The Language of Secular Islam

From Chapati Mystery:

Datla-photo1-253x300Kavita S. Datla received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. She is currently Associate Professor at Mount Holyoke College’s History Department. Her book, The Language of Secular Islam: Urdu Nationalism and Colonial India was published by University of Hawaii Press in 2013.

What is your book arguing?

My book tells the story of a set of vernacular projects in the Urdu language in the early twentieth century. It argues that the people involved in these projects were self-consciously trying to ‘modernize’ the Urdu language and make it fit for new national, and secular, purposes. Given Urdu’s associations with Muslims, these projects were simultaneously about finding a place for Muslims in the nation. The book begins by considering the general character of education in the Hyderabad state, and the different projects of reform that were proposed by late nineteenth/early twentieth century administrators and thinkers – from a plan to create an Islamic university that would usher in a theological reformation in the larger Muslim world, to a proposal to found India’s first vernacular university. Ultimately, it was the latter that was taken up and the new university became a site for a massive project of translation, and for the unfolding of new research agendas. Many of these projects sent intellectuals sifting through the Indian past and non-Western (and especially Islamic) scholarly traditions to identify vocabularies and experiences that might be retrieved and used for a newly defined common good. Ultimately, the book tries to recover some of the tensions and debates involved in this process (as people argued about which vocabularies or traditions to draw from) and also the political impasses that they led to; the latter most dramatically in discussions with figures like Gandhi over India’s national language (Hindi, Urdu, or Hindustani). In that sense, it is as much about language as it is about the political questions opened up by Indian nationalism.

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