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Islamic Studies Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla Mawdudi
by
SherAli Tareen

Introduction

Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla Mawdudi (b. 1903–d. 1979) is a towering figure in the intellectual and political history of South Asian Islam. He was also one of the key ideological architects of what has come to be known as “Islamism”: the belief that the implementation of an authentically Islamic legal order can only be achieved through the political machinery of the modern nation-state. Best known as the founder of the religious political party Jamaʾat-i Islami (founded in 1941), Mawdudi was born in 1903 at Aurangabad (North India) into a family that enjoyed an aristocratic background and claimed descent from Muhammad (thus the title “sayyid”). Mawdudi’s intellectual genealogy is complicated. Educated in traditional Islamic disciplines by private tutors during his childhood, he was later in his life also highly influenced by the revolutionary writings of such Western philosophers as G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, and Auguste Comte. Mawdudi eventually rejected all forms of Western knowledge for what he called their spiritual poverty and committed himself to the knowledge of the Qurʾan. But as studies have shown, although he symbolically renounced Western knowledge, especially in his conceptualization of an Islamic revolution, Mawdudi remained indebted to thinkers such as Hegel and Marx. Indeed, even if the grand narrative underlying Mawdudi’s career was “antimodern,” he was, to use the anthropologist David Scott’s felicitous phrase, “a conscript” of that very modernity. Mawdudi initially opposed the creation of Pakistan but moved to that country two weeks after it was founded. The overarching theme that permeates Mawdudi’s several writings is that of an “Islamic state” based on the tenets of Sharia, an idea that he had articulated even before India’s partition into Hindu- and Muslim-majority states and one he vociferously argued for after moving to Pakistan. Among his most well-known writings is a massive commentary (tafsir) of the Qurʾan titled Tafhim al-Qurʾan (Understanding the Qurʾan), which has achieved widespread popularity both in and beyond South Asia. Consistent with his populist political theology, Mawdudi wrote in simple and lucid Urdu. Most of his important works have been translated into English and some of them into Arabic and other languages. He died in 1979 at the age of seventy-six in Buffalo, New York, where he had traveled for medical treatment.

General Overviews

Mawdudi’s career and ideology have received extensive treatment in some important works. Nasr 1996 is a useful overview of Mawdudi’s life and thought, especially in relation to the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism. This book builds on Nasr 1994 on the development of Jamaʾat-i Islami in Pakistan, which also contains a more brief but useful introduction to Mawdudi’s political ideology. A critically important intervention is Ahmad 2009 on the transformation of Jamaʾat-i Islami in India with an extensive discussion on the complexities of Mawdudi’s intellectual genealogy. Binder 1963, Adams 1966, and Larson 1998 all provide useful overviews of Mawdudi’s political ideology, especially in relation to the larger political trends and movements in postcolonial South Asia.

  • Adams, Charles J. “The Ideology of Mawlana Maudūdī.” In South Asian Politics and Religion. Edited by Donald Eugene Smith. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966.

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    Adams’s article is an account of Mawdudi’s political thought. This article contextualizes Mawdudi’s critique of Western culture and materiality in the political milieu of late colonial India.

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  • Ahmad, Irfan. Islamism and Democracy in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

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    An important monograph on the transformation of the Jamaʾat-i Islami from precolonial to postcolonial India. Contains an excellent analysis of the various conflicting ingredients that went into Mawdudi’s intellectual makeup and shaped the contours of his Islamist political ideology.

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  • Binder, Leonard. Religion and Politics in Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

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    Binder’s work is primarily devoted to religion and politics in Pakistan. Since Jamaʾat-i Islami is the major religious political party, he discusses the role it played in the controversy over the adoption of an Islamic constitution in the state of Pakistan.

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  • Larson, Warren Fredrick. Islamic Ideology and Fundamentalism in Pakistan. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998.

