Ali Usman Qasmi is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the MGSHSS. He works primarily on the political history of Muslim South Asia. His book The Ahmadis and the Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan won the Karachi Literature Festival Peace Prize in 2015, and his latest book Muslims Against the Muslim League was published with Cambridge University Press in 2017.
Cambridge University Press recently published your co-edited volume, Muslims Against the Muslim League. Did your previous work lead you to this?
Well, there is no consistent pattern as such with one project leading to another. My main focus has certainly been Muslim South Asia, especially in the modern period, and I’m looking at various reform movements, contestations with the idea of modernity, colonialism and the way it has shaped the discourse on Islam in contemporary South Asia. My doctoral research was on a set of movements, called Ahl al-Qur’an, and afterwards I started working on a project looking at the history of the Shi‘a community in the Punjab. The Ahmadi book was, in a way, accidental. I hit upon this large cache of really exciting material in the archive that hadn’t been explored before and I thought that this was something that needed to be utilized.
Muslims Against the Muslim League emerged from my active interest in trying to move the gaze away from the Muslim League to include all the other things happening in the context of Muslim South Asia in the first half of the 20th century. I was, and still am, working on a biography of Ataullah Shah Bukhari, a very famous political leader and polemicist through whose life I wished to look at various political processes of the colonial period. It was during this that it occurred to me to have an edited volume bringing together various political figures and ideas that were prominent in Muslim South Asia beside the Muslim League. In a way, I thought of the title before the content.
Naturally the title is an indication of the contents, but what was the thought process behind the selection of contributions? What makes it thematically cohesive?
I partnered up with Megan E. Robb, who was at Oxford at the time, and we were very lucky in terms of contributions. A lot of people liked the idea and were willing to contribute. Of course, it could have been better. There is so much we didn’t cover that could have enriched our understanding of what happened. But the central premise is that there’s a rich complexity when it comes to the political events of the 1940s, especially the debates around the idea of the Muslim qaum, and the kind of political petitioning being made on behalf of that qaum. All the chapters coalesce on the point of needing to explore this complexity. The Muslim League narrative has been most popular because it was successful, but this doesn’t mean there weren’t other alternatives to it. Even other narratives that conceptualized the Muslim qaum but approached it differently, or envisioned a different future for it. In a way, from my perspective, the idea was to enrich the meaning attached to the notion of that qaum, rather than reduce it to the League’s version of the two nation theory, and perhaps begin a much-needed conversation.
A lot of your work seems to be on extremely delicate subjects? How do you negotiate the controversy around the things you write about?
Well the first thing is that the books are in English, and not many people read in English. The second is that they’re not available in Pakistan. Of course, I’d rather they were, because, as I said, part of the endeavor is to begin a discussion. I’m not polemical in my arguments, and I try to remain very academic in my approach. My aim is to have critical engagement with these different texts, and that is what makes academic works useful in this sense. Because they’re not polemical or sectarian, even if they are provocative, they can act as conversation-starters. As academics and faculty members at LUMS, an institution that espouses certain values of contribution to society through research and teaching, this is part of what we’re supposed to do.
How does teaching tie into all of this? Are your courses usually connected to your research work or are they completely independent?
In my case, my work tends to be related to what I teach—I teach a course on Islamic Movements, and one on Regional Histories of Pakistan. But it’s more than that I think, because it forces you to read a lot, and in fact read more broadly, stuff you won’t otherwise read and move beyond your area of expertise. It also helps you become more articulate, and helps you improve the way you communicate your point. In both these ways, I feel that teaching complements my research.
Now that this book is out, what are the projects we can expect to see in the future?
In terms of my research and teaching I’m moving towards vernaculars and literature. So, I have developed a course that covers the Urdu literary history in the 19th century, and hopefully there will be a follow-up course focusing on the 20th. I’m also drafting a course with Zahid Hasan in the Gurmani Centre, where we’ll teach the Punjabi genre of Waar. Waars are basically poetic renditions of war or mythical traditions. The idea is to give an introduction to the form, its contents, diction, themes. It’s an alternative imagination of what history can be: an entirely different way in which people have approached the past, talked about it and passed it on. More generally, when I’m done with my current projects, I feel like it will be time to move toward cultural studies (enough of political history for now). For instance, I’m very interested in the tradition of Punjabi marsiya, because it is something that is very close to my heart.
Sara Saleem Khan, Research Fellow, conducted this interview.
This article was first published in the MGSHSS newsletter, 'Guftugu'.