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A Litmus Test of Street-fighting Organizational Jamborees

By Umar Nizar

‘Inside it you are invisible. Outside of it you have no history’ – Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man

The above quotation from that exemplar of Harlem Renaissance poignantly captures the predicament of a Keralite Muslim trapped between the Scylla of organizational religious dogma and the Charybdis of subaltern freelance non-agency.

New age renaissance narratives of an Islam that is coping under siege should refer to Nietzche’s Zarathustra, that `man is both a downgoing and an overgoing.’ The search for an Islamic ubermensch is precisely what leads impressionable young men goaded with a sense of self-destiny in pursuit of that elusive fata morgana in the deserts of the Real.

Personally, as a deterritorialized and alienated Keralite from southern Travancore, one of the early seedbeds of truly progressive reform movements of Kerala led by Sree Narayana Guru, Vakkom Maulavi, Ayyan Kali, Poykayil Yohannan etc, whose granddad was an early votary of the Muslim Aikya Sangham (Association for Muslim Unity, established in 1923), I find that it is impossible for a Keralite Muslim to operate outside the conflicting subalternities of organizational factionalism in Keralite Islam. In a time and age where it has become imperative for Muslims and Islam to justify their existence to themselves and to others, the unnecessary anxiety over the impossibility of practicing freelance versions of Islam has much to do with orientalist notions of a global Muslim community (ummah), which always has to articulate a transcendental, universalist position. Such an outside freelance position is difficult to sustain since possibilities of free interpretation or ijtihad have themselves been institutionalized by oil and the wealth it has wrought. Counter narratives of subjugated sexual minorities, Dalits etc. amidst the clamour for such an eternal enunciation of unbroken faith bump into the hard wall of the reality of pettiness and Muslim backwardness. As Gopal Guru points out, the question is, ‘can the Dalit articulate a universal position?’

The emergence of hitherto marginal voices of feminists and that of alternate sexualities into the mainstream Muslim discourse of Kerala seems a distant possibility at best. Voices of matrilineal currents in Keralite Islam have been washed away under the deluge of patriarchal theocracy.

`..it is possible [……] for the woman poet to reconstruct the shattered tradition that is her matrilineal heritage’-Gilbert and Gubar, The Mad Woman in the Attic

Contemplating the end of Islam as a grand narrative, within the confined milieu of Kerala, evokes questions about the matrilineal syncretistic crafting of the Kerala society as a whole, as deftly portrayed in PA. Muhammed Koya’s semi-historical novel Sulthan Veedu and the shattering of the same by forces of modernity. As scholars like Iftikhar Dadi have pointed out that the fragmentation of tradition and the resultant teleological anxiety of an impending apocalypse, engendering a ‘crisis in masculinity’, is a contemporary phenomena. The hullabaloo over organizational factionalism is an offshoot of such an anxiety and can in addition be read along theological and cultural lines. Scare mongering narratives of collapse of a faction-ridden Islam often include cautionary tales from Bosnia-Herzagovina and Moorish Spain. The Bedouin complex (which parallels the more popular Hanuman-complex) fostered  by middle eastern remittances is another interesting facet to the ongoing organizational jamboree that includes the  puritanical elitism of Jamaat-i-Islami and the Mujahid factions, syncretistic Sufism of Tariqats, advocates of a muscular Islam that parody the Rastriya Swayam Sevak (RSS), the patriarchal traditionalism of Sunni theocratic factions etc. Among these tussles, the RSS manqué and the ‘youth movements’ follow a carpe diem, seize the moment ideology goaded by a quasi-historicist belief in Islamic destiny and an eschatological belief in the end of days. Mutual haranguing of each other’s cultural practices, dining habits, costumes and kinship relations, theological consistency and constancy follow this topology of organizational schisms.

Borrowing from Dileep Menon’s classic argument in his seminal ‘The Blindness of Insight’ that communal violence in India is but the internal violence of a caste society thrown outwards, it could be claimed that the mutual intolerance of multiple Muslim factions is but an internalization of the vitriol regularly projected at forms of artistic and democratic expression, feminist movements (Muslims against FEMEN for example), sexual minorities etc.

If post-modernity is the unfinished project of modernity, then to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, modernity, in its turn, is the unfinished project of Romanticism in which each fragment in itself is a whole uniting itself with the transcendent. But the fragment itself is a cause for anxiety as it is almost a fetish of quasi-divine autonomy. Quasi-medieval debates surrounding the unity of god include questions as to the particular nature of the entity called God, whether He can be constituted of atoms or elements (then His unity is shattered).

‘has the solitude of god turned into vinegar’-Agha Shahid Ali

The quest to be modern, while retaining their tradition, is the aspirational quasi-romantic motto of the Muslim elite in Kerala. The fragmented modular modernity of Keralite Islam is not really different from the modular furniture they sometimes manufacture. But to assemble the numerous modules into a single corporeal whole would not only be undesirable, but also impossible. It would rather be felicitous to leave them to their own Babel tower construction projects and personal language games. Meanwhile to snatch that traditional Islam from the elite and throw it in their face and then to call that throwing in the face as the real Islam would be the real challenge.

Clash among the Keralite gangs of supporters of rival football clubs, or Brazil, Argentina etc (a mimesis of the contemporary lull in once infamous European hostilities) would be a pleasanter alternative. Hooliganism and televised street-fights of Kalppanthukali fanatics, anyone?

Meanwhile, Sheldon Pollock has made the startling Cassandra-like prediction that in a few years’ time the number of Indians able to read a text of classical Indian literature in the original would be zero, zilch. Are the dark ages looming?

Organizations like the Muslim Educational Society (MES) have tried to foster a spirit of rational enquiry and freedom at least among the moneyed upper classes. But the litmus test of modernity would be to build up truly secular, democratic and transparent institutions like the YMCA and YWCA. This challenge can hopefully be left to the new-age Eurocentric intelligentsia. Meanwhile the anthem ‘ab tumhare hawaale ye watan saathiyon…’ can be played in the background.

‘Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom’-Kierkegaard

[Umar Nizar is a doctoral candidate at Centre of English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he completed his Masters and MPhil. Earlier he worked with The Indian Express.]

[This piece on Cafe Dissensus is protected under Creative Commons License. Once a piece is published in Cafe Dissensus, we will retain the exclusive copyright for a period of 30 days, from the date of publication. Within this period, the piece cannot be re-published elsewhere even in an adapted and modified form.Thereafter, it must be acknowledged that the piece was first published in Cafe Dissensus. Re-publishing articles from Cafe Dissensus in other magazines and newspapers without permission will amount to copyright violation and the publisher is liable to prosecution.] 

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