XQs XXX - A Conversation with Sarah Fatima Waheed

Posted by sepoy on March 27, 2022 · 35 mins read

The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Sonia Qadir for conducting this interview. Please see the archive of previous twenty nine XQs.

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Sarah Fatima Waheed is a historian of South Asia. She holds a PhD in South Asian History from Tufts University, and an MA from University of Chicago. Her first book, Hidden Histories of Pakistan: Censorship, Literature, and Secular Nationalism in Late Colonial India is published with Cambridge University Press (2022). She is currently a Fulbright Scholar carrying out research towards her second book about Muslim female power of the Deccan, “The Warrior Queen Who Died Thrice: Gender, Sovereignty, and Islam in Premodern India.”

Q. One of the central arguments of this book is that the “religious vs secular” binary, something taken for granted within left politics in contemporary South Asia, does not make sense in the context of the progressive Urduphone literati. Urdu progressive writers (who largely belonged to Muslim sharif classes of North India) not only located themselves within anti-colonial, feminist, and Marxist struggles but also within an Indo-Persian Islamic literary-poetic tradition. You show how authors of Angāre (a collection of censored short stories) were wedged between a paternalistic colonial state and a modernist yet conservative reform movement of the Muslim ashraf classes–and rebelled against both. What do you think this insight means for doing history and for progressive politics in Pakistan and India today?

Sometime in the 1990s, the prolific and prescient leftist Pakistani intellectual, activist, and academic Eqbal Ahmed, stated the following: “One of the failures of the left in the Muslim world…was the failure to develop a language that would make sense to a people who are born in and have grown up in an Islamic civilization. You cannot turn your back on that, you see. Change takes root when it brings something new, but that ‘newness’ is congruent, it is in harmony with, it harks back to, it invokes the memory of the old. It is in that congruence of the new and the old that lie the deep real seeds of change.” In my own research, I have located several instances of such engagement in left movements in late colonial India and wished to explore that more fully. In contemporary South Asia, ever stronger boundaries are being drawn between the categories of “religion” and the “secular.” The modern world reinvented “religion” as a category, and colonialism in India was the means by which it was articulated, which came to influence modern nationalisms of South Asia. I show how such categories themselves were historically produced.

By focusing specifically on episodes of censorship faced by Urduphone progressive intellectuals, where such dichotomies were either heightened, blurred, or non-existent, I write a history of the relationship between literature and intellectual identity from a perspective that takes seriously the role of ethical self-fashioning in relation to “Islamic” thought and Muslim belonging along the axis of “leftist” articulation.

With questions of religion, secularity, and ethics in mind, the project of twentieth century Urduphone intellectuals who faced censorship is not comprehensible without first turning to their sense of the past, its literature, and how they interpreted “tradition” in relation to “progress.” Their interpretations could be on the one hand, forward-looking, even radical and revolutionary, and on the other, nostalgically yearning for a pre-colonial, Mughal past, while using a language of longing quite particular to the Urdu literary tradition. “Religious” and “cultural” norms of comportment (adab), genres, and modes of thought and being had long enabled, and were even premised upon, critiques of power.

Progressive Urduphone literary intellectuals who came from the “respectable classes” of the urban salaried Muslim gentry in cities such as Delhi, Hyderabad, and Lucknow were not all pristinely “secular”—even as some of them were self-avowed atheists such as Sajjad Zaheer–nor can they be classified simply as “religious” even if they had gone on hajj pilgrimage to Mecca several times, such as Maulana Hasrat Mohani, who saw communism and Islam as mutually compatible and wrote paeans to the Hindu deity, Krishna. Terms such as religious and secular, as this book argues, are meaningless in so far as categorizing Urduphone progressive intellectuals, without first situating them within long-standing Indo-Muslim and Persianate literary traditions.

