Making a Muslim: Reading Publics and Contesting Identities in Nineteenth-Century North India offers a penetrating analysis of ‘the Muslim identity formation’ from a new and refreshing standpoint. Specifically, it contrasts how Muslims in India envisaged themselves with how the colonial British ‘made Muslims,’ and explores the rise of various Islamic movements in South Asia.
In a bold and insightful inquiry, S. Akbar Zaidi uses Urdu sources from the nineteenth century to de-emphasize the colonial archive and its particular narrative and instead proposes a fresh perspective on the history of community formation and the politics of separatism in colonial north India. Zaidi’s key argument questions the existence of a homogenous Muslim community in the 1860s and 1870s. The chief argument is that there was no self-aware Muslim community that defined itself as a separate, unified group. He challenges the existing literature which assumes that “there was a broad sense of collective identity or imagination amongst the Muslims of north India in this period” which ultimately set the stage for the politics of separatism, leading to the Partition of India in 1947 (210). Zaidi makes a compelling argument that in the wake of the loss of political power in 1856 Muslims experienced a sense of utter humiliation which worked as an agentive force, leading Muslims to define themselves in different ways. Notably, Muslims defined themselves differently from the way the British categorized them through census for administrative purposes. In the given context, the Urdu print medium as mass printing become a source of creating multiple Muslim identities under colonial modernity. These different categories were rigidly defined and each group claimed that “they were the only authentic Muslims, establishing hard, bifurcating lines that ensured others were kept beyond the pale of their Islam” (8).
Zaidi’s key argument questions the existence of a homogenous Muslim community in the 1860s and 1870s. The chief argument is that there was no self-aware Muslim community that defined itself as a separate, unified group.
The book consists four chapters with a focus on distinct yet interconnected themes. Trained as a political economist and historian, Zaidi combines compelling storytelling skills with the critical analyses of political science and sociology to focus on lesser-known writers, generally overlooked themes and complex historical processes, ultimately offering a nuanced perspective on the ‘making of Muslim’ in colonial north India.
At the outset, Zaidi makes the case that the modern scholarship on South Asia generally assumes a sense of “a self-conscious collectivity or identity amongst north Indian Muslims that did not, in practice, exist” (22). While contradicting such historical narratives, he argues that “there was no single entity united by religion, and markers of identity within Islam and amongst Muslims in the nineteenth century were sharp, numerous, conflictual and varied” (22). The dominant narrative assumes that though there were theological differences among Muslims, they ultimately belonged to “one community or qaum” (24-25). However, Zaidi makes a strong counter-case by highlighting the fact that Muslim writers did not define themselves simply as Muslims but rather as Sunni, Shi’a, Wahhabi, Deobandi, Barelvi, Nechri, Ahl-i-Hadis, Ahl-i Quran or Ahmadi. Zaidi further maintains that by using the works of certain appropriated voices, colonialism gave these speakers “legitimacy and hegemonic status as Muslim representatives” ( 19). He laments that even contemporary scholars “make similar choices giving authority and authenticity to the colonial narrative, by not questioning the choices made, and by failing to take note of alternative voices” ( 19).
In chapter 1, Zaidi argues that Muslims did not have an agreed-upon definition to determine who was a Muslim, and this lack of consensus prevents them from being identified as a unified community. Until the 1860s, Muslims in colonial north India used the term ahl-i Isläm (those who belong to Islam) for themselves and not Muslim nation/qaum. The British, however, used census and fixed categories to see “variation and difference amongst the Muslims” (77) for ‘control’ and administrative purposes. Notably, many Muslims did not want to use the name of the sect that the British decided to give them. For instance, the British used the term Wahhabi for people like Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed or anybody who was involved in armed resistance to colonial rule ( 45). However, amongst Muslims, the term Wahhabi was used against one another in a clearly flippant manner.
