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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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/25/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0129

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