanding, God may indeed choose to embrace a historically bounded epistemology
as the one epistemology valid for all times and places. There is, of course, a serious
problem with arguing that God intended to lock the epistemology of the seventh
century into the immutable text of the Qur’an, and then intended to hold Muslims
hostage to this epistemological framework for all ages to come. Among other things,
this would limit the dynamism and effectiveness of Divine text because the Qur’an
would be forever locked within a knowledge paradigm that is very difficult to
retrieve or re-create. But even more, it would stand to reason that since the author of
the text is Divine, this author would have foreknowledge about the dramatic shifts
and evolutions that are going to take place in human epistemologies and methods of
knowledge. As Muslim theologians would have put it, because God has foreknowledge of coming changes and challenges, then God’s mercy and compassion would
necessitate that God would enable Muslims to have the tools and means of effectively dealing with this challenge. Furthermore, it would stand to reason that God
would produce a text that is immanently negotiable and dynamic. In essence, knowing that human beings will achieve major advances in the technology of acquiring,
retrieving and storing data, and that doing so will alter their state of consciousness,
perceptions, comprehensions and sensitivities, it is inconceivable that God would
leave Muslims with a Revelation that is not fully equipped to deal with these defining challenges at every age.
K. Abou El Fadl
1. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (2007: esp. 423–535).
2. On the temptation to join the perceived superior culture by converting, see John V. Tolan,
Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination (2002: 85–6, 97).
3. For a powerful example on the effect of intellectual culture and the pervasiveness of the
Muslim intellectual tradition in the medieval world, see George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges:
Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West (1982); Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
4. Abu Bakr Ahmad bin Husayn al-Bayhaqi, al-Jami‘ li-Shu‘ab al-Iman (2003: 8:257).
5. For instance, see the discussion on this tradition in Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Fawa’id alFara’id (1988: 181–6).
6. I use the term ‘Puritanical-Salafism’ to refer to the bonding of the theologies of Salafism and
Wahhabism. On the Puritanical-Salafi episteme, see my most recent book Reasoning with
God: Reclaiming Shari‘ah in the Modern Age (2014: 251–81).
7. My two books And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic
Discourses (2001) and Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women (2003)
are primarily concerned with this phenomenon.
8. For example, see Qur’an 2:30; 6:165; 7:74; 10:14; 38:26.
9. Qur’an 10:99.
10. See Abu Muhammad ‘Ali bin Ahmad bin Sa‘id Ibn Hazm, al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam (1984:
1:19–20, 52–7; 3:272, 478; 4:377).
11. For example, see Toshihiko Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an (2002).
Abou El Fadl, Khaled. 2001. And god knows the soldiers: The authoritative and authoritarian in
Islamic discourses. Lanham: University Press of America.
Abou El Fadl, Khaled. 2003. Speaking in god’s name: Islamic law, authority and women. Oxford:
Abou El Fadl, Khaled. 2014. Reasoning with god: Reclaiming Shari‘ah in the modern age.
Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Al-Bayhaqi, Abu Bakr Ahmad bin Husayn. 2003. al-Jami‘ li-Shu‘ab al-Iman [Branches of Faith].
Riyadh: Maktabat al-Rushd al-Nashir wa al-Tawzi‘.
Al-Jawziyya, Ibn Qayyim. 1988. Fawa’id al-Fara’id. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr [The Benefits].
Eco, Umberto. 1983. The name of the rose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Ibn Hazm, Abu Muhammad ‘Ali bin Ahmad bin Sa‘id. 1984. al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam [Exactitude
in the Sources of Legal Judgements]. Cairo: Dar al- Hadith.
Izutsu, Toshihiko. 2002. Ethico-religious concepts in the Qur’an. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s
Makdisi, George. 1982. The rise of Colleges: Institutions of learning in Islam and the West.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Taylor, Charles. 2007. A secular age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Tolan, John V. 2002. Saracens: Islam in the medieval European imagination. New York: Columbia
Democracy and Islam
Abstract The dominant debate on Islam and democracy continues to operate in the
realm of normativity. This article engages with key literature showing limits of such
a line of inquiry. Through the case study of India’s Islamist organization, Jamaat-eIslami, I aim at shifting the debate from textual normativity to demotic praxis. I
demonstrate how Islam and democracy work in practice, and in so doing offer a
fresh perspective to enhance our understandings of both Islam and democracy. A
key proposition of this article is that rather than discussing the cliché if Islam is
compatible with democracy, or Islam should be democratized, we study the ‘hows’
of de-democratization in Muslim societies.
