Tauseef Ahmad Parray’s latest book, which Oxford University Press published, promises to be a ground-breaking exploration of Islam and democracy in the twenty-first century. In an interview with Muhammad Nadeem, Parray details his academic odyssey and his prolific writings.
KASHMIR LIFE (KL): Can you please share details about your academic journey and how you became interested in the field of Islamic Studies?
Tauseef Ahmad Parray (TAP): I was born in November 1984 and raised in a middle-class family in Hari Pari Gam, Tral. I had my early education at a nearby Najmia Islamia Middle School, and later at Public School Bijbehara. I completed the eleventh and twelfth in the Medical Stream.
I completed a BA in Social Sciences (History, Political Science and Islamic Studies) at Amar Singh College, Srinagar in 2006. Later, I got selected for a PG in Islamic Studies at the University of Kashmir.
I qualified for UGC NET/JRF in 2007. In 2008, I completed my PG and applied for a PhD programme at the Department of Islamic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University. In 2009, I began my PhD journey. My dissertation was on Islam and Democracy: A Study of the Views of Contemporary Scholars of India and Pakistan. I submitted my thesis in 2013.
In 2014, I was selected for five months as an Iqbal Fellow by the Iqbal International Institute at the Research and Dialogue at the International Islamic University Islamabad, Pakistan. There I researched Democracy in Pakistan: Problems and Prospects – a practical aspect of my PhD topic. During my PhD and fellowship years (2009-2014), I wrote and published most of my research papers, reviews and articles on Islam and democracy. Since 2016, I am an Assistant Professor at the college level.
KL: What motivated you to write your first book?
TP: I started writing for academic journals as well as newspapers in 2010. My first book was a result of my writings of 2010-2017 on some major concepts and themes of the Quran—of social, ethical, religious and political nature: Towards Understanding the Qur’anic Terms, Concepts, and Themes, which was published by Qirtas Publishers in June 2017, and two years later, in 2019, a local edition was published by Kitab Mahal Publishers under a new title: Exploring the Qur’an: Concepts and Themes. I wrote on the theme of Quranic studies Recent Trends in Qur’anic Scholarship which was published in 2020 by Viva Books.
KL: Could you highlight the main themes or ideas that run through your body of work?
TP: Besides the Quranic Studies theme and my major research area (Islam and Democracy), I have written on Islam and modernity and Islamic intellectual tradition. In the former category, my first significant work was Mediating Islam and Modernity: Sir Sayyid, Iqbal, and Azad (Viva Books, 2019) with a Foreword by renowned anthropologist, Prof Irfan Ahmad (presently at Ibn Haldun University, Turkiye).
In a later category, I wrote Decadence of Muslim Intellectualism: Reasons, Ramifications, & Remedies in 2021 and it was also published by Viva Books.
Another addition to this category was (co-edited) Islamic Intellectual Tradition in the Indian Sub-Continent: Essays in Honour of Dr Abdul Kader Choughley. It was co-edited with Dr Muhammad Yaseen Gadda, who is presently working in the Department of Religious Studies at the Central University of Kashmir. It was published in September 2022.
This year (July 2023), I also published 21st Century Trends and Approaches in Islamic Scholarship: Critical Reviews on 125 Recent Books, published by Brown Books in association with Ahsan Academy of Research, which is a collection of my book reviews published through various academic journals and other platforms on varied dimensions of Islam.
KL: Could you provide an overview of your recent book Islam and Democracy in the 21st Century?
TP: This book is based on my PhD and other published works on this theme from 2010-2020. It attempts to analyse and examine, theoretically, the relationship between Islam—and Islamic socio-political concepts and institutions—with the principles of (modern) democracy. Is Islam compatible with democracy? This is the ‘signature question’ addressed in this book by analysing and evaluating the positions and perspectives of various Muslim scholars and thinkers, academicians and leaders of the last two-and-half-centuries (from mid-19th to 21st centuries) of the Arab world, South Asia and (the Muslim academicians based in) the West.