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    A monograph connecting Mawdudi’s political ideology to larger trends of Muslim fundamentalist thought in the 20th century. It briefly describes Mawdudi’s life and mission and the activities of Jamaʾat-i Islami (of which he was the founder and self-appointed president [amir]). Larson argues that the party upheld the doctrine of ijtihad in theory but in practice it failed to fashion a coherent Islamic ideology

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  • Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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    A definitive work on Jamaʾat-i Islami in Pakistan. Contains a brief account of Mawdudi’s Islamic ideology. Nasr shows how Mawdudi’s call for an Islamic state and his political ideology more generally were the result of an agonistic relationship and engagement with certain strands of Western philosophy and political thought, most notably Hegelian and Leninist.

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  • Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    An overview of Mawdudi’s development as a major Islamist thinker and his contribution to broader Muslim revivalist trends in the 20th century.

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Political Thought

Mawdudi did not receive the training of a traditional Muslim scholar (ʿalim, plural ʿulama), a feature of his biography that remained a cause of much unease in his relationship with the prominent ulama of South Asia. Moreover, the influence of Western philosophy on Mawdudi’s thought was also a major reason behind suspicions regarding his authority as a Muslim scholar. Similarly, while Mawdudi was generally respectful of ulama contributions to Islam, he was also highly disdainful of what he saw as their incapacity to engage with the demands of the modern world. In contrast to ulama traditions of knowledge that relied on the commentaries of canonical authorities, Mawdudi introduced a hermeneutic of minimalism that relied exclusively on the Qurʾan and Sunnah (normative model of the Prophet). This bypassing of the canonical tradition was intimately connected to a larger political theology concerned with the institution of divine will and sovereignty in the political structures of the contemporary world, most notably the nation-state. Mawdudi’s political theology rested on the promise of an egalitarian democracy achieved by the modern nation-state through the institution of a divinely mandated societal order, the Sharia. Mawdudi elaborated his political theology in several works dealing with issues such as the constitution of Pakistan (Mawdudi 1955a), the moral foundations of Islamic revivalism (Mawdudi 1973), the procedure of founding an Islamic state (Mawdudi 1939), Muslim political theory (Mawdudi 1939, Mawdudi 1999), human rights in Islam (Mawdudi 1976), and Islamic revolution (Mawdudi 1955b). Most of these Urdu works have been translated into English.

  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. “Islami Hukumat kis tarah qaʾim hoti hai.” Tarjumanul Qurʾan (February–March 1939): 47–83.

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    How is an Islamic state established? An exposition on the political and ideological mechanisms that enable an Islamic state.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. Islamic Law and Constitution. Karachi: Jamaʾat-i Islami, 1955a.

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    Deals with the constitution of Pakistan. Mawdudi argues that sovereignty in the state of Pakistan belongs to God and that the constitution of the state of Pakistan should be based on the Sharia. He also argues that all existing laws or future legislation should not contravene the Sharia and that all political authority should be vested in and derived from the Sharia alone.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. The Process of Islamic Revolution. Lahore, Pakistan: Maktaba-yi Islami, 1955b.

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    An exposition of Mawdudi’s understanding of an Islamic revolution. Mawdudi argued that in order to actualize such a revolution, one needs to cultivate a morally conscious individual as well as a just society according to “authentic” Islamic ideals and values. He considered Islamic ideology to be different from any Western political and social ideologies.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. The Moral Foundations of the Islamic Movement. Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, 1973.

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    One of Mawdudi’s major works on the moral foundations of Islamic revivalism. Topics addressed include the importance of leadership and power, the morality of power, and the relationship of faith and holy war. Translation of Islami Tehrik ki Akhlaqi Bunyadayn.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. Human Rights in Islam. Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation, 1976.

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    An outline of the concept of human rights in Islam in contrast to Western perspectives on human rights. Mawdudi argued for the importance of the human-divine relationship in Islamic understandings of human rights as opposed to the discourse of individual freedom that, he argued, dominates Western conceptions of human rights.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. “Political Theory of Islam.” In Islam: Its Meaning and Message. Edited by Khurshid Ahmad. Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation, 1999.

