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Aamir R. Mufti. Enlightenment in the Colony. The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. ISBN: 978069105731. Price: US$20.95/£12.50

  • Eitan Bar-Yosef

…plus d’informations

  • Eitan Bar-Yosef
    Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

Corps de l’article

The premise behind Aamir R. Mufti’s book, Enlightenment in the Colony, is basic and yet almost breathtakingly bold. The crisis of modern secularism in colonial and postcolonial societies, Mufti argues, is rooted in the problematic of “minority” which first emerged in Europe, in post-Enlightenment liberal culture, and particularly in the debates about the Jews’ status in modern society. It is impossible, therefore, to understand the crisis of Muslim identity in postcolonial South Asia without exploring its relationship to the history of the “Jewish Question” in modern Europe. By juxtaposing such classics as Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779) and Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India (1946), Mufti offers a brave, new way of linking pivotal cultural and political issues that have rarely been addressed in the same book, not to mention the same paragraph.

This is quite a leap, but the payoff seems to be enormous. On the one hand, Mufti sets out to illustrate the fate of the bourgeois Enlightenment in colonial and postcolonial settings. The construction of European Jewry as a minority and the difficulties concerning emancipation/assimilation as possible solutions to this “problem” offer, Mufti claims, an early, exemplary, instance of the crisis of the ethnic/religious minority that has accompanied the development of liberal-secular states–among them India, where the question of what it means to be Indian “has remained a cultural formation brought to crisis by the question of Muslim identity” (7).

On the other hand, Mufti follows the work of scholars such as Bryan Cheyette, Jonathan Boyarin, and Daniel Boyarin in “attempting to dismantle the anti-comparatist impulse” (6) that has characterized Jewish Studies for decades. Projected backwards—and “westwards”—to eighteenth-century metropolitan European culture, the postcolonial vocabulary allows Mufti to rethink “those forms of constitutive failure of the idea of Europe that come to us coded as the ‘Jewish Question’” (4). Mufti, then, goes much beyond the familiar postcolonial critique of Zionism (associated with the work of his mentor, Edward Said): rather, he sets out to offer a “postcolonial” analysis of the scenarios of Jewish minoritization and exile in the domestic European metropolitan context.

These complementary trajectories are reflected in the book’s somewhat rigid structure. Following a wonderfully intricate prologue, in which he maps the theoretical genealogy of his argument (ranging from Lukács and Adorno to Said and Chatterjee), the study is then divided into two parts: the first, “Emergence: Europe and Its Others,” explores the rise and dissemination of the question of minority existence by charting the dialectic of the Jew as minority in post-Enlightenment European culture. Analyzing texts by Lessing, Mendelssohn, Fichte, Scott, and Heine, Chapter 1 records the universalism of late-Enlightenment formulations of emancipation and citizen subjectivity in the context of an emergent “nation-thinking,” tracing the tension between different liberal attempts to “settle” the unsettling figure of the Jew. Moving chronologically, Chapter 2 reads Daniel Deronda—“the canonical […] and pan-European text of the Jewish Question for the late nineteenth century” (31-2)—before turning to Kipling and Forster to ponder how “the figures and forms of minority are reinscribed, in Britain’s late imperial culture, into an exploration of the nature and meaning of its Indian colony” (32).

The second section, “Displacements: On the Verge of India,” includes three chapters that offer different ideological, literary, and generic models of understanding the construction of Muslim as minority in the decades leading to partition. Chapter 3 approaches the work of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad—who composed his autobiographical Ghubar-e Khatir just as Nehru was writing TheDiscovery of India—by focusing on the historical and cultural processes by which the difference between “Hindus” and “Muslims” came to be defined as a linguistic conflict between Hindi and Urdu (this, for non-specialists, offers one of the most fascinating discussions in the book). Chapter 4 considers the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, and particularly his fascination with the subaltern urban figure of the prostitute, seen here as an attempt to parody the national myth of “India” as mother, and at the same time challenge the role of the novel as the national literary form par excellence. Moving from the Urdu short story to the lyric, Chapter 5 suggests how the dialectic of self and other in the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, written in the tradition of the ancient ghazal form, anticipates and performs the great drama of partition.

Few scholars (naturally, Edward Said comes to mind) could have moved so effortlessly between these two distinct historical, literary, and academic spheres. And although Mufti’s style is at times densely layered with jargon, one cannot but admire his rich and suggestive writing, teeming with poignant observations and reveling in Derridean (or even Wildean) paradoxes, like the claim that separatism “is often the most complete form assimilation can take, despite being presented as its opposite” (8). Even when his readings are hardly innovative—his analysis of Ivanhoe, for example, relies heavily on Michael Ragussis’ work, while his reading of Danial Deronda could have benefited from the insights offered by Nancy Henry—Mufti’s ability to integrate his material is truly remarkable. His claim, which might seem so outrageous at the outset, gradually attains a crucial, undeniable, force.

