In the process of discussing my paper on Muharram rituals with a very knowledgeable Muslim friend, he often remarked that I have the tendency to relativize aspects. I often say that certain statements are someone’s opinions rather than facts or the truth. I also tend to be fairly non-judgmental when listing these opinions in the paper. He in turn thought that there lacks a standard of or quest for truth in my research process. I thought that within academic discipline, one should have certain degree of suspense. But I also agreed with him to some extent, because as a non-Muslim, I do not share the same set of questions as many Muslims when studying Islamic rituals. The larger problem was that I found him to have little understanding of the purpose or methods of historical inquiry and told him so. In comparing different forms of rituals, history cannot say that this or that form is superior but rather it would just present the changes and link it to further larger trends. Furthermore, the rituals that have antiquity are not always even the “right” or “Orthodox” tradition judged by the believers themselves. The believers may often cite historical antiquity as a source, but they may not as well. I found that this passage I read today from Henry Corbin’s book Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth addresses this tension we could not name ourselves:
Our authors suggest that if the past were really what we believe it to be, that is, completed and closed, it would not be the grounds of such vehement discussions. They suggest that all our acts of understanding are so many recommencements, re-iterations of events still unconcluded. Each one of us, willy-nilly, is the initiator of events in "Hurqalya," whether they abort in its hell or bear fruit in its paradise. (Prologue, 1960)
The difficulty of posing a dialogue between History and practice can be gauged by this analysis. What historians see as a relic of the past cannot be accepted by the people who continue to view the Shi‘a schism as a political event that forms the “grounds of such vehement discussions.”
|Jaipur during Muharram, 1983. Photo by Sudhir Kasliwal|
My friend also charged that I do not cite Shi‘a authors in the discussions regarding Shi‘a faith and practices, which partly invokes the age-old debate between who has the right over interpretation of experience and knowledge: the practitioner or the theorist. Recently I have been reading the book The Cracked Mirror which explores this debate. The discussion highlights the definition of experience is crucial. Scholar Sundar Sarukkai notes how Indian philosophers, unlike Cartesian thinkers, do not distinguish between knowledge and experience. Once one accepts this challenge, it is difficult to say whether a unique experience should be the superior basis for the truth pertaining to that experience over a kind of “knowledge.” Both experience and knowledge can be first-hand and true, if we can attain an common denominator of what is true. But the problem is that nowadays, academics don’t necessarily have one. So experience often trumps knowledge.
Sarukkai also used the ideas of Jürgen Habermas to address the moral burden of theory proposed by scholar Dr. Gopal Guru. Guru has noted the phenomenon of theoretical hegemony, in which some groups are seen as data (people of color and Dalits) while other dominant groups are seen as more theoretical (white men and Brahmins). Habermas’ hopes that theory can contribute to liberal democracy to prevent the rise of neo-Nazis. Sarukkai interprets Habermas’ need for “moral responsibility” into his “guilt” as a post-Holocaust German. He does not mention how post-Holocaust Jewish scholars have responded to Habermas, which would be very interesting to read. In contrast, Gopal Guru would not find “guilt” helpful in the Indian situation for changing hegemonic discourse: once Dalits understand the importance of regaining academic resources and theoretical capabilities, then the process would require more assertion from Dalits. I also agree that while many upper caste scholars have recognized the need for other theories articulated by “Others,” the effectiveness of noblisse oblige is questionable.
Another friend, who is an anthropologist, has noted yesterday on how anthropology as a discipline now accepts more theories from the non-Western “Others.” She prides on the fact that anthropologists are closer to non-Western “Others” than other disciplines. She notes how it is very difficult to engage with academics on a theoretical basis if one continues to cite ethnographic data to refute the theory. One should rather engage in formulating one’s own theory and analytic frameworks. But in my experience, the resistance to learn about examples from “the field” or an alien context from scholars of all backgrounds (West and non-West) is acute. I can only hope that this kind of attitude does not extend to “alien” theories as well. I also questioned the effectiveness of this approach, especially after reading parts of The Cracked Mirror. So far I have not learned theory in academia based on Indian / South Asian concepts. Another historian present chimed in on how Subaltern Studies could represent a new kind of South Asian theory, but after I retorted, he also self-deprecatingly said that his comment was made in jest. There are attempts in China to formulate theories, but I have not read them in detail to comment.
In general, I tend to agree with Habermas’ idea that everyone should share the moral burden of interpretation rather than attribute that one certain group has more moral or theoretical authority. But the problem of theoretical dominance cannot be undone through moral exhortation. Brahmin / “White” Guilt cannot be the only source that propels the rise of theoretical interpretation by “Others.” So while I may cite Shi‘a authors on their observations of Muharram, perhaps it will still be years to come before I actually read or encounter a Shi‘a theory on religious studies or rituals partly due to the hegemony that excludes these theories.