Critics of Hindutva don’t need “absolutist Islam” as Scapegoat

To criticize Hindutva without bringing an analogy to Islam or its over-emphasized proscribing structures is seemingly an anathema for liberal scholars. The trope of Talibanization is the most accessible metaphor for the optics of the emerging Hindutva. The location of Hindutva as an aberration of Hinduism always gives a scope to the restoration of an eternally peaceful and multivalent faith. In contrast, the portrayal of Islam as a steadfastly scriptural and monologic doctrine deprives it of its flexibilities in practice, multiplicities in interpretations and embedded nature of critique. 

A recent article by Prof Saikat Majumder in the Hindustan Times dated August 3, 2022, titled ‘Hindu Nationalism’s Censorship of the Gods’ unambiguously follows the script. While he rightly addresses the controversies over the representation of Goddess Kali through upholding the ‘plural, amorphous and expansive spirit’ of Hinduism, equivocally he ends up depicting Islam as an absolutist religion.

In reference to Eric Auerbach, he not only characterized the Hindu scriptures and religious writings as Homeric- precisely ‘sensory and digressive’; he also painted the Abrahamic scriptures as ‘tyrannical’ that ‘excludes all other claims’. Interestingly, this attribution to the regime of Abrahamic religions was not sufficient- it demanded specificity. So, he continued, ‘The Abrahamic religion that has the most rigorous dicta about representation is Islam’.

For him, the Hindus technically become Islamic if they ‘resent the playful representation of their deities’. He focused on how it is rightful for Muslims to oppose any alteration in representations given their steadfast doctrinal dictums while it is a misrepresentation of Hinduism to do so. In conclusion, he minced no words to term even the Hindu critic of ‘playful representation’ of the Goddess Kali as ‘good Muslims’! 

Significantly, his whole architecture of arguments is based on a few assumptions: firstly, Islam as a doctrine is absolutist, steadfast and hardly allows any space for ‘playful representation’; secondly, Islam doesn’t provide the space for critique given its monovalent nature; and thirdly, Islam is a scriptural institute that robs people of the everyday interpretation or the ‘muted laughter’ as Aileen Kelly calls it in his 1992 article ‘Revealing Bakhtin’.

My rejoinder here attempts to destabilize these normative assumptions and foregrounds how the Hindu liberals are complicit in creating a monolithic, absolutist image of Islam. 

Islam in every day: Finding a liminal space: 

Shail Mayaram in her 1997 essay titled ‘Rethinking Meo Identity: Cultural Faultline, Syncretism, Hybridity or Liminality?’ shows how the bivalent logic of understanding predominates the philosophical notions of western philosophy since the beginning. This logic searches for fault lines between Hindus and Muslims and undermines the space of everyday interactions and intermingling of cultures and traditions. In reference to Meo Muslims (an ethnic group of Muslims predominantly staying in North-Western India spanning from UP, through Haryana to Rajasthan), Mayaram identifies the liminal space where the binarity or dichotomy of religious divisions gives way to a third space that contests any robust religious determination. 

As per the oral traditions, the Meo Muslims trace their genealogy from the clans of Mahabharata- Pandavs and Kauravas. Their idea of kufir (non-believer) and a believer is pierced with the distinction between Kansa and Lord Krishna. Along with worshipping Allah, they follow different Pirs and regional gods as well. For example, the Rajasthani agricultural castes of both religions worship Lord Shiva.

Hardyal Munshi Singh in his 1990 works shows that they are worshippers of Sakta traditions. Their devotion to Lord Shiva commonly known as Mahadev could be traced from the comment of Mayaram- ‘Mahadev, in particular, is a benevolent god who along with his wife Gora is constantly concerned about the welfare of the Meos even to the ex-tent of supporting them against the “Hindu” castes’. 

The practice of regional traditions is not inconsistent with their believe in the monotheistic religion of Islam. They interpret the religion in their own ways to create a liminal space that was definitely denied to them by 19th-century British ethnographers. Punjab District Gazetteer depicts Meos as ‘very lax Muhammadans, sharing in most of the rites and customs of their Hindu neighbours, especially such as are pleasant to observe; their principle of action seems to have been to keep the feasts of both religions and the fasts of neither’. Denying the Islamic recognition to Meos, as may be contemplated by some transnational religious groups amounts to stepping into the colonial trope of classification and demarcation. 

Not only in the case of Meos, Richard Eaton (1994) while writing about the Bengali Muslims talked about how in the cultural frontier the existing cultures got mingled with devotional Islam to create a liminal space. In this way, Fatima in rural Bengal becomes ‘Jagat Janani’ co-existing with the other Gods. Historian Sanjay Subramaniam in his works even shows how the Muslims of Tamil Nadu specifically of Kayalpatnam and Killakarai not only imbibed Tamil culture, but rather considered Setupati Rajas as the protector of the believers.  

