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By Michael Johnathan McDonald

November 23, 2005


A Hope for Goodness

Human understanding exists within verbal expression in speech or writing. It is through these discourses that eventually create a specialized knowledge that are governed by the constituents of power structures themselves. This is part of Michael Foucault’s ideas of how Power/knowledge operates. Therefore, we must be very careful in what we say and how we say it because it ultimately has a powerful effect if people end up believing it as ‘known’ or ‘true’.  Also, this is a very beautiful concept meaning that we can apply it to our discourses. In history we investigate how local knowledge, embedded in local cultures and belief systems gather information about social dynamics to understand human behavior, historical patterns of social, economical and ecological change and local belief systems. When we make our discourses we put information into a category of public consumption, and if they accept this information it becomes part of normalization process because the power structures themselves pick up on these so-called-truths and further disperse them out into the public arena. Therefore, how we chose our information becomes paramount to what becomes knowledge. According to Michael Foucault “Power and knowledge are integrated with one another [...]” ( Foucault p/n 52).  Under this parameter, everyone is in this system of power/knowledge and we cannot escape. Thus a paradox is formed because reason forces us to decide one way or the other. Therefore, we must utilize equal treatment of perspective to stay within the boundaries of fairness or be judged accordingly.


If we apply this to Edward Said, we get his views of the west in his earthshaking book ‘Orientalism.’ To Said, the west’s purpose was to know and control the east by power/knowledge. However, Said faced this paradox later in his life after many anti-Orientalists fought back claiming he was also in the same system. Therefore, Said’s solution was that races, states, or peoples should write their own histories to escape the subjugated genealogies of others writing it for them. This meant they must define who they are themselves.  Said’s solution for a writer (or historians) distinctive to racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage can place themselves in their shoes, so to speak, for the more balanced perspective.  In addition, the brevity of definitions can create problems by leaving out pertinent information that can hurt other people’s feelings. Therefore, definitions sometimes require a larger discourse to escape this dilemma. Finally, if we cannot escape the paradox, that is reason and how it applies to power/knowledge, then the best solution is to hope for goodness.  In regards to goodness, both Foucault and Said had long distinguished careers in which they gave academia many valuable productive tools in which we all can use to discover and understand how, information, power and knowledge work and apply it to our writing. This paper attempts to employ some of these tools and points out of some solutions.


The Mughāls, a pre-colonial juridical power, set both juridical and definitional control in India by creating a vast network of power/knowledge.  Juridical powers, with enough success, usually operated in this way throughout world history. This is top down power. However, after mass communication developed during and after colonial times, it became hard to sell to the world, if you were an imperialist dictator or group, an opinion that imperialism was a viably acceptable disciplinary world power. One needs to ask Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait in the late 1980s how acceptable his decisions were under this new world surveillance. Humankind learned what was intrinsically right and what was objectively wrong collectively under this new disciplinary world power. When the English came to India they believed their ways, economically speaking, could improve India. This was a normalization processes by way of power/knowledge that had been engrained in the European system since the new world economic productions and innovations created new knowledges of how to interact with the world in trade. When the British established themselves in India they began to access the power structures. Christopher A. Bayly spoke of how the British failed in their first attempts at colonial juridical control and mutiny erupted forcing a needed change in their productions of information gathering efforts from switching from Mughāl channels to Indian channels. It was the “effectiveness of the British in penetrating Indian information systems at a pragmatic political and economical level” which explained their “effectiveness of conquest” (Bayly 25). He describes the Mughāl power failed to ascertain the less subversive exterior parameters of information systems in their empire, and the English reliance on Mughāl for information both “ helped to explain their relatively sudden collapse” ( Bayly 42).


British inherited the legitimacy, juridical control and definitional control of the Mughāls by their control of the diwan of Bengal which allowed them to control the knowledges by way of the imperial system of surveillance, information dissemination and gathering. This included also the financial recourses and well informed outer perimeter information systems.  However, as with the Mughāl’s in their late stages, they were less successful in controlling important “information within the localities” ( Bayly 42).  This is reminiscent of the local knowledge problem with the war in Iraq, there are Iraqis that want the foreign agency there to help build a western economic infrastructure and there are a group of Iraqis, and other foreign groups, that want no help whatsoever, and see the US as subversive and thus they use the same subversive tactics to cause disruptions in verifiable information. All sides try to sift through the ‘density,’ of information similar in India as Bayly pointed out with the Mughāls, British and Marathas of local knowledge informants. This causes us to question how many channels of information all sides utilize for accuracy information of local knowledges and how it affects our lives.