Just how “Islamic” progressive Urduphone writers were, is of course, a matter of debate, for they drew inspirations from ethical traditions in partial, selective, and fragmented ways. One way to consider this question would be to simply re-state the religion vs. culture dichotomy. That is, Urduphone progressives were not “religious” but “cultural” Muslims, for whom religion was merely a demarcation of social difference, as they practiced a cultural politics of religious accommodation. I push against this distinction and argue instead for their political imagination—shaped by language, religion, culture, history, as well as interpretations over concepts like civilization cannot be cast aside.

Q. In your chapter on sedition and the leftist poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, you raise an important point about the relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical in the Islamic tradition, as well as Faiz’s relationship to Islam. Can you elaborate on why this was important to highlight?

Faiz Ahmed Faiz was a communist poet who faced sedition charges and was imprisoned as part of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in the 1950s–one of many instances of imprisonment–and later lived in exile. I argue that the collection of poetry which Faiz composed while he was imprisoned in Sahiwal and Hyderabad Jails, Dast-e Sabā (Palm of the Wind), constituted an ethical treatise, rooted in pre-modern Islamic concepts, which were composed as a response to the poet’s political present. Dast-e Sabā and Faiz’s time in prison were coterminous with the declaration of martial law in the Punjab in 1953, following violent agitation against the minority Ahmediyya community, who were seen as non-Muslim by various factions of Pakistani ‘ulemā. Faiz thus composed his prison poetry at a time when the nascent Pakistani state was beginning to grapple with the question of who is a Muslim, a question thrown into sharp relief as the state increasingly turned to repressive tactics against its own people. Dast-e Sabā was formulated as a critique against the Pakistani state’s tyranny and censorship, but its reach and ambiguity challenged both the dogmatism of some strands of communist secularism as well as Islamic orthodoxy and extremism.

Faiz was deeply embedded within the Indo-Persian and Islamic tradition of poetic knowledge. He was not averse to attending community gatherings at places of religious devotion, and he accepted the invitation to lead congregational prayers at a village masjid. For instance, as Shahab Ahmed notes, in plying the phrase kajkulāhī, or “crooked-hattedness,” in one of his poems, Faiz makes a hermeneutical statement about what it means to be Muslim. In this sense, I go on to argue, Faiz is not simply a “cultural Muslim”, but one who both belongs in spite of and because of his alterity as Muslim, and as part of a broader cosmological imagination that has been around for much, much longer than something as new as the Pakistani state. And he composes this qata’ about “crooked hattedness” at a point when the Pakistani state was itself calibrating its relationship to Islam.

Q. In your chapter on blasphemy, you show that the presence and ready application of colonial law stymied the animated debate about a short-story collection and naya adab (new literature) within the Muslim community and led to its conceptual slippage, first from the discursive field of ethics (“akhlaq”) to obscenity (“fohsh”), and then from obscenity to blasphemy (causing injury to religious feeling). Why is this nuance important for your book’s argument? What insight does it provide when thinking the political pasts and futures of Pakistan?

As I discuss in my chapter on blasphemy, there were several different and overlapping concerns in the early 1930s, as the first literary text of the progressivist tradition was censored. This was an era of mass censorship on one hand and the rise of social movements demanding liberation on the other. I think rather than a straightforward story, the case of Angāre in fact shows the messy terrain and how complicated the story and debates over censorship can be. What is interesting is how attempts to discredit the authors of Angāre were located at the nexus of concerns over class, gender, and religion and whether or not the text exemplified ethical and moral concerns. The text came under fire initially not so much for blasphemy, but rather for obscenity.

Contemporary laws over blasphemy are wholly modern. At the same time, we cannot ignore the contexts of colonial era censorship regimes, which were both British inspired and also involved a range of political actors from amongst the colonized Indian classes. Blasphemy legislations, while colonial in origin, have transformed from paternalistic colonial attitudes and are now being regularly weaponized against the most vulnerable populations. In January 2022, yet another person in Pakistan–a woman targeted for her WhatsApp messages–was sentenced to death on blasphemy charges. While there has been excellent work on the contemporary mobilization of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, we need to understand the historical origins and conflicts generated within Indo-Muslim societal contexts that preceded the Pakistani state.

