Islamic Reform, South Asia, and Self-Reflection

I revisited the thoughts of Islamic reformers such as Abul A'la Mawdudi (or Maududi) after two years, albeit in different contexts, and the material still very riveting. I first read Indian-born Pakistani Islamist scholar Mawdudi in a Theocracy to Democracy course. The course discussed ranging opinions on the state of religion and politics in Europe, the U.S., and Islamic countries. The course did not specify which Islamic country, since the authors we read, including Sayyid Qutb, had enormous international influence on how people viewed Islam and politics. Based on the theme, we focused on sharia law and the question whether our "rights" come from a divine justification (in Chinese there is also the saying "天赋人权," God-given rights), and if so, what will justify our rights after secularization. I saw many shared anxieties between the Islamic reformers and the Chinese reformers of the early 20th century. The readings gave me the impression that Islamic reformists focused creating societies governed by Islamic mores as opposed to the "Western lifestyle." The Islamic reformers are very relevant and champion many supporters, some which became terrorists such as Osama Bin Laden. Since the Theocracy to Democracy course placed terrorists in a transnational context, I did not think of any country specifically. 

Only today after reading the 2008 article Islamic Reform and Modernities in South Asia did I realize how the transnational exchange between Islamic reformers could not have happened without the reification of Islam, or how Islam became to be conceptualized as a system. Mawdudi was one of the first to describe Islam as a system and this idea also became popularized through subsequent "how-to-be-a-good-believer" guides. In the sharp analysis Robinson points out 
this reification process stemmed in part, too, from two additional influences: the distancing impact of print that enabled Muslims to stand apart from their faith, analyse and conceptualise it, and their growing consciousness, which was especially strong in India, that they were living alongside other faiths, at times real competitors, which were also reified, or being so. For the first time, in the late nineteenth century, Muslims begin to use the term ‘Islam’ not just to describe their relationship to God but also to describe an ideal religious pattern, or a mundane religious system, or even just Islamic civilisation. (276)
I also saw the close connection between Mawdudi and South Asian realities. This is not a coincidence, since one of my Modern Indian Studies course assigned this article written by British scholar of Islam, Dr. Francis Robinson. Islamic reformers in South Asia sought to root out "indigenous customs that had come to be incorporated into Islamic practice, for instance, following the Hindu custom of not marrying widows." (262) In the 1920s, the Sunni Islamic reform school of Deoband and its political counterpart pressured "the colonial state to remove all elements of custom from the personal law." (275) Only in this light can one realize the oversimplification that sees reformed Islam as the sole competing force with Western secularism and "rationality." In the South Asian context, Islam has been in competition with the modern versions of Hinduism. 

Robinson argues that the spread of Islam as a system depended on the circulation of print--
the introduction of print and the translation of the Qur’an and large numbers of important texts into the regional languages of India. The reforming ‘ulama were amongst the very first to use the printing press; rightly, they saw it as the means to fashion and to consolidate their constituency outside the bounds of colonial rule. Reform, moreover, reached beyond the world of the literate. From the 1920s, it was carried forward by the Tabligh-i Jama‘at, or preaching society, in which the devout set aside a period each year to work in teams that transmitted the reforming message orally to small town and village communities.
Circulation of printed texts was one of the two ways in which Islamic scholars of the Deoband school advocated for itjihad (independent reasoning) over taqlid (tradition of precedent). Before, person-to-person transmission of ‘the golden chain of sincere Muslims’ was a model, which expanded to "embrace sufis, the Shia and the descendants of the Prophet" generally. Spiritual
authority is derived from linkage to the origins of the tradition through an unbroken chain of personal transmission. Central is the belief that truth does not reside in documents... but in ‘authentic human beings and their personal connections with one another’. (266)
The second way was to contact directly with the Qur’an and Hadith without former interpretations and make "them relevant to the modern world." Deobandis "cast aside a thousand years of intellectual effort in fashioning a Muslim society," with Mawdudi taking the lead (267). This turn was possibly considering that the Muslim intellectual world saw a crisis at the end of the Turkish Khilafat between 1919 and 1923. Robinson believes that since the past decade, Islamic reformism has achieved success for coming to terms with modernity and answering modern anxieties, after surveying much evidence that shows how "Islamic reform both opened the way to modernity and then worked with it." (279)

Darul Uloom Deoband is an Islamic school in India where the Deobandi Islamic movement was started. It is located at Deoband, a town in Saharanpur district of Uttar PradeshIndia
Robinson's article also shows the less politically-charged aspects of these Islamic reformers' thoughts, such as the emphasis on an individual's daily self-reflection and ethics. Individual reflection grew increasingly significant in a modern Muslim's religious life. In order to be a good believer, "Muslims had to ask themselves regularly if they had done all in their power to submit to God and to carry out His will in the world. " (272) Deobandi reformer Ashraf ‘Ali Thanwi called for regular self-examination, morning and evening, "to ensure purity of intentions and to avoid wrongdoing." (272)  New trends emerging in the Prophet's biographies oppose to my impression of Islamic reform as "political Islam"--
Muhammad is depicted not as the ‘perfect man’ of the Sufi tradition, but as the perfect person. Less attention, as Cantwell Smith has pointed out, is given to his intelligence, political sagacity and capacity to harness the new social forces in his society and much more to his qualities as a good middle-class family man: his sense of duty and his loving nature, and his qualities as a good citizen, his consideration for others and in particular those who are less fortunate. ... the concern is less with what the individual might have contributed to Islamic civilisation and more on his life in his time and his human qualities. (273)
This aspect of Islam is not directly related to either courses' themes, one which discusses separation of religion and politics and one which explores 20th century religious movements relation to nationhood. But I personally found it very intriguing since I reflect a lot. My Muslim friend Maaz also said that he looks into the mirror often and asks himself if he had done the right things that day or week. I once thought it was just like Confucius who once said that he reflects three times a day (吾日三省吾身). After reading Islamic Reform and Modernities in South Asia I also saw the link between Islam and this practice.