Profanations II: The need for the public practice of the humanities in India

in homistan

Concluding installment (part 1 here) of an essay by Prashant Keshavmurthy.1 on the radical disruption of scholarly speech in India.

In 1892, Maulana Shibli Nu’māni, an internationally celebrated Indian Muslim historian, (Urdu-Persian) literary critic and theologian of his day, traveled by sea from Bombay to the Ottoman Empire, journeying through Cyprus, Istanbul, Syria and Egypt. Of this journey he kept a journal that he later published under the title of Safarnāma-i rūm va misr va shām (A Travel Account of Turkey, Egypt and Syria).2 He claims that he had not intended to write a travel account but that European prejudices with regard to the Turks had led him to do so. Even well-meaning Europeans, he observes, remain bound by the Islamophobic prejudices they are raised with. His aims in writing it are therefore corrective and pedagogical: to correct prejudiced European travel accounts of Turkey that form the basis for European histories, and to instruct Indian Muslims by documenting exemplary “progress” among Turkish Muslims.

The Turkey or Ottoman state of Shibli’s time, we must remember, was the only one of the three great early modern Islamic states – the other two being Safavid Iran and Mughal India – to still be extant. Moreover, its emperor, Abduḥamīd II (1876 – 1909), had only recently achieved radical advances in the movement to modernize or “reorganize” – “reorganization” or tanzīmāt bespeaking the bureaucratic character of this modernity – of his state on European models. Shibli intends therefore to focus on the “developments and reforms” of the Muslim world, especially Turkey.

The turn of the century preoccupation with lost Mughal sovereignty among North India’s Reformist Muslims – a sovereignty they understood as Muslim in the wake of the formal end of the Mughal state in 1857 – led them to regard the still regnant Ottoman empire with special attention: in it they saw a Muslim empire that was modeling itself through technological and institutional reforms on Europe, the very ambition of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān, the founder of what became Aligarh Muslim University, and his colleagues like Shibli Nu’māni. Shibli thus discusses formerly Ottoman Cyprus, when he passes through it, in terms of the history of its political sovereignty under Muslim and then British rule. Furthermore, everywhere in his travels he singles out educational syllabi, technology, and such empirical aspects of a society as clothing and food, treating them as indices of a polity’s development.

Shibli desires and is at pains to discover signs of a continuous Muslim world. That he conflates all Arabs in the Ottoman territories with Muslims and vice versa signals this desire. The historical motivations for this desire lay both in the Pan-Islamism adopted as a policy against European meddling in Ottoman affairs by Abdulḥamīd II as well as in the sense of shame at their civilizational “decline” (inḥitāt) pervasive among intellectuals and literati in the Arab world of the time. From Bombay to Aden, writes Shibli, he had been “longing to see a Muslim” and, in Cyprus, when he hears a boy in a seminary recite from the Qur’an he is filled with an emotion of wonderment: “At the priest’s signal the boy recited a few verses from the Qur’an. It affected me strangely. It occurred to me: what was the affecting power in these holy words that, becoming electric power from East to West, shot across from the distant deserts of Arabia to the far-flung islands of the Mediterranean and still survives?” The “affecting power in these holy words” became “electric power” in its rapid global spread: the metaphor succinctly formulates the Muslim Reformist goal of a modernity for a single if heterogeneous global Islam that would validate and include Western technological inventions.

A presupposed universal Muslim nationality (qaumiyat) is what allows Shibli to imagine Ottoman Muslim and Indian Muslim identities as separate and comparable at once. This separateness of identities serves him in his observations of Ottoman educational developments as he compares the state of “the old education” (qadīm ta’līm) in Turkey and India on a single yardstick to conclude that it was hardly much better in Turkey in respect of the governmental neglect into which it had fallen: “Although I like the modern educational system (nayī ta’līm), and like it well and truly, I am nonetheless a great supporter of the traditional educational system and I think that it is needed – indeed deeply needed – for the survival of the ethnicity of Muslims (musalmānoṇ kī qaumiyat qā’im rehne ke liye)”3. Muslim ethnicity includes Ottoman Muslims as much as it does Indian ones, enabling Shibli’s project of comparison.