These references clearly show that absolutism is beyond the scope of Islam in everyday practices. Like any other religion, it interacts with the spatial and temporal traditions and rituals to create a liminal space beyond the Hindu-Muslin dichotomy. While talking about the absolutism of Islam and its dictum over representations, Professor Majumder could have been much more cautious about the way Islam is lived in everyday realities- beyond its doctrinal constraints and dictums. 

Assumption of Islam’s absolutism: Finding the sources 

The way Professor Majumdar perceived Islam echoes the perception of the western colonial masters. Irfan Ahmed in his book ‘Religion as Critique’ rightly argues, ‘The equation of Islam with the absence of critique has a longer genealogy in Western thoughts which runs almost concurrently with Europe’s colonial expansion.

It has been since the days of enlightenment, Islam has been pitted against the rational, modern, liberal values. While Martin Luther considered Islam as anti-Christ, in the later period it was conceived as the most stubborn and steadfast religion. William Muir referred to the Quran as ‘one of the most stubborn enemies of civilization, liberty…’.

The idea of Enlightenment rationalism was so founded in European thoughts that anything opposing it became fundamentalist the way Ernest Gellner conceived it. 

So, Karl Popper’s idea of ‘free debate’, ‘reason’, ‘protection of freedom’- the characteristics of modern secular society was only there for the enlightened Western block. All the progressive domains of multiplicities, multivalence and pluralities thus are in the reservoir of any religion but Islam. 

As Ahmed shows us in the Enlightenment framework, the critique was all about criticizing the religions other than Christianity as ‘following Margaret Atwood and almost the whole of Enlightenment thinking, Christianity (especially, Protestantism) is already rational, and critique is built into it’. Reading the works of different liberals and secularists, one may lead to think that ‘Islam is not presented as one among many religions; it symbolizes religion in its ultimate essence in a manner that Islam becomes the most religious religion of all’. There are hundreds of potential references to show how the space of critique had been denied to Islam. Professor Majumder certainly furthers this philosophical tradition where Islam is absolute and the progressive ideals are reserved for Hinduism hence questioning the multivalent representations of their Goddess makes them ‘Good Muslims’. 

Islam and its Playful Representations: 

Among the hundreds of everyday stories of mythical origin, I will like to bring focus to only one story of Mewati tradition, as explicated by Mayaram to show that playfulness of representation is not a unique domain of the Hindus. Referring to one Mewati poet Noor Mohammad, Mayaram tells us the story of ‘muted laughter’. Mohammad used to tell the story before his signing performances. The story goes- 

“The Muslims of Kol do not keep the roza The Bad- shah wants to instruct them to keep the roza fast. He summons them and tells them that roza is to come during the month and they must keep it. The villagers return. The entire village gets ready and waits for the appointed day. They wait all day long. “What is the matter roza has not arrived:’ they say. By evening they say, “Perhaps the king was lying, roza has not arrived? Dada Haija tells them, “The king will not lie. Go around and look in all four corners of the village. If it comes be sure not let it go. The Badshah has told you, remember, we must keep the roza. In the evening a camel and young boy arrive. The boys descend on the arriving party. The youth es- capes but they catch the old camel saying, “At last roza has come? Another man says, “The smaller one has escaped, but let us keep the bigger one for a month. After that we will take it to the king’s court? For a whole month they give fodder and grain to the camel who becomes healthy. A month later they pre- sent him to the king’s darbar. The king asks the villagers, “Have you kept the roza?” “Yes:’ the villagers of Kol respond, “We’ve fattened him well. The smaller one escaped. We couldn’t help it. But here he is? The darbar bursts into laughter”.

This is not only a simple story that refers to the identification of Mewati Muslims with their religion, rather it explicitly describes how the whole idea of religion and its rituals are perceived in a gleeful and playful manner, not in the way Majumder wants us to believe. 

The critique of Hindutva can be an independent affair and need not be contrasted with any Abrahamic religion. As Eviane Leidig in his recent paper ‘Hindutva as a Variant of Right-Wing Extremism’ has shown an independent enquiry into it would place it in continuum with a Western tradition of ethnic/nationalistic extremism that led to the World Wars.

To conclude, I would like to share a story from historian Mohammad Kunwar Ashraf’s coterie. Once his father scolded his maternal uncle for placing flowers in front of Mahadeva’s image. His uncle responded- “How do you know about the state after death? Has anyone ever returned after he has died?” So, he preferred to try all the methods as he never knew who would respond in the afterlife. This ambiguity has been an integral part of the traditions of Hindustan. Professor Majumder must have gone through these stories of liminal spaces ahead of pitting Islam’s absolutism against Hinduism’s multivalence.

Abhik Bhattacharya is a doctoral fellow at Ambedkar University Delhi.