Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras / Edition 1

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In Jonah Blank's important, myth-shattering book, the West gets its first look at the Daudi Bohras, a unique Muslim denomination who have found the core of their religious beliefs largely compatible with modern ideology. Combining orthodox Muslim prayer, dress, and practice with secular education, relative gender equality, and Internet use, this community serves as a surprising reminder that the central values of "modernity" are hardly limited to the West.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Policy adviser to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and a senior editor at U.S. News and World Report, Blank (Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God) here focuses on the Bohras, a community of Shia Ismaili Muslims from Gujarat numbering upwards of a million worldwide. This is a groundbreaking work for two reasons: it is the first full description of a community never before studied from outside, and it demonstrates that an orthodox Islamic community can also embrace Western ideas and technology by adopting all aspects of modern culture that are not forbidden to it. The Daudi Bohras are both "traditional" and "modern." Blank reviews the community's history, organizational structure, rituals, domestic life, orthopraxy, and maintenance of community boundaries. The Bohra have dramatically improved orthopraxy among members, creating a high level of observance of basics while increasing the educational level and scientific sophistication of the community ("there is no conflict whatsoever between science and faith"). The author demonstrates the extent to which Westerners have adopted a view of Islam distorted by stereotypes, fostered by media reports, and sustained by a triumphalism about values that Westerners believe are exclusively theirs. What the Bohras have done, Blank concludes, is to "break down the false dichotomy between modernity and tradition, to let members of the community revel in both." This brilliant study is both academically rigorous and a welcome introduction to the real success of this Islamic community in the modern world. Highly recommended for all academic libraries and large public libraries. William P. Collins, Library of Congress Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226056777
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 426
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonah Blank, an anthropologist, is South Asia policy advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and author of Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana through India. He has taught anthropology at Harvard University, covered India and Pakistan as a senior editor of U.S. News and World Report, provided commentary for the BBC, and written for publications ranging from the New Yorker to Foreign Affairs.

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Read an Excerpt

Mullahs on the Mainframe

Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras

By Jonah Blank

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-05677-5

Chapter One

Modernity and Islamic Fundamentalism
(from Chapter 10: Conclusion)

One of the underlying premises of this study has been a belief in the
potential for peaceful coexistence between traditionalist Islam and
Western-style modernity. Sadly, such a premise stands in marked contrast
to the prevailing popular attitude both in the West and in many Muslim
circles. Westerners with little knowledge of Islam often reflexively judge
it solely by its most militant, rejectionist elements: the Taliban,
hard-line Iranian ayatollahs, or self-described mujahideen of various
extremist (even terrorist) organizations. These elements represent only a
tiny fraction of world Muslim opinion, yet all too often in the West they
are presumed to be the legitimate voice of the entire community. The
Muslim world, for its part, is equally quick to take Western actions out
of context: there are those who may be profitably reminded that the term
"modern values" is not necessarily an oxymoron, and that Western
civilization does not find its definitive expressionin Baywatch. As a
citizen of the West, however, it is not my place to tell Muslims what they
should and should not believe about my culture. I will therefore comment
(very briefly) on misperceptions that Westerners have about Islam, and
leave Muslim writers to balance the other side of the equation.

Talal Asad, in his Genealogies of Religion, highlights a particularly
blatant (but not atypical) example of the prejudice prevalent even in
Western intellectual circles: "The Bible, in its entirety," writes the
novelist and social critic Fay Weldon (quoted by Asad) "is at least food
for thought. The Koran is food for no-thought. It is not a poem on which a
society can be safely or sensibly based." Such an attitude could be
dismissed as mere bigotry if it were not so thoroughly indicative of
mainstream Western views. Even in academic and policy-making circles,
Islam is today's bogeyman of choice: Samuel Huntington's positing of an
Islamic bloc irretrievably hostile to everything the West represents is
only one among many prominent expressions of this outlook. When Thomas
Carlyle described the Qur'an as a work of "insupportable stupidity," he
was expressing the prejudices of an unenlightened colonialist power. One
might have hoped Western society would have become more open-minded in the
century and a half since.

