Islamic Reform and Colonial Discourse on Modernity in India: Socio-Political and Religious Thought of Vakkom Moulavi
ISLAMIC REFORM AND COLONIAL DISCOURSE – Book Sample
Preface – ISLAMIC REFORM AND COLONIAL DISCOURSE
The story of this book, which is a revised version of my doctoral dissertation, began in 2002 when I joined the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University as a PhD candidate hoping to study Muslim nationalism in the Indian subcontinent, which was then a topic of interest in the wake of the debate on the Hindu national- ism of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Professor Sajida Alvi who was my advisor suggested, after learning that I hail from Kerala, that I would be able to make a better contribution by studying about the his- tory and religion of the Muslims of Kerala, known as Mappilas, who are, in all probability, the oldest Muslim community of the South Asian subcontinent.1
I was then reminded of the keen observation of Professor Roland Miller, who lived in Kerala for twenty-five years and speaks the Malayalam language fluently, that Mappilas, irrespective of their long history and traditions, are the “the unknown Muslims.”2 Thus, I focused my attention on Mappilas, especially on their colonial past.
After one year, I visited Roland Miller, who gave me the idea to research Vakkom Muhammad Abdul Khadir Moulavi (1873–1932), acknowledged as the “father” of the Muslim socio-religious reform movement in Kerala. It was only befitting that both of them served as co-supervisors of my doctoral dissertation titled Modernity, Islamic Reform, and the Mappilas of Kerala: The Contributions of Vakkom Moulavi (1873–1932). Vakkom Muhammad Abdul Khadir Moulavi, popularly known as Vakkom Moulavi, began his career as a journalist—and eventually bought his own printing press—in 1904.
He realized the potential of print media to initiate socio-religious reform, spread patriotic think- ing, promote modern education, educate people about civil rights and responsibilities, and mobilize Muslims at the local and state lev- els, articulating their grievances and bringing them to the attention of the ruling authorities. Vakkom Moulavi’s publications included a Malayalam newspaper (Swadeshabhimani), two Malayalam journals (Muslim and Deepika), and an Arabie-Malayalam3 journal (al-Islam). He also published an Arabie-Malayalam book titled Lawh al-Sabah.
Though he primarily disseminated his ideas of reform through these publications, he also wrote many articles that were published in contemporary journals in Kerala. In addition to authoring original works, he translated valuable works from Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and English into Malayalam and Arabie-Malayalam, including al-Ghazali’s Kimiya-i Sa‘’adat.
Unfortunately, we do not have all the works pub- lished by Vakkom Moulavi at our disposal.4 We only have two col- lections of selected articles of Vakkom Moulavi: one compiled by Mohamed Kannu (Vakkom Moulavi: Prabhandhangal, Smaranakal [Vakkom Moulavi: Essays and Obituaries]) and another collected by Mohamed Abda (Vakkom Maulaviyude Thiranjedutha Kruthikal [Selected Writings of Vakkom Maulavi]).5
An article published in Muslim by Vakkom Moulavi on educational development among Muslims of Travancore was later reprinted by K. K. Muhammad Abdulkareem, titled “Thiruvithamkoorile Adyakala Vidyabhasa Pravarthanangal” [Early educational endeavors in Travancore].6 We also have a letter written by Vakkom Moulavi to Rashid Rida, which was originally published in al-Manar.7 Vakkom Moulavi’s newspaper, Swadeshabhimani, was suppressed by the Travancore government, which also destroyed the remaining copies. Therefore, copies of Swadeshabhimani cannot be found in libraries in Kerala. However, selected editorials from the newspaper were published in The Travancore Deportation: A Brief Account of the K. Ramakrishna Pillai and Dewan’s Note Dated 15th August 1912, on the Suppression of the Swadeshabhimani Newspaper.8
This book is coming after a series of books and articles on Vakkom Moulavi, mostly written in the Malayalam language and published in Kerala. It was Mohamed Kannu, one of the students of Vakkom Moulavi and an active participant in his socio-religious reform move- ment,9 who wrote the first brief biography of Vakkom Moulavi (Vakkom Moulavi (Jeevacaritram) [Vakkom Moulavi (Biography)]) in 1981.10 It is significant to note that even though Vakkom Moulavi came to be regarded as the “father of Muslim religious reform” in Kerala, the first collection of his writings was published only 46 years after his death.