To understand Foucault’s system of ‘power from below’ we look to India after the printing presses arrived for an easy observation. With the placement of new printing presses In India, these information gatherers which also included a vast system of journalists immersed “people in a field of total visibility where the opinion, observation and discourse of others would restrain them from harmful acts.” (Foucault p/n 153). In general this helped modernize India to the new world information techniques. Before the advent of mass economic communication, it was expensive to pay local operators of intelligence. Only the rich could afford these luxuries. This crucially helped control commoners by keeping them out of the power/knowledge fold. The presses changed how people received and utilized power/knowledge. When ever the roads were not flooded this information system for India created a phenomenon of “power […] from below” by letting people receive information that the elite were once privileged (Foucault sex 94). As in perpetual history studies, or Janis-faced studies, this can be described in light as the process of the 1920’s period of American ‘democracy of goods’ where the commoners now began to receive the same products that the rich received. They were then placed under an elaborate surveillance system where they were monitored of what they bought, when, where and why? This was done for their protection as well as for profit. And under the same circumstances that benefited the American period, the common people of India now had a way to uses these information systems (newspapers) for social, educational and economical advancement. Now power from the top had to meet the power from below. People started controlling more of their own destinies by consuming information and if they could sift out the incorrect information they had new knowledge to act decisively upon. Also, the journalist created information avenues for jobs, for important decision making processes as well as an atmosphere for public debate on competing local knowledges. However, at different times different entities manipulated the information.  The British received and put out local knowledges, by way of these newspapers and some cases incorrect information of local knowledges became Orientalism knowledge and some cases these local knowleges were efforts to produce and apparatus to scientifically study local cultures and belief systems and how they operated within this power/knowledge flow by western so-called experts. 


According to Edward Said, the East Indian Company made it seem as if they were helping India rid themselves of a terrible government, Mysore, and other bad leaders and to financially help a large India population that was devastated by wars then famine.  In order to do this, Said believed that they had to create a chain of subjugated knowledges as to why they were there. They needed to trick the world surveillance of negative opinion and they did this by creating two differing local knowledges - one in England and one in India.  These subjugated knowledges, Said speaks about,  were then recorded in European institutions, disseminated in a collection of texts, newspapers and letters, around India  all which were then used against the Orientals to control them. Generally, Said argued that Orientalism was a constellation of false assumptions which underlined Western attitudes toward the east approximately after 1798 onward. These subjugated knowledges were produced by individuals who were as vehicles of coercive power in the west circulating,  assumptions, “generalizations, exoticism,” and “derogatory expressions [that] signify a lesser breed of human beings” information. This type of economy of discourses created Orientalism. (Said 340).  One of Said’s solutions to us is that we use a perspective to enter the viewpoint of a person when we are writing about them. This solution is elegantly told in Amitav Ghosh’s anecdote of the shy Nabeel commenting on al-Hindi’s loneliness when the cousins observed him filling a tea kettle after returning from Ustaz Sabry’s house: “I was never able to forget it […] it was the first time anyone […] had attempted to enterprise similar to mine – to enter my imagination and look at my situation as it might appear to me”( Ghosh 152). Nabeel used his knowledge (‘savior’) of ‘loneliness’ and reflected his own perspective of how he would feel in the same situation when he made the comment to al-Hindi.


In competing local knowledges we see a religious antidote by Ghosh with his references to Ustaz Sabry, a well to do schoolteacher who became a powerful figure in the community, whose discussion on ghosts leads to the mentioning of the teachers coming together and deciding it was time to put a stop to the extravagances of the mowlid, because “the celebration of mowlids for local saints was not part of the true practice of Islam ( Ghosh 141).  Iman Ibrahīm, who riled up the müderris in action to protest the Sidi Abu Kanaka’s mowlid showed competing local knowledges vying for an Islamic genealogy by which the religious juridical controllers of the city finally won and set definitional control. Iman Ibrahīm had grown up schooled in müdreses, on the ways of shari’ah, in hardship, concentrating on the traditions of the Prophet who adamantly describes a position of no idolatry - even of saints.  Even though the mowlid was allowed to continue for some time it subsided appearing that the ‘ulema won.  This leads us to investigate how does a series of subjugated knowledges that originally came from competing genealogies form erudite knowledges? Also how possibly brevity of explanation leads to an erudite knowledge.


