Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies

Islamic Studies Program

Authority in Islam in South Asia

Our second international workshop was convened at the Indiana University India Gateway Office in New Delhi in January 2019. The workshop featured scholars from the United States and India whose work focused on questions of religious authority in Islam throughout South Asia, with a focus on India. In the workshop and through local, national and international collaborative work, we analyze the causes, spectra and consequences of the plurality of authority in Islam in South Asia and create a novel, comprehensive, multi-lingual and global-reaching analytical framework to study this question. We assess the landscape of diverse Muslim authorities, identify types of authorities (institutional, communal, personal), their sources of legitimation, their modes of transmission (textual, scriptural, aural, visual, interactive), their connections to external (regional, national, global) centers or models of religiosity; as well as their relations with the state and among different dimensions or practitioners of authority. Among other goals, we aim to (a) historicize debates about religious authority in Islam and move away from misleading and artificial demarcations; (b) distinguish the reality of decentralized and multivalent authority from the appearance of fragmentation that globalization and modernity seem to amplify; and, (c) critically examine the popular view among scholars and policy makers that takes as given state monopoly over the definition and exercise of religious authority and that also understands the plurality of religious authority to be an expression of opposition to the state and its servants.

Select contributions from the workshop will be included in a volume to be published by Indiana University Press. Translations of the volume are planned.

Authority Workshop - Introductory Remarks by Ron Sela (New Delhi, January 18, 2019)

Thank you all for coming. I’m very happy to see old acquaintances and to make new ones.

As preparations for this gathering reached their final stretch, it occurred to me and to others sitting around this table - and here I am especially grateful to Mujib Rehman and Najaf Haider - that it would be most appropriate to open this conference with a short tribute to an important figure in our field who is no longer with us. I refer, of course, to the late Professor Mushirul Hasan. As most of you know, Prof. Hasan was a leading historian of modern India, had served in important academic positions and had achieved many accolades. Most of my own exchanges with him occurred while he was serving as Director-General of the National Archives of India. He was always very generous in his responses to my queries and in sharing his vast knowledge. Of course, several of our workshop’s presenters have known him much longer and far better than I.

Those of you who are familiar with his writings may no doubt find that some of the most prominent themes that we will be talking about today and tomorrow also touch on matters that he was deeply interested in. But when Prof. Hasan wrote about the “Myth of Muslim Unity,” as he termed it, or about Muslims’ “fragmented form of religious consciousness” it seems to me he was touching on the plurality of religious authority in Islam from perspectives that we will consider but perhaps not engage as directly. Prof. Hasan was not only a historian but was also a concerned citizen. When he was writing about Muslim fragmentation, he had multiple objectives in mind; objectives that also touched on national political considerations.

As he was seeking to dispel the image of Muslims as “separate and homogenized,” his objective was to contest “theories on civilizational fault lines”, as he put it, ideas that serve so well certain political agendas. Prof. Hasan was writing, first and foremost, about India, but those of us coming from the United States should not be unfamiliar with such political trends.

Several colleagues at Indiana University knew Prof. Hasan well. Ambassador Rajendra Abyankar, for example, who had served on the faculty at Jamia Millia Islamia was heading the Centre for West Asian Studies (Middle East) at Jamia, when Prof. Hasan was Vice Chancellor. He considered Mushir his close friend and mentor. Ambassador Abyankar went on to a distinguished career in India’s Foreign Service. He couldn’t be with us today, but he asked me to share a brief statement with you:

"The passing of Dr. Mushir ul Hasan, eminent historian and scholar, leaves an unbridgeable gap in India’s academic firmament. In life, as in his numerous writings Mushir ul Hasan demonstrated the breadth of his vision emphasizing the place of Islam in India’s composite society. Throughout his career, most of it at the Jamia Millia Islamia, Mushirsaheb always sought to inform and challenge his students and the many others whose life he touched. His writings will continue to inform and inspire future generations to take up the challenge he has set us. Our heartfelt condolences to his family, and particularly to Prof. Zoya Hasan. The best tribute that we can pay to Mushirsaheb’s work is to continue to work towards building a truly inclusive society in India."

We are honored that Prof. Zoya Hasan, a renowned political scientist and former dean at JNU, could join us today, along with Mushir’s brother.