What remains less convincing, perhaps, is the exact nature of the relationship between the two minority “problems” Mufti scrutinizes. If, as Mufti claims (somewhat counterintuitively, as he admits), “an account of the ‘beginnings’ of the crisis of Indian secularism around the identity of the Muslims must lead to the history of the involvement of European liberalism with the question of the Jews” (11, italics mine), how does one turn this counterintuition into a valid historical or even theoretical argument? How, when, and in what form did the vocabulary of the Jewish Question “travel” to India? What is the exact affinity—historical, political, discursive—between the two “questions”?

Surprisingly, the book itself makes no real attempt to offer a conclusive model of causality or influence that would go beyond an immediate analogy. “I am acutely aware of the pitfalls of appropriating Jewish existence for allegories of non-Jewish life,” Mufti notes, yet he nevertheless hastens to embrace “the metaphorical (or rather, metonymic) possibilities of Jewishness for oppositional culture as a whole” (7). Is this parenthetical shift, from metaphor to metonymy, meant to suffice? Mufti moves on to ask whether the Jewish and Muslim cases “belong to the same archive” (8), pointing to “this mutual alteration, this translation” (9), but these poetic formulations add little coherence to the picture.

It is telling that the only real moments in the book in which Mufti identifies a direct, literal, bridge between the two contexts are literary: for example, when he defines E. M. Forster’s application of Deronda’s liberal discourse about the Jews to the representation of the Muslim “problem” in A Passage to India. Indeed, the most poignant example, one that gives shape and meaning to the entire study, is Mufti’s reading of Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay (1989), which follows the story of a young Jewish man from Berlin who escapes to India, “only to have Germany catch up with him in the end” (248). One of several postcolonial novels that toy with the metaphorical possibilities of Jewishness, Desai’s novel provides Mufti with an extremely powerful epilogue: it does not, however, offer a convincing historical explanation of Mufti’s Baumgartnerization, as it were, of the Indian crisis. After all, this German Jew, making his way to India, is first and foremost a postcolonial literary fantasy, not part of a physical Exodus that actually took place in the 1930s. That Mufti relies on this metaphor (alas, not even a metonymy) to demonstrate how the “Jewish Question” traveled to South Asia points, ultimately, to the limitations of his approach.

The same is also true of the contemporary political implications of Mufti’s thesis which are never fully spelled out. There is one explicit episode in the book in which Mufti points to

the contemporaneity […] of the conclusion of the Jewish Question on the continent of Europe—genocidal annihilation followed by “national” resettlement in Palestine—and the supposed resolution of the crisis of Muslim identity on the Indian subcontinent—massive uprooting of populations and the partition of territory, accomplished in the midst, and through the modality, of a social cataclysm of holocaust proportions. […] They are both signs of a crisis in the nation-state system at a specific moment in its history. They mark the inability of the modern system of nation-states to complete the nationalization of society except through its violent reorganization: breakdown of communities, massacres and transfer of populations, in the one instance, and, in the other, dispersal and industrialized genocide followed by resettlement in a distant land and violently appropriated land and the displacement of its own indigenous inhabitants.


The argument is compelling, yet shaky. One does not need to be a devout Zionist to argue that, despite Mufti’s cautious reservations, the Indian attempt to settle the Muslim “problem” cannot be compared to the Nazi’s final solution. And one need hardly be a Palestinian to argue that, despite the heavy loss of life during partition, the establishment of a separate Muslim state positioned the exiled Indian Muslims in a completely different situation than that of the dispossessed Palestinians who, sixty years after the Naqba, still yearn for an independent homeland of their own.

The above formulation, though problematic, is at least an example of Mufti’s attempt to link the book’s two narratives together. But this is an exception: Mufti’s reluctance to offer a coherent model of influence or causality that goes beyond a theoretical affinity is reflected in the unexplainable gap that exists between Mufti’s affirmed (comparative) objective and the fact that the second section of the book makes very few direct references to the first. Those references that exist—for example, in Mufti’s intriguing comparison between modern Sanskritized Hindi and modern Hebrew (146-7), or his fleeting allusions to Faiz’s relationship with the PLO—make one wish these points were developed much further. At the risk of mimicking F. R. Leavis’s surgical verdict of Daniel Deronda, we could say that the two (good!) parts of Enlightenment in the Colony are in some strange way removed, even disconnected.

There is no need, however, to invoke Leavis: enough to turn to Mufti’s own analysis of Manto’s partition narratives, “epic in their ambition, inscribed with the formal intention to tell the tale of social totality itself. But this epos of an entire subcontinent is told as a series of fragments, from the interstitial points of the social imaginary, from minor locations within it” (206). The same fragmentary quality, it could be claimed, characterizes Mufti’s work as well. Perhaps this is inevitable, considering his conviction that these questions must be examined “from the point of view, and at the site, of minority existence” (10-11). Paradoxically, of course, it is precisely this “minor” perspective that makes Enlightenment in the Colony such a major scholarly intervention.

Parties annexes