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    In this work Mawdudi propounds his theory of an Islamic state that manifests divine will in the temporal realm.

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Gender and Social Norms

In addition to political governance, another major theme that animated Mawdudi’s reform project was the regulation of gender relations and the norms of sociability operative in the public sphere. To realize divine sovereignty in this world, it is not only the modern nation-state’s exercise of power that is important; equally important is the formation of a subservient moral subject. Indeed, for Mawdudi the efflorescence of a just political order is only possible through the institution of a moral public sphere. It is the spiritual health of the individual that reflects the overall health and well-being of the larger polity. As is often the case in such projects of colonial and postcolonial reform, the central loci of Mawdudi’s discourses on societal norms are gender and the moral conduct of women. Mawdudi argued for a culture of strict segregation between men and women whereby the requirements of the veil are strictly followed. His social imaginary was driven by the desire to minimize the potential of chaos and disorder (fitna) that in his view resulted from unwarranted intermingling between men and women. He also strongly opposed coeducation, movies, wearing “Western clothes,” and “Western sports.” All of these moralizing measures were part of Mawdudi’s larger sociopolitical program of countering the influences of what he termed “Western materialism” and of establishing a moral economy that might replicate the utopia of the prophetic past in the dystopia of the contemporary world. His seminal book on the veil (Mawdudi 1962), a collection of his various edificatory discourses (Mawdudi 1991), and another major book on the foundations of an Islamic culture (Mawdudi 1977) are all excellent representative sources on Mawdudi’s imagination of an ideal public sphere, especially in relation to gender.

  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. Pardah. Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami, 1962.

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    (The veil.) A seminal text on the veil and on ideal norms of gender relations more generally. An excellent illustration of Mawdudi’s highly gendered discourse and of his presuppositions regarding normative forms of female subjectivity.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. Islami tahzib aur uske usul-o-mabadi. Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami, 1977.

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    (Islamic culture and its sources and foundations.) An extensive discussion of the rules and principles governing a normative Islamic culture and social order. Engages with issues of personal piety, the morality of the public sphere, and the conduct of a just and Islamic state.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. Taʾlimat. Rev. ed. Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami, 1991.

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    Edificatory discourses. A collection of Mawdudi’s discourses on various issues of ethics and moral behavior. Includes discussions on questions of gender.

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Jihad and Jahiliyya

The architectonics of Mawdudi’s ideological project rest on a series of conceptual binaries, such as order and chaos, sovereignty and idolatry, revolution and stagnancy, and most critically prophetic time and the time of ignorance or jahiliyya. The term jahiliyya is a highly charged and polemical category in the Islamic tradition denoting the ignorance of pre-Islamic Arabia. Jahiliyya signifies in some ways what theorists of political theology call a state of exception, a temporal moment in which all forms of moral valuation are suspended, resulting in complete chaos. In its modern reincarnation at the hands of such thinkers as Mawdudi, jahiliyya has come to represent all forms of life and thought that oppose an Islamic order of morality; the antithesis of prophetic time. For Mawdudi, the domination of Western materialism, the valorization of tribal and national identities over Islamic identity, and the permeation of non-Muslim rituals and customs among Muslims were all markers of an age of preponderant ignorance. This temporality of moral corruption and ignorance moreover could only be overcome through the invention of a new order of temporality. In Mawdudi’s view, time has to be created anew so as to enable a political order governed by the sovereignty of divine will rather than the malignant capriciousness of foreign ideologies or that of local customs and habits. Such was the narrative of reform and renewal that sustained Mawdudi’s political theology. Mawdudi’s conception of jahiliyya is elaborated in two book-length articles (Mawdudi 1940, Mawdudi 1941) and a three-volume series on the political predicaments of his time (Mawdudi 1938). Another major resource on Mawdudi’s approach toward non-Muslims is his seminal text on jihad (Mawdudi 2003). Hashmi 2003 provides an excellent analysis of Mawdudi’s theory of jihad.

