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Caste and the Aporias of Muslim Theo-Politics

Caste and the Aporias of Muslim Theo-Politics



This is the second part of the three-part series ‘Dialogue with BAPSA’. Please read the first part here

Khalid Anis Ansari

khalidIn the context of the dialogue with BAPSA on its problematic association with the Muslim Right, as exemplified by Jamaat’s student wing SIO, I feel the argument on Muslim theo-politics and caste advanced by Muhammed Shah (Shan) in Round Table India is particularly interesting. Let me paraphrase the argument here. Shah’s basic contention is that contemporary bahujan anti-caste politics, despite being extremely critical, can broadly be located within modernity—or to be more precise Indian modernity—itself. And since modernity, especially its privileging of the philosophy of secularism and the emphasis on the state form, has an ethical deficit it is almost impossible for anti-caste discourses to activate forms of radical sociality that can annihilate or abolish the caste self. In his view since caste has a metaphysical origin what is required to abolish it is a counter-metaphysics that transcends Indian modernity. In this pursuit he advances the idea of Muslim ‘theo-politics’, inspired by the transcendental-theological perspective developed by Maududi, which instantiates an ethical dimension in the understanding of caste and ensures emancipation by deconstructing caste selves. The Zanj Slave Revolt in Iraq (869-883 AD) and the Mappilla Riots that occurred in Kerala during 18th-19th century are further offered as historical evidence for the abolition of hierarchical selves inspired by an Islamic ethical ethos.

I see a number of issues with this argument. Firstly, conceptually speaking the argument is symptomatic of the ‘ethical turn’ in contemporary theory which is arguably attempting to displace the political. Since the social is deeply divided, the ‘political’ refers to the ineradicable dimension of antagonism and radical negativity whereas ‘politics’ refers to practices, discourses and institutions that seek to establish order or organize human co-existence in a social field criss-crossed by power. In this sense every identity and social order, the subject of politics, is contingent and a product of particular power configuration (or hegemony) that may be ruptured anytime by the political. Now one may posit that the political constitutes Islamism’s blind spot because the latter has to exhibit fidelity to the idea of ‘revelation’ (event) and an objectively defined ‘community (ummah)’ in achieving any consensus on social matters. One may argue with some force that this revelation-community referential point, despite hermeneutical latitude, is eminently receptive to non-negotiable moral values and essentialist forms of identification.

That is why all Islamist movements, including Maududian Jamaat, are deeply suspicious of internal fissures and therefore hesitant in addressing what Connolly calls the ‘politics of becoming’ where new subterranean movements and identities struggle to inscribe themselves onto the registers of legitimacy and justice. The transcendental/meta-political/theological/ethical/piety frameworks within Muslims, I would argue express a sensitivity deficit to movements that seek to rupture the dominant articulations of the nature of revelation or community. The case of deficient engagement of caste and gender movements by the Islamists within the Muslim community in India is a case in point. Secondly, the unique privileging of the Muslim as an ethical subject smacks of a deep-seated hubris to say the least and probably betrays the relevance of the frequent supremacist charges made against Jamaat. Are other secular or religious eschatologies, or political actors associated with them, devoid of an ethical content? Indeed, Ambedkar’s quest in the later parts of his career was devoted in developing a spiritual praxis and Navayana Buddhism was a clear manifestation of that.

Thirdly, the proposed radical chasm between Maududian theo-politics and modernity is not really a tenable one and a number of works, including Olivier Roy’s1 and Seyyed Wali Reza Nasr’s2, have commented on the deep imbrications of Maududian oeuvre with modern thought in general. Maududi’s theo-politics is as immanent in modernity (or Indian modernity)—especially his perpetual engagement with Hindu and Secular nationalisms—as is the work of anti-caste radicals. Indeed, Maududi employs modernist jargons like ideology, system, party, state, etc., with gay abandon and his call for the formation of Islamic state, revolution or pedagogical work (Islamization) through a trained cadre force has clear analogies to the Marxian movements dominant in that era.