In addition, Mohamed Kannu also wrote an article on Vakkom Moulavi titled “Samudaya Uthejakanaya Vakkom Moulavi” [Vakkom Moulavi: One who Inspired a Community] in 1970.11 His work titled Vakkom Moulaviyum Navothana Nayakanmaurum (Jeevacarithra Padanangal) [Vakkom Moulavi and Leaders of the Renaissance (Biographical Studies)] is highly significant for under- standing the growth and development of the religious reform move- ment in Kerala as spearheaded by Vakkom Moulavi.12
K. M. Seethi Sahib, a close adherent of Vakkom Moulavi, wrote an article detailing memories of his mentor titled “Vakkom Moulaviye Patti Chila Smaranakal” [A Few Reminiscences about Vakkom Moulavi]), which is another important source to learn about the life and work of Vakkom Moulavi.13 K. M. Moulavi’s Parethanaya Muhammad Abdul Khadir Moulavi [The Late Muhammad Abdul Khadir Moulavi] is also an authoritative source on Vakkom Moulavi and Islamic reform in Kerala.14
Writings by Vakkom Moulavi’s family members, who had the opportunity to know him firsthand, need to be taken seri- ously as another important category of sources. Abda’s (Vakkom Moulavi’s son-in-law) article titled “Vakkukale Padavalakkiya Vakkom Moulavi” [The Vakkom Moulavi Who Turned Words into a Sword], Shakoor’s (his nephew) “Vakkom Moulavi: The Man Who Led Islamic Renaissance in Kerala,” and Bashir’s (one of his grand- sons), “Swadeshabhimani Vakkom Moulavi,” 15 are the notable works in this category.
A number of authors have used the above-mentioned sources to highlight various aspects of Vakkom Moulavi’s life and his contri- butions toward socio-religious reform in Kerala.16 Sharafudeen com- piled a monograph on Vakkom Moulavi in English titled “Vakkom Moulavi (A Study),” in which the subject is portrayed as the great- est humanist, journalist, social worker, and religious reformer the Mappilas have ever seen.17
Chunakkara Gopalakrishnan’s brief biography of Vakkom Moulavi (“Vakkom Moulavi”) is especially important as it provides an interpretation of his life from a national- istic perspective.18 T. Venugopal, a biographer of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai, the editor of Vakkom Moulavi’s Swadeshabhimani newspaper, refers to Vakkom Moulavi as one of the three founding fathers of the Swadeshabhimani movement, as may be seen from his work “Swadeshabhimani’ Prasthanathinte Muvar Sangham” [The Three-Member Association of the Swadeshabhimani Movement].19
N. A. Kareem, in his article “Moulaviyum Deepikayum (padanam)” [Moulavi and Deepika: A Study] maintained that Vakkom Moulavi was a product of the Indian renaissance and, therefore, embodied its finest social and intellectual values in his personal life and activities.20 Roland Miller, in his work titled Mappila Muslims of Kerala: A Study in Islamic Trends, rightly acknowledges that the religious reform move- ment among Muslims was initiated by Vakkom Moulavi.21
However, he overlooks the Kerala-based roots of Vakkom Moulavi’s reform movement and presents it as “a conservative reform” that began under the influence of Rashid Rida’s al-Manar. Recently, in 2010,
T. Jamal Muhammad published a detailed biography of Vakkom Moulavi, titled Swadeshabhimani Vakkom Moulavi in Malayalam, analyzing his writings and movement and placing it within the socio-religious, economic, and political context of early twentieth-century Kerala.22 This book is certainly one of the most important sources that helps us to understand the life and work of Vakkom Moulavi; however, it shares the same shortcomings as all the other works named above, in that it did not take the colonial discourse on modernity into serious consideration in the context of Vakkom Moulavi’s religious reform movement.