However, what complicates his inquiry by threatening his ability to recognize and be recognized by his Muslim subjects of inquiry are the ethnic diversity and non-Muslim peoples of the Ottoman Empire. In Aden, his first foreign port of call, he observes Somali boys flock to the edges of European ships like his own in little boats and pull faces at the Europeans to win coins flung at them from decks, retrieving these coins from the ocean. Deeply hurt, Shibli laments the wretched pass Arabs have come to. But when he discovers on shore that the Somalis are not considered Arab, he feels relieved.

In another episode, he is eager to talk to the Arab Muslim Hajj pilgrims on his ship, approaching and addressing them in Arabic on the very topics they happen to be discussing. But he is bewildered when they barely register his presence. One of them then asks him, “What is your religion (madhab)” Islam”, he replies. “What sort of Muslim wears a hat like that?” the man responds. Shibli then realizes that they had taken him for a Zoroastrian (majūsi) because of the “red Iranian hat” he had worn. Having persuaded them that he was a Muslim, he observes that they then warm to his company.

In the first anecdote, Shibli appears exclusively concerned with the dignity and then discreteness of his object of inquiry: Arab Muslims. It does not trouble him as much to see Somalis lose their dignity because they were not considered Arab. He is relieved because this experience accentuates by differentiation the discreteness of Arab Muslims. The second incident concerns the religious identity of the inquirer himself: the outer signs on Shibli’s person do not correspond to his inner identity of belief. He appears a Zoroastrian while being a Muslim. This remains a constant problem for Shibli throughout the travelogue: the non-correspondence of outer signs of religious identity with inner religious self-identification. This infelicity – felicity being precisely the performance of socially apparent signifying conventions in harmonious accordance with inner qualities – constantly threatens through misrecognition or non-recognition both the identities of the inquirer who seeks to recognize Muslims and that of the Muslims he seeks recognition from.

This very problem also motivates and structures the historical novels, the earliest instances of the genre in Urdu, by ‘Abdul Ḥalīm Sharar (1860 – 1926). Each of his novels presents a medieval Muslim hero who, in his initial naïveté, is seduced by an intentionally infelicitous (this intentional aspect differentiating the narrator’s motivated infelicity in Sharar from Shibli’s accidental confusion) performance of signifying conventions. He is the object of the dupe of a Christian, Jewish or Hindu woman. His dealings with her and her people – always erotic and military at once – lead him and us through a progressive rending of this deceitful veil of signs to recognize the truth of the insincerity that it had concealed. This rending of veils arrives as the relieving clarification of who and what is Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Hindu. Almost every such novel ends with the conversion of the non-Muslim woman, now in love with the Muslim hero, to what Sharar presents as the more magnanimous faith of Islam.

Anger at European Orientalist denigrations of Islam inspired Sharar and Shibli in their literary-intellectual projects to keep rehearsing a logic of anxious semiotic clarification, to traverse over and over a narrative vector that established the edges and boundaries of a religious community. But this voluminous prolixity of Muslim Reformist discourse, like that of its Hindu and other counterparts, was inversely proportionate to the political power of its authors. It was because India’s Reformists were legally curtailed by the colonial state in their abilities to mobilize the people at large for transformations in the public at large that they responded by producing an anxious semiotic that obsessively clarified the limits of religious community. (This is why recent transpositions onto modern India of Jürgen Habermas’s concept of “the public sphere”, originally invented with reference to the civic inclusiveness of the salons and coffee houses of the Westphalian states of 18th century Europe, are mistaken). This is why the genesis of literary realism in the early Urdu novel and the inauguration of the modern discipline of literary criticism in Urdu were, in this sense, tied to Muslim identity. These were elite, particularistic and discursive assertions of religious identity in response to the real impossibility under colonial rule of satisfying the double condition of political thought: investing the people in general (rather than only Muslims or Hindus) with legitimate political power to transform a quotidian world that was held in common.

It is therefore not a coincidence that the controversy over Rangila rasūl erupted in “the summer of 1924, shortly after the failure of the Non Cooperation–Khilafat movement to secure swaraj in one year” (Nair 2013, 318). Nair does not spell out the implications of the timing of the event. Popular vulnerability to injury to religious sentiment grew as a displaced response to the failure of mass movements for popular sovereignty in colonial India. The failure of political practice – that is, the failure to adequately locate legitimate power in the people and adequately transform their everyday – found its fetishistic resolution in defending religious sentiment. A fetish, as Freud and Marx conceptualize it, is an image with which fetishists cover up a lack unbearable to themselves. It is, in this sense, not a solution as much as a provisional resolution by a displacement of emotional attention. Here, then, we begin to glimpse the outlines of a dominant formation of mass religious identity in modern India: the fetishistic hyper-investment in traditional items of faith in displaced response to political disenfranchisement.

