Mullahs on the Mainframe jacket image

"This is a model piece of scholarship, the kind of work you want to give to younger scholars so as to awaken them to the wonders and the variety of the world. Ethnography, political history, economic history, intermingle and creatively so, in this unique book—a tribute to a gifted and observant author. Here is one brilliant venture by a young, superbly trained American social scientist who delves into the world of Indian Muslims, and renders that world with artistry, precision, and detail."
—Fouad Ajami, author of Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey

"No other book that I know of has such a wealth of detail on the belief systems and praxis of an Islamic religious community. Blank's many-level approach makes this one of the most interesting works I have read: his description of customs, lifestyles, and ideas is based on both unprecedented study of written material and his own painstaking, assiduous field research. His text also, very properly, aims to dispel some of the stereotypes that disfigure Western perceptions of Islam. This unconventional book is a major contribution to scholarship."
—Ainslie T. Embree, author of Asia In Western And World History: A Guide To Teaching


An excerpt from
Mullahs on the Mainframe
Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras
Jonah Blank

Read an interview with the author.

Modernity and Islamic Fundamentalism(1)
(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 expression in 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 Occidentalism."

While Said seems to regard studying another culture as an act of intellectual imperialism, (2) 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 Lévi-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. (3) 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 recognized.
  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.

Are the Bohras themselves an anomaly among Muslims? Whether or not they are representative of Islam's future, the Daudi Bohras shatter stereotypes about traditionalist Islam today. As a community of up to one million devout Shi‘a whose faith is every bit as fundamental to them as it is for Afghans, Saudis, or Iranians, they present an example that must be taken seriously. While adhering faithfully to traditional Islamic norms, the Bohras eagerly accept most aspects of modernity, strongly support the concept of a pluralist civil society, boast a deeply engrained heritage of friendly engagement with members of other communities, and have a history of apolitical quietism stretching back nearly a thousand years.

Not all traditionalist Muslims are like the Daudi Bohras—but not all are so very different.


  1. As noted in the introduction, the term "fundamentalist" is problematic: it has been used to describe groups ranging from orthodox traditionalists to revolutionary militants. Throughout this study I use the term primarily in the former sense: the hijacking of the term "fundamentalist" by groups that are actually more radical than traditional is a linguistic appropriation that too many Westerners have aided and abetted.
  2. A mystifying attitude, considering that Said's own field of academic specialization is not his native Palestine, or any aspect of Middle Eastern studies, but the literature and arts of Western Europe.
  3. The only major Hindu nationalist group oriented toward religious specialists is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which was created by RSS leader (and former religious specialist) Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 262-267 of Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras by Jonah Blank, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2001 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Jonah Blank
Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras
©2001, 416 pages, 9 halftones
Cloth $50.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-05676-0
Paper $22.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-05677-7

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Mullahs on the Mainframe.

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