Making a substantial contribution to this ‘emerging’ discourse, the book offers very useful discussions in framing the contemporary debates surrounding Islam and democracy by treading through diverse theoretical Islamic texts like the Qur’an, Sunnah and other more contemporary works by eminent scholars on this issue and endeavours to create a discursive terrain for theorising the notions of convergence vis-à-vis the notions of divergence inherent in the debates surrounding Islam and democracy.
KL: In one of your shorter works, you surveyed the reading culture in Kashmir. Could you share your observations and insights on this issue?
TP: This work, published as a series of write-ups in a local newspaper and written with one of the students at Government Degree College, Sogam, instigates to look deeper, by consulting and gathering views of different stakeholders—students, scholars, avid readers, booksellers—to know the reasons behind the fading book reading culture in Kashmir, especially in the current age of internet, IT and smartphones and e-gadgets.
From the views of different stakeholders and our observations, we concluded that (i) ‘avid readers’ are always present in a society, but are minimal in number, and they will not be affected much by the socio-political, intellectual or technological developments and advancements taking place around the world; and (ii) digital age has revolutionised the world but it has its harmful effects as well, and reading habits too have been affected by it.
KL: What will be your next book about and when can we expect them?
TP: Two main projects: One is to prepare a reference work on the major courses of Islamic Studies for the students – especially undergraduates, through a reputed publisher so that it will be available easily and at a fair cost as well as to prepare a book on understanding the actual nature and understanding of Islamic Studies discipline as there are numerous misconceptions and misunderstanding regarding this subject.
The second is to continue and carry forward, my research and writing in the areas of my interest – Islamic intellectual tradition of South Asia with a focus on current trends) and for this, I have submitted a book proposal to an international publisher and I am hopeful it will be accepted.
KL: How can young Kashmiri scholars and students contribute to the field of Islamic Studies and engage with contemporary issues related to Islam and society?
TP: By exploring and researching issues that have gained currency in the contemporary world; by publishing their research works (MPhil/ PhD) in reputed standard journals and those helpful in policy-making; and by focusing on the issues and challenges faced by the societies they are part of. These are some of the ways through which researchers and young scholars can contribute to their society.
KL: Could you recommend any strategies or resources for individuals interested in pursuing a career in Islamic Studies or related fields?
TP: There is no denying the fact that there are not many options for pursuing a career in this subject at the local and national level – as the subject is taught at a few selected institutions in Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi, UP, and Hyderabad. However, students and researchers should apply for programmes and positions at the global level, especially in the USA, UK, Germany, Netherlands, Qatar, Turkey, and Malaysia, as there are many opportunities.
KL: Could you provide an overview of the historical evolution of Islam’s democratic discourse and what prompted you to explore it in your book?
TP: Islam, as a religion or ideology, is generally seen as opposing and antagonistic to ideas and concepts like rationality, liberty, freedom, pluralism, and democratic values. It is generally seen through the prism of the ‘unfortunate’ violent and radical events of 9/11, and 26/11. When seen through authentic sources and in the light of genuine interpretations of its texts, Islam is neither against rationality nor democracy.
It is a religion which preaches, promotes and encourages all the ‘positive values’ towards which it is shown as ‘opposing’ or antagonistic—be it rationality and scientific enquiry or pluralistic ethos and democratic concepts. The primary sources of Islam (Quran and Hadith) and the classical period of Islamic history are full of references and evidence which promote and support a democratic system of government and pluralism, co-existence and harmony.
It was in this context that I delved deep into exploring the relationship of Islam – socio-political concepts and institutions – with modern democratic values. Numerous scholars of the modern period – from the early 18th century, have attempted to address these issues and have written on the relation of Islam and Islamic tradition with modern values like pluralism, co-existence, democracy, good governance, etc.
KL: One of the key concepts you discuss is the idea of ‘Shura’ in Islam. How does this concept relate to democracy, and how have Muslim scholars historically interpreted and applied it in the context of governance?
