On Reading the Indian ‘Muslim’ Mind: An Incomplete Conversation

Neshat Quaiser

Following is the text of a conversation contained in a total of twelve letters exchanged electronically in January- February 2005 between Neshat Quaiser, Ahmad and Satish Saberwal. Out of twelve letters – seven by Quaiser, two by Ahmad and three are by Saberwal. The text ultimately turns out to be Quaiser’s response in major part to some of the issues raised by Ahmad and Saberwal. Ahmad’s e-mail spellings have been changed to normal and his full name is not given for his unwillingness. Certain explanations have been added in Quaiser’s responses.

Neshat Quaiser (to Ahmad)

I am glad you got the book. Bi Amma’s incident I just shared with you, something that I recently encountered, was a horrible experience telling what kind of scholarship is this that somebody is pursuing a PhD on Indian Muslim nationalism after completing an M. Phil on the related area from JNU, and has not even heard of Bi Amma’s name.


1. …I do not understand why Khalidi is so concerned with ‘collapse’ of Hyderabad’s glory…
2. By the way, as I am reading more of Moududi, my boredom is only growing. By now, I am sick of him and his scholastic nonsense.

Neshat Quaiser (to Ahmad)

1. Khalidi’s concern with the collapse of what once Hyderabad was is very significant with far reaching implications. You in fact responded to your own question when you said “my region has no glory and whatever it has it should, I desire, collapse sooner the better” (this has other dimensions but I would not go into them now). Let me respond to the main question. I begin with a statement oft-repeated in different forms, that his concern signifies a mindset, which plagues many, who write or speak on the Muslim question or the status of Muslims. But this thinking however emanates from a particular location in history – the Muslim high caste elite location. By Muslim, to these writers, is meant – for several centuries – Islamic and a ten to fifteen percent of the total Muslim population at any given point of time representing the ‘high culture’ and being the sole repository of Islamic glory. It is in fact a constant lamentation for the loss of our glorious pastthat pervades the minds and writings of these writers and is projected as the universal Muslim truth. This loss is viewed not as natural – caused by certain processes of historical nature – but something that has beenforced upon usThey – the British and Hindus – have usurped our power. We Muslims were the rulers till the other day, we were the Malik; now see, what status we have been reduced to. [It is important to note that here they and us are not in the sense in which Said employed them and which is so widely used or misused nowadays].

In the year 1973, I had presented a short essay in a conference on Urdu fiction organised by Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna on Quratula’in Hyder’s novel Aag Ka Darya (published in1978 in a renowned Urdu literary journal Asari Adab and because of disagreement the editor did not publish certain portions of the article without my knowledge). I had written that contrary to the established view, the author would have written this novel any way even if the Partition had not taken place. I was talking about the thoroughly relished location of her social self that produced her writings. She did not consider this location as unearnedinheritance but as her preordained location. So, the location was given to her to preserve it. That location was not inhabited only by the Partition. The Partition was just a link but not the first or the last link as is generally viewed. I wrote that the gradual but steady loss of her location that she experienced, which could not be saved even by the Giver, made her write this novel. Her loss was like that of Solzhenitsyn’s part loss. But Solzhenitsyn’s part is Quratula’in’s whole.

You see how location represents a powerful idea. And you know how ideas are capable of constituting battlegrounds.

Needles to say these Muslim authors’ concern emanates from the same location. Such a mindset if reflected in academic writings would inevitably take the form of, what I wrote elsewhere, a serious theoretical astigmatism.

Religious location, communalism and these Muslims: Now let us see how this concern or mindset of these Muslims with location gets reflected in other forms. Let us take the example of a vociferous opposition to communalism and communal riot by these Muslims or these authors on the Muslim question. As a popular Urdu poet – with the claims over the location or belonging to the location – against the backdrop of Gujarat, Hindutva and communally charged atmosphere, said: Rajdhani dithi ham ne, Rajdhani chahiye. Do you see how the location is asserting? That is – we gave you or you usurped our Rajdhani – Darussaltanat, the Darul Khilafa Dehli symbol of the Mughal empire, the Muslim seat of power- in 1858 and thereafter – that is also after 1947. That is – we had given you the Capital, our seat of power; we want it back, nothing less than that. This could also be a bargaining point as well reminding that this seat of power was our and how dare you treat us in the manner we are being treated – you scum, you were our subject – you must keep this in mind; and remember this is being said on the strength of all Muslims, eighty five percent of whom were not part of that Muslim rule. Curiously, Hindus have replaced the British without any problem – but there is a history behind this replacement though. You see how the immediate is transported to the past. So it is the battleground of the past where the battle must be fought out. First settle the old issue; you guys took our land in the wake of 1793, in active collusion with the white invaders; you colluded with them as you considered us aliens/enemy and preferred the British over us following the dictum – an enemy’s enemy is our friend. And then you colluded with the white men for the final collapse of even the notional but nevertheless accepted seat of power with a significant symbolic importance to the extent of rallying round the forces against the Company Bahadur. It is a different matter that the process of the ever shrinking power of the Mughal emperor/empire began much earlier – since 1712, if this is the cut off point – and aggravated by the early nineteenth century. A  popular Persian saying captured this process: Badshah Shah Alam, Az Dehli Ta Palam. But this was a very thorny reality for these Muslims with a pre-ordained location. You need an enemy to survive, is the dictum.