Q. You mention in the book that you are not just “reading against the (archival) grain” but instead using an “expanded definition of an archive” for the sources used in this book. Tell us about the archives you used, and what work they did for you.

Typically, when historians engage with literature and literary texts, they “mine” the texts for “raw data” that can speak to the broader contexts of their circulation. What I have tried to do here, instead, is consider how literary traditions themselves may also constitute archives. The materials I have used thus range from the official state records, which I read alongside literary analysis of the texts that came to be censored. As a result of censorship, portions of these texts also began to circulate as parts of literary debates amongst and between progressives themselves, within their literary magazines and meetings. In this book, I suggest that in addition to providing evidence about individual lives, the accounts of censorship that Urduphone progressive writers preserved as narrative – for future literary intellectuals, historians and a reading citizenry at large – collectively form an archive, together with legal documents and state records, from which various counter histories of colonial modernity might be recognized.

Q. While reading about Rashid Jehan and the backlash in the Muslim community she faced for being the only female author of the much-maligned book Angāre, I could not help but both laugh and cry. To me the narrative felt deeply personal. These are precisely the kinds of lived struggles Pakistani feminists deal with even today. As scholars of South Asia for instance, we do not occupy the same space that either Western or South Asian male academics occupy. Even in our professional roles we struggle with mobility, access, visibility every day. Keeping this in mind, what is the value of writing ‘our own’ histories as South Asian Muslim women? How do you understand the subjectivity of the historian?

This is a complicated question. I do not believe that one’s identity, perceived, constructed, inhabited, or whatever else that may be, ought to determine research. At the same time, I also do think that a diversity of voices writing about the South Asian past and present must be highlighted. Consider that the largest population of Muslim women anywhere in the world, live in South Asia–an incredibly diverse population, far from being a monolithic category. And yet, as Tahera Aftab as noted, “Muslim women, being members of a religious minority in India, stand at the periphery and thus hardly emerge as a major factor in narratives… Not only are studies on Muslim women scarce, but when Muslim women do appear they seem to be overwhelmingly portrayed as being oppressed and backward. Therefore, the exclusion of South Asian Muslim women from key texts on the subject erases the historic persona and agency of Muslim women, while the sparse and stereotypical representation of them is completely inadequate.” In the sections of my book where I discuss the Urduphone feminist writers, I encountered several instances that did feel familiar and very much related to the present.

In the US academy, there are widespread assumptions that scholars of color working on research related to “their own histories” are indulgently engaging in “me-search.” In fact, they are actively working to fill in the enormous gaps in research left by centuries of predominantly elite and/or white, and/or men researching “other” cultures. The dissemination of orientalist attitudes is perhaps the least harmful outcome of their work on subjects that scholars of color have only recently been permitted to do. In recent years, there has also been a backlash against the work of scholars of color, even as there is much discussion and debate about reframing inclusive histories.

Finally, Rashid Jahan Begum’s story is better known in India and on the Indian left, than in Pakistan. There has been a biography written about her recently and she has been an early voice of rebellion against the status quo of conservative sharif discourse. There was a great deal of hostility directed against her for her role in Angāre. While Rashid Jahan did not leave behind details of the violent threats she received, much of what historians can learn about them come from the memoirs and autobiographical writings of other Muslim women who were her contemporaries and recorded these attacks and responses to them. Rashid Jahan herself was also influenced by a generation of reformers as well.

Q. In your last chapter about Fahmida Riaz, you talk about how she broke with the progressive Urduphone tradition by refusing to think politics and women’s liberation from the subject position of male comrades as had been the norm, but instead daring to think from “within the zenana”. Can you elaborate on how Riaz, as a feminist progressive intellectual, was framing her creative writing and her politics, both as a distinct epistemological disposition and as method?

