The Paths of Piety: Nandagopal R. Menon

This is a guest post by Nandagopal R. Menon

The recent disappearance of 21 Muslims (men and women) from Kerala – allegedly to join the IS – has created considerable panic in the state. Media and public discourses are rife with speculative reports about their whereabouts, their motives (or pathologies rather), the Islamic networks and scholars with whom they were associated and so on. In this note I want to think about one aspect of this discourse about the disappeared. What is striking is how a specific form of Islamic piety (Salafism) is sought to be, advertently or inadvertently, linked to the IS’ violent extremism. That is, though they are not exactly the same, practicing a certain kind of Salafism could or will lead to embracing the ideology of the IS. To be fair, there is no overt claim made on these lines, but the inordinate focus on Salafism and its practices in the context of IS-related panic creates the impression that there is some kind of organic, straightforward connection between Salafism and IS. Now whatever the precise definition of Salafism given by scholars, what concerns me here is the alleged nature of its “problematic” variant that is at the centre of the controversy in Kerala. This interpretation, sometimes termed “extreme” or “ascetic” Salafism to distinguish it from its “moderate” versions represented by some of Kerala’s major Muslim organisations, apparently stresses a “puritanical” piety that demands a literal interpretation of the Islamic tradition (primarily the Qur’an and hadith, or traditions of what the Prophet said, did or approved). For instance, since there are hadith which say that the Prophet kept goats, Muslims who strive to be pious should also take up herding goats. Similarly, this piety requires one to separate oneself from all kinds of “un-Islamic” ways of life – avoid using products brought with money involving paying or receiving interest, shunning various forms of arts like music and cinema, rejecting certain sartorial styles (trousers that fall below the ankles for men or dress that do not cover the face for women) etc. This form of “puritanical” Salafism thus marks out its practitioners as separate, distinct and even encourages one to (literally) seclude oneself from not only the rest of the society, but also from other Muslims (even family members) who do not adhere to this form of piety. Some “ascetic” Salafis are said to have travelled to Sri Lanka and Yemen, or carved out a separate space in Kerala itself, in their search for the perfect and complete Islamic way of life.

Some pundits have termed this kind of Salafism a “psychological disorder”. In this interpretation, the above-mentioned practices are “signs” of alarm. However, if such practices are considered to be obligations of faith, then they are not simply “signs” that are meant to communicate a message of “psychological disorder”. Neither can they be simply replaced by another set of “signs”. Rather these practices are integral elements of the practitioner’s self, her orientation and her way of being. Further, it is not self-evident what “psychological disorder” means in this context. Is the argument that they are or could be clinically diagnosed to have a recognizable form of mental illness? If this is indeed the case, then medical treatment can or may “cure” one of this Salafism. But no answers are forthcoming regarding the precise name or description of the “psychological disorder”. Is “psychological disorder” utilized to imply that the motives of these persons cannot be fathomed, or they are so naïve as not to be able to discern the “problematic” nature of this piety? This would suggest that their “conversion” – not only of those from other religions, but also of those from other forms of Islamic piety – to the controversial version of Salafism is inauthentic because they were mislead or seduced by the (false) promise of material/spiritual benefits. The stress placed on the errors that stem from literal interpretation is more a statement about the kind of persons who practice it than the practice itself (which is by no means novel to Islam or peculiar to this variety of Salafism). The “ascetic” Salafis are allegedly incapable of distinguishing between what needs to be taken literally and metaphorically in the tradition. That is, by pointing out that the interpretative practices of Salafis and their critics are ostensibly mediated by different assumptions about the nature and workings of language, the practitioners of literal interpretation are flagged as being not mature, rational or knowledgeable enough. We also need to raise another pertinent question here: Do we search for motives in the case of a conversion to secular modernity? Why should religious subjects, or certain types of religious subjects, alone be obliged to give an account of their actions and selves? Finally, is the invocation of “psychological disorder” indexing the user’s aversion to this kind of piety? In other words, does the conceptual work (rather than its mere semantics) done by this vocabulary say more about the person who uses it than its designated object – “puritanical” Salafism? Is it a rhetorical strategy to underscore the user’s difference, by no means a value-neutral category here, from his subject of analysis?

By all accounts, this “puritanism” – in and by itself not an accurate description, especially given its roots in a particular variety of Protestantism – is comparable to ascetic religious forms in Hinduism, Christianity or Buddhism. Giving up this world to lead a reclusive life is part of the monastic traditions in several religions. Now it could be argued that, theologically speaking, this is alien to Islam and that the latter’s traditions do not sanction asceticism. That may or may not be true. My concern is not a “correct” exegesis of the tradition. Rather I would like to point out an irony and its effects. Contemporary references to non-Islamic versions of asceticism often treat them as the most irenic of all forms of religion. Same is the case with types of mysticism. They are usually projected as “good”, “liberal” religion. If this is the case, why should the practice of what is labeled “ascetic” Salafism be a potential preparatory step towards joining the IS? If Hindu asceticism does not automatically lead to the Bajrang Dal, Christian monasticism lead to the Ku Klux Klan, what is it about “ascetic” Salafism that rings so many alarm bells? The pertinent question here is if this discourse inadvertently reproduces the discredited idea of Islamic exceptionalism. That among religions, Islam’s “rate of mutation” – the tendency to foment violence – is abnormally and uniquely high. That there is “something” in Islam, unlike other religions, which makes it and its adherents particularly prone to violence.

My argument is not that this form of piety will never pave the way to the IS. Neither am I saying that this form of piety will necessarily encourage them to join the IS. Rather am suggesting that neither of the two statements can be treated as axiomatic. There is no essence to Salafism, or for that matter any religious affiliation, that determines and destines it to evolve into any particular violent form of extremism. Such propositions also obscure the complexity of trajectories traversed by selves who embark on a religious quest – they are sometimes simply disillusioned by their “choices”, revert to religious/secular practices they gave up, reject religion altogether and turn to other forms of secular activism etc. My fieldwork among Islamic activists in Kerala have thrown up interesting life histories of men who have shifted from one form of Islamic piety to another and then rejected all regnant avatars of sectarianism to become “just a Muslim”. Or there are men who moved from atheistic Marxist activism to Salafism or the Jamaat-e-Islami and turned to Qur’anist movements that reject even the daily prayers and deny the indispensability of Islam for salvation. None of these rich and complex life histories – with the multiple, and sometimes contradictory, subjectivities and agencies embodied by these selves at various points in time – confer credibility to sweeping generalisations or insinuations about the essential and inevitable links between certain forms of piety and nihilistic violence.


Nandagopal R. Menon is a research fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen.

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