Now, are these Muslims really concerned with communal riots? Hasn’t the aggressive Hindutva communalism provided them with an opportunity to make their presence felt more prominently and make assertions to recover some of the lost location in whatever forms possible?

Religion and communalism have emerged as the umbrella locations reproducing and strengthening caste, class divisions and prejudices. Religion has become an equaliser. Earlier some of us for a long time had a very neatly drawn position on communalism. We believed that communalism is a tool in the hands of the ruling classes in order to make the oppressed and exploited classes fight each other in the name of religion, in order to divert their attention from basic economic and political issues, and once socialism is established communalism would also disappear like other feudal-capitalist super-structural aspects. This is what we as student and cultural activists believed in, which definitely had a grain of truth. This deferring however could enable us neither to grasp the phenomenon of communalism nor to combat it.

In the given situation, religion however has emerged as an equaliser in the sense that across the Muslim/Islamic religious spectrum the Hindutva forces targeted everybody. Everybody, with or without thelocation, is treated equally as Muslim/Islamic. Now the ascriptive religious status is the umbrella location, as Indian nationalism was during the colonial period. As a result, even the well to do Muslims with or without location are targeted during the communal violence. In such a situation how to view these Muslims?

We find that in the process, even communalism has helped push under the carpet the locations of the location-less people.

This situation has produced two things:

Firstly, the location of religion has assumed the role of a battleground for assertion of the religious identity for more power where the conflicting religions are engaged in fighting their battle. And this in turn is made out to be a battle of survival concealing internal differentiations of all types within the warring religious groupings and marks the danger of social solidarities taking place on lines that would reinforce the existing modes of domination. Muslims with location have got new strengths – all Muslims – for whom they now speak afresh (about thirty years ago it was popularly believed that, contrary to the census figures, about fifteen to twenty crores Muslim lived in India, arguing that the communal state functionaries including the enumerators, who were controlled by the communal forces at the grassroots levels, did not record the number of Indian Muslims correctly including the number of Urdu speaking people; and that there is a basis for such thinking is corroborated by my personal experience too). Like the textual religion, communalism has created a new homogenous community of Muslims that does not otherwise exist in reality, but on the surface, this image has been successfully reproduced. Those who speak for the Muslims do so from a vantage position of thelocation. The voice of the location-less people has been hijacked and re-presented to benefit others.

Secondly, what is disturbing is the location-less speaking the language of their Muslim detractors. There are others who do not belong to the location yet they speak from the vantage position of that location, which in turn further strengthen the cause of the Muslim caste/class elite. This has created an incorporated location, a lure for homogeneity. Is it a case of victims internalising the categories of their own oppressor? Or, is it a tactical move on the part of the location-less people?

2. What you wrote of Moududi may be just a momentary reaction. But, what about Moududi? Was he also speaking on behalf of the Muslims and in the same way as these Muslim authors, whom we referred to? Moududi in fact spoke for (universal) Islamism. That is: 1. Islam contained in the Quran; 2. Islam presented, re-presented and represented in Hadeeses, Tafseers, and Shariahs. On the other hand, you have: a) Islam as presented, re-presented and represented in everyday life situations by regular and irregular armies of Moulvis, Mullas, Pesh Imams, Safeers, Khateebs, Alims, Fazils, Peers, Faqeers, Mureeds et cetera; and b) Islam as practiced with conformity or non-conformity. Moududi armed with 1 and 2 grappled with (a) and (b) in addition to Eesais, Yehudis, Hindus, Kafirs, Mushriks, and Mulhids (not sure of Munafiqs). His Islam was universal in case of (1) and dispersed universal in case of (2).

