Prof. Redding Responds to Reviews of A Secular Need


In this conclusion to our blog round-table book discussion, Prof. Jeffrey Redding writes a response to the reviews for A Secular Need: Islamic Law and State Governance in Contemporary India

Ed Note(In this conclusion to our blog round-table book discussion, Prof. Jeffrey Redding writes a response to the reviews for A Secular Need: Islamic Law and State Governance in Contemporary India. The introduction by Prof. Rohit De is here. which was followed by reviews from Arif. A JamalFarzana HaniffaShaunna Rodrigues and Shahrukh Alam – part 1 and 2)  

It is with great appreciation that I have read the recent reviews of A Secular Need: Islamic Law and State Governance in Contemporary India by a group of highly knowledgeable and esteemed readers. Many thanks to Arif Jamal, Farzana Haniffa, Shaunna Rodrigues, and Shahrukh Alam. It has been both pleasurable and educational for me hear from such generous interlocutors coming from locations as diverse as Singapore, Sri Lanka, the United States, and India. I also want to express my gratitude to Rohit De for organizing all of us into this online roundtable, and also to the editors of Law and Other Things for hosting and facilitating this excellent discussion.

There is so much to respond to in these thorough reviews, and I surely will not do justice to the complex readings given my work in this space alone. I very much hope that this conversation will extend over the years. Towards that goal, let me first start with a simple observation, namely that all of the reviews represent (to me at least) interlocking and overlapping areas of both appreciation and critique around my book. This gives me confidence that the book’s arguments are clearly expressed, and that the years of labor and care that went into researching and writing this book have resulted in something that is discernible and direct in its approach and argument—even where one disagrees with it! In short, we are all reading the same text and that is a huge relief to me, while also making a conversation easier here and in the future.

In what follows, I will focus on three areas of (often overlapping) critique raised by my readers. Overall, these reviews are warm and engaging and, of course, that makes this author very happy. However, for the purposes of advancing scholarship, discussion, and action alike, I believe it is important to forthrightly address the critiques also present in these reviews. Often enough, these critiques intersect with shortcomings in my work that I acknowledge, even if that acknowledgment takes the form of explaining the multiple issues and questions that were juggled in the course of researching and writing the book—perhaps unsatisfactorily but nonetheless hopefully understandably!

The three overlapping critiques that I readily discern in these reviews relate to 1) anxieties that the diversity of India’s Muslim communities—and, then too, Indian Muslim politics and institutions—have been unduly glossed over in my book, 2) worries that the secular/Islamic politics described and analyzed by my book are already ‘out of date’ due to the rapidly deteriorating political situation in India, and 3) questions about the applicability of my book’s diagnosis of ‘secular need’ for other South Asian contexts and, indeed, the world.

With regards the first critique, Arif Jamal poses the question “whether too much is made of ‘Islamicness’” in the book or, put another way, whether I “over Muslimise Indian Muslims.” Here, Jamal is concerned to note that many Muslims in India (and elsewhere) are otherwise ordinary folks interested in ordinary things like pop culture, sports, and fashion. In short, it’s not ‘all law, all the time’ for Indian Muslims, nor any number of other totalizing (and definitely ridiculous) stereotypes about Muslims. Shahrukh Alam raises a similar (yet also different) set of concerns when she suggests that my book has perhaps focused too much on ashraf (elite) interactions with and accounts of the problematic secular state, including the formation of ashraf institutions—in particular, dar ul qazas. Alam, like Jamal, is suggesting that there is important intra-Muslim diversity that is being overlooked by my book.

In many ways, this is an eminently fair critique and, without a doubt, this book is focused on a network of non-state Deobandi Hanafi Muslim dar ul qazas, and their interactions with the secular Indian state. To be sure, as well, dar ul qazas are just one instance of all sorts of non-state dispute resolution providers operating in Muslim communities, including not only community bodies belonging to various sect affiliations or mosques, but also religiously educated muftis individually giving fatwas, and then too lay folks running around and trying to help out a friend or family member with an interpersonal dispute. I try to explain this diversity not only in Chapter 1 (“Muslim and Mundane”), but then too elsewhere, including in Chapter 5 (“Illegitimacy and Indigeneity”) where I concertedly bring in political scientist Martin Shapiro’s detailed historical and theoretical work on the continuities existing between all sorts of formal and informal adjudicators operating in a society.

In this way, my book is (in part) an attempt to query why Muslim dispute resolution processes are constantly politicized, not seen as ‘ordinary’ (or ‘mundane’), and not allowed to quietly and methodically proceed with their usual work of providing assistance to Muslim women trying to exit unhappy marriages. The answer I provide to this query concerns underlying dynamics of need (material and ideological) that the secular state has for non-state dispute resolution providers—including but not limited to Muslim ones—and the antagonism (and amour) that this need generates. That being said, is this dynamic truly the same across all intersections between the secular state and all Muslims? Put more concretely, is the secular (Muslim) brother helping out a sister who is in a bad marriage seen and reacted to by the secular state in a manner comparable to the state’s interactions with a Deobandi dar ul qaza qazi?

Perhaps not.

But now perhaps yes too, especially in a hyper-politicized, paranoid, and majoritarian India where everything that a Muslim does is stereotyped as part of an agenda—as always-already exceptional rather than mundane. This brings me to the second issue identified by my readers, namely whether contemporary events have outraced this book’s analysis and, indeed, whether something researched and written over the past several years is already out-of-date in its year of publication. Towards this point, Shahrukh Alam describes the situation on the ground in India as having potentially “abruptly reconfigured itself in the past months.” Farzana Haniffa, in her review, wonders what my book “mean[s] for the future of Muslims” in India, suggesting as well that my analysis of the secular state in India might be “historically contingent” and perhaps not suited to the present crisis.

