Brannon D. Ingram, Revival from Below: The Deoband Movement and Global Islam (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Brannon D. Ingram (BI): The Deoband movement is a network of Muslim seminaries that originated in colonial India, with the founding of the Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband seminary in 1866. Today hundreds of seminaries around the world are based on the model of the original Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband. Throughout South Asia and among global South Asian diasporas, the Deoband movement has had a profound impact on Muslims’ understandings of Islamic law, Sufism, and politics—themes I expand on below. I wrote the book because, despite this influence, the contemporary, global history of the movement remained relatively unexplored. Most of the scholarship on the movement has focused on its origins, its role in anticolonial politics in India, and the Deobandi roots of the Taliban. Few scholars had examined the movement’s vexed and ambivalent relationship with Sufism and Sufi devotions. My book explores those subjects in colonial India and in twentieth-century South Africa. South Africa is one of the sites where Deobandis have made the most indelible mark outside of the Indian subcontinent. My book is the first monograph to examine the Deobandis in a global context, and the first to focus on Deobandis’ approach to Sufism.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

BI: The book addresses a wide range of issues and topics—Islamic law, ethics, politics, and Sufism—all of which intersect in the history of the Deoband movement. The book’s introduction, which I wrote to be accessible to non-specialists, situates the Deoband movement within three frames: the contested status of Sufism in modern Islam, the role of the ‘ulama in Muslim public life, and how the movement prompts us to re-conceptualize Islamic “tradition.” I develop all three topics throughout the book.

The first chapter of the book examines the founding of the Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband and the emergence of the Deoband movement in colonial India, particularly in the context of Muslim public life after the failed uprising of 1857. Politically chastised, the Muslims of north India largely retreated into scholarly enclaves and sought to revive Islam through the study of the Qur’an and (especially) the Hadith. I situate this history within emergent shifts in the understanding of “religion” itself. Deobandis, I argue, reimagined the seminary as a purely “religious” institution in a way that it had not been in the Mughal period, and reimagined the ‘ulama, accordingly, as stewards of Muslim public life rather than, as they had been previously, mostly civil servants and administrators. I also show how they reframed the knowledge they purveyed as “religious” knowledge to distinguish it from the “secular” knowledge promoted by the British.

Part of the new public role of the ‘ulama was informing lay Muslims of the legal and theological dangers of certain Sufi practices. The second chapter focuses on two of these dangers (bid‘a and shirk) as they pertain to two major forms of Sufi devotion (the saint’s death anniversary, or ‘urs, and the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday celebration, the mawlud or mawlid). The Deobandis saw bid‘a (illicit innovation in religious matters) as particularly dangerous because it corrupts even well-meaning expressions of piety. Bid‘a was not simply anything “new” that did not exist in the time of the Prophet. Instead, they saw it as anything that simulated the normativity of revelation—that is, that is done with the same degree of reverence, intentionality, or consistency as what God commands. This is precisely why the Deobandi ‘ulama became fixated on combatting it, especially within popular Sufi devotions.

At the same time, Deobandis taught that Sufism was a necessary element of a Muslim’s spiritual life, and encouraged Muslims to find a Sufi master. Deobandis sought to engage emergent Urdu reading publics in the task of reform and revival, but attempted to preserve their authority in the process. Print was an invitation to develop person-to-person relationships with living Sufi-scholars. The Deobandis’ ambivalent relationship to print is an important thread that weaves the book together. I show how the Deobandis walked an interpretive tightrope between educating lay Muslims just enough to understand bid‘a and shirk, but not so much that these readers would believe they did not need the ‘ulama’s guidance. I describe the Deobandis’ ambivalence about print as a tension between bibliocentric and anthropocentric knowledge, terms I borrow from the historian Nile Green. It is a tension, in other words, between knowledge mediated by print alone and knowledge vouchsafed by the living presence of the Sufi-scholars who embody it.