But as we know he did influence a whole lot of people and changed or attempted to change the course of social and political action including policymaking. Importantly, Moududi was not confined only to the domain of religion or the government’s religious policies but was intervening in all other domains too. To elaborate I give two examples (paraphrased for economy) from my Ph.D. dissertation (1991):

1). By 1970 peasant activities had compelled even the Jamaet e Islami to include the demands such as ceiling of lands, exemption of revenue in case of small peasant proprietors, in its election manifesto, which in essence went against Moududi’s Islamic views on land question and zamindari.

2). The struggle between the Islamists and secularists continues in one or the other form even today. Since the inception of Pakistan the Jamaet-e-Islami and its ideologue Maulana Maudoodi have been vigorously campaigning for the establishment of an Islamic state in Pakistan. Ayub Khan, who came to power in 1958, had said: “the essential conflict was between the Ulama and the educated classes… They, i.e. the Ulama, had gradually built for themselves a strong political position opposed to that of the Western educated groups in the society”.

Ayub debunked the demand for an Islamic constitution. I am not treating here Ayub as enemy’s-enemy-is-friend, for Ayub himself represented dominant classes. It is interesting to note that Moududi had constantly been at loggerheads with the Governments of Pakistan – served prison terms and was even awarded sentence to death for writing against Qadianis, which was later commuted to life imprisonment. This goes against the popular image and representation of Pakistani ruling governments’ as always being an upholder and promoter of Islamic fundamentalism. Interestingly, Moududi began his theological-political career with Jamiat-ul Ulama-e Hind of Hussain Ahmad Madani.

I must confess, never before in my life I wrote such a long letter in one go.
Ahmad (to Neshat Quaiser)

Thanks for your detailed response. I liked it very much in that it also echoes my own voice. Your analytical crux, if I can synoptically condense it, is the primacy of class politics. If I remember my past conversation with you correctly, your story of Muslim politics in modern India begins with the Permanent Settlement Act that permanently unsettled the landed gentry from whose raw womb or glory thereof follows, in the ultimate analysis as it were, even the current predicament of reactionary politics.

This analysis, I firmly believe, could be a necessary good beginning but not a sufficient comprehension or the final conceptual salvo. Allow me to accuse you of ‘secular Marxist orthodoxy’ (and I hope you would bear with my frankness even though it may not be well placed)! This analysis is insufficient on two counts:

Following the Marxist explanation, we as scholars [sic] would be left with nothing but to simply fill up futuristic scholarly vacuums Marx had already predicted in his grand story [Braudel’s point]. It is a drama already scripted and we would be no more than puppets whose strings would be controlled by the master positions of class behind the stage [very similar to the monotheistic cosmological dramas indeed].

From this follows the locational argument you have made throughout. Again, the argument of location is necessary but never, I say never, a sufficient, explanation. The proletariat, or subaltern if you like, does not, even in Marx’s own explanation, destroys everything belonging to the bourgeoisie. It builds on the latter’s heritage. I admire many things that the feudal/bourgeoisie classes have given, AMU [Aligarh Muslim University] (not as it exists in practice, though), Taj Mahal, liberty, scientific prose, novel, Urdu Ghazal, English, railways, OUP, and yes, email [CIA’s invention]. And why not, above all, the notion and space for subjectivity. Sahir was off the mark when he attacked Shakil on the Taj Mahal. Granted that every genuine lover could not afford to build a Taj, does it in any case, diminish Shahjahan’s progressive role in making beauty, love [and its corporeality, as against the mystical] an object of celebration?

An example of this folly is also in Aijaz Ahmed’s [In Theory]. Location does not determine everything. From the same US academia, there emerge people like, say Iqbal Ahmad, Chomsky as well as Fukuyama and Huntington. Me and my brother not only share class locations but, ironically, also parents. Yet, against Marx’s foretold drama, we do not think alike [forgive me for this personal ex]. The Persian poetry expresses it far better than I can do:

ma wa majnu ham sabaq boodem dar diwan-e-ishq
oo ba sehra  raft  wo  ma dar koocha  ruswa shudam

That said, yes, I agree with you that Khalidi’s urge is that of, to quote clever Marx, a descending class, and perhaps of the people of North Bihar from that descending class. The latter did not have any Nizams to be nostalgic about. Khalidi has plenty of it.