“I tried to show was its application and existence in the general culture, in literature […]” ( Said 340).  Followers of Islam, known as Muslims, both derive their meanings from the same three-letter root S-L-M. Any tradition of Islam or the followers known as Muslims must derive their identity from the original laws of the progenitor, Prophet Muhammad, as tradition to its laws are incorporated in the shari’ah. The shari’ah is defined as the totality of the Muslim life, and the path. However, over time some Muslims adopted an unorthodox approach to the path. Most historians group all unorthodox Muslim approaches into a category called Sufism. The Sufi’s most crucial Qu’ranic verse (7:172) describes the primordial covenant between God and the souls of men, which led to an ‘Islamic mystical tradition’ first promoted by  Muqātil ibn Sulaymān  (d. 767) use of allegory and myth opening the doorway for less literal interpretations of the law (shari’ah) and the atmosphere of pre-Islamic customs. Moreover, development exists because Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (l058 - llll) discoursed sufism with an orthodox formulation.


 The concept of the Islamic mystical pīr, translated literally as old man, is used by the tarikat sufi orders that emerged in Anatolia, central Asia, northern Iraq, Afghanistan, to India during the 9th-10th centuries onwards. These were spiritual knowledges of particular sufi orders in which the goal was to reach ma’rifet, a high-esoteric knowledge, with ranges of gnosis levels. In order to achieve this knowledge these tarikat sufi orders adopted the concept of a spiritual guild either living of dead, usually a saint, or a revered person. This form of idolatry was banned by Muhammad the Prophet in the 7th century. This lead to an entire demographic split in Islamic history and many wars became of the two differing interpretations. Therefore this was not an Islamic tradition, and should not be termed as such. This brings us to discover why Kate Brittlebank identifies the Sufi pīr as a Muslim tradition. She states in her work that “In the Muslim tradition this power is represented by the Sufi warrior pīr, who is perceived in virtually the same terms as the blood-taking goddesses [Hindu śakti] ”( Brittlebank 36,37). Leaving the linkage to the Hindu deity behind for a moment we see as in Ghosh’s description of the müderris we have a discrepancy of competition knowledges in Islam. How did Brittlebank achieve this?


First, Brittlebank agrees with Susan Bayly’s views on Islam’s syncretism with Hindu goddesses: “ While Bayly was writing about the Tamil country, there was not doubt that these figures were ( and still are) found in the Mysore dominions” (Brittlebank 37). After she agrees with Bayly, she uses the term Islamic tradition in her work without checking the shari’ah or Islamic history or clarifying. We then see a pattern of subjugated knowledges as a “form of a chain” emerge ( Foucault p/n 98).  Therefore we see this chain as, Bayly’s ‘information’ on Islamic traditions was based upon Susan Bayly’s information on Islam in which becomes a  murky genealogy passed on as an erudite knowledge in academia. To see how the problem can persists as links in a chain, a reader of Brittlebank’s book, not exposed to the correct term ‘Islamic mystical tradition’ or Sufi tradition, may pass on to others a murky genealogy consisting of an Islamic tradition, noting a literal interpretation here, allows for the worship of spiritual guides and Hindu saints. Although this may not be significant to some, Said would argue this was Orietnalism, even when Brittlebank clarified this was a mystical tradition in her footnotes. He would ask why?


