The Tale of the Tailor: Munshi Mohammad Meherullah and Muslim–Christian Apologetics in Bengal, 1885–1907


Rural Muslim atrap communities in the eastern part of the colonial Bengal Presidency were the target demographic ofChristian conversion efforts in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Debates (bahas) between Muslim preachers and Christian missionaries, as well as religious meetings (waz mahfils), characterized these apologetics. Disseminated through street-market chapbooks in Musalmani-Bengali or dobashi Bengali, such polemics translated the cultural valences of Christianity and Islam both as personal faith and as communitarian identifying markers. In this paper, I analyze a selection of such pamphlets authored by an itinerant tailor called Munshi Meherullah, who spearheaded the atrap Bengali reaction against missionary efforts. Meherullah understood that the theological debates between Christian missionaries and Muslim alims was colonially and racially inflected and pre-determined, and the very act of engagement in apologetics was merely a performance of social, racial and theological superiority. As this paper exhibits, Meherullah’s distinctive approach towards social reform, religion and religious identity played a very important role in defining the parameters of being a good Bengali Muslim. Religious conversion, as a result of his intervention, became a techne, a phronetic device that operated in excess of the real boundaries of its perceived threats, to enable self-examination and analysis of their immediate social milieu for Bengal’s Muslims, in order to resist colonial religious and political subordination.

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