Keywords Anthropology • De-democratization • Democracy • India • Islam • John
Keane • Abul Ala Maududi • Middle East
Islam regards every form of Government which is non-constitutional and non-parliamentary
as the greatest human sin. (Abulkalam Azad, 19121)
Only a coup d’état can save the situation. He [Iran’s premier] has so flattered the mob as the
sources of his powers that he had, I fear, made it impossible for a successor to oust him by
normal constitutional methods. (US Ambassador to Iran, 19522)
This article originally appeared in Philosophy & Social Criticism (vol. 37, No. 4), pp. 459–470,
Copyright © 2011 by (Special Issue: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul, David Rasmussen (eds.),
“Realigning Liberalism: Pluralism, Integration, Identities. Reset-Dialogues İstanbul Seminars
2010”). Reprinted by Permission of SAGE Publications, Ltd.
I. Ahmad (*)
Institute for Religion, Politics and Society, Australian Catholic University,
Melbourne, VIC, Australia
© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
S. Benhabib, V. Kaul (eds.), Toward New Democratic Imaginaries – İstanbul
Seminars on Islam, Culture and Politics, Philosophy and Politics – Critical
Explorations 2, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41821-6_12
An important global debate has been about the interface between Islam and democracy in particular and Islam and modernity in general. It has intensified in the wake
of ‘Democracy’s Third Wave’ ending in 1990. During this wave, which Huntington
called a ‘Catholic wave’, 30 countries made transition to democracy. In contrast,
between 1980 and 1991, of the world’s 37 Muslim-majority countries only 2 were
democratic.3 By 2005, of the undemocratic regimes across the globe, Muslim countries constituted a total of 55 per cent.4 This absence of democracy in the ‘Muslim
world’ has generated many explanations. Following the third wave, Huntington
wrote: ‘it is hard to identify any Islamic leader who made a reputation as an advocate … of democracy while in office. Why is this? This question inevitably leads to
the issue of culture.’5 From this framework, the signature question is: Is Islam compatible with democracy? Setting aside the futility of this question (see below), let
me state that there are two major poles in this debate. As shorthand, I will call them
Compatibility and Incompatibility Paradigms. Fukuyama,6 Lewis,7 Gellner,8
Huntington and others contend, though differently, that Islam is incompatible with
democracy. To this list one can add Dumont,9 Kedouri,10 Tibi11and others. Islam
presents, Gellner wrote, a ‘dramatic … exception’ to the patterns of secularization
because ‘a church/state dualism never emerged in it’. He put it so tersely: ‘It [Islam]
was the state from the very start.’12 Differentiating between three versions of Islam –
religion, civilization and politics – Lewis states that the last one is surely hostile to
democracy. The first two are also hostile because ‘in Islam … there is from the
beginning interpenetration of … religion and the state’.13 In a much-cited formulation of Huntington’s, ‘The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam.’14 Rowley’s and Smith’s is the most recent incarnation of this
position: ‘Islam’s democracy and freedom deficits are not fully explained by poverty or oil but appear to have something to do with the nature of Islam itself.’15
Notably, the position of the Incompatibility Paradigm is largely derived from a
selective reading of Islamic texts and traditions. Furthermore, its key sources are
often the writings of Islamist thinkers like South Asia’s Maududi (see below) and
Egypt’s Syed Qutub.
Bayat,16 Esposito and Voll,17 Filali-Ansary,18 El Fadl19 and others represent the
other pole of the debate. They variously see the possibility of democracy in Islam.
