Non-Liberal Logics of Tolerance in Modern Islam

Dr SherAli Tareen, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Franklin and Marshall College, Pennsylvania, USA

Non-Liberal Logics of Tolerance in Modern Islam: The Case of Haji Imadullah Muhajir Makki (1814-1899) – 23rd November 2021

Dr Tareen’s public lecture focused on Muslim intellectual traditions and debates in early modern and contemporary South Asia. He discussed sophisticated political theologies emanating from the region, primarily in terms of the contribution of Sheikh Haji Imadullah Muhajir Makki, a mesmerising mystic from Uttar Pradesh, India – a hakeem of the soul. Sheikh Haji Imadullah traversed sectarian boundaries to charter a middle path that did not undermine but engaged with difference – he reconciled legal and mystical issues centred on divisive contentions that threatened to separate Barelvis from their Deobandi brethren, knowing that the differences lay in empirical knowledge affording hermeneutical resolution. He sought to maintain the sovereignty of the ulama and not allow their authority to be dissipated by the masses who became embroiled in challenging sectarian disputes. Dr Tareen discussed how the original purpose of many traditional rituals had become hidden in history. Sheikh Haji Imadullah sought to recover the original purpose of religious rites. He saw historical development of ritual practice not as an impediment or corrupting influence. For example, when addressing contentions surrounding whether or not to celebrate the mawlid (the Prophet’s birthday (bpuh), he sort reconciliation by taking the best view of people’s intentions and actions – thereby, preventing arguments from spiralling out of control into polemics. His goal was to mend people together, staunchly defying colonialist binaries that deliberately fostered sectarian division. He vehemently opposed the dichotomies of legal versus mystical, good versus bad, and extreme versus moderate. Sheikh Haji Imadullah famously stated: ‘Every one interprets me through the colour of his own lens – I am like water – when you pour water in a bottle it begins to look like the colour of the bottle.’ After playing a leading role in a mutiny against the British, Sheikh Haji Imadullah escaped to Makkah where he spent the remaining four decades of his life. To conclude his presentation, Dr Tareen addressed a number of questions from the audience who were captivated by his knowledge and insight and intrigued by Sheikh Haji Imadullah’s life and thought.