So, Deobandis wanted to deploy print but were wary of its effects. To mitigate those effects, they urged lay Muslims not only to seek out the ‘ulama but to form a relationship with a living Sufi master, ideally in the context of a seminary (madrasa) or a Sufi lodge (khanqah). Here, too, there are concessions to an increasingly print-mediated knowledge economy. Chapter four highlights multiple ways that Deobandis sought to make higher Islamic education accessible, even “easy” to grasp, for lay readers of Urdu texts. Likewise, they wrote texts on Sufism for an emergent middle-class readership, comprised of pious Muslims who wanted to form a deeper relationship to Muslim spirituality but did not have time to do stay in a khanqah. If lay Muslims could not come to the madrasa or the khanqah, Deobandis would (in theory) bring it to them.

Chapter five argues that the Tablighi Jama‘at (hereafter TJ), now the world’s largest Muslim revivalist movement, emerged out of this very dynamic. The founder of the TJ, Muhammad Ilyas, was a Deobandi scholar who set out to develop a way to revitalize lay Muslims’ piety directly, in a way mediated primarily by people, not texts, emphasizing correction of belief and perfection of ritual practice. I also show how the early TJ was an outgrowth of the same ambivalence about ‘ulama authority that Deobandis expressed in their texts. That is, Ilyas was preoccupied with the question of how independent of the ‘ulama his new movement could be.

The TJ became an engine of the Deoband movement’s global expansion. South Africa, home to among the largest number of Deobandi seminaries outside of South Asia, is the site where all of the dynamics discussed above play out in dramatic, sometimes surprising ways. Chapters six and seven follow how Deobandis’ understandings of Sufism and attitudes towards textuality, affect, and politics became mobile, travelling with Deobandi scholars as they migrated to South Africa and as South Africans traveled to South Asia to study at Deobandi seminaries. The final chapter shows how Deobandis’ polemics against local Sufi practices intersected with Muslim politics in the apartheid era. As Muslims from many backgrounds took up the fight against apartheid, Deobandis remained largely quiet. Some even articulated their quiescence in Sufi terms. Meanwhile, their antagonists lambasted the Deobandis for their stance, and often articulated their own struggle for freedom in Sufi terms. South African Muslims who opposed the Deobandis rejected not just the Deobandis’ arguments but their very authority to make them. In this way, the very public debate about Sufism that Deobandis initiated became a debate about the Deoband movement itself.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

BI: This is my first book, but if I can refer to my dissertation as my “previous work,” the book is actually quite different. The dissertation, like the book, focused on the Deobandi critique of Sufism and how these critiques travel, but much of the book was written after the dissertation, including nearly all of chapters one, three and five. My reflections on Muslim publics, and on theorizing Islamic tradition in relation to affect, embodiment and textuality, were mostly developed after the dissertation.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

BI: While the book will have the most direct appeal to scholars of Islam in South Asia and South Africa, particularly those interested in Sufism and Islamic law, I aimed for the book to be at least partly accessible to scholars of Islam and Muslim societies in any context or time period. Beyond academia, though, I also hope that the book serves to correct two misconceptions that are predominant in journalism and policy circles: first, that the Deoband movement can be reduced to its connections to the Taliban and vice versa; second, that Sufism is always and everywhere in tension with the Shari‘a—an idea that few scholars still openly entertain, but which remains endemic within popular understandings of Islam.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

BI: My second book project, currently underway, explores how Muslims have conceptualized and contested the category of “religion.” Much of this history centers around how the category of religion becomes the object of sustained debate under colonialism. I am especially interested in the phenomenon by which certain Muslims, mostly but not exclusively in Islamist contexts, denied that Islam is a “religion” and/or denied that din properly translates as “religion,” as part of a political critique of the category itself. For these figures “religion,” unlike din, was intrinsically private and apolitical, and thus ill-equipped to correspond to a public and avowedly political Islam. I am exploring the colonial-era pathways by which these figures came to conceptualize the category of religion in this way. I situate these debates within broader, intersecting histories of translation within and between Muslim-majority societies, examining how din has been translated into European languages and how “religion” has been translated into Islamicate languages.

