Margrit Pernau: ‘The Prophet of Islam and his Time as an Argument - but for what?’

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz

‘The Prophet of Islam and his Time as an Argument - but for what?’

Bringing the History in Conflict webinar to its conclusion, Margrit Pernau showed us how historical arguments referring to one person in the past – while also based on the same corpus of sources –  could deviate significantly. The context for her paper was political conflict in Hyderabad, the biggest of the princely states in India. As previously one of the provinces of the Moghul empire, Hyderabad was transformed into a state in the 18th century and continued with its Moghul form of rule. This meant, in short, a rule by the aristocracy that consisted mostly of Muslims. Although this government was not based on religion, it still had a Muslim majority, and this led to problems in the 1930s after a series of developments that started in the parts of India directly under British rule. First, there was the movement towards national independence, and secondly, another move towards mobilization of ever-increasing part of the society towards democratisation – that, of course, also had an impact on the princely states.

To prevent the national movement from directly invading the princely states and taking over, there was a strong push from the British rulers to start with constitutional reforms and the integration of the princely states into a federation that could act as a conservatist counterbalance to the British-Indian nationalist parts. The push for democratisation, in particular, meant a shift in the power structure. For the population of Hyderabad to form a government based on votes and have influence on the administration, the current state of the government had to be revaluated. For the first time, the fact that ruling class mainly constituted of Muslims while the majority of the population was Hindu became a problem.

Pernau demonstrated how the developments in the 1930s caused a transformation of the religious identity, since it was now directly correlated to the political identity and the way that people would vote. As a result, the use of history became dominant within the ensuing political conflict. On the one hand, history was used as legitimization of reform. On the other: it was a call to action to protect a religious and, therefore also, political identity.

The focus of the historical arguments of opposing parties was on the Time of the Prophet of Islam. There was a drive, with different interpretations of who the Prophet was, to return to the early days of Islam and the (ideal of) early commonwealth of Medina. The view of Muhammad as the bringer of the light of knowledge and civilization to the world (and with it the ideal of harmony and discipline) was prevalent in Hyderabad until the 1930s and went well with reform-minded aristocracy, who were in turn backed by the British rule that sought to counterbalance nationalism.

The reforms, however, also came with the threat of marginalization instead of this perceived harmony. With Bahadur Yar Jang as influential leading figure, there came a reinterpretation that focused on the Prophet as a warrior. The focus lay on the ideal of passion for the Islam and the Prophet, which was a passion that should be felt in the soul in the sense of seeds sprouting or water at the point of reaching boiling point. With the treat against Muslims in Hyderabad, this reinterpretation reenforced the idea of fighting for the cause of the Islam and, as a result, turning against the aristocracy, who were considered a group of Muslims that had strayed from the ideal of the Time of the Prophet and the commonwealth of Medina – even though they had their own, very different idea of the same moment in history.  

The basis of Pernau’s talk was formed by her article ‘The time of the prophet and the future of the community: Temporalities in nineteenth and twentieth century Muslim India. Time & Society, 30(4), 477–493.

Margrit Pernau is Senior Researcher at the Center for the History of Emotions, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

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