Authority in Islam

Should a student, at any level, seek an introduction to what exactly is this thing that we refer to as religious authority in Islam, she or he are bound to come across two important textbook attempts to delineate the boundaries of religious authority, both of these pieces written by Indiana University professors. The first, by professor Asma Afsaruddin, was published in the Third Edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam [1], where she discusses authority in relatively unambiguous terms. For Prof. Afsaruddin, religious authority in Islam is based first and foremost on “the possession of ilm (knowledge) of religious matters.” How is authority bestowed? For the prophets, this was by way of divinely transmitted knowledge; for later generations, it was and has been a matter of gaining and mastering knowledge. Religious and moral authority are one and the same. Therefore, authority has to be connected to the leadership of the community and has to be exemplified in mastery of the sacred texts. After all, the famous ḥadīth related by ʿUqba b. ʿAmr b. Thaʿlaba (d. c.40/661), quoted the Prophet as saying, “The best reciter of the Book of God from among them shall lead the people…”.

Conversely, if one reads the second piece I alluded to, one may find a very different approach to authority. In the volume Key Themes for the Study of Islam, edited by Prof. Jamal Elias, whose work, I’m sure, is known to many of you, one might find an article, simply titled “Authority,”[2] and written by Professor Devin DeWeese, who happens to be sitting over there.

Devin opens that piece with a thirteenth-century description of a family who suddenly hears the voice of their dead father, by no means a scholar or a reciter of the Qur’an, who has come to deliver a cautionary message to the town’s inhabitants. The voice, emanating at first from different corners in their household, and later can be heard all over town, was prescribing a recipe for piety that might help prevent an impending calamity and also assist in ushering other developments. Everyone seemed to accept this as authoritative. DeWeese argues that although no one should doubt the significance of the sacred texts, looking at authority solely through the prism of Qur’an and Hadith ignores the much more “complex and flexible” ways that many Muslims understood and continue to understand authority.

The student, then, is faced with a dilemma: is “religious authority” clear-cut or illusive? Is it simply defined by power relations (namely, who is entrusted with authority and by whom)? Does it rest with texts and their interpretations or with persons? Should it be considered chiefly a legal matter? One is tempted to answer all these questions with a resounding ‘yes’.

Of course, one of the problems with defining authority also relates to language and terminology. Which words or terms would we use to describe “religious authority” in so-called “Islamic” languages? In Arabic, for example – and in the sacred texts – one is hard pressed to find any equivalent term. Yes, we encounter sulṭān, quwwa, mulk, ḥukm, and amr used in the Qur’an, and from there they make their way into many other languages, sometimes retaining their original meaning, sometimes not, but none of them reflects exactly what we will be discussing here.

In a previous international workshop (in March, 2017) that we held at Indiana University about this very same topic – the fragmentation of religious authority in Muslim Eurasia, esp. in Central Asia and Russia – participants discussed the authority of texts, of persons (some legal scholars, some YouTube celebrities), of physical sites, of jinn and other beings. They discussed the relationship of authority with the state, and the problems of treating the Soviet era, for example, as it is usually treated – as a breaking point or chasm that completely changed everything (hint: it didn’t). What became abundantly clear is that this is a crucially important theme, but one that requires much work to advance the state of the field.

Before I turn this over to our speakers, I’d like to return to the problem of the politicization of academic inquiry that also dominates some portions of the study of Islam and Muslims in India. Pakistan-based scholars or scholars of Pakistani heritage have been doing important work in the field. I extended invitations to several to take part in this conference, knowing that they probably would opt not to go through the hassle of acquiring an Indian visa (or, become ensnared in post-visa issues). I have no intention of getting into the tangled web of India-Pakistan relations, only to say that I believe that scholarly collaboration should be encouraged , not hindered. It’s something that, I think, Mushirul Hasan would endorse.


[1] Asma Afsaruddin, "Authority, religious," in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3rd edition (eds., K. Fleet, G. Krämer, D. Matringe, J. Nawas, and E. Rowson) (subscription to Brill Online required).
[2] Devin DeWeese, “Authority,” in Key Themes for the Study of Islam, edited by Jamal J. Elias (Oxford: Oneworld, 2010), 26-52.

Islamic Studies Program
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