I too probably did not write such a long email. And yes, if my frankness is uncivil, please let me know. I guess I am probably taking an undue benefit of your frankness to me.
Neshat Quaiser (to Ahmad)

Thanks for the response. Burden of your argument about ‘location’ pertains to my parenthetic entry – inclusive one – in the following sentence in my letter: You in fact responded to your own question when you said “my region has no glory and whatever it has it should, I desire, collapse sooner the better”. This has other dimensions – you are contradicting yourself – if you can admire “many things that the feudal/bourgeoisie classes have given” then why should you not admire the objects of glory in your region, why should they collapse? Obviously, I did not go into this aspect but just hinted towards it in the end of the section 1: “Or, is it a tactical move on the part of location-less people?”

However, the question of location has much deeper meanings including the problematic of what I called elsewhere, locational determinism. Yes, location does not determine everything but if it is privileged as a natural (like biological) site to validate one’s existence then there is problem.

I should like to respond to your point about Marx, but later, as I am busy in finishing an essay on the post-colonial law. But briefly – Braudel produced a new idiom for historiography, which was not necessarily antithetical for the Marxists, and culture was never outside Marx’s philosophical domain. You seem to have a very simplistic understanding of Marx. Marx can’t be dismissed in such a simplistic and sloppy manner.  There are people who have been under the terror of the global academic power structure of the current reigning ideology. However, certain quite mechanistic presentation of Marx by certain official orthodoxies has certainly vulgarised Marx. A creative Marxism is entirely different from that of a mechanical and rigid system of explanatory propositions, which is not informed but lapses into reductionism and epistemological absolutism. Kosambi was right when he said, “Marxism is not a substitute for thinking, but a tool of analysis.” There is a need to recover Marx from the mire.

The Persian couplet that you quoted is not correctly written. Moreover, it does not denote dichotomy or binary opposition but dynamics of the two domains – and the question of location has something to do with this – location not only and necessarily in terms of simple space and time but also and more importantly here in terms of location of a particular state of mind. The couplet, if I am not wrong, should read as:

ma wa majnu ham sabaq boodeem dar diwan-e ishq
oo ba sahra raft,  man dar kuchaha ruswa shudam

Neshat Quaiser (to Ahmad)

This is in continuation of my letter 2. The Marx question and the question of ‘secular Marxist orthodoxy’, I would not address directly at the moment. However, what follows is something related. You wrote:

“I admire many things that the feudal/bourgeoisie classes have given, AMU (not as it exists in practice, though], Taj Mahal, liberty, scientific prose, novel, Urdu Ghazal, English, railways, OUP, and yes, email [CIA’s invention]. And why not, above all, notion and space for subjectivity”.

Let us first arrange your objects of admiration in separate categories:
1. AMU, English, railway, liberty, scientific prose, OUP, novel and ‘above all notion and space for subjectivity’,
2. Taj Mahal,
3. Urdu,
4. Ghazal,and
5. E-mail

You clubbed everything together – AMU, Taj Mahal, liberty, and curiously ‘notion and space for subjectivity’ – with an accent on bourgeois, European, colonial contribution without going into their different historical origins and experiences.

Your argument flows from the same ‘grand story’ that you denounce or much debated grand narratives – modernism, Marxism, fascism etc., all put together. The tension is palpable. Your admiration is all right, but how we look at AMU, English, railway, liberty, scientific etc. is the question. The admiration either for the objects of pure utility or the aesthetic are socially/historically constituted as well.

Let us see few things that this ‘admiration’ can do:

For example, I know you can add more objects of admiration in the categories 2, 3, and 4 but importantly at the time of writing the mail only three objects came to your mind while nine objects came to your mind in the category 1, including “e-mail” which I put in a separate category. I arranged them into categories, though you mentioned them casually or arbitrarily or unmindfully as they came to your mind. We should be able to see a principle of preferential ordering even in this casual listing of the objects of admiration in an e-mail.

Secondly, admirably/uncritically accepting bourgeois/colonial ‘contributions’ strengthen the theory that

“Some institutions of European origin … the sovereign national state, for example… Formally representative political institutions… economic systems…  European ideologies, such as Marxist communism or Christianity are… Europe’s exports to the world… we have examples of the process by which European gradually became World civilisation”. (General Editor’s Preface to The Short Oxford History of the Modern World).