While progressive literary movements as national projects in both India and Pakistan undoubtedly died out, a linear narration of historical decline is difficult to square with the subsequent feminist turn in Urdu poetry that appeared in Pakistan and India during the 1970s and 1980s. Fahmida Riaz destabilized the patriarchal logics and forms of Urdu poetry, as she addressed themes of religion, culture, and sexuality in new ways. In one of her earliest anthologies of poetry, Riaz offers an ethico-poetic methodology, the embodiment of woman as gendered subjects alongside a trenchant critique of a religiously conservative patriarchy and authoritarianism in South Asia. The space of the zenana is often rendered invisible and meant to be hidden, and it is not a world from which knowledge could ever be produced in order to open outward to create new intellectual modalities. For Riaz, however, this is a world that actually can produce knowledge about how the world might be reordered. During a period that inaugurated new forms of sanction against women’s bodies in public spaces and as expressions of sexuality increasingly became criminal acts, when women were increasingly told what to wear and how to appear in public, her anthology of poetry and its preface, is a revolutionary text.

Q. The terrain of Urdu in South Asia today is rather complex and controversial. While it is a shared language across North India and Pakistan, it is being increasingly viewed negatively by the emergence of Hindutva politics in India. At the same time, it is regularly used for nationalist and counter-revolutionary ends in Pakistan. Even within histories of Left and progressive politics, Urdu and Urduphone intellectuals occupy a disproportionately dominant space. Resultantly, the rich diversity of languages and their associated progressive traditions - those belonging to Balochi, Sindhi, Pashto, Kashmiri, Bengali, Balti or Brusheski, and surprisingly, even Punjabi, are routinely sidelined and silenced. How do you locate your book in these broader histories (and not just History) of progressive politics and literature in Pakistan and North India? What advice do you have for junior scholars wanting to write these “other” histories?

I think one of the problems is the ways in which regional languages are hierarchically ordered in relation to those languages which have become national languages, patronized by the state. At the same time, languages like Balochi, Kashmiri, and Pashto, are even further marginalized within the field of South Asian Studies because of how these languages are configured in relation to “conflict zones,” as well as how the hierarchies and divisions within the field that exist and operate in relationship to global north academes and academia in South Asia. At the same time, however, languages such as Sindhi, exist across borders and boundaries, and many of these regional languages have rich literary traditions of their own, and robust poetry and oral story-telling traditions.

For younger scholars, I believe there needs to be greater attention to languages of South Asia, which exist in a classed relationship against and through English. There has been a great deal already written about this. I do however think that younger scholars should consider what we all stand to gain by learning through regional linguistic frames. We have to recognize the tremendous devastation and loss that regional languages of South Asia have been delivered, throughout the modern period, especially the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As the Kenyan writer, Rasna Wara recently reflected in the context of Africa, she uses the phrase “linguistic famine” to also refer to “the burial of African languages by Africans themselves.” I do think this is something worth thinking about, especially as literature in various regional languages continues to be produced on the margins of nationalist frames.

Q. You wrote this book while facing racism, sexism and Islamophobia in the US, and under conditions of precarity. Talk to me about conditions of academic labour as a Muslim woman of South Asian heritage in the US academy (and in academia more generally).

Contingent labour in the US academy is the main form of faculty labour. I wrote this book–and I am currently writing my second–without ever holding a tenure track position. There are several crises occurring simultaneously, affecting especially those of us who do not occupy dominant groupings in the US academy. This is an era of disaster capitalism, generated via decades of neoliberalism, whose roots lie in colonialist and racist capitalist exploitation of the modern world, and now finding their fullest expression with the contemporary global rise of the right and fascisms. There is also a crisis of leadership. Academic administrators—right-wing and liberal alike—exploit precarious forms of labour, especially by faculty who are raced, classed, gendered, or otherwise marked and occupy the lower rungs of the hierarchy. The hostility extends to anyone who dares to think or write differently or confronts (no matter how mildly) academia’s managerial class. With ever dwindling resources in higher education, along with administrative authoritarianism, cutthroat competition between academics intensifies. Colleagues gossip, derail their peers, and appease those in power to advance their careers.