As I was finalizing the text of this book, the previously (nominally) autonomous state of Jammu & Kashmir was singled out for bifurcation and absorption into the Union of India (fitting larger patterns of the secular state’s otherizing hate and absorptive love diagnosed by the book). And then as the book was being printed, protests against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the national Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were escalating, and the possibility that the NRC and CAA could be used together to strip the citizenship of tens of millions of Indian Muslims—rendering them stateless—seemed a distinct likelihood and state goal. Confirming this state intention, an anti-Muslim pogrom was orchestrated in the capital city of Delhi as the Islamophobic U.S. President was on an official visit.

Without a doubt then, ‘violent violence’ (as I term it in the Introduction) is again in the air, and an anti-Muslim genocide seems distinctly more and more probable. One awful challenge then in finishing this book, and especially the text of its concluding chapter, was to trust that history repeats itself without being naïve about humanity and its murderous depravities. To mediate these tensions, the conclusion of the book chooses to focus on history’s repetitions—asking the reader to not exceptionalize every moment and cautioning us to not see every crisis as inevitably the worst one—while readily acknowledging that people are being currently forced to witness (or experience) mass hardship and death.

I hope that my comments here are not taken to suggest that a turn to history is a balm. As more than one commentator has observed, India is in a moment where many of the traumas of Partition are being replicated. For example, mass migration has featured prominently recently, albeit in relation to a pandemic (that has been communalized by majoritarian actors). Further, one of the peculiarities of the CAA was the Statement of Objects and Reasons accompanying the bill leading to this act. This statement observed, in part, that “[i]t is a historical fact that trans-border migration of population has been happening continuously between the territories of India and the areas presently comprised in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Millions of citizens of undivided India belonging to various faiths were staying in the said areas of Pakistan and Bangladesh when India was partitioned in 1947.”

It is noteworthy that this 2019 act reaches back to 1947’s Partition for its justification. Perhaps this should not be surprising, however; Shaunna Rodrigues’ review itself situates the contemporary crises over dar ul qazas in the context of a ‘long Khilafat.’ Building upon conversations with my former colleagues in Melbourne, Michelle Foster and Adil Hasan Khan, I am also led to believe that the inclusion of Afghanistan in the CAA’s legislative geography is part and parcel of Hindu nationalists’ longtime imagination of—and failure to achieve—“Akhand Bharat.” In short, while the political situation in India is incredibly worrisome, in many ways it is repeating (or trying to repeat) history. Both the CAA and the Kashmir crisis are evidence of this. Unfortunately, that might mean more repetition of the radical otherizing and absorption of Muslims in India’s political space, as post-post-Partition India grapples with its failures. History both teaches and warns us here about the anger accompanying failure.

The reliving and relitigation of Partition brings us to the third critique, namely the question of how far this book’s lessons extend beyond India and, moreover, the ‘India in existential conflict with Pakistan’ space. Farzana Haniffa finds some similarities between Sri Lanka’s and India’s recent epidemics of anti-Muslim bigotry, but also suggests that the ability of my book’s analysis and arguments to speak to Sri Lanka’s particular history of religious and gender politics largely stop there. For Haniffa, Sri Lanka’s relationship with Muslims is inflected by Sinhalese Buddhist politics which has been so majoritarian that it has even achieved the enshrinement of a “foremost place” for Buddhism in Sri Lanka’s governance, thereby “successfully la[ying] to rest any claim to a constitutional commitment to secularism” such as in India.

While I cannot speak to the situation in Sri Lanka per se, my book does begin with worries that discussions concerning secularism’s relationship with Muslims and other Islamic legal actors have largely been overdetermined by contexts—Middle Eastern, Western European, and North American—where precise (and powerful) political situations have allowed a historically contingent view of secular-Islamic relations (or lack thereof) to gain traction and durability. To be sure, this may seem to be a large chunk of the world that my book is asking us to move beyond (for a moment) in order that we can consider what theory built out of the experiences of Africa, Asia, South America, and Australasia might look like. Without a doubt, these latter contexts too have their own historical and political peculiarities. And this could lead us to the conclusion that historical contingency is dominant everywhere. However, my personal preference is to acknowledge this contingency while also leaving some room for (critical) theorizing that, amongst other projects, can question our inherited wisdom on ‘regime type’ and how we identify this.

For example, I am not entirely sure that the provisions of the Sri Lankan constitution which give Buddhism pride of place in Sri Lanka actually foreclose the possibility of Sri Lanka being ‘like’ a secular state. This is because—and here is something that my book could have perhaps better emphasized—it is not at all clear what makes a secular state secular? Is it merely a constitutional declaration of such? Perhaps not. But there are also many reasons to assent to this method of identifying regime type, if only because it (and India) confirms that officially ‘secular’ states are just as hateful, loving, and needy as other kinds of states.

On this note, in her review, Shaunna Rodrigues asked for more engagement with the “rich, widely accessible, and deeply relevant world of theorizing on shari’a or what is Islam itself.” Taking up this invitation, albeit perhaps belatedly, it is worth remembering Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani’s early 20th century theorizing on muttahida qaumiyat (composite nationalism). Wrote Madani:

We must now consider whether Islam . . . allows, on the basis of shared residence, race, color, and language, a shared nationalism with non-Muslims. . . .

. . . To the extent that I can understand its laws, [Islam] can live together with non-Muslims in the same country; it can be at peace with them; it can enter into treaties with them. . . . [Muslims] can interact with [non-Muslims], participate in matters of joy and grief, and dine with them.

By way of contrast with Madani’s capacious Islam, we must wonder whether joy, grief, and khana can be shared across religious lines in contemporary secular India. History repeats, frustrates, and indulges in awful ironies.

Thank you again to my generous readers.

Written by
Jeff Redding
Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.