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The ethical life of Muslims in secular India: Islamic reformism in West Bengal

Pool, Fernande Wille-Wietske (2016) The ethical life of Muslims in secular India: Islamic reformism in West Bengal. PhD thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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This doctoral research explores the complexity of ethical life of the marginalized Muslim minority in the Indian secular state, drawing on 23 months of ethnographic fieldwork in a village in West Bengal. The thesis revolves around the observation that West Bengali Muslims demonstrate and emphatic concern with dharma (ethics of justice and order),which is foremost reflected in the increasing presence of Islamic reformism. On the basis of a comprehensive exploration of the vernacular categories, ethics and practices of West Bengali Muslims, from personhood and sociality, to politics and plurality, the thesis demonstrates that Islamic reformism is a particular expression of a desire for holistic ethical renewal. This takes places in the context of pervasive corruption and political violence; a history of ambiguous communal politics; structural inequality; and the sense of ethical failure incited by suspicion and discrimination of Muslims. For Muslim West Bengalis, the crisis of Indian secularism is at once in the denial of substantive citizenship, and in the impossibility of a holistic regeneration of dharma. The thesis demonstrates that while these two desires are not inherently contradictory, but embedded in the ‘transcendental social’ of West Bengali Muslims, they are circumstantially contradictory given the secular epistemology of the modern state. Therefore, West Bengali Muslims continue to be denied not only substantive citizenship, but also human dignity. The thesis presents an analytical approach and theoretical framework that go beyond the categories ‘religion’ and ‘secularism’ to bring to the forefront people’s ethical dispositions and practices, and the vernacular engagements with modernity through locally meaningful categories. Taking seriously the conceptualisation and practice of ethical life outside the secular West requires a critique of a secular conception of ethics. Drawing on Maurice Bloch’s model of the ‘transcendental social’, in conjunction with an analysis of virtue ethics and original ethnography, this thesis offers and innovative model of ethical reality that suggests that social imagination is the source of ethics.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © 2016 Fernande Wille-Wietske Pool
Library of Congress subject classification: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Sets: Departments > Anthropology
Supervisor: Bear, Laura and Banerjee, Mukulika and Allerton, Catherine

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