Fourthly, since the radical chasm between Maududian theo-politics and modernity is untenable, the related proposition of a radical sociality that it activates—which seeks the abolition of caste society instead of a mere restructuring—also falls into disarray. Indeed, the proof of the pudding lies in its eating. Maududi, the historicist par excellence, surprisingly never really engaged with caste on a substantive level except stray references here and there. One may offer Ambedkar as a contrast where he clinically engaged with the ‘Muslim question’ in his Pakistan, or, the Partition of India and even indicated at the invisibilization of the caste cleavages within South Asian Islam by Muslim interlocutors. In an autobiographical note Maududi betrays pride in his Syed extraction and noble genealogy3. On the question of Islamic caliphate, after a series of flip-flops, he finally reconsiders his opinion and upholds hierarchical values by reserving it only for the members of Quraish tribe to which the Prophet Muhammad belonged. Falahi’s Hindustan mein Zaat-Paat aur Musalman documents serious instances of caste-based discrimination within the Jamaat and the problematic intellectual positions, especially with regards to casteist interpretations of kufu (prescriptions for ensuring suitability and compatibility of spouses in marital alliances), of various theologians connected to the organization. Indeed, the absolute domination of Jamaat by savarna, male Muslims exposes the limits of the radical sociality that is being hailed as the unique feature of Maududian theo-politics.

Now in the face of the presence of caste within the Jamaat itself, the most obvious site for the embodiment of Maududian theo-politics, the allusion to Zanj revolt, the Mappilla outbreaks and the alleged imperceptibility of caste locations of the converts elsewhere are not really helpful but rather deeply problematic. Talal Asad in the ‘Introduction’ to Formations of the Secular asks the question ‘What makes a discourse and an action “religious” or “secular”?’ and through a nuanced discussion urges us to be cautious in assuming that ‘the motive for violent action lies in “religious ideology”‘ in the context of recent violence associated with Islam. Can the same question not be asked of the Zanj revolt or the Mappilla outbreaks? What makes these events Islamic? If the banner “There can be no masters but only Allah” employed in the Zanj revolt is sufficient to demonstrate its Islamic character then going by that logic any recourse to Islamic vocabulary by any organization or mobilization, including ISIS, may be seen as Islamic. That in my view is a proposition that the votaries of theo-politics may be reluctant to endorse.

Even in Kerala, the putative absence of the caste question within Muslims may have little to do with radical sociality and the melting of caste self by Islamic theology. Rather it may be also explained by the historical situation and the constraints on the enactment of caste-based movements within Kerala Muslims, the originary narratives of pride associated with the historical accident of Kerala being the first location of arrival of Islam, the larger shifts in the political economy and upward mobility of Kerala Muslims (especially the gulf prosperity in the last few decades) and the related psychoanalytic veiling of humiliation through the Islamist discourse, and so on and so forth. Of course, differential and descriptive caste/community markers—Mappilla [Thangal (Syeds), Malabari, Puislam (fishermen), Ossans (barbers)], Bohra, Cutchi Memon, Dakhni Muslims, Labbai, Marakkayar, Navayats, Rowther, Turukkan—are as readily available among Kerala Muslims as among North Indian Muslims. However, for understanding their hierarchical arrangement a more grounded anthropology of Kerala Muslim caste, which goes beyond descriptions, is required which is not available till date to the best of my knowledge.

It is really amazing to note how the votaries of historicism slip so effortlessly in conceptualizing caste through its metaphysical origins, without enquiring into the materiality of caste formations, and arguing for counter-metaphysics as a possible resolution of the caste question. One may surmise that the aforementioned aporias in Maududian theo-politics may be cognitively grasped only when we are willing to appreciate the critical location of the various interlocutors within the institutional apparatus of the Jamaat itself, which is obviously facing anxieties due to the challenges posed by the recent caste and gender assertion within Indian Muslims. In this context one feels that rather than the spectral presence of Maududi in Indian campuses, it is probably far more productive to address the spectral presence of caste within the Jamaat itself. The evidence offered by the various Jamaat interlocutors in favour of the potential of transcendental Maududian theo-politics in abolishing caste through the constitution of radical sociality is extremely slim. The attempt to displace the Ambedkarite movement by trapping it in a lazy counter-modern critique and thereby striving to hegemonize the anti-caste political space by offering Muslim theo-politics as the fittest candidate to annihilate caste is deeply problematic. Such an attempt may be strategically useful for the fortunes of Jamaat but I am circumspect about its relevance for anti-caste politics in general. Until a more logically consistent and empirically convincing argument is advanced I would contend that the recent infatuation of Muslim Right with caste, along with Hindu Right or savarna left, has little to do with the abolition of caste but rather has everything to do with appropriation of the anti-caste struggle.

To be continued.



1. Roy, O. (1994). The Failure of Political Islam, Harvard University Press.

2. Nasr, S. V. R. (1996). Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism, Oxford University Press.

3. Muhammad Tufail.ed. Naqoosh: aap-biti number (Lahore: Idara-e Faroogh-e Urdu, 1964)



Khalid Anis Ansari is Assistant Professor (Sociology) in Glocal Law School, Glocal University (India). His doctoral work with the University of Humanistic Studies (UvH), Utrecht, the Netherlands, is on caste movements within North Indian Muslims. Email:

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