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Discursive Conflicts and intellectual debates: Identifying the traditional Muslim in Kerala

By Muhammad Madappalli

Conflict is the other side of cooperation and progress.  It cannot be always conceptualized as a destructive force; rather, its functional aspect is vibrant and rich. It plays a very critical role in the development of a group, community, and society. It’s the source of ‘replication’ of one’s character in other, and is, therefore, cause for the ‘revitalization of the traditions and norms’ (Coser, 1956).

But, the explosiveness and divisiveness of conflict undermines the conceptualization of its functional aspect. Yet, as Coser argues, it cannot be denied that conflict promotes loyalty within groups, social change, and creates new levels of social integration.

Apart from this direct implication of conflict in the society, there is another functional aspect that remains untouched in the academic and cultural discourses. That is at the cognitive levels of the community or how conflict contributes to a change in the perspectives and viewpoints towards the traditions and customary practices. Consequently, conflict revitalizes the customs and traditions or they are ‘replicated.’

Now, it would be interesting to see how a community or social group revitalizes and reforms its identity, when it comes across conflicting relations with various factors. I approach the Muslims of Kerala as a text because they, so interestingly, have been in conflicting relations with various socio-cultural and intellectual elements for decades.

Muslims are a textually defined community. In addition to the text, their identity and existential realities are formed and, their social acknowledgements are evolved, according to many factors like the socio-cultural ones, intellectual ones, conflicting relations, and the ritualistic traditions. Imtiaz Ahmad finds this localizing phenomenon as common among various Muslim communities like that of India and Iran.  However, among these factors, the influence of socio-cultural factors, customary experiences, and traditional inhibitions undoubtedly play a critical role in the evolution of any society. The case of Kerala Muslims is not different. There is another factor that played an important role in the intellectual growth and identity creation of the Muslim community of Kerala. That is the critical discourse and intellectual debates.  We can call these discourses and debates a result of the conflicting relations between various sects.

Throughout history, the Muslim community is has been seen to be engaging in intellectual debates and conflicting relations between sects.  This caused for an unconscious internalization of the healthy ideas of the opposing faction, even by the scholar community. However, the traditional ulama and the traditional strand of Muslims continued their inter- and intra-dialogues which helped to educate both sides equally.  The Muslim community in Kerala, in fact, can be viewed as an amalgam of various factions, which we may refer to as ‘reformist’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘traditionalist’, ‘revisionist’, and ‘modernist’ Muslims.

Tradition transcends the terminological boundaries

The taxonomical understanding of the Muslim communities of Kerala as traditional and modern ones is not new. Keeping in mind Syed Husain Nasr’s understanding of this sort of categorization, we can say that the traditional Muslims are the non-fundamentalist, non-conservative, and inclusive community. Their traditional mindset is not antagonistic to the modern elements at all; rather, it is more accommodative and flexible in nature. The same argument has been pushed by many scholars complementing each other regarding non-static and changing nature.

One can see the exact implication of the changing nature of the traditional Muslims in Kerala. While one can see the terminological boundaries, one can also experience how such boundaries are transcended. Their identity is an amalgam of various elements, which are conspicuous and the result of a conflict between various sects. In functional terms, the Muslim community is the most vibrant and accepting of differences, inculcating reformist ideas without compromising on the fundamentals.

Now, it is interesting to note that the community which is so traditional is also very accommodating at the same time.  Such communities are seldom found in other parts of India. There should be efforts  to inquire the place of intellectual debates and discourses in the forming of such a community:  how and why this particular form of society developed in Kerala, what sort of intellectual influences shaped  its growth, how conflict contributed  to the evolution of  this particular community identity. During the first wave, ritualistic traditions, scholastic leaderships, and socio-cultural transactions were the features of the community in its developmental stages. The second wave is marked by their combat against the colonial powers. This phase started in the sixteenth century with the Portuguese invasion and greed.  The resistance continued against Dutch in the seventeenth century and against the British in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and the twentieth centuries. And the third wave of the development among the Muslim community could be seen from the ideological innovations that came from the North African and the West Asian countries. By the third wave, the traditionality of the community was rooted and established. A scholarly stratum was created or evolved,  which could engage in all the socio-cultural issues of the community. Though these three waves played a critical role in developing and understanding the Muslim community of Kerala, the present social identity has been influenced more by the third wave.

However, the peculiar feature in these three waves of developmental trajectory is the presence of conflict and confrontation. The first wave is unique in its conflict with the cultural elements like, for example, the ways of constructing Masjids. The second wave is unique in its conflict with the religious aspects of the socio cultural life like, for example, the fight against the Christian ideas of colonial powers. And the third or the last wave is unique in its conflict with the intellectual aspects of socio-cultural thoughts.

The present state of Kerala Muslims could be conceptualized only by understanding these encounters. The Muslim community has evolved from this intellectual transaction, in general. The traditional community has assimilated or accommodated many elements of the so-called ‘modernist’, ‘fundamentalist’, and ‘reformist’ sects or factions among them. The intellectual growth and, consequently, their socio-cultural developments and their present identity are different from what is witnessed among spatially specific Muslim communities. The basic causes for this are the perennial intellectual engagements and continuous competitive and conflicting relations.

Historically, the Muslim community has always engaged and evolved through discussions, debates, critiques in search of truth.  All the factions believe that the truth is with them. This is very similar to Foucault’s idea of ‘Truth’ as contextually developed and existing. In other words, the meta-truth of the fundamentals of the religion is continually supported by the contextually relied ‘truth’, developed through the hinging and unhinging knowledge practices of the ulama. As Geertz says, the ulama have always been questioned by other ulama without allowing any one scholar to occupy the post of priesthood. Likewise in the religious environment of Kerala, the competing and conflicting search for ‘truth’ continues.  That is the reason why the different religious groups don’t even interfere into such social ‘issues’.

In short, the functionality of the discussions and debates among the Muslim community of Kerala must be seen as a part of what is going on in other parts of the world. The Muslim community is searching for the truth and is sincere in its attempt to locate what is normally believed to be the truth. As a result, the internal or intra-communal competitions are high, which contribute to socio-religious awakening and continuous intellectual engagements, pushing the community for infrastructural and structural developments in all walks of social life.

[Muhammad Madappalli is a doctoral candidate at Centre for Studies on Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.]

[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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