  • Hashmi, Sohail. “Saving and Taking Life in War.” In Islamic Ethics of Life: Abortion, War, and Euthanasia. Edited by Jonathan Brockopp, 129–155. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

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    An article on modern Muslim theorizations of jihad. Contains an extensive discussion on Mawdudi’s theory of just war. Hashmi shows that, in contrast to premodern jurists who were largely interested in proper conduct while in a situation of war, modern Muslim thinkers such as Mawdudi devote much greater attention to the philosophical underpinnings and justifications of just war and its limits.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. Musalman aur Maujuda Siyasi Kashmakash. 3 vols. Pathankot, India: Maktaba-yi Jamaʾat-i Islami, 1938.

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    (Muslims and the contemporary political predicament.) A series of articles later published in three separate volumes on the “political predicaments” facing Indian Muslims in the early 20th century. Contains a detailed discussion on the necessity of retrieving an authentic Islamic political order by defeating the forces of jahiliyya (immorality).

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. “Tajdid-o-Ahya-yi Din.” Tarjumanul Qurʾan (February–March 1940): 265–346.

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    The renewal and resuscitation of salvational consciousness. An extensive article on morality, falsehood, and religious revivalism.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. “Islam aur Jahiliyyat.” Tarjumanul Qurʾan (April 1941): 102–128.

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    Islam and jahiliyyat. An article contrasting a society based on Islamic principles and prophetic knowledge with one dominated by ignorance and polytheism.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. Al-jihad fiʾl Islam. Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami, 2003.

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    (Jihad in Islam.) Mawdudi’s most detailed text on the limits and philosophical foundations of religious warfare. First published in 1927.

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Qurʾan and Hadith

One of Mawdudi’s lasting legacies on the intellectual landscape not only of South Asian Islam but modern Islam more generally is his commentary (tafsir) on the Qurʾan. Published as Tafhim al-Qurʾan (Understanding the Qurʾan) in six volumes (Mawdudi 2008), this major commentary is also a pivotal source of Mawdudi’s approach to key concepts, such as revolution, Islamic morality, and jahiliyya (immorality), that litter his entire intellectual corpus. An English translation (Mawdudi 1988) of this Urdu commentary is available. An excellent article-length overview of Mawdudi’s hermeneutics of the Qurʾan is Adams 1988. Adams 1976 similarly engages with Mawdudi’s conception of the authority of Hadith.

  • Adams, Charles. “The Authority of Prophetic Hadith in the Eyes of Some Modern Muslims.” In Essays on Islamic Civilization Presented to Niyazi Berkes. Edited by Donald P. Little, 25–47. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1976.

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    An article on Muslim modernist and Islamist conceptions of prophetic authority and Hadith. Includes a discussion of Mawdudi’s understanding of Hadith as a source of normative authority in Islam.

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  • Adams, Charles. “Abu ʿL-Aʾla Mawdudi’s Tafhim Al-Qurʾan.” In Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qurʾan. Edited by Andrew Rippin, 307–323. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988.

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    An analysis of Mawdudi’s Qurʾanic hermeneutics in reference to his major commentary Tafhim al-Qurʾan.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. Towards Understanding the Qurʾan. Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation, 1988.

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    An English translation of Mawdudi’s Qurʾan commentary. Also available online in English.

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  • Mawdudi, Sayyid Abuʾl-Aʾla. Tafhim al-Qurʾan. 6 vols. Delhi: Markazi Maktaba Islami, 2008.

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    (Understanding the Qurʾan.) Mawdudi’s commentary on the Qurʾan. Written in simple prose and intended for a large popular audience not limited to the scholarly elite. Also available online in Urdu.

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LAST MODIFIED: 05/25/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0129

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