Observers such as Edward Said sometimes portray Western misrepresentation
of Islam as a deliberate or quasi-deliberate act, stemming (at least
subconsciously) from a neocolonialist desire for political and cultural
hegemony: "[B]ecause of Orientalism the Orient was not (and is not) a free
subject of thought or action.... European culture gained in strength
and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of
surrogate and even underground self." Said's Orientalism is a useful
reminder of the depth and long history of Western misrepresentation of
"the East" (a concept which, as Bernard Lewis points out, Said seems to
collaborate in essentializing), but as a charge sheet of Western
intellectual larceny with malice aforethought, it seems more polemic than
proof. Lewis, with more than half a century of scholarship behind him, has
the credentials to launch an eloquent counterattack: "The implication
would seem to be that by learning Arabic, Englishmen and Frenchmen were
committing some kind of offense," he writes. "For Mr. Said, it would seem,
scholarship and science are commodities which exist in finite quantities;
the West has grabbed an unfair share of these as well as other resources."

An explanation for Western misperceptions more convincing than
intellectual hegemony or theft is, perhaps, simple ignorance. Most
Westerners know virtually nothing about Islam, so they form their
impressions on the most lurid, shocking, and exotic images presented to
them. There is nothing unique in this: as Xiaomei Chen notes, in the
non-Western world (she writes with particular reference to China, but her
observation is valid elsewhere) "Orientalism, or the Western construction
of the Orient, has been accompanied by instances of what might be termed

While Said seems to regard studying another culture as an act of
intellectual imperialism, I suggest that what is needed is more
cultural outreach rather than less. The best way to defeat ignorance is
through knowledge, imperfect as such a search may be. If Fay Weldon had
actually taken the time to read the Qur'an, it is difficult to believe she
would have come away with all her biases and preconceived notions about
Islam intact. Here social anthropology can serve a useful purpose: as
David Maybury-Lewis notes (in a reference to the thought of Claude
Levi-Strauss that could equally well apply to many other anthropological
works), "It forces us to recognize that we in the West, despite a
temporary scientific advantage, have no basis for claiming intellectual
superiority over the rest of the world."

Islam is far too varied and complex to have a single, authoritative
position on the topic of modernity. For every hidebound Taliban zealot who
condemns television or female education as bid'a (innovation), there are
tens of thousands of other Muslims who do not. By what standard is he more
"Islamic" than they? An excellent case could be made that it is the
literalists themselves who are outside the mainstream of contemporary
Islam. To step away from Bohras and the Indian subcontinent for a moment,
two Islamic leaders in Indonesia admirably demonstrate the point.

Even before becoming president of the world's largest Muslim nation,
Abdurrahman Wahid (better known by the nickname of Gus Dur) had led the
world's largest Muslim organization. The Nadhlatul Ulama is a group over
seven decades old, with more members (nearly forty million) than the
populations of Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf emirates combined. As head of
the Nahdlatul Ulama, Gus Dur strongly opposed making sharia the law of the
land. His vision of Islam is based on ethics and universal tolerance:
"There is no monopoly of Islam on goodness," he said in an interview.
"[We] can never impose any kind of belief.... Islam respects plurality
more than anything else." His prediction for the future stands in sharp
contrast to that of the essentialists: "I don't think the Taliban's
version of Islam will stick, or be preserved in history for long."