Excerpt from the Book

The third major debate within modern Islam that this book explores is how to define and conceptualize tradition. “Tradition” has been a watchword in Islamic studies in the last three decades. The word has become so ubiquitous, in fact, that one may wonder whether its analytical purchase has exhausted itself. Why revisit it here? Simply put, it is impossible to understand the Deoband movement—and, I would argue, modern Islam—without it.

There is no single word in the main languages of the Deoband movement—above all Urdu, followed by Arabic and Persian—that neatly conforms to the English word “tradition,” though a constellation of words falls within its semantic range. For the Deobandis, there are multiple, overlapping phenomena that the word connotes. There is, first and foremost, Islam itself, configured through divine revelation and the transmission of the prophetic Sunna. Sufism, too, is a tradition in its own right—so much so that Nile Green has argued persuasively that Sufism is best understood through the lens of “tradition” rather “mysticism.” And, finally, there is the tradition of Deoband itself.

Perhaps the most influential definition of tradition in Islamic studies comes from philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. MacIntyre famously defined tradition as “an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition, and those internal, interpretative debates through which the meaning and rationale of fundamental agreements comes to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.” Although MacIntyre may help us understand how traditions defend themselves from external challenges and constitute themselves through the pursuit of internal coherence, I find his definition too cerebral, too centered on ideas and not enough on people—in a word, too discursive. As I argue in chapters 4 and 5, most discussions of tradition in Islamic studies have focused too much on discursivity and not enough on affect. I approach affect in terms of ways that emotional valences work in, through, and between bodies—a core theme of affect theory in the last two decades. For my purposes, I am interested in ways that bodily presences authorize particular forms of knowledge. I do not see “knowledge,” in the contexts I explore below, as some sort of discrete, cognitive datum—mere information—that is passed from one person to the next. For one, Deobandis believe that the reliability of knowledge itself is inseparable from the embodied ethics of the persons who transmit it. (Would you learn Sufi asceticism from someone who isn’t an ascetic? Would you study Hadith with a scholar who doesn’t live by them?) But in addition, Deobandis—and they are by no means unique in this respect as Sufis, as scholars, or even as Muslims—believe that pious bodies themselves resonate with an energy (faiz) that transcends discursive knowledge (‘ilm) even as it validates it.

While the study of Islam is certainly moving toward a more nuanced understanding of the embodied transmission of knowledge, scholars of Islam have long been predisposed to see tradition transmitted primarily through texts, both in the modalities of that transmission and in the content transmitted. This explains, in my view, the resilience of the Asadian formation of Islam as “discursive tradition”—so resilient, in fact, that even Asad’s subsequent qualifications of that idea have arguably had less traction than the original essay of 1986 in which he first put it forth. In that essay, Asad argued that “a tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice. . . . A practice is Islamic because it is authorized by the discursive traditions of Islam.” This theorization of tradition, indebted to MacIntyre, has been inadequate for developing a language to understand how traditions are transmitted not just through texts but also through bodies. And Asad, to his credit, has attempted to correct the text-centeredness of his earlier formulation, seeing tradition as both discursive and embodied in various, sometimes conflicting, ways. Not only do traditions transmit knowledge; equally, they transmit affective sensibilities, styles of comportment, and demeanors—not just knowledge, in other words, but also how to embody knowledge. Asad has also recently explored ways in which traditions are not simply fixated on reproducing the past, but are oriented toward unfolding futures.  Traditions are, in a word, “aspirational.”

This book poses the question of tradition, for the Deobandis, as part of a host of questions in the study of Islam broadly. Is tradition transmitted through bodies or books? Does tradition convey its own authority? To what degree should individual Muslims have the latitude to engage with tradition directly, and to what extent must that engagement be mediated? Corporeality is embedded in the very etymology of tradition—from the Latin tradere, “to hand down.” In Adorno’s words, tradere “expresses physical proximity, immediacy—one hand should receive from another.” Books and bodies are, of course, not mutually exclusive; they are mutually constitutive. Books circulate via the bodies that carry them, on the one hand, while corporeal authority is configured through embodiment of scripture and law, on the other. And as Asad suggests, the vitality of a tradition is measured not just by its ability to absorb ruptures but, perhaps even more, by its ability to let internal contradictions subsist. “Tradition accommodates mistakes as well as betrayal; it is not by accident,” he observes (to return again to tradere), “that tradition and treason have a common etymology.”