Then there is the matter of complex interplay of identity. I claim several forms of belonging: Hyderabadi, American, Indian, Pakistani, Muslim. I see no problem with my cosmopolitanism and expressions of cross-border solidarities, but others do. Those with deep territorial attachments to national identity feel uncomfortable and threatened by people who express multiple forms of belonging, especially Muslim cosmopolitanism in the US. I have been regularly asked to prove where my loyalties lie. This is a key feature of nationalism—and the politics of cultural authenticity associated with nationalism exists in academia broadly, and specifically within South Asian History and South Asian Studies. A great deal of anxiety and hostility is generated against those of us who do not fit simple binaries and national categories. That hostility is greater if you are a woman and a feminist and/or occupy a nebulous sexual identity.

Furthermore, the work I do bridges disciplines: principally, history and literature. I am a cultural historian, a specialist of South Asian Islam across the India-Pakistan divide, focusing on the formation of Muslim communities and politics. Both South Asian History and Islamic Studies, are conservative academic fields—as evidenced by the harsh responses to the feminist turn in Islamic Studies as well as gate-keeping in South Asian History/Studies in the US academy, dominated by Indianists. In the latter, this is felt especially by Dalit and Kashmiri scholars. Additionally, Muslim-background scholars in South Asian History/Studies I know have experienced subtle and overt forms of Islamophobia, targeted by those who hold implicit biases about what kind of Muslim should be acceptable in the academy. Meanwhile, Islamic extremism and Islamophobia are intertwined problems in Muslim majority countries, such as in Pakistan.

Then, you have to realize that besides the global war on terror—with growing Islamic extremism and Islamophobia—Hindu nationalism has been a potent force for decades in India and in the US. It triumphed politically in India’s 2014 and 2019 elections. India’s current authoritarian ruling party with fascist roots, together with propaganda and mass censorship—who know little else but brute repression—forcefully advances the idea of India as a nation only for Hindus. There are ongoing genocides and genocidal fantasies playing out all across South Asia. Recently, there have been genocidal calls against the Muslim minority in India. It is a very scary time to be a Muslim in India. While it is not the same of course, those of us who are Muslim scholars in the diaspora who travel to India for research also experience anxiety. Hindu nationalism is damaging academic discourse, debasing thought, silencing dissent, curtailing speech, and leading to self-censorship—and of course, negatively impacting scholars and scholarship. While it has intensified tremendously in recent years, it has long been a problem. My own advisor was denied tenure due to the Indian variety of Islamophobic bigotry decades ago.

I am, however, heartened by the incredible work being done by a generation of scholars who are asking new questions about colonialism, nationalism, and understudied regions, in addition to younger scholars working outside the dominant frameworks expected of them and in spite of institutional hierarchies, whether those are in premodern or modern South Asian history or related fields of inquiry.

Q: What first interested you in censorship and in the history of progressive literature and politics? Can you speak to the process of researching for your dissertation and then the process of transforming the dissertation into a book?

I became interested in censorship and progressive Urdu literature a few decades ago. Prior to pursuing my PhD in South Asian history, I worked in a predominantly working-class South Asian immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, which included a job as a journalist for a local community newspaper. At one point, I received hateful misogynist threats in the mail for interviewing the actress Nandita Das while she was visiting Chicago, due to her role in the 1996 film Fire. The film was about same-sex love in India and controversial. In India, Hindutva activists staged protests and attacked a theatre; there was ongoing nation-wide furor over sexuality and freedom of speech. In the US, Hindutva groups in the diaspora had already been organizing and asserting their political will regarding the definitions of being Indian—especially during the early 2000s in the aftermath of the Gujarat massacre. Around this time, I began to read a lot of short stories by Urdu progressive writers. I became interested in how speech and expression are curtailed and regulated.