Pursuing a comparative framework, Casanova predicts that Muslim countries could
become democratic in future, as churches and many Roman Catholic groups became
the motor of democracy in Roman Catholic countries.20 Part of Casanova’s inspiration is Tocqueville who showed how Christianity contributed to American democracy. However, Tocqueville’s thought on Islam was radically different from the
purpose to which Casanova harnesses Tocqueville to weave his narrative. Tocqueville
believed that the Qura’nic emphasis on faith rather than splendid deeds made Islam
fanatical and inhospitable to democracy.21 Like the Incompatibility Paradigm, the
Compatibility Paradigm is also oriented towards the textual. The most cited Qur’anic
verse (XLII: 38) is ‘amruhum shura bainahum [decide your affairs through
Democracy and Islam
This article is divided into three sections. The first section spells out my contention at the centre of which lies the primacy of the praxiological over the normativetextual. Extending the anthropological approach to democracy and religion, I assign
significance to the ordinary, non-official discourses and local meanings of democracy as opposed to its abstract universal presumption. Based on the case study of
India’s Islamist organization, Jamaat-e-Islami, the second section aims to substantiate the argument. Here I show how Jamaat made transition from opposing democracy to supporting it. Moving beyond the specificity of Jamaat, in the final section,
I offer some broad observations on the study of democracy and Islam. Employing
John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy, I attempt to craft a fresh conceptualization of relationships between Islam and democracy, including a revisionist
reading of Maududi, regarded as the bête noire of democracy. I conclude with a call
to pay attention to the processes of de-democratization in Muslim societies.
Given the nature of the standard debate I outlined above, the question is: is there a
productive point of entry? I think there is. This indeed is my argument which consists of three interlocking propositions. First, we must shift the debate from the
arena of normativity to the domain of practice. Both the Incompatibility and the
Compatibility Paradigms are premised on the notion that it is the unitary, reified
normative impulse of religion that is the ultimate variable. This premise takes both
democracy and Islam as self-evident. Consequently both get reified. I think such a
line of reasoning is misleading. That democracy cannot flourish in Muslim societies
unless Muslims become democrats at a normative level beforehand is a major mistake. This assumption is untenable even in relation to the West, the so-called birthplace of democracy.23 Olivier Roy aptly argues: ‘If we had to wait for everyone to
become a democrat before creating democracy, France would still be a
My reason for according importance to the praxiological is rooted in an anthropological understanding of history and society. In Silencing the Past Trouillot avers
that the Haitian revolution ‘thought itself out politically and philosophically as it
was taking place’, in a context where ‘discourse always lagged behind practice’.25
Before I may get misunderstood, let me clarify that I endorse neither the textualistnormative approach which dismisses practices nor the practice-centred framework
insensitive to the normative-textual. It is precisely the dynamic interaction between
the two that I find useful.
My second argument is that we also need to interrogate the concept and workings
of democracy. As many have asked questions such as ‘whose Islam’, ‘which
Islam’,26 likewise we ought to ask: whose democracy; democracy for what? That is,
democracy is a contested term – in ‘East’ and ‘West’27 alike. So the question ‘Is
Islam compatible with democracy’ is theoretically flawed. An interesting question,
I think, is: what interpretation of Islam? What form of democracy; democracy for
whom? Indeed one may reverse the received wisdom stated by Kedourie that principles and values of democracy are hostile and ‘alien to the Muslim political tradition’.28 Might one instead hypothesize that the prevalent democracy has also been
hostile to Muslims. Its fine illustration is what I call the processes of ‘dedemocratization’. And this is my third argument: instead of engaging in the (fruitless) exercise of discussing Islam’s incompatibility with democracy, we shift
attention to study how the West de-democratized Muslim polities. This argument
entails transgressing methodological nationalism.29 The nation-state cannot remain
the sacred site to unravel the modalities of de-democratization.30
To return to the contested notion of democracy, in Runaway World, Giddens
contrasts American and British democracy. A Briton asked an American: ‘How can
you bear to be governed by people you wouldn’t dream of inviting to dinner?’ to
which the American gentleman replied: ‘How can you bear to be governed by people who won’t dream of inviting you to dinner?’31 It follows that democracy has
various meanings and forms.32 The story gets complicated as dictators – from
Europe and Asia to Latin America – have ruled invoking democracy. Most such
autocrats were darlings of those who regard themselves as custodians of democracy.
More importantly, as Mann shows, democracy also served as defence for bloodshed.