You talked of liberty, scientific etc in a quite Eurocentric manner – and in the manner of loyal Mohammedans of Taj-e Bartania always going gaga over Barakat-e Sarkar-e Inglishia. Your uncritical admiration perhaps is the result of the terror created by the West in posing a rather very difficult situation for a comfortablelocation within the western academia, and one is forced to submit to this terror if one has to get her/his existence validated and get the seal of approval. These categories, that you mentioned, acquired westerndimensions during the colonial period; however, it is high time that one should also think in terms of the non-‘modern’/western sources of these categories.

In addition, you seem to be subscribing a widely prevalent view that ‘colonialism itself was a cultural project’ and empire was all about ‘cultural interactions’, for interaction between the coloniser and the colonised was  ‘dialogic’ in character.

Now let us probe the act of admiring the Taj Mahal. It is absolutely human and humane to admire the aesthetics of the Taj. The aesthetic could be both universal and particular or the two can produce a merger as well (but aesthetics could be quite grotesque as well – though here I am not talking about the aesthetics of the grotesque). It goes in the name of Shahjahan alone, for it is he who ordered its construction, opened the mouth of imperial treasury amassed from the people. What role he played in its conception is not precisely known. Architects, craftsmen and labourers produced it but did not have the luxury of ordering its construction. You too like a normal school child, have been fed with the ideology of imperial historiography and seem to be subscribing to the tendency of the imperial historians of attributing everything to the emperors, thus forcibly appropriating all the credits, say of building the Taj. So, when a school child is asked: who built the Taj Mahal? The expected answer is: Shahjahan. So, your reference to Sahir Ludhianvi and Shakil Badayuni is quite naïve and trivialises the whole complex question of aesthetics. But there are other much more serious problems – the problem is when it is claimed – it is ours, our Badshahi zamana, we ruled, which in fact produce inverted subjects – this is what I was telling earlier. It all creates awe, falsely implicates even the low caste disenfranchised people in something that is not committed by them – gives a false sense of belonging to a site where one was never located. I would characterise this whole thing as a middle class derivative feudalism and a Muslim middle class Mughal obsession, treating the Mughal rule as ours (as the Muslim rule), so the Taj is admired for it is ours, we gave, we made, others have not made any thing as magnificent as the Taj, so because of us India is known. Hence, it is not admired for its aesthetic value and as commonly shared human experience but for political reasons by high caste middle and upper middle class Muslims who located themselves in a rather comfortable location of the past glory after 1756 with arestorational agenda. That is why the aesthetic become grotesque.

Then you strangely said ‘above all notion and space for subjectivity’, you are saying that these are given by the West to the ignorant Indian – they are western contributions to the world. It is bizarre, pathetic and horrifying to know that you have such ideas. What did you mean by subjectivity? Is it in the sense of imposition of normative structures of the society on individual’s freedom? If so, the West’s record has not been very bright till very recently in this regard and you think in the West there is a complete space for subjectivity totally free from the state and societal normative structure even now – you are highly mistaken and being naive to put it very mildly. Multiple notions of and spaces for subjectivity existed in all societies – even in the west there has never been one notion of subjectivity – within the western philosophical tradition, the question of subjectivity has been dealt with differently. Much of today’s western notion space of subjectivity and individual freedom is the product of the ideology of capitalism and utilitarian rationality.

You also talked of the “e-mail” and its being an invention of CIA – the satire can’t be missed. What you actually are saying is that the Marxist, secularist and Muslim mindset views everything western from the conspiracy theory angle – this is a serious issue and I put it separately as it forms part of a different category from that of the colonial contribution – Barakat-e Sarkar-e Inglishia. Better I don’t say anything on this – perhaps it does not deserve any attention at this level. On Urdu and Ghazal I would respond some other time.

Now a few words on what you termed as my ‘analytical crux’ – the primacy of class politics and ‘secular Marxist orthodoxy’. This has something to do with the question of essentialism. Let us first see the Muslim field.

There are broadly two areas around which the Muslim question in India is debated:

1. The Global western-Christian-American-Zionist and Communal-Hindutva attack on Islam/Muslims (exogenous factors – in this case Communal-Hindutva also becomes exogenous);
2. The above is entangled with specific Indian trappings, like castes among Muslims, reinforcing ascriptive social and economic hierarchies (endogenous factors).

But it is the first – the exogenous factor that dominates the debate for it is safe and does not disturb the existing internal differentiations.