In chapter 2, Zaidi argues that scholars have used various terms like shock, traumatic shock, nostalgia, cultural trauma, and collective trauma to describe the state of Muslims after the Rebellion of May 1857 ( 81). He goes one step beyond this “sensibility of decay and despair” and uses the notion of zillat, complete and utter humiliation (83). Zaidi explains the nuances of this new concept, arguing that “zillat necessarily requires a recognition of how and who Muslims were at some point in the past” and this recognition “acts as a powerful agentive force” (p. 84). Different Muslim groups understood the causes of zillat differently. For example, for some groups it was the decline of Islam because of Muslims’ inability to hold their beliefs strictly; for others, it was a political decline after the fall of the mighty Mughal Empire. A third group considered zillat more in cultural terms, saying the adoption of the modern western lifestyle caused humiliation. Whatever the case, Zaidi argues that zillat led to the rise of several organizations and Islamic movements intended to bring Muslims out of this state of humiliation (110). Paradoxically, this process also caused “further division between groups of Muslims” ( 118). For example, most Muslims agreed that they needed education to counter zillat ka maqam (state of humiliation) but they disagreed on the nature of this education, resulting in a tensionbetween the supporters of dunyavi ulum (worldly disciplines) and din ta’lim (religious instruction).
Whatever the case, Zaidi argues that zillat led to the rise of several organizations and Islamic movements intended to bring Muslims out of this state of humiliation (110). Paradoxically, this process also caused “further division between groups of Muslims” ( 118).
In chapter 3, Zaidi points out that the printing press played an important role in north India. He argues that in north India, “print, along with other technologies of modernity, tore communities asunder rather than bringing them together” (124). The question of who was a Muslim was debated in print. Therefore, “Print fractured and fragmented, as much as it supposedly created” (125). Zaidi argues that many Muslims whose beliefs were challenged by others were provoked and left “with no option but to respond” ( 123). During the last half of the nineteenth century, there was an “explosion in the Urdu print world” which was the result of Muslim religious leaders, ulama, who had lost their political power and wanted to use this new technology to reclaim their former prestige ( 130). Zaidi reminds the reader that “the Urdu print public sphere was wide and diverse” ( 127) meaning “the impact and influence of print must have equally varied and diverse repercussions even amongst the small reading public” ( 135). Consequently, it helped create a shared religious identity among Muslims, but at the same time it was “simultaneously working against any unifying quality” (p. 135). Finally, in chapter 4, Zaidi highlights the significance of oral performance in creating new notions of sovereignty like ulama’s significant political role. He also reminds us that that “an over-emphasize on the print medium takes away much of the emotive or moralizing intonation–the performance, for affect–in what was being said, where and to whom” ( 171). Zaidi makes an interesting argument, saying that the oral exchanges which took place during the munazara, a public forum for debate frequently held in small towns and cities across north India, were disseminated to the wider Urdu-speaking Muslim public through the medium of print which he calls “orality in print” ( 206).
I have two reservations; stylistic and substantive. First, Zaidi does not follow a uniform style. For instance, the first chapter has a conclusion but the rest of the three do not follow this scheme. Second, while analyzing various Muslim writers and groups, Zaidi admits that “a glorious past was important to many, this was not the past of their immediate (Indian) history of the last three centuries, but rather the past of Arabia a thousand years ago” ( 118).
This is an ambitious project which means there are certain aspects of it where more work or clarity is required. I have two reservations; stylistic and substantive. First, Zaidi does not follow a uniform style. For instance, the first chapter has a conclusion but the rest of the three do not follow this scheme. Second, while analyzing various Muslim writers and groups, Zaidi admits that “a glorious past was important to many, this was not the past of their immediate (Indian) history of the last three centuries, but rather the past of Arabia a thousand years ago” ( 118). This contradicts Zaidi’s claim that there was no self-aware Muslim community in colonial north India. If the criterion to determine what a homogeneous community is ‘Western’—shared language and geography— north Indian Muslims may not look like a self-aware community. However, from an objective, and, perhaps, non-essentialist standpoint, despite having contradictory revivalist ideas, a shared sense of history among various Muslim groups in colonial north India clearly indicates the existence of a collectivity— or of a group which Ayesha Jalal describes as a “religiously bounded community.”
Farah Adeed is an incoming PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Boston University. He earned an MA in Political Science from San Diego State University. He studies nation-building processes and democratization in Asia. He occasionally writes for Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest and largest English newspaper, and Express Tribune, a partner publication of The New York Times.
*The author first presented this review at the Sixth Annual Graduate Students Book Review Colloquium on Islam and Middle Eastern Studies in 2021 organized by Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University and the Maydan.