Shaukat Ajmeri logoShaukat Ajmeri

A novel with an almost immediate relevance

Shaukat Ajmeri’s novel, The Keepers of Faith is a sensitive and a heart-wrenching portrayal of the tribulations of a shi’ite religious community in Rajasthan in India. Even as the novel is about the Momin community, the point it makes is equally relevant to all religions and sects in contemporary South Asia; and that point is that it is always a formidable challenge to speak for religious reforms, and stand for a rational evaluation of religious beliefs and practice.

The work highlights the suffocating influence of the conservative religious leaders, and how their control over the community thwarts initiatives towards reform, and blunts appeals to rationality and critical re-evaluation of entrenched rituals. In this respect, the book draws attention to the pervading influence of the obscurantist forces, and the extent to which they inhibit the impulses towards modernity and change among communities in India. At the same time, the novel also celebrates the resistance of the educated and inspired members within the community, particularly women, against religious orthodoxy, for even when they, and their families suffer social ostracism, they still persist in pushing for change.

As a work of fiction, the work has a didactic edge, and pushes for the repudiation of orthodox and obscurantist practice among all religious communities in India. It makes a strong case for the need to embrace modern values and rationality in the articulation of faith, but for any community to do so, it needs to be vigilant of its leaders, and prevent the maulvis and the pundits from controlling and disciplining its members. In today’s India, when rationalists have been brutally murdered for their positions, and those who speak for reforms and critique entrenched belief are vilified and abused, the message in the novel has an almost immediate relevance.

— Farhat Hasan is the Professor of Medieval and Early Modern South Asian History in the Department of History at the University of Delhi.