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Oman by Robert Tyabji CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

The “Ideal” Islamic Polity: History-Making and the Modern Nation-State in Khoja-Moolji’s Sovereign Attachments

At its core, Khoja-Moojli’s work explores the Pakistani culture wars and the affective attachments they elicit in the public domain as a discursive clash between the Tahrik-e-Taliban (TTP) movement and the Pakistani state.

This post, a contribution to the “Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations” symposium, is a shortened version of an essay that will appear in Political Theology.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s Sovereign Attachments: Masculinity, Muslimness and Affective Politics in Pakistan resonated deeply with me, stirring up memories of impassioned arguments with family members about Islam’s place in Pakistan. The role of religion in politics and in the public sphere is a rather common topic amongst Pakistanis, both within the country and as part of the diaspora. My most recent difference of opinion was with an uncle, who furiously condemned the fact that sharīʿa governed the domain of personal status law in Pakistan. To demonstrate the decadence and moral corruption of those who interpreted and practiced sharīʿa, my uncle recounted a story:

One scorching-hot summer’s day, a woman visited an elderly mulla (one educated in religious scholarship), a relative of hers, seeking consultation for a divorce. When she knocked at the mulla’s door, she discovered that he was not at home, but found a young girl inside. When she asked to come in for a drink of water and to escape the heat, the girl replied that she was locked in. Her husband—the mulla—was afraid she would run away.

In sharing this account, my uncle shared his condemnation of religion, which was anchored to a belief that its practitioners were the embodiments of depravity and backwardness—an opinion that is ubiquitous amongst the upper classes of Pakistani society.[i] Such feelings are not only a symptom of upper-class status, but also reflect the undercurrents of colonialism. Through British colonial governance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the stereotypical figure of the perverse and ignorant mulla emerged alongside changing ideas about what was considered authoritative knowledge. Among the upper class, notions of what was useful in education began to shift as colonial administration permeated the wider milieu of the British Raj. The ulama (religious scholars), with their knowledge grounded in the Quran and the Prophetic sunna (ways and deeds of the Prophet), came to be seen as ossified, devalued as the mark of ignorance who deserved only derision. In Khoja-Moolji’s Sovereign Attachments, no figure looms as large as the Mulla as a social trope whose embodiment of religious authority, juridical power, and social mores becomes a site for violent contestation for sovereignty between the colonial (and later nation) state and Islamist movements.    

At its core, Khoja-Moojli’s work explores the Pakistani culture wars and the affective attachments they elicit in the public domain as a discursive clash between the Tahrik-e-Taliban (TTP) movement and the Pakistani state. This conflict emerged after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which led to the rise of the TTP in the borderlands of Afghanistan-Pakistan. This confrontation between conflicting notions of history-making and Islamic religiosity lies at the heart of two different visions of sovereignty and statehood: one anchored to divine authority, while the other is bounded territorially to the land itself.  The affective responses that each side fosters through discursive and audiovisual media are anchored to an assemblage of figurations, histories, and ideas that reveal a singular realization: a layered history runs through such figurations as the mulla or the talib (student), shaped by a vision of time, and deeply indebted to the ongoing legacy of the British Empire and its universalistic vision of liberalism in ways that permeate daily life. Such a history envisions progress in a teleological manner—towards developmental ends.

Liberalism in this context refers to a History that was never a mere narration about the past but a battleground on which the Enlightenment carried out multiple missions against beliefs, practices, and lifeways, including against perceived religious fanaticism and superstition as part of the necessary betterment of the world. The dynamics of empire were inextricably entwined with the power deployed through education where modes of living were justified as fulfilling the “logic” of progress, whilst others were categorized as “backward” to be marginalized and altogether erased. Mass schooling and history worked hand-in-glove through the far-reaching interventions of political and socio-economic power to transform in the register of future time (Uday Mehta 1999; Khoja-Moolji 2018).

Khoja-Moolji’s work on the contentious politics of Islam in the public domain shows that this legacy of progressive time—embedded in political and institutional structures and practices—is one the formerly colonized Muslim World finds impossible to shake off. As such, her book shares common ground with other scholarly works on post-colonial societies of the Muslim World, including my own Cultivating the Past, Living the Modern: Politics of Time in the Sultanate of Oman. Both books shed light on the crucial realization that national histories—the ethical ways of life they cultivate to foster normative citizenship—are products of trans-historical forces, structured and structuring power relations that define the parameters of national sovereignty in today’s post-colonial world through practices of inclusion and exclusion.  In both works, the plan of progress can be detected where schooling is linked to “stages” of historical development in ways that attempt to domesticate the relationship between politics and Islamic religiosity in the public domain along progressive lines. Both works emphasize attempts to pummel Islamic authority and law into hierarchical relationships in attempts to align the very definition of religiosity with the governing logics of empire and the subsequent nation-state. 

The place of religion, historically determined, became the site upon which notions such as authoritative knowledge, ethics, law and identity came to have political consequences in the British Raj and throughout the rest of the colonized Muslim World—including Oman, the site of my research[ii]. Religion was thus a place of continual warfare from the nineteenth into twenty-first centuries, underwritten by orientalist cultural tropes buttressed by developmental progress as a guiding assumption. Such societies are deeply shaped by a colonial past, including by a historical imagination that envisions progress as a stagiest theory of history and that instructs ethical action towards a desired future—one that anchors European ideas of political modernity. The idea of development as a goal was ensconced in political and administrative governing structures to the extent that it deeply conditioned post-colonial nation-states. This vision of progressive history was grounded in an ethical vision that sustained quotidian daily life. Throughout this era, the West has groused continually about the failure of former colonized societies to “catch up,” using this chronological “History of Civilization” as its scale. This sense of historicism, which came about in the age of empire, identified religion as the hallmark of backwardness. Progress meant secularization; religion’s role in the public sphere would be managed in ways amenable to the liberal capitalist-minded empire and its successor, the homogenizing modern nation-state.

