Thursday, August 25, 2022

Syed Ameer Ali: A Modern South Asian Thinker

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam 25 August 2022 Ameer Ali Set Out To Remove Them By Introducing Prophet Muhammad Not Solely As An Object Of Attraction Of The Divine Revelation But Also As A ‘Seer’ A ‘Teacher’, And A ‘Philosopher’ Who Contributed The Most To The Upliftment Of Humanity Main Points: • This essay discusses the salient points of the thoughts of one of the most prominent and earliest Muslim modernists of South Asia. • This essay derives ideas from his seminal book, Spirit of Islam, and his memoirs, Memoirs and Other Writings of Syed Ameer Ali (ed. S. Raza Wasti). ------ Syed Ameer Ali (1849-1928) ----- Biographical Account Syed Ameer Ali was a jurist, Islamic scholar, and political activist. He is almost the forgotten literary-activist figure who served India during the British Raj. His excellent life-spanning efforts, may be regarded, were aimed at making Muslims able to present themselves in political, social, and religious arenas globally. His time witnessed the political and social degradation of Muslim society, and chaos prevailed for finding a way out of this situation. The assaults of Christian missionaries on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad were adding to the exacerbation of the condition. Being instructed in modern and traditional education along with having a good acquaintance with Western literature, Ameer Ali considered himself capable enough to answer the challenges on behalf of his community. His remarkable, ‘The Spirit of Islam (1891)’ in addition to other articles which he contributed to the journals are the embodiments of the answers to the accusations against Islam, the Prophet, and Islamic history, plus a thorough survey of Islamic history for digging out the causes that led Muslim civilization to its zenith, and later on to fall. Unlike his contemporary Syed Ahmed Khan, the great reformist, and proponent of modern education among Muslims, Ameer Ali was an advocate of political activism among the Muslim community. Therefore, he established the Central National Muhammadan Association in 1877 for the political advancement of Muslims, seven years before the birth of the Indian National Congress. This made a great deal of influence over the subsequent Muslim movements and activism. Syed Ameer Ali (1849-1929) was born in Chinsura, Bengal, in a Shia Muslim family. He was educated at Hooghly College, and in 1869 sailed for London for studying Law; thence he was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1873. He successfully served his Indian career holding various legal positions and retired in 1904 as a Judge of the Calcutta High Court; during these days, he gave lectures in Islamic Law at Presidency College of Calcutta University as well. After his retirement, Ameer Ali settled in England for the rest of his life; there he served Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the Royal Asiatic Society holding prestigious positions until his death. Main Body of Thought On Sirah Writing: Ameer Ali, as a pioneer Muslim, ventured to establish a new tradition, and find new vocabularies and idioms in the complete foreign atmosphere of the English language for presenting Islam to the new world, combining traditional narrations with the modern values and ideologies together. His first exposition of Islam was the biography (sirah) of the Prophet Muhammad entitled, ‘The Critical Examination of the Life and Teachings of Muhammad (1873).’ It became the first commentary on Islam in English by a Muslim author. Later on, he revised the book and published it with some additions under a new title, ‘The Spirit of Islam’ (1891). This book is the most celebrated and important among the oeuvre of Ameer Ali which I have primarily referred to for this article as a source of his ideas. Disappointed with the constructed misconceptions that prevailed in the writings of the orientalists about the Prophet Muhammad, Ameer Ali set out to remove them by introducing Prophet Muhammad not solely as an object of attraction of the divine revelation but also as a ‘seer’ a ‘teacher’, and a ‘philosopher’ who contributed the most to the upliftment of humanity. With a peculiar lucid literary style, Ameer Ali begins by narrating a brief account of the religions and civilizations cultivated before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad with an obvious purpose to demonstrate the subsequent achievements Muhammad could accomplish in his plan of the development of the human race while the other religions and civilizations failed. However, nothing is new in his retelling of the history of the preceding religions and civilizations—in