An anatomy of exceptionalism

An anatomy of exceptionalism

December 19, 2010 (5 days ago)

Reviewed By Brig A. R. Siddiqi

THE bedrock of Masood Ashraf Raja’s thesis in Constructing Pakistan is a critical study of Muslim ‘exceptionalism’ and ‘separateness’ leading eventually to ‘nationhood’ and partition. The author admits that the book does not offer the history of Muslim nationhood as a ‘unitary progressive narrative’, nor does it pretend to be a comprehensive chronicle of the Congress-led and Muslim League-seconded freedom movement leading to the end of the British Raj.

With regard to the end result — the partition of India — the freedom movement had less to celebrate and more to reflect on the disastrous consequences.

The term Muslim exceptionalism did not necessarily embrace the urge to create a separate homeland on the basis of a divided India. It was much like the natural urge of a Bengali to look, dress and speak like a Bengali and still coexist with a Pathan and Punjabi.

Pakistan, as a separate nation state was contrary to the ulema’s idea of a universal Islamic state without frontiers. They would legitimise statehood only in the name of Islam and hence the constant opposition of theologians and the ulema to the creation of Pakistan. That includes ulema on both ends of the spectrum — a religious reformer like Mawdudi, on the one end, and a nationalist Hussain Ahmed Madani on the other. Mawdudi was as much opposed to Pakistan as was Madani. Both had been bona fide Indian nationals and accepted their status as such.

In his book Composite Nationalism and Islam Madani argued that ‘Partition was the handiwork of the secular elite of the two communities and not of the religious leaders’.

What then was the driving force behind the making of Pakistan? What was the Quaid actually fighting for? A theocentric or a theocratic state?

The question that arises then is: was the driving force Muslim exceptionalism or the Hindu thrust for the re-conquest of India and its re-conversion into a sort of Bharatvarsha after centuries of foreign domination? It could be either. In fact, much more can be explained in metaphysical rather than in simple physical and political terms. There had never been any lack of ‘discourse or social communication between the two communities.’

Amir Khusro, Nizamuddin Auliya and the entire panoply of Muslim saints down to Delhi’s Khawja Hassan Nizami are considered a rare combination of the spiritual and the temporal. Hindus too had their own pantheon comprising Bhagat Sur Das, Tulsi Das, Meera Bai and of course Mahatma Gandhi intonating Ram and Rahim in the same breath.

The term Muslim exceptionalism in pre-partition usage was just another word for the All-India Muslim League’s demand for an independent Muslim state. The demand for Pakistan rose entirely from the prospect of a brute Hindu majority ruling over a Muslim minority and the ensuing inequalities and possible repression.

It is said also to have arisen from a sense of the loss of past glory that once belonged to the Muslims and the hope to revive it in an independent Muslim state. Muslim exceptionalism remained blissfully untainted by the rabid communalism of Bunkam, Chandra Chatterji, Swami Dayanad Saraswati, Swami Shadhanad down to Tilak, Dr Shayama Murkerjee and many others.

Masood Ashraf Raja has based his explanation of Muslim exceptionalism on ‘foundational’ literary texts of great Muslim writers and intellectuals of the 19th century. He mentions Mohammad Hussain Azad, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, Maulvi Nazir Ahmed, Shibli Naumani and Akbar Allahabadi, etc. as its pillars.

Prof Mushirul Hassan, in his classic A Moral Reckoning: Muslim intellectuals in 19th century Delhi simply overturns the argument by highlighting the patriotic sentiment underlying and galvanising the work of the various intellectuals. Even Sayyid Ahmed Khan, wrongly said to be the pioneer of the two-nation theory, had been a great Indian patriot.

Though apprehensive of the status of Muslim minority under Hindu majority in the post-Raj independent India, he remained dedicated to the idea of an undivided free-India. Prof Hassan goes on to quote, at length, from the works of Farhatullah Beg, Zakullah and Nazir Ahmed to demonstrate their love of the land even if in the specific context of the Delhi culture and literary writings.

How could a community of such devoted and creative Hindustanis such as Khusro, Ghalib and Bahadur Shah Zafar subscribe to the theory of Muslim exceptionalism, least of all separatism? Even Iqbal, the ideological father of Pakistan, composed the Tirana-i-Hindi and hymns in praise of Raja Bharatahari and called Lord Rama ‘Imam-ul-Hind’.

The Muslims of India accepted India as their homeland. They interacted with the Hindus to produce a rich Indo-Muslim culture, cuisine, architecture and Urdu as a rich literary medium. The scope and rationale for Muslim exceptionalism remains open to debate.

Constructing Pakistan
By Masood Ashraf Raja
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN 978-0-19-547811-2
156pp. Rs495

By M R

Originally from Pakistan, Dr. Masood Ashraf Raja is an Associate Professor of Postcolonial Literature and Theory and the editor of Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies.
Raja tweets @masoodraja

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