TP: The Quran refers to the concept of Shura (literally mutual consultation) on many occasions (like Q. 3: 159 and 42:38) and there are several examples from the life of the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) and rightly guided Caliphs (632-660 CE) which prove the importance of discussions and mutual consultation, especially on political matters.
In the debates on Islam-democracy relations, Shura is considered the foundation of ‘Islamic democracy’, as it is endorsed by the text, supported by tradition and ‘open’ to interpretations as there is no fixed framework provided for it. Shura is interpreted by scholars (from exegetes to political thinkers) as an ideal concept for establishing democracy.
KL: In your research, you examine the perspectives of prominent Muslim scholars from both the Arab world and South Asia. Could you highlight some of the key figures and their views on the compatibility or incompatibility of Islam and democracy?
TP: In the modern period, influential Muslim thinkers from the Arab world and South Asia have contributed significantly to political thought through their writings.
Key figures include Jamal al-Din Afghani, known for propagating ‘Pan-Islamism’, Allama Iqbal for awakening Muslims, Abul Kalam Azad for his non-violent activism, and Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi for his political interpretation of Islam. Contemporary South Asian scholars like Wahiduddin Khan, Asghar Ali Engineer, Asrar Ahmad, and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi have also made ground-breaking contributions exploring the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
Their diverse perspectives – spanning traditionalist, modernist and Islamist strands – have enriched discourse on Islam’s relationship with democracy in the modern era.
KL: South Asian Muslim intellectuals like Muhammad Iqbal and Abul Kalam Azad are explored in your book. These and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan were the subjects of your previous book Mediating Islam and Modernity as well. What were their perspectives on democracy within the Islamic context, and how did they influence political thought in the region?
TP: In Mediating Islam and Modernity, I discussed the thoughts of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Allama Iqbal and Maulana Azad on religion, education, and politics through the prism of reconciling Islam with modernity.
In my latest book, Islam and Democracy in the 21st Century, I have evaluated the writings political thoughts and ideas of many prominent voices (whether branded or labelled as ‘Traditionalists’, ‘Modernists’, “Islamists’, or ‘Secularists’, such as Mufti Mohammad Shafi, Amin Ahsan Islahi, Azad, Maududi, Iqbal, Dr Israr, Fazlur Rahman, Prof. Khurshid Ahmad, Khalid Masud, Ghamidi, and more, through the prism of Islam-democracy reconciliation along with the major voices of the Arab world—from Tahtawi and Abduh to Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Rachid al-Ghanouchi—and those educated and settled or living in the ‘West’, such as Abdulaziz Sachedina, Abdolkarim Soroush, Abdelwahab el-Affendi, Louay Muhammad Safi, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Radwan Masmoudi, Muqtedar Khan, etc. And I have labelled them as ‘Muslim Democrats’.
KL: The book also examines the views of scholars with a more traditionalist approach, such as those associated with the ‘Deoband’ school of thought. What were some of the key differences in their interpretations of Islam’s relationship with democracy?
TP: One main similarity in the thoughts of ‘Traditionalists’, ‘Modernists’ or ‘Secularists’, especially in the discussions on Islam-democracy reconciliation is that all of them interpret Shura–and other such socio-political notions and institutions like Ijma, Bayah, Maslaha and Constitution of Madina as the foundation of democratic ethos in Islam: only the terminology or style varies, the argument is same.
KL: Your book also addresses the perspectives of ‘radical’ Islamists who oppose the compatibility of Islam and democracy. What are some of their key arguments, and how do they fit into the broader discourse on this topic?
TP: The major, and essential, difference they highlight is the concept of sovereignty of Allah (Hakimiyah) as opposed to the popular sovereignty of Western democracy. However, democracy is not just about the concept of sovereignty but about equality, justice, good governance, accountability, and many such concepts and values, which are endorsed by Islam and are ‘watchwords’ of (western) democracy as well.