Fall 2014 – Menon Abstract

How to be Muslim in Modern India: A Lesson from Old Delhi’s “Muslim Club”
Kalyani Devaki Menon
Associate Professor of Religious Studies

DePaul University

What does it mean to be deeply pious in the modern world? Expressions of religious piety, especially in relation to Islam and Muslims, are often understood to be “anti-modern” or, at the very least, to inhabit the margins of the global modern. How do those who understand themselves to be pious imagine, inhabit, and negotiate these constructions? In this paper, I consider these questions using ethnographic data from fieldwork conducted amongst diverse groups of Muslims in Old Delhi, India. Built in the 17th century, Old Delhi is often depicted as a place steeped in “tradition” and resistant to modernity, although the lives of its denizens can only be understood by locating them within the modern world, and as deeply entangled with the forces and currents therein. How do Muslims in Old Delhi view and respond to these entanglements? How do they imagine and construct their religious subjectivity in modern India? Here I focus on a group of Muslim women in Old Delhi who have organized a “Muslim Club” that urges other women to adopt religious practices that they believe are prescribed in the Quran. They are particularly critical of Muslim practices that they claim are steeped in Indian “culture,” and teach women to follow “authentic” Islam, as prescribed in the Quran and modeled in the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th Century. Rejecting the schools of interpretation, traditions, and innovations of the intervening centuries, do members of the Islamic Club view themselves to be “antimodern”? Focusing on this group of women, as well as their Muslim critics, I will examine how Old Delhi’s Muslims variously imagine and negotiate the currents of the modern world and understand their place within it.

Return to Modernity’s Discontents