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Book Review | Ancient Religions, Modern Politics

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-05-2014 Sundeep Khanna

Even as Boko Haram ‘s dastardly kidnapping sends out howls of Islamic terror and radical Islam, Michael Cook’s Ancient Religions, Modern Politics presents a panoramic and nuanced comparative overview of political Islam with regard to identity , social values and culture over time. Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, the British historian already has a book on the life of Muhammad to his credit. In his latest, he details the evolution of the fastest-growing religion, centrifugal Islam to its Talibanic stage. Many though, would ask: is that a life cycle of a religion or stage one that has lasted too long without any splinter of modernity worming itself in.

Especially so when all over the world rightist conservative parties seem to coming into sway and in India Narendra Modi appears to be poised to pose a triumphalism to the so-called Hindu fundamentalists, an entity that Cook seems to suggest is a bit of an oxymoron. Interestingly, Cook quotes that in a 2006 study, over 87% of Pakistanis described themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis later while Indians defined themselves as Indians first and only 10% said they would like to call themselves Hindus first. That should assure the secularists that the Hindu identity is weak, diffuse. Like it has been historically where no Hindu king would help another against a foreign invasion because there simply was no sense of Hindu identity. The Hindu got made only after the invaders gave him that appellation and identity.

Historically, writes Cook, Islam did place a lot of emphasis on the khalifa and Muhammad himself was judge, jury and executioner. Islam has, like it or not, wanted to force its ideology on cultures as diverse as the African or Asian through propaganda or the sword. Jihad, jaziya and the Sharia are all Islamic concepts that have been forced upon non-Islamic cultures across the ages. Unlike say a Hindu, it is incumbent on a true Muslim to spread the word of Allah so that all unbelievers benefit from the true religion.

So does religion have a role in fostering radical Islam? Cook seems to suggest yes, a theocratic absolutist and proselytizing religion will throw up a higher propensity to have its say everywhere. Muslim solidarity does provide a clear alternative if not a complete triumphing of modern nationalism. Unlike the lack of improvization in Hinduism and its concomitant theatre—Cook offers up the Rath yatra of L.K.Advani as an example, Islam is austere, unbending and difficult to practice. Yet there is almost no apostasy.

A return to pristine Islam is more adaptive for this Abrahamic religion says Cook. Islam combines the pre-Islamic love of tribal warring with a belief in the supremacy of its religion as well as an unwavering adherence to medieval law. Even as Islamic thinkers such as Abul Ala Maududi condone using modern, naturally Western technology, they do not want Western or infidel values to darken the Islamic canon. Defiance and conservatism have however been seen as appropriate and easy responses to the perceived threat from western values among Islamists. Any acceptance of liberal values is seen as unfaithfulness to Islam with the locus of life choices being dictated by an off shore, exclusively male Arabic culture.

In contrast Hinduism has coolly and pragmatically disregarded much of its Dharmasastra and Manusmriti canon and transitioned to a far more secular civil law in part due to the exposure to a Macaulayan education. And, as sociologists have pointed out, the multiple identities of polytheist Hindus based on region, caste and even subcultures have contributed to a turbid Hinduness that is more geographical than bound by The Book or one Law. Brahminical, Upanishadic or Vedantic Hinduism is miles removed from Puranic medieval practices of the laity and Cook does the round from Mahadev Govind Ranade to Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar to Dayanand Saraswati and Veer Savarkar to prove that nothing and no one can unite the Hindus under an umbrella of coherent Oneness. The Holy Hindu Empire at the cost of other religions within India is a lost cause because of a fragmented Hindu identity. Be it law or society, Hindu heritage has far less to contribute to modern political ideology than Islam. The Catholic heritage in Latin America contributes even less.

But Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists have been at the receiving end of Islamic invasions for the last 1,000 years and many Muslims in India owe their lifestyles and allegiance to the Sharia and the local mullah than to preserving of participative social harmony. In fact the Hindu nationalists often create that missing sense of Hindu unity by rallying against the common enemy,

In comparison Christianity has had to adapt itself to social changes such as liberalism which itself was an Enlightenment value. And despite its Marxist leanings in some parts of Africa or Latin America it has really not played a huge role in politics.

What Cook calls cultural nationalism of the Hindu instead of fundamentalism has also an old lineage with Sankara establishing four mutts at four corners of what was called Bharatavarsha extending from Mount Meru to Kanya Kumari. In that sense Hindu is a geographical entity with no desire to proselytize or even entertain a concept of non-Hindu or mlecha engagement.

And now the million dollar question—will this radical fringe group fade away and be replaced by a peaceable Islam? Cook emphasises that the rise of Salafi Islamic fundamentalism might have been helped by oil money. So if oil money dwindles maybe then? A less likely scenario he paints is that of a new ideology sprouting to replace the Islam of today. Catholicism , equally rigid, took centuries to slough off its violent skin. So theoretically we should wait out a century and a half for Islam to transmute into a peaceable religion.

Sundeep Khanna is executive editor of Livemint.com

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