fact, he inherited it from the traditional Seerah writers. But, what distinguishes Ameer Ali from the traditionalists is that he incorporated in his story a theory of the spiritual and intellectual evolution of humankind which took place in the course of several centuries, and after reaching the seventh century had culminated into its perfect form in the person of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, the system, i.e., Islam, the Prophet preached, according to Ameer Ali, was complete in its form in comparison to the previous ones. Ameer Ali argued that before the advent of Muhammad, the entire world was plunged into destitution and moral laxity, and humanity, in the state of utter abject, was crying for the divine help through a deliverer, a messiah—that Muhammad himself was destined to be. As a solitary and humble orphan boy, Muhammad grew up, having many thoughts in mind. He despised the immorality and licentious deeds of his people, their indulgence in idolatry and superstitions, their belligerent nature, and the wretched state of slaves and women in his society. He set an exemplary figure adorned with the highest virtues of love, compassion, steadfastness, forgiveness, tolerance, and striving. Muhammad’s achievements in elevating the dignity of mankind and rationalism, which he acquired within a short period of his divine commission, Ameer Ali averred, revolutionized enormously the subsequent development of humanity. On Islamic History and Culture: Ameer Ali’s writings on Islamic history, culture, and civilization were the extension of his plan of furnishing a full-length view of the Islamic past—the blaze of glory that Islam had produced. He eloquently and more confidently presents Islam as a pro-humanitarian and progressive world religion. To him, Islam played a vital role in engendering a great civilization thriving on the three continents i.e., Asia, Africa, and Europe. The values of the Divine Unicity, the natural and practical equality of man, and man’s accountability for the deeds that he does in this world in front of God in the Hereafter. Islam infused into its adherents with the utmost civilized fashion, freed man from the fetters of dogmatic formalism and sacerdotalism, and educated him about the freethinking aired with the democratic spirit. For underpinning his thesis, Ameer Ali went on to narrate the unprecedented achievements the Muslim civilization accomplished in the field of science and learning. Islam even succeeded in eradicating those cruel customs cursing humanity since time immemorial, e.g. the institutions of slavery and polygamy, whereas the other religions and civilizations had failed so far. At the time when the other religions and cultures recognized these institutions, Islam restrained them by enforcing many conditions, which made them almost impractical. Ameer Ali believes that it was impossible for Islam to outlaw these customs at once, as they were deep-rooted into the thread of the social fabric, it had to choose a way of gradual redemption from these practices. However, its followers, Muslims, did not act in accordance with the spirit of the message of Islam. Had they worked accordingly, these institutions would have been extinguished many years ago. To Ameer Ali, this wonderful civilization based its foundation on reason and freethinking, which over time lost its vitality by giving way to patristic formalism and orthodoxy. The eventual prevalence of Asha’ri’s formalism, which represents today’s Ahle Sunnat Wa-Jama’t and Tasawwuf’s quietism, he maintains, along with the inroads of the hordes of the Crusaders and Mongols that destroyed the centers of learning and civilization in North Africa, West Asia, and Central Asia, led to the decadence and fall of the Islamic civilization. The lost glory of the civilization, he prescribed, can only be restored through traversing the same path of rationalism the earliest predecessors walked upon. On The Legal Status of Women in Islam: Early in his career, while studying in London, Ameer Ali encountered the revolutionary waves of feminism emerging out of the sphere of Western society. He recounts, in his memoirs, the wonderment that took over him when he heard of the legal position of women the British law conferred on them, and his satisfaction over the legal position of women that Islam has secured under its law many centuries ago. Ameer Ali was of the opinion that only through the material and cultural advancement out of the evolution of human enlightenment, absolute equality of sexes based on practicality could be realized. And Muslims inspired by the injunctions of the Muhammadan law were enjoying that state of advancement in the early years of their