These sentiments are echoed by Amien Rais, head of the
twenty-eight-million-strong Muhammadiyah organization and now speaker of
the Indonesian Parliament. Even before he assumed political office after
helping lead the movement that dislodged the dictator Suharto in 1998, he
and Gus Dur together had about as many followers as the entire population
of Iran, about three times as many as that of Taliban-held Afghanistan.
Often described as more conservative than the Nahdlatul Ulama leader (and
often displaying less tolerance toward minority communities at the
political rather than the theological level), Rais regards himself as
equally "open and receptive to other people and other ideas" as Gus Dur.
The holder of a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago,
Rais dresses in Western clothing-a crisply ironed dress shirt and
unloosened tie at the height of the Javanese hot season. "We must respect
and tolerate others, so that all may enjoy the practice of their
respective religions," he says. Rais has no wish to resurrect the
lifestyle of a time long past: "As a Muslim, I see no obstacle to enjoying
the modern world."

The late Fazlur Rahman, once head of Pakistan's Central Institute of
Islamic Research, saw the entire resurgence of literalist Islam not as a
homegrown return to tradition, but a twisted reaction to modernity.
Foreshadowing Madan and Nandy's antisecular critique of Hindu revivalism,
Rahman advocated that Islam find its own path to the future:

Thus, while the modernist was engaged by the West through attraction,
the neorevivalist is equally haunted by the West through repulsion. The
most important and urgent thing to do from this point of view is to
"disengage" mentally from the West and to cultivate an independent but
understanding attitude toward it.... So long as Muslims remain
mentally locked with the West in one way or the other, they will not be
able to act independently and autonomously.

Rahman urged his coreligionists to "distinguish clearly between normative
Islam and historical Islam," and reject the notion that the way something
was done in the distant (or recent) past is somehow closer to the
authentic core of the faith. A trained Qur'anic scholar with far more
right to the title of alim than many of his theological opponents, Rahman
described Islam not as an impediment to progress, but as its source:
"[T]he Muslim modernists say exactly the same thing as the so-called
Muslim fundamentalists say: that Muslims must go back to the original and
definitive sources of Islam and perform ijtihad [theological
interpretation] on that basis."

Foremost among Rahman's opponents, and among the foremost Islamic
fundamentalist voices worldwide, was Maulana Abul Ala Maududi. As much as
any other single individual in the twentieth century, Maududi helped shape
and promote modern-day Sunni Islamic revivalism. It is noteworthy that
Maududi's title of Maulana was bestowed by his followers rather than the
ulema, whether of India, Pakistan, or any other country: Maududi did not
have much formal religious training, and could not truly be considered a
traditional clerical authority. Of his more than 120 publications, only
one is on a purely theological topic. The champion of Islamic
fundamentalism began his career in a very modern occupation indeed: he
started out as a journalist.

Maududi founded the Jamaat-i-Islami in 1941 as a political and social
advocacy organization; from very early in its history to the present day
it has been led by, composed of, and oriented toward laypeople rather than
ulema. The parallels between this foremost revivalist organization in the
Islamic world and contemporaneous Hindu revivalist groups is obvious: the
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its collateral organizations are
primarily cultural and political groups rather than strictly "religious"
ones. RSS founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar was in no meaningful sense a
spiritual figure; current Bharatiya Janata Party ideologue L. K. Advani is
publicly agnostic; and the legendary Hindu Mahasabha president (indeed,
the intellectual progenitor of Hindu nationalism itself) Veer Savarkar was
a self-avowed atheist. Just as life-long scholars of Hinduism have
sharply challenged the RSS interpretation of the faith, Rahman writes that
"not one of Mawdudi's followers ever became a serious student of Islam,
the result being that, for the faithful, Mawdudi's statements represented
the last word on Islam-no matter how much and how blatantly he
contradicted himself." When self-styled fundamentalists profess to present
a "true" version of Islam, such claims must be treated with extreme
caution-both in the Muslim world and in the West.

Yet not even the outlook of Maududi himself, while generally regarded as
traditionalist and reactionary, is void of modernist elements. His
Risala-e-Diniyat, published first in Urdu in 1932 and translated into
English as Towards Understanding Islam (1940), is a defense of religious
doctrine on wholly rationalistic terms. In this important work, Maududi
makes an eloquent, logical, and persuasive case for Islamic orthodoxy,
using modernist skepticism and speculative detachment as his outlook and
frame of reference. A Muslim accepts his creed on faith, Maududi argues,
but even if this truth were not available in the form of revealed text, it
would be an eminently rational-even scientific-explanation for the
mysteries of life. Agree or disagree, one can hardly accuse him of being
stuck in the seventh century.