As a cultural historian, research and writing this book meant engaging with several disciplinary episteme and framing, without losing sight of telling a story. The story I tell is principally about twentieth century progressivist Urdu literary intellectuals who wrote and organized politically under conditions of colonialist and nationalist repressions—from the 1930s through the 1970s—who struggled against censorship while also expressing emancipatory politics in their literature. As literary scholars have shown, their literature was in line with a number of leftist social realist literary projects of the early to mid-twentieth century. I go further, however. I extensively draw from archives in both India and Pakistan, thus crossing the 1947 divide, rather than be limited solely to colonial India. I also rely extensively upon vernacular Urdu source material and take seriously what those from within the Urdu literary tradition have articulated, rather than subjugate their voices as distant fossilized objects of study. The book grapples with the cultural politics and aesthetics of progressivist and leftist discourse. It also addresses the ways patriarchal attitudes on the left marginalized women and feminists.

In the process of transforming my dissertation into a book, I learned a great deal, and grew as a scholar. First, I reframed the book, and as I did so, certain dissertation chapters were better suited as material for published articles. For instance, in the dissertation I had included a chapter about progressives’ engagement with Bombay cinema, about which I have thought about considerably, but this was not something that fit for the overarching argument as I worked on the book manuscript. I also rewrote several portions of the book, as I reframed arguments and as I engaged with scholarship about pre-modern Islamic ecumene. In the interim, several new publications emerged about the progressivist episode in late colonial India as well as Pakistan, as it became a subject of increasing interest for both scholars as well as intellectuals engaged more broadly in the public sphere in South Asia and elsewhere. Finally, I also included the preface and epilogue, that touches upon progressivist pasts in both India as well as Pakistan, to highlight the unique comparative historical perspective this book achieves, in tracing longer lineages that help us to understand the political imaginations of our present. The book will be of interest to those who would like to explore the longer lineages and politics of progressive expression. And it will be of interest to those who are engaged in broader conversations about the left in both India and in Pakistan.

Q. In the introduction to your book, you state that “accretion of historical amnesia is particularly dangerous.” Can you tell us why? What are some of the other books that pose a challenge to historical amnesia that your own book is in conversation with?

Both colonialism and nationalism as processes continue to determine what we remember and what we have forgotten when it comes to South Asian pasts, and South Asian Muslim pasts in particular. The accretion of historical amnesia is particularly dangerous because the lineages of colonial and nationalist thought remain very much the cornerstones through which contemporary debates about politics are articulated. There has also been widespread dismissal of the brutalities of the global war on terror over the past two decades. Ideological positions in India and Pakistan about Islamism and Islamophobia, also work to conceal earlier moments in the South Asian past around censorship, religion, and the public sphere, and have been either forgotten or rewritten in accordance with the polemics of the present.

This work is in conversation with works of South Asian history, in particular about growing scholarship about the left, such as by Ali Raza’s Revolutionary Pasts: Communist Internationalism in Colonial India (2020) as well as Surkh Salam: Communist Politics and Class Activism in Pakistan (2016) by Kamran Asdar Ali and The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan (2014) by Saadia Toor.

On the subject of censorship in South Asia, I see this work in conversation too, with the emerging interventions being made by historians such as Neeti Nair about hurt sentiments and speech in India. I also engage with important works about moral regulation and self-expression in late colonial India regarding the Urdu sphere, such as Markus Daeschel’s The Politics of Self-Expression: Urdu Middle-Class Milieu in Mid-Twentieth India and Pakistan (2006). I engage with books that have produced ideas which deepen our understanding about the relationship between religion, secularism, and Islam, such as those by anthropologists such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, as well as scholars such as Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? The book of course, also engages with several works about the progressive writers’ movement, such as those by Priyamvada Gopal and Talat Ahmed, as well as recent books about Urdu literature in relation to national belonging, such as Ali Khan Mahmudabad’s Poetry of Belonging: Muslim Imaginings of India 1850-1950 (2020).

Sonia Qadir is a Scientia PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Faculty of Law. Her research focuses on criminal justice, securitization and legal history in Pakistan