- Locale, Everyday Islam, and Modernity: Qasbah Towns and Muslim Life in Colonial India by M. Raisur Rahman
M. Raisur Rahman, Locale, Everyday Islam, and Modernity: Qasbah Towns and Muslim Life in Colonial India, Review
This book seeks to restore the place of four north Indian qasbahs, or neglected "middling towns," in histories of modern South Asia. The monograph is based on the author's 2008 doctoral dissertation completed in the Department of History at the University of Texas, Austin. The author has discovered a remarkable wealth of materials in Urdu, ranging from local histories and periodicals to family papers and biographical dictionaries. However, the book's central analytical categories lack clarity, leaving an eclectic local archive to speak for itself, and preventing the reader from understanding why qasbahs can be examined as enduring spaces that link early modern and modern South Asia.
Qasbahs have been defined as rural townships, smaller than a city but larger than village, where Urdu-speaking literati, bureaucrats, lawyers, and "service gentry" responded to or participated in the educational, legal, and Islamic reformist agendas of the colonial period.1 At the monograph's outset, Rahman asserts "qasbahs were a distinct type of physical and social site that produced a culturally grounded form of modernity that was more fluid, more cosmopolitan, more adaptive, and more capable of engaging with change than most other social units, including cities, towns, or villages—a topic of utmost relevance to understanding cross-cultural encounters" (10–11). Neither of these claims, the exceptional, exalted status of qasbahs or the fact that they were merely better at modernity, convinces the reader about what exactly is at stake in unearthing the histories of spaces that defy and undercut the limits of the national and/or the colonial. [End Page 212]
A rich range of extant literature, documents from private collections, and colonial archives seem to promise a stereoscopic reconstruction of qasbah towns, but the reader is left, at best, with a hagiographical reading of the social world of ashraf or "noble" Muslim elites. The monograph covers four qasbahs in northern India—Rudauli and Bilgram in the Awadh region and Amroha and Badaun in Rohilkhand, from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries—listing their elite residents' contributions and achievements. The author argues, "modernity for qasbāti Muslims was defined by three basic characteristics: participation, appropriation, and contestation" (10–11). He holds that despite learning English, using print technology, and adopting Western dress and education, qasbātis' "attitude was not to let the new ideas and practices affect their religious precepts or jeopardize their social values. Their participation in modernity was highly selective. It was not an impersonation of the West, but innovation and appropriation. They assertively claimed several ingredients of modernity, putatively Western, as part of their own Indic and Islamic cultural and intellectual heritage" (10–11).
The book's main argument therefore lies in rehabilitating the qasbah and observing the participation of its notable inhabitants in the well-rehearsed narratives of colonialism, nationalism, and modernity. The author rarely puts under scrutiny the complex processes that gave new meanings to the politics of "sharāfat," or "respectability" in the nineteenth century nor does he unpack and disaggregate terms such as "the West," "Indic," and "Islamic," which appear throughout the book as pre-given, monolithic categories.
The first chapter traces qasbah lineages to Mughal administrative categories, noting mentions of the word in Persian chronicles. From the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries, qasbahs evolved as sites of continuous settlement that included Muslim migrant residents "from Central Asia, Arab lands, and modern Iran and Iraq" (40) who, by the end of the early modern period, "began yet another cultural encounter with the arrival of the people from the West" (45). This rather effortless transition places a set of questions before the reader—if, indeed, we wish to understand the qasbah as a distinct residue of something preceding modernity; that is, as the author calls it a "prelude"—what exactly changed about these early modern spaces in...