The Complex Legacy of Muslim Modernism

In a world grappling with the complexities of identity, diversity and political turmoil, Teena Purohit's work offers a poignant reflection on the intricate relationship between religious interpretation, cultural context and the path to progress.

Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslim Modernism by Teena U. Purohit, associate professor of religion at Boston University, is an intellectually absorbing work for a significant reason. It consummately explores the shaping of Muslim modernist thought amid the challenges of modernity that confronted Muslim communities across the world during the era of colonial domination, from 1850 to 1950.

Moreover, as a scholar of South Asian religions whose “particular interests revolve around theoretical issues like conceptions of religion in modern Islam and the impact of colonial forms of knowledge on modern Muslim intellectual thought”, Purohit’s examination exposes a paradox at the core of reformist pursuits which echoes to this day in our contemporary landscape. With a reach that extends beyond academia, her work illuminates a critical historical juncture that speaks directly to our current challenges and delivers invaluable insights from the annals of the past.

Teena U. Purohit
Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslim Modernism
Princeton University Press, 2023

Purohit brings a keen eye to her study of the responses of notable Muslim modernist scholars – from Jamal-ud-din Afghani (1838-1897) to Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938) and Syed Abu Ala Mawdudi (1903-1979). These scholars grappled with the urgent need to redefine Islam within an evolving global landscape of declining Muslim powers and the spread of European imperialism in the late 19th and the early 20th century.

The book shines a spotlight on Jamal-ud-din Afghani’s thought-provoking perspective on the decline of the Islamic civilisation. Taking a stance that harboured optimism, he suggested that Muslims could draw inspiration from the rapid advancement of the Western world. Afghani’s call for self-change, based on the Quranic verse, “Verily, God does not change the state of the people until they change themselves inwardly,” resonates with a transformative theme that courses through the works of all the scholars examined by Purohit.

The scholars’ collective response to the decline of Muslim powers and the concomitant need to redefine Islam in the face of colonial dominance underscores a common thread. As the Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman Empires crumbled and European powers expanded their reach, these thinkers sought to synthesise Islamic teachings with European ideas of education, science, and civilisational progress. Their quest was not to adopt European secularism in total but to reshape Islam in harmony with their evolving worldviews, all the while remaining loyal to their faith.

Purohit’s astute analysis uncovers a notable undercurrent within these reform efforts: the presence of a Sunni majoritarian perspective. While these modernist scholars championed unity within the Muslim community, their vision often cast aside minority groups such as the Shia, Bahai, Ahmadi and Ismaili communities. This paradoxical perspective simultaneously advocated inclusivity while sowing exclusivity, as those who did not align with their definition of ‘authentic’ Islam were denounced.

This ‘Sunni normative bias’, as Purohit terms it, explicitly or implicitly continues to be an essential component of mainstream modernist thought on the basis of which ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ are identified.

A particularly intriguing aspect that Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslim Modernism underscores is the dual nature of these scholars’ attitudes towards minority communities.

On one hand, they borrowed from the beliefs of these groups to strengthen their arguments – for instance, Afghani describes his own qualifications as a potential leader by appropriating and reworking ideas of prophecy that originate from the Shia and Bahai groups whom he accused of heresy. On the other hand, they condemned the same minority groups as heretical. The juxtaposition of the scholars’ contradictory views underscores the complexities within their reform endeavours and also illuminates the biases embedded within their perspectives.

A case in point is the exploration of Iqbal’s worldview – his seemingly contradictory advocacy for Pakistan alongside his call for unity among Muslims. Purohit’s scrutiny sheds light on Iqbal’s nuanced vision and his attempt to reconcile the tensions between these two objectives. This facet of the book resonates with ongoing debates within Pakistan and beyond with regard to the delicate balance between national identity and religious unity.

The author then turns to examining the journey from Muslim modernism to Islamism, with a particular focus on Mawdudi. While the earlier modernists responded within the colonial context, the writings of Mawdudi emerged against the backdrop of India becoming a modern nation-state. His emphasis on establishing an Islamic state and his fervent writings against minority groups echo the fault-line in earlier modernist themes, albeit in a different context. This evolution offers valuable insights into the contemporary rise of Islamism and its dynamics.

In fact, one of the high points of the book is its exploration of the evolution of Mawdudi and Syed Qutb’s ideas which indirectly inspired groups like Al Qaeda. Purohit’s careful analysis reveals how Syed Qutb’s binary view – of believers and infidels – resonates in Al Qaeda’s extremist worldview. A worldview which seeks to bring Muslim communities under a new Islamic state, it has demonstrated the horrific consequences that can arise when ideological interpretations take a radical twist.

Teena Purohit. Photo: Boston University website

The book’s relevance extends far beyond academia. It provides invaluable insights into the modern-day challenges confronting Muslim societies across the world. From the divisions arising due to Sunni normative bias to the persistence of exclusionary interpretations of Sunni Islam, these issues continue to shape the discourse and dynamics within Muslim communities.

In a world grappling with the complexities of identity, diversity and political turmoil, Purohit’s work offers a poignant reflection on the intricate relationship between religious interpretation, cultural context and the path to progress. As Muslim communities across the world navigate these contemporary challenges, comprehending the historical perspectives illuminated in this book can serve as a guiding light toward potential solutions.

Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslim Modernism is a powerful reminder that the journey of reconciling tradition and modernity is ongoing, and that the lessons from history can illuminate the quest for a more inclusive and harmonious future.

Saleem Rashid Shah is a literary critic and independent writer based in New Delhi.