However, the debate on caste social hierarchies among the Muslims is of late struggling to occupy a conspicuous place. It is important to note that with the unleashing of the process of Mandalisation, the Muslim society too is in turmoil. In the beginning, the high caste Muslims dominated the scene demanding reservation in jobs for Muslims in general. But the movement for and of Muslim OBC and Dalits has of late gained momentum with some results. They argue that as a result of reservation for Muslims in general, according to their percentage of population, it is the high caste Muslims who stand to benefit. And it is this view that seems to have triumphed at the moment. This has created both confusion and clarity. Despite clarity on the part of the votaries of reservation for Muslim OBC and Dalits there is a deep sense of dilemma on the question of the dicey relationship between the text (Koran/Islam) and the context (lived social practices and relationships). Whatever the situation, one thing is clear that mobilisation on caste lines in fact is further reinforcing caste hierarchies instead of striking at the caste system within the Muslims. This, despite its emancipatory promises, seems to be the common dilemma with the policy of protective discrimination particularly among the Muslims where the caste system does not have clear-cut religious sanctions. So, should the ‘tactical essentialism’ or ‘strategic essentialism’ be the organising principles, as it has been argued in case of the black movement?
Satish Saberwal (to Neshat Quaiser)

Dear Neshat, many thanks. When I complied with Mushir’s suggestion that I be associated with ATWS, I had hoped that I’d get to overhear some of the conversations – like the one in your letter. In point of fact, over the last three years, this is the first occasion this has happened!   So I’m very grateful to you.

I think your letter is one more illustration of your high courage. (I recall your saying in an intervention, I think, in the Dec. 2002 seminar that you are not a Muslim!  This kind of independence must put you to considerable social pressure, so I hold your stance in high respect.)

What you say about the Muslim articulation being largely an elite formulation is fair enough. I’ll have to check the following out on detail but, going by memory, Ralph Russell writes somewhere that he wishes to say something that no one is willing to say:   that a large part of Muslims’ difficulties in India has arisen from the belief of UP Muslim elite that they have a historic right to rule the country – and their anger at being denied it.

Personally I feel the need to get away from the contemporary and to understand the long term context. Right now I’m half way through Marshall Hodgson’s Venture of Islam (3 volumes) – I’m into the second volume. I think there is not much gain in blaming UP elite or anybody else. They too have been creatures of their own past – which they did not understand properly, for lack of a sociologically sensitive perspective on history.

You say that “religion …has emerged as an equaliser” – my formulation rather is that the sense of threat, and the experience of violence, are powerful cements for the social entities at stake, fostering the corresponding identities. This would be a gut reaction; we don’t have to find special motives to explain it. In the social sciences in India, we have ignored the consequences of violence completely.    This is connected with our neglect of social psychology as a form of social enquiry.

What you say on Moududi is very interesting but I do not know enough about him to respond at all.

Have I given you copies of my “Integration and separation” and “Anxieties, identities…” texts? I continue to think of, and write a bit on, these themes – one day I’ll do a book!    If you find the time to read any of this, perhaps we can meet and discuss my approach.
Neshat Quaiser (to Satish Saberwal)

Dear Sir, Thanks. This is in response to your letter. I would agree with Ralph Russell (not completely though).

Yes, I did say that I am not a Muslim – not a practising Muslim (I do not remember the exact context though, but yes, it does put me under considerable pressure to say publicly things such as ‘I did not ask to be born, or that I am not a practicing Muslim or that the Quranic verses were intensely researched over a period before the final compilation into the written form and that Hadis have generated multiple traditions of interpretation of the Islamic thought, which is good in a sense, and several other similar things’). What I meant was that I am not a practising Muslim but a strong cultural Muslim. I cannot say that I am completely divested of my Muslim upbringing and by choice retain certain aspects of the ‘culture’ which is considered to be Muslim. My metaphors mostly are of Semitic/Islamic/Muslim/Indo-Islamic origin and it is there that I am at home – that seems to be my natural habitat. What does this mean? Does it render me non-Indian or anti-Indian? But this whole Semitic/Islamic/Muslim is located in India, which makes a great difference. Yet I am not, say, a Hindu in terms of historical metaphorical imagination – I am not saying about culture. And yet I am comfortable with certain, say, Hindu or Buddhist metaphors which have come to me through or mediated by language, literature, family, (my) social surrounding – where I grew and was trained in the art (and perhaps science) of doing social life; they are part of my imagination and form an epistemological unity with the former. What does this signify – hybrid;ity synthesis; composite; commonality; shared culture; commonly shared human (/class/cultural) experiences; common and shared social space?  Then, does my Semitic/Islamic/Muslim and Hindu or Buddhist represent an undifferentiated Muslim imagination? These are very dicey questions but we confront them in everyday life in one form or the other. Then, am I a prisoner of socialisation or ‘habitus’ (Bourdieu’s)? Or have I unlearnt many things? Or is it possible to unlearn?  I think I should stop here for the time being.

