The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) invited Dr. Darakhshan Khan to deliver a lecture titled, “In Good Company: Piety and Conjugality in Colonial North India,” on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Dr. Khan completed her Ph.D. from University of Pennsylvania in 2016 and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at IIIT.
Dr. Khan began her talk by tracing the shifting Indian Muslim elite society under British colonialism. The landed aristocracy, hitherto anchored in terms of both location and social network in the inner cities, transformed into a distinctly mobile middle class as government employment became a prestigious source of income, requiring relocation to remote towns and/or being constantly on the move. In the absence of established networks, both in terms of family and religion (which were often intertwined), the nucleus of the family shifted more and more to the husband and wife.
Historically, Indian Muslim elite families occupied an extended network both in terms of space (neighboring, interconnected homes) as well as upbringing (under the watchful gaze of grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, older siblings, cousins, and longtime neighbors). Boys studied the Qur’an and gained further education in hadith, fiqh, grammar, rhetoric, ethics, etc., from a “familiar network of male scholars, some of whom were family members … while others were spiritual guides.” Girls and women were restricted to the zenana (literally, women’s space) which was completely secluded from the outside world; women were not allowed to go to the marketplace and were limited to visit certain relatives only. However, as government employment brought an increasingly mobile lifestyle, not only were males divested of the rich network of scholars, “more and more women were spending their married lives outside the inner city where the thick network of female sociality did not follow them,” Dr. Khan asserted.
In order to maintain piety in such changing times, the Tablighi Jamaat emerged as a revivalist Islamic movement in North India. Maulana Ilyas Kandhlewi, the founder of Tablighi Jamaat, took inspiration from Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s recommendation that in the modern times of mobility and dispersement, Muslim men, women, and children must commit to spend some time in the company of an alim: “at least one day in a week, three days in a month, and one month in a year.”
However, the changing times meant that even this vision would morph during this period. As the Tablighi Jamaat became more and more popular, the concept of “good company” changed from one that was limited to pious teachers to one that more broadly encompassed the mercantile and professional society, “making the alim peripheral to the movement.” As such, “Tablighi Jamaat offered a take on piety that eliminated rituals and clergies from the everyday lives of Muslims,” Dr. Khan explained.
This was symbolic of the period where fulfilling one’s religious obligations was attained in isolation from the extended familial network so common not too long ago. As a result, while reformist critique responded to changing times, the “transformation of the Muslim household was the biggest catalyst in the emergence of personal piety,” Dr. Khan argued. By tapping into this “sprawling network of non-specialists – merchants, government servants and their wives and daughters – who inhabited an increasingly dispersed middle-class world,” the Tablighi Jamaat accomplished popular support and spectacular support in the 1940s in colonial North India.
Dr. Khan’s talk was followed by a robust conversation among the attendees of the lecture, enabling them to ask her questions and share their own experiences.