Interreligious Debates, Rational Theology, and the ʿUlamaʾ in the Public Sphere: Muḥammad Qāsim Nānautvī and the Making of Modern Islam in South Asia
Naeem, Fuad S.
The nineteenth century was a time of tremendous change for Islamic intellectual traditions in South Asia in an era of colonialism, the decline of traditional authority, and the transformations of modernity. In spite of these challenges, Muslim scholars, theologians, and intellectuals proved to be particularly creative in this period, laying the foundations for the rethinking and reconfiguration of Islamic intellectual traditions in a modern context. The perspectives adopted by modernist and ‘fundamentalist’ Muslims to these modern developments and new contexts have been widely studied. However, the intellectual responses of representatives of the historically continuous classical tradition, the religious scholars (‘ulamā’), theologians, and Sufis, has received far less attention.Mawlānā Muḥammad Qāsim Nanautvī (1833-1880), among the most important figures of modern Sunni Islam in South Asia, was a prominent religious scholar, philosophical theologian, and Sufi. Although he is best remembered for being the co-founder of the school of Deoband, the most influential South Asian Islamic seminary of the last two centuries, his participation in interreligious debates with Christian missionaries and Hindu reformers, including the first public Hindu-Muslim polemics, and his articulation of a rational theology for the public sphere are equally significant. Nanautvī’s career and writings provide an insightful lens onto the ways Islamic intellectual traditions came to be reconfigured by the rise of the public sphere, the emergence of reified and oppositional religious identities in South Asia, and the increasing popularity of modern rationalism and empiricism. Nanautvī’s work demonstrates how a Muslim scholar ‘translated’ classical Islamic intellectual traditions, in his case, Islamic philosophy (ḥikmah) and theology, into a new discourse for modern public and pluralistic contexts where Muslim scholars not only had to engage other Muslim scholars, as they did in the past, but to present and justify ‘Islam’ to new Muslim publics as well as non-Muslim scholars and publics. Such a discourse represented a ‘public theology’ that situated and justified Islam as a rational religion vis-à-vis both the claims of other religions and those of modern thought and can serve as a critical example of how Islamic traditions have negotiated continuity and change in the modern world.
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