As Pakistan and Oman each coped with the aftermath of colonial rule, modern state-building (from 1947 in Pakistan and from 1970 in Oman) unleashed violent transformative forces that sought to refigure social and cultural relationships by deploying new dynamics of inclusion and exclusion to fulfill a developmental telos reworked from the imperial script. This new international order of sovereign states became fractured abodes, whose participants had to pick up the pieces to create a whole that made sense as part of a world of modern constitutional government. Religion played an immanent role in the history of colonialism and nationalism, even as it was often perceived as an awkward fit in the progressive saga of the nation-state.

For example, even as the founding of Pakistan was tethered to the idea of an Islamic utopia where Islam would come to practical fruition for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, it was, as Khoja-Moolji notes (11), “operating within the Westphalian state model,” that managed how Islam was organized and deployed as part of daily life. For post-1970 Oman, in turn, creating a secularized, British-sanctioned Sultanate entailed excising the centuries old discursive tradition of Ibadi Islamic scholarship, its ethical and legal parameters, as well as the very existence of the twentieth-century Ibadi Imamate from the public domain. In refiguring religious tradition, new national polities were born, forged by remaking religious, ethical and political life in accordance with specific norms defined by a chronological, progressive historicism.

For Khoja-Moolji, the period marked by the US occupation of Afghanistan from 2001 onwards, brought attention to the ways Islam was harnessed to shape normative notions of sexuality and gender figurations – the brave soldier, the dutiful daughter, mourning mother. Their pervasive and systemic dissemination aimed to cohere kinship feelings and affective ties to produce the effect of Pakistan as a coherent state entity in the face of violent religious confrontation by Islamist opposition movements in the AfPak borderlands.  In Oman, under a similar threat of Civil War on both religious and socialist fronts, a secularized Sultanate was established from 1970 onwards through creating an infrastructure of historic restoration programs, museums and publications.  This heritage infrastructure cleaved through the temporal assumptions of Ibadi sharī‘a time and its relations to the past. The materiality of religious linked objects and sites – including forts, mosques and sharī‘a manuscripts – once embedded in the morally premised religious social practices of the Ibadi Imamate (1913-1958), now assumed a pedagogical mode of representation which substantiated a Sultanate. Oman, as a coherent state entity was actualized through purging Islam from the business of politics and law and anchoring religion to territorially bounded concepts of culture and civilization instead.  In both books, Islam is refigured into domains consonant with territorially grounded political attachments.

On a performative basis, cultural texts in both countries circulate continually—from textbooks to audiovisual media and art, entrenching through reiterating these normative understandings of territorial citizenship to sustain such a religious space. They define the parameters of what it means to be a “good” Muslim citizen by drawing on discourses of gender, sexuality, kinship, tradition, and modernity to generate affective ties and define the specificity of each national community. In the post-9/11 world, the Talib (religious student)is synonymous with the mulla, becoming, with his sexual perversions and ignorance, the embodiment of “bad” Islam. Pakistan’s state media circulated this set of tropes, marked as hallmarks of under development. In Omani media, too, the figuration of the Islamist fanatic is pigeon-holed as under developed through his/her focus on an exemplary Islamic past with no acknowledgement of change or modernity. If the past as material heritage is embraced, the modern state requires that it be adapted to the possibilities of an open and changing future, the focal point in a modernist nation-state. Both countries hone the vision of adapting to a progressively open future that defines the modern through widely circulating cultural repetitive texts that sediment emotional attachments, a sense of history, and an ethico-religious mode of being to the territorial nation- state. It is through their attempts to reconcile Islam with the modernity project (and its historicist imagination) that these countries enact sovereignty.

[i] For more on the ubiquity of stereotypes of religious scholars or ulama, please see Naveeda Khan’s Muslim Becoming (2012), p. 147–170.

[ii] See Cultivating the Past, Living the Modern: Politics of Time in the Sultanate of Oman (Cornell University Press: 2021).

Introduction: Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations

The essays seek a genealogy of and reckoning with the place of religion in modern regimes of sovereignty, its pre-colonial histories and post-colonial legacies, as well as an accounting of the fissures that remain in its emplacement, out of which new life continues to grow.

Unity of Being against State and Capital

In hearing [Fadl’s] story, we follow the travels of wandering saints and pilgrims, the insurrections of Malayali and Arab rebels, and the armed forces of the British and Ottoman Empires.

On Milinda Banerjee’s The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India

Specifically, in Banerjee’s work, the sovereign is at once a figure that was used extensively for conjuring anew political and ethical communities and a bridge (or more accurately a plurality of local constructions) for forming, ironically, a non-monarchical Indian nation-state.

The “Ideal” Islamic Polity: History-Making and the Modern Nation-State in Khoja-Moolji’s Sovereign Attachments

At its core, Khoja-Moojli’s work explores the Pakistani culture wars and the affective attachments they elicit in the public domain as a discursive clash between the Tahrik-e-Taliban (TTP) movement and the Pakistani state.

The Public Lives of Sovereignty

By furnishing us with analyses of protests, citizen-generated media, and everyday conversations through which relations of sovereignty are rerouted, the books extend our understanding of the cultural dimensions of sovereignty.

Religion and National Integration in Sudan and India

How can political actors use and misuse the ‘facts’ of history to rally constituencies to their side (and against one another), facilitate transfers of power, and legislate policies that unevenly impact different communities under the guise of corrective work?

A Comment on Christopher Tounsel, Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan

My concluding question is whether the idea of religion itself both in its oppressive and liberatory manifestations becomes, in combination with the state, a recipe for spiraling trauma and terror.

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