The supremacy of demos, when conflated with an ethnos, resulted in ethnic cleansings. According to Theodore Roosevelt, ‘Extermination [of Indians] was as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable’.33 In an insightful paper, Pritchard argues how
democracy and war-making went hand in hand in ancient Greece.34 To take a recent
example, in 2002, India witnessed the massacre of Muslims by the democratic
To recapitulate, my argument is that it is by virtue of the participation in the
democratic processes that norms, values and interpretations of religion get reconfigured, not prior to the inauguration of the democratic processes. It follows that the
democracy Muslim actors would fashion would not be a replica of democracy in its
‘birthplace’. As the South Asian trajectory suggests, democracy there has not been,
writes anthropologist Spencer, ‘accompanied by the magical transformation of
Indians, and Sri Lankans en masse into liberal political subjects’.36 This anthropological insight is crucial to my argument.37 The distinctiveness of an anthropology
of democracy is the focus on the ordinary, not the rulers. Moreover, anthropologists
do not limit themselves to official discourses. Unravelling the constitutive contours
of democracy, ‘rather than establishing a priori definition of democracy, is one of
the central contributions of an anthropological approach’.38 Aihwa Ong thus
observes that in South-East Asia democracy is understood more in terms of the state
providing the citizens with collective welfare, and not in terms of individual rights.39
Unlike in the mainstream western tradition, in Islam the obverse of tyranny is not
so much liberty but justice, ‘adl, inṣāf.40 Several texts typify this Islamic ideal. The
Indian film Mughl-e-‘āzam is often seen as an example of Mughal regalia, romance,
syncreticism and incredible dialogues/songs. Contra Das,41 in my view, at its heart
is the issue of inṣāf. The crisis Mughl-e-‘āzam addresses is the crisis in the
articulation and pursuit of justice. This Islamic characteristic has informed Muslims’
engagements with democracy, and will probably continue to do so in future.
Democracy and Islam
I thus take the localization of democracy’s meanings seriously. But let me register my discomfort with the anthropological focus placed squarely on the ordinary.
This should not lead to the banishment of the extraordinary. In October 2010,
Australia’s University of Melbourne held an international conference titled ‘US
Democracy Promotion in the Middle East’. Most speakers were political scientists,
policy/security and area experts. At the end of conference, I rediscovered that I was
an anthropologist. The signature words in the conference were: Obama, Bush, terrorism, security, Washington, Middle East and Yemen, with, yes, charts and figures.
People’s lives were missing. Cognizant of this, what I see as productive is a creative
combination of the extraordinary and the ordinary. One should also note the slippage from the extraordinary to the ordinary and vice versa.
Based on this anthropological approach, I will describe how India’s Jamat-eIslami which initially opposed democracy came to accept and strengthen
Democracy and India’s Jamaat-e-Islami
The founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami was Abul Ala Maududi (b. 1903). He initially
supported the Indian National Congress (hereafter Congress), and published biographies of Gandhi and Malaviya, a Hindu nationalist. He served as editor of the
Muslim, the Urdu organ of the Jamiatul-Ulema-i Hind, an organization of ulema
allied to the Congress. During the late 1930s, however, Maududi turned to Islamism.
Relevant to note are features of his ideology.42
Maududi held that Allah sent his prophets to establish a state. Under the influence of Hegel and Marx, Maududi read Islamic history anew. All human history, he
held, was the history of a battle between Islam and jāhiliyat, the period of ‘ignorance’ before the Prophet Muhammad. For Maududi, jāhiliyat was an organic system with many forms. Politically, it expressed itself in human sovereignty. In 1941,
Maududi founded the Jamaat for the ‘establishment of an Islamic state (ḥukumate-ilāhiya)’. The Jamaat Constitution required its members to resign their positions
in the army, judiciary, banking and other institutions of an un-Islamic state. Maududi
asked Muslims to shun elections because they authorized elected representatives to
legislate human, as opposed to divine, laws. On the same ground Maududi described
future Pakistan as an ‘infidel state of Muslims’. He outlined his position on democracy as follows:
You should clearly understand the principle that all the democratic systems that have been
developed in the present age … are based on the assumption that … inhabitants of a country
themselves possess the right to formulate … laws … about politics, economics, morality,
and society. … This ideology is absolutely the opposite of the ideology of Islam. Integral to
the creed of Islamic monotheism is that Allah is the Lord and Ruler of people and the whole
world. … We, therefore, say that membership in such assemblies and parliaments, which
are based on the democratic principles of the present age, is haram, and to vote for them is
also haram. Because to vote means that we elect an individual whose job under the present
Constitution is to make legislation that stands in absolute opposition to the creed of