Yes, I do agree with you that blame game would not lead us nywhere. But I am a bit puzzled when you say: “They (UP Muslim elite) too have been creatures of their own past – which they did not understand properly…”. Yes, it is true, but do you mean that the Master was victim of the logic of his location or the social class, which in turn dictated his relation with the Slave? (The Master-Slave reference here is not out of place, you would agree).

I agree with the importance of the long-term context to understand the contemporary. In your own Roots ofCrisis you have taken such a perspective but your heavy (perhaps one-sided) reliance on the enlightenment value of equality and individualism may be little problematic (not the postmodernist angle).

A sense of threat and the experience of violence are definitely powerful cements and it is not good to find special motives, but there is a ‘But’ at least in the aftermath. You are right that we have ignored the consequences of violence completely (but I am not competent to say about the social psychology aspect), and importantly not just the big physical violence but also various other (everyday) forms of violence.

I think I have not got copies of “Integration and separation” and “Anxieties, identities…” and would like to read them.
Satish Saberwal (to Neshat Quaiser)

What you say about talking heretically is interesting. Gradually I’ve come to realize that many people I know need reassurance; so I choose my moments for being rude and provocative with some care! I try rather to work out more sustainable, replicable, habits of thought and working and relating.  We are in midst of an enormous social transformation, and our everyday routines need careful renovation.

When you say that you’re “at home” in a Muslim cultural setting, I agree. I was once talking to a dancer, whose mother had been an actress in a theatre company. She said she used to run around the “stage” everywhere as a child, so “stage” is home for her, she has no stage-fright ever. This was my standard metaphor when I talked about “communalism” in class, and how persons growing up in different traditions feel at home in the one they grow up in. You’ll see in the texts I’m sending you separately, that I think this intuitive sense of being different is itself a variable, responding to the groups and forces active in history.

Re: master and slave.   Without the 20th century apparatus from social sciences, including psychology, it has been common to take a reified view of identities – as if these were “God”-given, rather than products of historical circumstances.  The whole caste system is illustrative.   Likewise, the self-image, expectations, and perceptions of the late 19th century UP Muslim elite (and lots of others).

Violence:  I agree.   Indeed I recognise three levels:  symbolic (play music outside mosque), social (competitive conversions), and physical. In the hardening of Muslim and Hindu identities, it is the symbolic and the social kinds of violence that prepared minds for physical violence.
Ahmad (to Neshat Quaiser)

Thanks for sending Saberwal’s comment on your mail to me and sorry for the delay. As you say (in the previous mail) your response was not directly to the issues I raised. So I am still waiting for it.

As for the present letter, I largely agree with your point. It is well formulated and beautifully put. However, I have a question: perhaps a silly one. Since the late 70s onwards Muslims have been crying to the world that they are ‘Muslim’. While in Germany and UK, Iqbal discovered that he was a Muslim. The Dutch found themselves to be ‘Dutch’ not in Holland but while they were in Indonesia. The British found their Britishness in the US. And I found that I was a ‘Bihari’ (In Aligarh, I was told that if a UP man wanted to call one ‘sister-fucker’, they used the term Bihari) while outside of Bihar; in Delhi, to be precise.

What is the condition or ground – not territorial but perhaps conceptual-philosophical one – which impels you to say, in a reverse way, that you are not a Muslim?  Let me correct myself, it is not a silly question!
Neshat Quaiser (to Ahmad)

My response to your letter was not direct though, but I said: “I would not address directly …” directly in Italics. My reply did respond to some of the questions directly in a sense. However, still Marx’s question demands to be attacked more directly. But I am a bit hesitant.

Your response is to my reply to Prof. Saberwal and your question “what is the condition or ground -not territorial but perhaps conceptual-philosophical one – which impels you say, in a reverse way, that you are not a Muslim?” indeed is not a silly one. Certain things have been said in my reply but I would like to address the issue afresh – in a few days.
Neshat Quaiser (to Satish Saberwal)

In principle I am not in favour of violating anybody’s sense of propriety or settled views abruptly. I had an argument in the late seventies with a friend – a woman political activist – a JNU student – who used to visit Muslim women in old Delhi for political education. Though she had every right and freedom to smoke bidi or cigarette, I did not agree when she visited them puffing on her bidi. Yet talking heretically has a lot of meaning. It all depends on what kind of everyday situation one is placed in and then who is placed where and in that I am not a privileged person. Secondly, these very ‘talking’ over a period form the constitutive elements of ‘sustainable, replicable, habits of thought and working and relating’ (these can be interpreted differently though).