In this book, I argue that the colonial discourse on modernity needs to be considered seriously while analyzing religious reform movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Colonial discourse on modernity changed the world forever by introducing a European understanding of “progress,” the spirit of scientific rationality, the equality of women, Oriental degeneracy, modern education as “use- ful knowledge,” and the inevitability of nation-states.
Thereafter, it became impossible to think about religion, civil society, human rights, and so on without invoking these paradigms. In the case of Muslim modernists whose overall purpose was the modernization of Muslim societies, it became customary to use these concepts to understand and reinterpret various aspects of Islamic tradition.
Therefore, socio- religious reform movements during the colonial period need to be approached while bearing in mind that each of them came about as a response to the dominant discourse on modernity. These movements were not a continuation of similar reform movements in the past.
The socio-economic and political changes effected in Kerala by the British and colonial discourse at the beginning of the twentieth century challenged traditional structures of power. This eventually resulted in social mobility within various communities, which, as a result, embraced modernity and began to pursue modern education.
However, the Muslims of Kerala had a long-standing tradition of struggle against colonial powers, and their hatred of British rule had led them to resist the modernization process and, consequently, become more socially and educationally backward than the other communities of Kerala.
It was in this context that Vakkom Moulavi undertook to persuade Mappilas to embrace various aspects of modernity, especially modern education. Based mainly on primary sources written in Malayalam, this pioneering study shows how he reinterpreted Islamic principles and Muslim history using the frame- work of the rational and secular universal humanism of European Enlightenment. He was a product of a combination of the various religious reform movements in Kerala and the Gandhian movement in India.
Muslim modernists of North India such as Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817–1898) and Sulayman Nadwi (1184–1953) and Egyptian reformers such as Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) and Rashid Rida (1865–1935) greatly influenced his movement through their journal al Manar.
This work will be interesting primarily to South Asian historians, scholars of Islam, students of religious reform movements, scholars involved in Indian Ocean studies, and all those who are interested in the discourse on colonialism and modernity.
However, it will be a significant work for those who are also concerned with issues such as power and politics, state and citizenship, modernization and Westernization, and identity politics and regional expressions of nationalism, both secular and religious, at the dawn of the twentieth century.
In recent years, “the Kerala model of development” has received considerably heightened attention among a number of inter- nationally known scholars and became a topic of discussion in several research papers from around the globe. Vakkom Moulavi’s reform movement was instrumental in the establishment of this developmental model.
In the same vein, as a Muslim community, Mappilas are among the most educated, economically sound, and politically pow- erful communities in the entire Indian subcontinent today. Among the major reasons for their success are their willingness to embrace modernity, their ability to live peacefully with the majority of the non-Muslim population, and their willingness to give and take from other communities and the secular ethos of Kerala.
Mappila Muslims owe a lot to Vakkom Moulavi and other reformers for instilling these values, which made them different from several other Muslims com- munities. Therefore, there will be some popular interest among academicians as well as the general public to understand the work and writings of Vakkom Moulavi.
This academic work is part of a longer journey nurtured by mentors, colleagues, and foundations. I would like to express my appreciation to Sajida Alvi and Roland Miller for their constant encouragement, valuable criticism, and insightful suggestions. Their careful reading of the different drafts of my doctoral thesis has been invaluable. I
am also deeply indebted to Wael Hallaq for inspiring me to study colonial dis- course and for helping me integrate a stronger theoretical component into my writing. Two other scholars who have taken an active inter- est in my work have been Stephen Dale of the Ohio State University and George Oommen of the United Theological College, Bangalore, India; I am deeply indebted to them. The opportunity to work with
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