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Inscrutable Islam and Kerala Modernity

Inscrutable Islam and Kerala Modernity


Umar Nizar

umarThere is a ‘scramble for Muslim intelligentsia’ going on along with a clamour for token inclusivity from the left-leaning, upper-caste politically correct elite, and yet even this tokenistic Islamic presence proves elusive. Islam has become that wide gaping wound on the side of a cancerous polity that festers. The agalma of Islam, as it has become a precious object imputed to the other in the Lacanian sense, from the right thinking, intellectual elite, has proven itself to be increasingly elusive. The inscrutability of this agalma lies in the search for the truth, the seeking for the Real. There is to be no promise of attainment per se at the end of this elusive and endless quest.  It alas is never to be reached. It is the bad infinity of contemporary politics, and part of the byzantine political process with or without electronic voting machines. What do Muslims want and what is their agenda, what is the point of their abject religious existence, are they attracted to violence or sovereignty, where is the epistemological crafting within Islam?; these questions are on the mind of every politically inclined person on the centre-left.

In liberal politically democratic Kerala with left wing inclinations, there has been a search for the elusive Muslim in the secular sphere. The communal yet not-so-communal ‘Indian Union Muslim League’ (IUML) occupies a behemoth space in the political sphere and hence popular centrist politics is devoid of such discourse. Shihabudeen Poithumkadavu, a noted writer has said that the most significant refomist leader to have emerged from Kerala in recent times is ‘Gulf Money’. He was referring to the influx of remittances from the middle–east; the NRI petro-wealth that has skyrocketed with the advent of a weaker Rupee regime back home. This political economy has given solid reply to fissiparous communal mongering in the political arena in the state. But in matters of culture and civil society, the scenario is much different. The Muslim is difficult to place. He/she is a subaltern with deviant tendencies at best or an anti-national. 

‘The kerala modernity collective’, a ragtag bunch of budding intellectuals from Kerala, has been casting its net far and wide, for that token Muslim presence, but to no avail. It was then that a close friend of mine introduced me to this group and invited me to a session as a participant. Having arrived at the venue, I found that I was barely welcome, and was soon ejected from the venue late in the night. They must have found it difficult to stomach my empty outpourings. It was this incident that led me to think in the direction of the inscrutability of Muslims, their inability to be articulate and the impossibility to assume a universal position and thus speak on behalf of everyone. Similar inscrutability has been the crux of Sino-European engagements in post-colonial times. Francois Jullien, the foremost Francophone theoretician of Sinology delves into this topic with immense precision and grasp, using a heuristic hit-or-miss method that is amply evident in his ‘Book of Beginnings’.

In his ‘Book of Beginnings’, Jullien for instance tries to measure Sino-Asiatic civilizations against various yardsticks of Greek and Semitic thoughts and finds China too sublime to be compared. My argument here would be why is the same sort of academic sensitivity and precision rarely applied to the study of India in India. (I am here reminded of the quip that the literary critic and translator from Edinburgh University, RE Asher made about Vaikkom Muhammed Basheer, arguably the greatest writer of modern Malayalam prose. Asher said that like Flaubert, Basheer also had that literary quality which could not be named, possessing a certain je ne sais quoi element that stumped the critic. This inscrutability is a virtue for some and sin for others.)

In the contemporary political economy of the international division of labour, China occupies the twice born position as the Brahmin manufacturer and others as the Shudra service providers. This has rendered the Sino-inscrutability desirable and even laudable. But the same is not to be applied in the case of the abject and the subaltern, which again turns into a question of representation.

Edward Said says in his ‘Culture and Imperialism’ that “yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about”.The vicious cycle of violence that binds China with its western neighbour also raises questions regarding the scholarly dispositions towards both Chinese and Islamic Societies.

In his aptly titled ‘Book of Beginnings’, Francois Jullien analyses Sinology and finds its hallmark in harmony. Before zeroing in on harmony, he rules out pagan diversity and semitic empathy from the Sinology ecosystem. The question that I would like to raise in this paper is why is it that this sensitivity, concern for scholarship, or scrutiny has seldom been found applicable in the study of Islamic societies. Such nuance and empathy could work wonders in the field of Islamic studies in Kerala, where there exist in universities separate departments for ‘Islamic Studies’. This is orientalism by orientals, semitic anti-semitism, which provides hints into the functioning of our polity, academia and ancient society. 

It is often said that classical Indian thought was linguistic-grammatical led by Panini, whereas the Hellenic one was geometric guided by the likes of Pythagoras, who is said to have visited India. Jullien also finds the sentence the basic modality of thought thus castigating by default the ideogrammatic writing of Sumeria and China as well as those of more ancient civilizations now buried deep under the dust of ignorance.  Under the sign of Hebraism, Jullien first turns his attention towards the semitic civilizations of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, that are perpetually locked  in conflict.  He looks at their Sacerdotal Documents and discovers that the semitic faiths are steeped in empathy. The duality of creation (God-Man), love, humanism emanate from this semitic dualistic Bhakti-like abject devotional conception, which also has its locus in Sufism.

Jullien then considers the Hellenic civilization and tries to find the coordinates for sinology from ancient Greek myth and the theogony and the majesty of the muses. Jullien in typical Eurocentric fashion searches for the roots of time and comes up with the Hellas-Sam divide, the one between polyphonic religious traditions on the one hand and the semitic traditions on the other. But even if he were to be successful in finding Christian antecedents in Greeks, the search for Hellas in Confucius draws a blank. Jullien predictably finds that Hellas is alien to China. Europe cannot enter China floating on the wings of Hellenic poesy. Thus Jullien accords the epitome of his encomiums, harmony, upon Chinese Civilization. Not empathy, but harmony is to be the catchphrase, with Chinese economic muscle leading the world out of another global recession in 2019. Another form of harmony, at least in the Semitic eco-system, is love.

Muslims in India seem to be in the grip of a grievance at present and to paraphrase EM Forster, they know that they have been wronged, but not how, and whether love can remedy those wrongs they have been done by and how much love can heal them. But they seem to be certain that once that love has been given, they will know it for sure.

Edward Said in his magnum opus ‘Culture and Imperialism’ says that “No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly , left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental.”

Jullien does occasionally slip into Orientalist territory like for instance when he discovers that the Chinese language does not distinguish between the active and passive voices, which is a bit like Orientalist Forensic Linguistics attributing inborn philosophical insight to Hindi-speakers who have the same term ‘kal’ for yesterday and tomorrow.

Jullien takes the ‘I Ching’ as the fundamental book of China. These are rare missteps in a work of magisterial precision and logical correctness. Why has French orientalism from Flaubert to Bernard Henri Levy not accorded the same scholarly rigour and sublime honesty to the cultures of Islam, West Asia, and Africa, that in Egypt and in other places could be called the rightful inheritors of Hellas? Inheritors of Plato and Aristotle today probably inhabit Northern Africa rather than Australia and Canada. Why haven’t Indian thinkers and theoreticians given Islam the short shrift and focussed on the brutal reality of the contemporary scenario alone, thus foregoing the ideal of the orient? A little bit of harmony and understanding could have gone a long way in rapprochement? 

To conclude, I would like to quote Said again who says that “Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in [TS] Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.” It is more rewarding – and more difficult – to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us”. But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter)”. One cannot but help thinking, though it is a bit tragic, that precisely due to this reason of hierarchy and self-centeredness, the Muslim self in Kerala as well as India shall remain forever inscrutable.



Umar Nizar is a research scholar in JNU.