A thorough discussion of Islam and modernity would fill several
bookshelves. I have raised the topic merely to indicate a few premises
underlying this study, in brief:

1. Western perceptions of Islam in general, and Islamic fundamentalism in
particular, are based upon the views of a small, unrepresentative
sampling of Muslim attitudes and beliefs.

2. Even these self-styled spokesmen of Islamic traditionalism are often
less categorically hostile to modernist ideas than is generally

3. There are tremendous numbers of wholly orthodox Muslims, both
individuals and entire communities, living their lives in strict
accordance with a traditionalist interpretation of the faith, yet
displaying few (if any) of the anti-Western, antisecular, antimodern
attitudes commonly associated with this level of Islamic devotion.

4. Misportrayals of Islam can become self-fulfilling prophecies. The West
singles out peripheral figures for condemnation, and inflates barely
known terrorists into world-renowned champions of "Islamic jihad." This
grants prominence to militants who might otherwise have struggled in
obscurity, and legitimizes extremist views that might otherwise have
been shunned by mainstream Muslims. How did Osama bin Laden, a man with
little theological training and no status to issue a fatwa on any aspect
of the faith, come to be seen-both in the West and, increasingly, in the
Muslim world-as a spokesman for Islamic values? He has such status, at
least in part, because America gave it to him.

It is my hope that the portrait of the Bohra community presented in this
study will help dispel some commonly held misperceptions about
fundamentalist Islam. I do not argue that traditional Muslim values are
identical (or even particularly similar) to those of modern Western
society-merely that they can be compatible with so-called modern Western
values. I would argue that the values Western triumphalists like to claim
as their own (respect for human and civil rights, pursuit of social
justice, equality of sexes, promotion of liberal education, aptitude for
technology) are hardly limited to the West. And "modernity" (whatever its
definition may be), is something far broader than a taste for sex, drugs,
and rock 'n' roll. As one of my Bohra friends asked me, "A Mormon in Salt
Lake City can work as a computer programmer, help with the housework when
his wife is at the hospital practicing neurosurgery, and refrain from
liquor, tobacco, and R-rated movies. Why should I be more of an anomaly
than him?"

Why, indeed. My friend is somewhat of an anomaly (at least compared with
most of the world's one billion Muslims)-but there is no reason he has to
be. And in the Bohra community, he is becoming less and less anomalous
every day.


Excerpted from Mullahs on the Mainframe
by Jonah Blank
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Pt. I Ethnography 11
Ch. 1 Historical Background: The Roots of the Faith 13
Ch. 2 Rituals of a Daudi Bohra Life 53
Ch. 3 Rituals of the Daudi Bohra Year 82
Ch. 4 Bohra Domestic Life: Kinship, Sex, and the Status of Women 111
Ch. 5 Qasr-e Ali: The Royals 134
Pt. II Analysis 157
Ch. 6 Maintenance of Spiritual and Political Hegemony 159
Ch. 7 Specifics of Orthopraxy: Dress and Economics 184
Ch. 8 Education 207
Ch. 9 Dissidents and Control 229
Ch. 10 Conclusion 258
App. 1 Line of Musta'li Tayyibi Ismaili Imams 289
App. 2 Line of Daudi Bohra Da'is 290
App. 3 Questionnaire Used for Issuing Certificates of Orthopraxy 292
App. 4 Analysis of Gulshan-e Malumat Data 296
App. 5 Kinship Ties of the Daudi Bohra Da'is 299
Bibliographical Discussion 301
Notes 309
Glossary 357
Bibliography 369
Index 393
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