prosperity. Muhammad raised the status of women from the abysmal depth of degradation to such a lofty place underneath whose feet lies Paradise— ‘Paradise is at the feet of the mother’, said the Prophet. Washing out the prevailing misconceptions regarding the injunctions of Islam which were thought to be responsible for degrading the situation of Muslim women, Ameer Ali reiterated the Islamic laws and instances from the Sirah (Prophet’s biography), and Islamic history. ‘The reforms instituted by Mohammad, he wrote, affected a vast and marked improvement in the position of women’… ‘(he) enforced as one of the essential teachings of his creed, ‘respect for women’... and ‘He placed them on a footing of perfect equality with men in the exercise of all legal powers and functions.’ Ameer Ali thinks that some political and social institutions are not at once possible to be effaced from a society. Therefore, reformers strategize by planting principles in the hearts of their followers expecting that when the time would be ripe they would work out for their abolition. He thinks that the institution of polygamy in Islam is one of the institutions of pre-Islamic society, which Prophet Muhammad retained, but set some principles hoping that it would be obliterated when the time would reach: ‘he restrained it (the institution) by limiting the number of marriages and by making absolute equity towards all obligatory on the man.’ These conditions, he said, therefore, cut down the permission of its legitimate dimensions. He argues that the conditions of limiting marriages and treating all the wives with equity were a pragmatic and progressive strategy that the Prophet Muhammad adopted at that time, which, after some time, should have been developed into the institution of monogamy if Muslims had acted according to the spirit of the Quranic injunctions. Going through some historical occurrences, Amir Ali observes that until the age of the Abbasid Caliph, Qadir Billah (d.1031), Muslim women relished the legal rights of freedom, independence, self-respect, and dignity Islam had provided them. But gradually, because of the growing influence of the orthodox conformity and the infiltration of foreign influence in the form of Mongols and Turks, not because of Islam, this noble image of the Muslim woman, a free and independent woman, disappeared. Ameer Ali was perhaps the first Muslim who strived for carving out an image from the Islamic past of such a dignified Muslim woman that was standing equally as important to the other segment of the society. In the time of decadence and humiliation, Ameer Ali’s recitation from the past forms a magnificent history of Islamic civilization which helped in generating a wave of nostalgia among South Asian Muslims during the colonial period. By such an analysis of the ebbs and tides of the entire Muslim history, Ameer Ali tried to educate the Muslim community about the way out of the chaotic and confusing situation they had been suffering from. Though his endeavours can be interpreted as the earliest efforts to bring Islamic revival through the restoration of the civilizational glory, which caught subsequent generations into a trance, and the heroes whose achievements he described so eloquently received full attention in the publications of the succeeding authors, such as Shibli Naumani, who also wrote about Muslim heroes like Caliph Umar, and Mamun. But the later Islamic revivalists in South Asia sought revivalism of Islam through puritanical measures with an emphasis on the necessity of the political dominance of Islam. Thinkers like Maulana Maududi also rejected Muslim history after the four immediate successors of the Prophet Muhammad by declaring it as un-Islamic, which Ameer Ali took so much pain to glorify. Nevertheless, Ameer Ali’s efforts for the affirmation of the cultural and religious identity of Muslims had far-reaching effects and were the earliest motivations of Muslim revivalist activism. ----- Mohammad Ali has been a madrasa student. He has also participated in a three-year program of the “Madrasa Discourses,” a program for madrasa graduates initiated by the University of Notre Dame, USA. Currently, he is a Ph.D. Scholar at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Muslim intellectual history, Muslim philosophy, Ilm-al-Kalam, Muslim sectarian conflicts, and madrasa discourses. He can be reached at mohammad91.ali@gmail. URL: New Age Islam, Islam Online, Islamic Website, African Muslim News, Arab World News, South Asia News, Indian Muslim News, World Muslim News, Women in Islam, Islamic Feminism, Arab Women, Women In Arab, Islamophobia in America, Muslim Women in West, Islam Women and Feminism

No comments:

Post a Comment