This is a preprint of a review whose final and definite form has been published in Contemporary South Asia © Taylor & Francis; see publisher's version and entry in my publication list. The book itself is here.

Islam and the Ahmadiyya Jama'at: history, belief, practice, by Simon Ross Valentine, London, Hurst, 2008, xvi + 263 pp., ISBN 978-1-85065-916-7

'To provide an account of the history, beliefs and purpose of the Ahmadiyya Jama'at' (xvi), a disowned splinter group of Sunni Islam, the Methodist preacher and scholar of religion Simon Ross Valentine settled in Bradford/UK and later traveled to Rabwah/Pakistan and Qadian/India. This setup is not without irony, given that Mirza Gulam Ahmad initiated his movement in the 19th century to counter Christian theology; as a self-proclaimed prophet, he challenged many a British missionary in public debating contests about the relative merits of Islam. Against this backdrop, but devoid of missionary zeal, 'Islam and the Ahmadiyya Jama'at' wants to be an exercise in 'objective' description of about every aspect of Ahmad's movement. The Methodist Valentine is driven by 'the need to present "real Islam", the need to move away from media stereotypes and, the need to let the world know of the persecution faced by the Ahmadi at the hands of their co-religionists' (63).

With much curiosity, I participated in a national seminar on "Communal harmony and secularism: Indian experiences" in Allahabad last week. I heard very promising papers on the Muslim middle class in Kerala (following up on Ashutosh Varshney's seminal work1), on gender in communal violence (rather surprisingly delivered by a male colleague), and on the ups and downs of Hindu communalism in Kashmir. 2 For those three papers alone it was worth attending the seminar. I also heard, however, a good many opinionated and sloppily presented rants, often by senior faculty who took the opportunity to "float some ideas" at the expense of valuable discussion time. Apart from debates on reservations, Pakistan, and "balance"3 - the major points which emerged for discussion -, the seminar thus provided a revealing glimpse into the thick mainstream of Indian social science. Some observations:

Social science in the Indian province

Social science in the Indian capital

  • 1. Varshney, A. (2002). Ethnic conflict and civic life. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.
  • 2. My own, rather inferior, paper is here should you be interested
  • 3. i.e. the assumption that blame and praise for all communities should be equal, irrespective of empirical distributions - a view very much confirming my concerns voiced last week...

While I am tempted, it would seem a bit insensitive to continue blogging about the two goats of Rifah-e-Aam Club today. It's Baqr Eid after all - most likely, if unfortunately, the last day of their lives. While there is a lot to be said about the Club, about Eid, and about the goats, I shall leave this to next week - and instead reflect on the possibilities and limits of having a dialogue with communalists.

In India, papers buzz with news of the first Formula One race in the country and the potential break-up (or not) of Team Anna. The latter are news which aren't new anymore, and the former should not be news at all in my opinion. But between the lines one finds more interesting stuff, too - for instance on the deepening strategic partnership with Afghanistan (see, for instance, here). And this morning, TOI reports that Indian firms are on their way to bag major mining contracts in the wake of this partnership - it starts to get really interesting. Unfortunately, however, most commentators reduce both moves once more to a rather simple Indo-Pak equation. I thus felt tempted to side-step from Lucknow and Rifah-e-Aam for today and offer my own, somewhat different assessment (based on two papers which I presented earlier this year, here and there).

The two anthropological goats introduced last week continue to guide my work; today's post is about the place where they hang out: the former Rifah-e-Aam Club of Lucknow. Pictured to the right, in the Residency's backyard and a mere puddle (or rather goat) jump from my new home, it was initially little more than a pittoresque structure nearby and a fun place to hang out in the afternoon for kite-flying and cricketeering. But once I managed to track down the Manager-cum-Caretaker with the help of some local boys, read up a bit in the relevant books,1 and turned to the Blogosphere, fascinating new perspectives emerged.

The club was apparently a place of great historical importance, where - folklore has it - Gandhi and Nehru met for the first time, where nationalist demands began to flourish in Lucknow, and where the politics of class, caste and community all left their mark. Now being in utterly neglect as far as its existence as a Club is concerned, but recycled in many new and exciting ways, Rifah-e-Aam - the "public good"2 - also tells a lot about the changing face of Lucknow, UP and India. And since any club is, of course, at its core a game of belonging and non-belonging (even though the goats' membership remains unclear as of yet), this particular one forms a fascinating first nucleus for my quest into Lucknow's history and present, and into the diversity of relations of people with the city and with each other.