The similarity of post-1991 India to post-1922 India

Is it any accident, then, that between 1947 and 1991 – decades of a government-protected economy in India – it was the central or a provincial government that banned this or that text rather than a social group demanding it of the government? Or that such demands by social groups peaked in the decades after 1991 when the Liberalization of the Indian economy withdrew governmental protections from agrarian, educational and other sectors of the economy, leaving increasingly vast sections of the population to cope with price rises determined by international corporate finance? The tension is thus not, as Jehangir S. Pocha argues, between the “secular western liberalism” that inspired Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar and the “old feudal notions of society” that “too many Indians still cling to”. The history of the politics of giving and taking offense to religion – and of religion itself as an offended subjectivity – has nothing “feudal” about it. It is a thoroughly modern pathology whose etiology lies in a fetishistic response to the failures of politics in its accountability to the public. Exploiting the popular impatience with the imperative to interpret among India’s increasingly disenfranchised people, the Hindu Right, like its Muslim and other counterparts, discovers offense in books, movies and paintings as easily as one reads advertising copy.

“Reflecting the sensitivities of many Hindus”, Reliance Fresh, one of India’s prominent convenience stores and headed by Mukesh Ambani whose proximity to Narendra Modi of the Hindu Right is well-known, has stopped the sale of all meat products.4 In 1936 the German philosopher Walter Benjamin observed at the end of a famous essay: “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic”.5 What we see being created and normalized in India today is religion as a taste for offense, as an aesthetics of offense that needs to interpret signs as little as the tongue needs to curl in disgust at the taste of meat. Once it becomes as normal among masses of Hindus as a turning of the stomach, religion-as-hurt-sentiment will ensure solidarities of fetishistic rage among the millions forsaken by the free market.

The visible and audible practice of the humanities in as many publically accessible (rather than privatized) forums in India as possible is one way to retain the idea of the public – with the interpretable ambiguity intrinsic to it – that is crucial to the political. This is because the methodologies of the humanities rest on three assumptions: that the valuable meanings of a text in a natural language are not its obvious ones; that it is through interpretation that a text’s valuable and non-obvious meanings become available to the reader; and that the protocols for such interpretation can, in principle, be learned and taught by anyone regardless of class, caste, gender, theological conviction and other identities. The first two assumptions distinguish the humanities from the natural sciences that aim to describe their objects, through the non-natural language of mathematical algebra, in terms of exactitudes. The last distinguishes them from theological traditions of scriptural interpretation. This is why neither natural science qualifications nor theological competence have ever been held to authorize participation in the public of any democracy.

If the utilitarian market logic of neoliberalism has led to the forsaking of the arts of interpretation that the humanities in India’s public universities are tasked with teaching it has also disclosed the need to renew them in response to the crisis of public interpretation exploited by the likes of Dina Nath Batra. If we don’t keep in public view the practice of humanistic interpretation we risk losing the public as a shared space of commonly interpretable ambiguity. On this space will depend any consensus on amending or removing retrograde laws like Sections 295A and 377 of the Constitution. On it will also depend the possibility of acting as a people resolved to inhabit and interpret in non-exclusivist ways an irreducibly ambiguous world of signs – a republic – rather than only as religious communities of affect. Wallace Stevens’ famous poem, ‘Sunday Morning’, concludes its meditation on a profane heaven by observing in the hieroglyph of pigeons’ wings on the evening sky – “ambiguous undulations” – not portents of an ascent to another world, but a tranquil descent into shared ambiguity “as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings”.

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  1. Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He spends his days biting his finger in wonderment at the strangeness of pre-19th century Indian and Middle Eastern literary cultures and his nights disentangling the dreadlocks of his affections. []
  2. Shibli Nu’māni, Safarnāmā-i rūm va misr va shām (Ā’zamgarh: matba-i ma’ārif, 1940). All the translations from Urdu in this essay, unless otherwise indicated, are my own. []
  3. Shibli Nu’māni, Safarnāmā-i rūm va misr va shām, 88. []
  4. I thank Sandeep Banerjee, my colleague in McGill University, for bringing this to my attention. []
  5. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Illuminations (New York: Schoken Books, 2007), 242. []

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