Islam and Muslim History in South Asia by Francis Robinson. Pub: Oxford University Press, New Delhi, India, 2000. Pp. 299. Hbk: Rs.595 / £18.95.
History is a broad church (to put it mildly) and the term ‘historian’ covers a bewildering range of sinners, from those deliberately hiding from unpleasant realities in the study of the deadest-possible past (agrarian life in the Aztec empire, say) to contemporary historians whose agendas are blatantly political, with no end of variation between. Until a few short years ago, the study of Islam and Muslim societies was widely seen in the West as the former; now, as the struggle of Muslims around the world to reassert the values of Islam in the ordering of their societies has become a major factor in contemporary history, numerous academics have emerged (particularly in the US) whose prime object is to distort and misrepresent both Islam and Muslim history, and to promote an understanding of the nature of human history and society that serves the West’s political and ideological interests.
In view of this, it is understandable that plenty of Muslims simply dismiss all Western academics studying Islam and Muslims as ‘orientalists.’ The question of the influence that a scholar’s faith, politics and other prejudices have on his work is an old one in both social sciences and history, and it is undoubtedly the case that everyone’s work is coloured by his understanding of society. Nonetheless, it is too pat simply to dismiss all non-Muslims working on Muslim societies, as many Muslims are prone to do.
Francis Robinson, professor of the history of South Asia at London University and vice-principal of Royal Holloway College, London, is well established as a senior scholar of Islam and Muslim history in the Indian subcontinent. At a time when many have tried to minimise the role of Islam in the history of the region, he has recognised and emphasised the importance of Islamic values in influencing the social attitudes and political behaviour of Muslims, to the extent that he has been accused by some Indians of being a secret Muslim.
This volume, published by the Oxford University Press, New Delhi, is a collection of his essays and reviews previously published in compilations and journals over the last two decades. As Robinson says in his introduction, such scattered publications are often seen only by a few specialists and are hard for readers to obtain, making it difficult to gauge an author’s broader understanding and the cumulative import of his (or her) work. This collection, along with a volume of writings on Robinson’s specialist subject, the Firangi Mahal school of ulama in India, published by Black Permanent, are intended to fill this gap in his case.
In his introduction, Robinson alludes to some of the issues that arise when working on Islam, telling us that he was criticised by some modern, secular Indian Muslim scholars for focusing on ‘retrogressive’ forces among Indian Muslims instead of working with ‘progressive’ forces in Indian society. Robinson comments:
I had no answer except to say that I thought the subject interesting, [and] that it was one of the privileges of the scholar to study what he thought was important rather than to follow a particular political agenda.
He also recognises the impact of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, in this field as in so many others:
Now, after the Iranian Revolution, the failure of so many socialist regimes, and the emergence of religious revivalism as a fact of major significance in world affairs, few would question the value of studying religious ideas, their interpretations and transmission. Indeed, they are a prime concern, for better or for worse, of governments and intelligence services throughout the world.
There is ample evidence — usually circumstantial and indirect — of the role of governments and intelligence services in setting the agendas of many contemporary Western scholars of Islam. Robinson, however, is not one of them. His interest in Muslim society long predates the move of Islam from the periphery to the centre of political discourse, and his focus is on the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent rather than the traditional heartlands of Islam (although he himself would wince at the distinction). Anyone who reads the papers in this volume, and is familiar with his better-known, less academic works, including his Atlas of the Islamic World since 1500 (1983) and two substantial volumes that he has edited, the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives (1989) and the Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World (1996), would have no trouble in accepting at face value his own explanation for his interest and object:
The past is always another country, another culture. One of the greatest quests for the historian, and also the greatest pleasure, is to reach out to and try to bring to life what it was to be alive in that other country and in another time. I seek to explore and to savour the lives of those who have lived in the past, and to give it value. The aim is to get well behind, indeed to strip, the veils set up by language, history, discourses of power or mere forgetfulness.
Only one paper in this volume is written in the context of the debate on Islam in contemporary and future history. Called ‘The Muslim and the Christian Worlds: Shapers of Each Other’, it is a response to the paradigm of civilizational conflict between Islam and the West proposed by Samuel Huntington in his infamous essay ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ (1993). Like many Western scholars, Robinson is shocked by Huntington’s characterisation of Islam as having “bloody borders” and as representing a threat to “world peace”. His response is to highlight the long interaction between the Muslim and Western worlds, and the extent to which they have contributed to each other’s development; unlike many Westerners, he acknowledges — albeit not as emphatically as many Muslims might like — the destructive impact of Western political imperialism. The fact that he is primarily a historian helps one to make allowances for the fact that he fails to acknowledge that this impact is deliberate, continuous and increasing; unlike many other Western academics, he at least makes no attempt to disguise or deny the nature of the contemporary West.
Elsewhere, his reputation for understanding and sympathy for Muslims and Islam is based on academic debates rather than political ones, and contributions to such debates feature prominently in this volume. The essence of these debates concerns the extent to which Muslim societies and the attitudes and behaviour of Muslims in public life are shaped by Islamic values and attitudes compared to other ones. This is a particularly keen debate in the Indian context, where Muslims live as a substantial and influential minority in a predominantly non-Muslim society. Many Indian Muslims — particularly since 1947 — have sought to play down the influence of Islam and Islamic values and symbols in Indian Muslim history, preferring to highlight the extent to which Indian Muslims have been influenced by uniquely Indian factors.
Oddly enough, Robinson — a non-Muslim outside observer — has provided a corrective, highlighting both the importance of Islam as an influence on Muslim political and social behaviour and also the extent to which some Indian Muslims have consciously or unconsciously censored their own work. His insight in this area is based on a keen understanding of the impact of British colonialism on Muslim society, and particularly of the mindsets of different sectors of Muslim society in the aftermath of the British destruction of the Mughal empire in 1857.
Papers on this impact, on related themes such as the impact of print on Muslim India, and the development of Muslim political attitudes, particularly separatism, in British India, form a large part of this volume. They include ‘Islam and Muslim Society in South Asia’ (1983), ‘Religious Change and the Self in Muslim South Asia’, ‘The Muslims of Upper India and the Shock of the Mutiny’ (1993), ‘Islam and Muslim Separatism’ (1979) and ‘The Congress and Muslims’ (1987). Also included in the volume are several reviews of major works in the field of Islamic history in India, originally published in academic journals, which show Robinson’s impressive breadth of knowledge and insight in a range of areas.
Inevitably, in the nature of such works, there are plenty of interpretations, analyses and emphases in Robinson’s writings with which a critical reader might disagree; bitter experience has taught many Muslims to approach writings by non-Muslims on such subjects with suspicion. But this volume is proof of the fact that non-Muslim scholars of Islamic history do exist who have a genuine sympathy with and empathy for the Muslim historical experience, and whose writings can contribute to our own understanding of our histories and societies.