As I argue in the fifth chapter, Deobandi tradition falls somewhere between two concepts: Sunna and maslak. In Deobandi thought, the maslak (literally “way,” “path”) captures this affective register. This concept connotes the world of shared sensibilities that Deobandi scholars cultivate and pass down through the interplay of books and bodies. I will show how they adapt the Sufi concept of “companionship” (suhbat) between master and disciple to argue that books alone are inadequate on their own to transmit tradition. If the transmission of knowledge in premodern Islam—the classic image is one of students sitting in a circle around a scholar, in a mosque or even under a tree, memorizing texts and receiving an ijaza (permission) to transmit those texts to others—is the very paragon of an anthropocentric knowledge economy, in which the books are secondary to the people who teach them, the “modern” madrasa may be seen as a triumph of bibliocentrism, with its fixed curriculum, salaried faculty, central library, and slate of exams. But it is of course never quite that simple. I argue that Deobandis have attempted to recuperate anthropocentrism in an ever more bibliocentric world in a number of ways: insisting that knowledge cannot come from books alone but requires the guidance of an expert, accentuating the Sufi concept of suhbat (companionship) as the sine qua non of moral self-formation, and reasserting the indispensability of the ‘ulama as the learned individuals who can help the less learned make sense of difficult and often theologically perilous issues.

The maslakis, in a sense, larger and more capacious than what is transmitted through the madrasa. A “common” (‘amm) Muslim, perhaps someone with a middle-class occupation who reads religious texts in his or her spare time, may participate in the maslak without having set foot in a madrasa. In this way, the maslak could be usefully compared with what the philosopher of science Ludwik Fleck called a thought collective (Denkkollektiv): a “community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction.” Every thought collective consists of a dynamic interplay between elites and commoners, the esoteric and the exoteric. Barbara Herrnstein Smith described Fleck’s thought collective as “a set of nested, mutually interacting circles. . . . At the centre is a small inner (‘esoteric’) circle of the elite—experts and elders, master builders and laboratory directors. At the periphery is a large (‘exoteric’) circle—fans, audiences, lay people and the general public. In between is a graduated hierarchy of initiates: students, amateurs, assistants and apprentices.” For Fleck, at the center of an esoteric circle is what he called “journal science”—scientists who conduct experiments and publish the results in journals—and at the exoteric edge of that set of concentric circles is what he called “textbook science”—the first stage of initiation into the esoteric circle.

As I show in chapter 3, the Deobandi scholars at the center of their thought collective were clear that lay Muslims (‘awamm) are no more equipped to opine on legal-theological issues (masa’il) than someone who has read a physics textbook is equipped to run a laboratory. This is critical to understanding both the transmission of knowledge across Deobandi tradition and the maintenance of authority within it. This is, of course, an idealized epistemic relationship between center and periphery that, we will see, is never quite as neat and orderly as the scholars at the center imagine it to be. In the final two chapters, we will witness lay Muslims who willfully and conscientiously locate themselves outside these circles altogether and, indeed, reject the authority of the Deobandis and the authoritative structure they have fashioned.

In sum, then, Deobandi tradition arises out of a tension—sometimes productive, sometimes strained—between the anthropocentric and the bibliocentric, between the centrifugal force of a global movement and the centripetal force of intimate encounters, between the dispersal of books and the proximity of bodies, between esoteric centers and exoteric peripheries, and above all, between the “little” tradition of the maslak, to which they adhere as Deobandis, and the “great” tradition of the Sunna, to which they adhere as Muslims.