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Muslim Culture and Reform in 18th Century South Asia

  • Jamal Malik


Usually the European perception of South Asia and, related to it, academic research into this region, is informed by specific, powerful images and metaphors that establish a dichotomisation of the world. The reasons for this development cannot be analysed in detail here. Suffice it to say, however, that this organisation and designation of the world has deep roots. Until the Reformation, Europe was basically perceived only in terms of geographical boundaries. But the dichotomy between “Europe” and “Asia” acquired a new dimension in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when, in the wake of a change of paradigm into modernity, European self-consciousness gradually developed into a sense of European intellectual superiority. Just as a new form of collective identity had developed within the boundaries of Europe, based on the idea of “nation” in the late eighteenth century, and just as the members of the early nation-states forcibly dissociated themselves by definition from members of other societies in order to be able to establish their own identity, now, with the same intention, though on a different level, Europeans dissociated themselves from “Asia”, the “Orient” and “Islam”. The political recollection of important master narratives kept the mythical fictions in mind and imbued the nation-building process with enormous real power. This development towards a modern European identity was based, as can be deduced from many travellers' testimonies, on the history of reception, reciprocal perceptions, and the development of enemy images. In this process, the Orient and the Orientals were also used by Europeans as a didactic background for the critique of their own (European) urban societies. The literary technique of contextual alienation and distancing, such as can be found in Montesquieu's “Persian Letters”, was born in this period. These and following processes of projection were connected among others things with the fact that Europeans, as colonial masters, advanced to confront the world outside Europe. There they were faced with attitudes and norms that forced them to question their own perceptions. In doing so, they also tended to accept some of these strange and different ideas, and, thus, exposed themselves to cultural hybridisation which could then only be overcome by the reconstructing of their own culture as something “pure”, in contrast to the “degenerate” culture of the colonialised. In this way, collective antagonisms developed. Even the Oriental crusades that had been critically evaluated by European academicians, were now for the first time perceived in terms of cultural clash. Analogously, Europe and Asia were constructed in the eighteenth century and very predominantly in the nineteenth century in terms of arenas of power politics. For instance, it was during this time that the eastern borders of Europe were conceptualised, with the Balkans and Transoxania being considered as buffers or gaps between the two.


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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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