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  • Published 29.06.07

Islam in the public sphere: Religious groups in India 1900-47 By Dietrich Reetz, Oxford, Rs 650

This book “traces the genesis of madrasa-based movements and Islamic groups in South Asia and...the roots of the current state of Islamic activism and militancy in the region”. But it is neither about Islamic activism nor militancy. Nor is there any attempt to unravel the causes of the recent spurt of terrorist activities all over the world. Rather, this work focuses on significant religious groups in India around 1900-1947.

Historians and scholars have overlooked the importance of different Islamic groups in the years before the struggle for independence gathered momentum. There were quite a number of these groups in 1900 and they multiplied over the years during the British raj. Reetz shows how these groups captured the imagination of the Muslim people. Though immensely diverse, these Islamic groups carved out a space for themselves during and after the Independence. They succeeded in influencing the public mind — what Reetz calls the “public sphere” — in different ways.

But the scope of this phrase is extended to include the “interplay of discourse, institution building, and activism creating public space for the formation, contestation and implementation of desired values”. And by applying these concepts Reetz tries to make some sense out of the conglomeration of religious activities in which these groups engaged. Using a wide range of sources, Reetz suggests that though apparently religious, these Islamic groups were trying to carve out their own respective spaces in the society because of political compulsions.

At times, Reetz is prone to certain basic errors like most Westerners writing about Islam. For example, Islam was not revealed, as Reetz thinks, by the Prophet Mohammed. However, Reetz rightly points out that all “reformers starting from Walliullah emphasized the need to revive and strengthen faith and piety.”

Reetz divides the book into six chapters beginning with the concept of the “public sphere” and ending with the social commitment of Islamic groups. In between come the different Islamic movements, their doctrines, discourses, their difference from one another and the outcome of their political participation in social life. Reetz tries to fit the different movements and groups into his theory of the “public sphere” by arguing that these groups could not do away with the idea of political control in a society that put them in competition with other hardline religious groups. He may be right here, to some extent, but that was not always the case.

Whether one agrees with the author or not as far as this theory is concerned, one cannot deny that he has not done his homework well. The reader may find a veritable storehouse of information on all the Islamic groups in India in this book. But Reetz’s manner of treatment is cursory, giving a historical sketch of a movement or a group. He fails to rise above this. Although Reetz takes up the topic from different angles, the same groups come up every now and then. However, despite these repetitions, the book does not necessarily become desultory.

Reetz’s book is a welcome departure from the available literature on Islam. Though academic in style and content, it provides a good introduction to the different Islamic groups who fought for political power before India became independent.