About master and slave. Yes, identities are not “God”-given, they are products of historical circumstances, you are right, but if certain circumstances are projected as God given then there is a problem. We cannot absolve master of his relation with slave or the late 19th century UP Muslim elite’s self-perception on the ground that they are product of certain historical circumstances and thereby their claims that they are not responsible for their acts as they have no control over circumstances that produced them. It would be like the argument that whatever I do is according to the will of God as nothing moves/happens without His will.
Satish Saberwal (to Neshat Quaiser)

I agree that making heresy routine has a point – it raises the threshold level.  Once I was visiting my parents, and my mother was irritated at my making coffee frequently. I told her my drinking it five times a day was (an obligation) like saying namaaz five times a day. After that, every time she saw my mug of coffee, she’d say, so you’re off to your namaaz?

Master and slave: I need to explain myself better.   From our standpoint, there is no gain in absolving or condemning the 19th century Muslim elite for their stance. What their stance was is a matter of fact. So I ask: why did they act that way? And likewise others (including myself).

To try to understand why someone acts one way or another has to be separated from judging whether the person acts rightly or wrongly.  And, often, one needs not so much to form judgments over right or wrong as to think through the (likely) consequences of acting one way or another – and whether those consequences would be acceptable / desirable.

All this needs habits of looking at oneself and others with a certain sense of detachment, from the outside, as it were.  Our 19th century forebears would rarely have had the perspective and the concepts needed for doing so.
Neshat Quaiser (to Satish Saberwal)

The problem is what is the vantage point from where we look at things – for you the Enlightenment is the vantage point – that is why any thing, which is different from the Enlightenment paradigm is considered “incongruity” and “inherently disharmonious”. Here lies the problem, for example, anything, which would be different from the Indic/Hindu paradigm would be rendered “incongruous” and “disharmonious”. Thus, no wonder that you too consider “equality and individualism” as “Enlightenment values”, purporting that the Enlightenment introduced them first time in the human history in their philosophical abstraction with practical implications.

Master – slave metaphor was important in relation to what you said about elite Muslims – that the “elite Muslims are the creatures of their past…”  It is not only the Past but also and more importantly the Present where these elite Muslims have created the problem – the Muslim Question actually is the creation of these elite Muslims with middle class derivative feudalism with a restorational agenda. Now these elites are facing a serious problem from within – that is the resistance from the location-less Muslims to elite Muslims. So the elites are disturbed and are opposing the Shudra Muslims’ demand for caste-based reservation. The whole story begins from the Battle of Plassey. Shah Waliullah’s context though was different but he laid the foundation for the future Islamic/Muslim restorational politics. In fact the much of Islam in Indian subcontinent is Fiqhi Islam (Islam based on Islamic Jurisprudence as it evolved over a long span of time fostering multiple traditions of presentation, representation and interpretation). It is important to note that here they and usare not in the sense in which Said employed them and which is so widely used or misused nowadays. In the context of what we are talking, it is in a reversed order. Here us is not a victim in the sense the general and genuine victims of communal riots or aggressive Hindutva politics are – the dominated ones but one that would like to dominate – the high caste Muslim elites – lamenting that power that we had is lost/usurped/taken away otherwise we would be dominating. Here these analytical categories are to be used in a reversed order.

Today one is forced to defend uncritically everything that relates to Madrasas and Mullas because of this forced homogeneity concealing the real internal divisions. This is what I meant when I referred to religion as an equaliser.

By the way, a Pakistani scholar was thrilled when in a discussion on his lecture in our Department I pointed out that it was Partition for India and Independence for Pakistan.  But this is what is the reality. The point has several deeper connotations.

The master-slave metaphor is important also in relation to the Hindu-Muslim divide, everyday communalism , communal violence and inverse communalism of all types.


Neshat Quaiser teaches in the Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, Central University, Delhi. He is currently working and has published on the historical sociology of medicine with reference to the encounter between Unani and western systems of medicine during colonial India.  Ahmad was then a western hemisphere based Ph. D student of Indian origin. Satish Saberwal, former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University is a well-known sociologist.

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