 Another interesting connection is in the ‘Twilight of the Mughals’ by Percival Spear where we have Susan Bayly used again. Here Spear’s states, “A sufi was a Muslim bhakt’i, a bhakt’i a Hindu sufi”. Spear does clarify that these sufis were “a kindred development,” hinting to the reader that this ‘may not’ be a standard form of Islam, but non the less, Spear used the standard Orientalist approach in his opening comments: “Bhakt’i saints […] link Hindus and Muslims” ( Spear134-5). Furthermore, Spear apparently distinguishes that both “commonly denounce caste” before he even begins to hint at us that he may be speaking about an unorthodox Islam.  To understand this fully, and how it applies to Orientalism, one must look at what proceeded this commentary and what came afterwards. There was no clarification in the prior paragraphs or the following paragraphs. Even thought the topic was on entertainment at the village, the commentary comes in with the subtopic of education through epics and story telling at the village. Here we get the gist that Spear is trying to tell us that the people in Indian villages during entertainment gatherings learn how Muslims and Hindus are syncretic, both denounce castes and worship saints. Although, what Spear says about the Sufi connection to Hinduism “a personal affair of the individual” is not false he doesn’t clarify the differences in regards to tradition in the entertainment. Instead he says “They were corporate exhortations which did not affect the individual more than to a certain extent; standards excepted with a good margin of error.”( Spear 134). How do we know? A Muslim reading this would be offended thinking there is a reconciliation or fusion between Hinduism and Islam in entertainment teachings. An easier way to express this is as, Richard Eaton noted that in Bengal,  the “Muslim intellectuals did not stress their religion’s ideal of social equality as opposed to Hindu inequality, but rather Islamic monotheism as opposed to Hindu polytheism” (Eaton 4thoeries. f11). Using the Eaton clarification we can look at Tipu’s political processes of what was happening.


We see the manifold competition of local knowledges in Tipu’s reign as well. We have Sufi, Sunni, and Hindi knowledges all working alongside of each other. Brittlebank who uses of Dirks and Susan Bayly here, shows Tipu promoting Hindu rituals such as immersion, Prasad, Bhat’i , Hindu insignias and religious motifs and śakti. As we saw before she shows Sufi tarikat practices as well. Finally she shows Tipu dealing with a very strict Islamic knowledges evident in his execution to ascertain Sultan Abdul Hamid I’s blessings for the use of the sacred Islamic title Caliph and ordering the composition of an Islamic ‘ilm (knowledge) for implementing Jihad “a treaties of the duties of Muslims” by Zein ul-Abidin Shastari, of the Mu’ayyid ul Mujahidin (Brittlebank 35, 36, 40, 52, 99, 118). This doesn’t mean that there is a syncretistic homogeneous religion in Tipu’s kingdom, as sometimes Brittlebank implies, but it appears that he is appeasing all sides, just as many world leaders do to create an atmosphere conducive for cooperation in political environments. Cultures constantly echo each other and Tipu constantly dealt with competing local knowledges the best he could.   Tipu produced surveillance and discourse to participate and administer a disharmony of social practices of the competing local knowledges. This was similar to Akbar productions, but different in Aurangzeb’s productions of which he forsakes appeasement and these practices in which caused a dialectic breakdown.


One of the easiest ways to tell if there is another type of Orientalism in historical writing is if there appears a villain and a hero. Here we again can cite Spear who is postulating “would have” and “might nevers” of how things might have gone smother for the British in administrating India. He then shows his preference for the intellectual superiority of Europeans by stating “Hastings was above all a realist.”  Surely the British here are the heroes and this becomes clear when throughout his texts we see how he illustrates the people who live in India. He labels them as “belligerent, tattered and hungry Sikhs, revivified Marathas, ruddy-faced Afghans, Mewatis who are plundering vultures of carcasses , cattle-lifting neighbors, the state robbers, and bandit peasants” ( Spear 18,25,124-6). There is nothing desirable about any of them thus they are easily categorized as the villains.


To revisit the term traditional we look to Spear again who addresses specifically villages in the region around Delhi.  He uses Thomas Fortescue who argues that villagers owe no obligation to the state. However, what is more interesting is Spear’s use of Charles Metcalf, a governor general of Bengal in 1835, of whom projects his western perspective onto his observations of a Delhi Indian village. “The Village communities are like little republics, having nearly everything they want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations” (Spear 117).  This description is exactly like the Republic laid out in Plato’s last work called “The Laws.” Yet more interesting than this is how Metcalf takes the human element out of the village and treats the land as the object indicating that Indians are helplessly bound to a life within its boundaries. He dehumanizes them. This is compounded when Spear comments before he cites Metcalf stating, “In the region around Delhi the village communities had retained many of its traditional communal features as well as a characteristic vigor” (Spear 117). Here we go again with the word traditional.  This picture of the Indian village had profound effects on later generations.


Gandhi mentions Henry Maine, historian, and legal member of the Council in India. Maine began to study western thought in 1847. He lectured beginning in 1852 leading to the groundwork to his book ‘Ancient Law’ (1861) and later contributed to ‘Cambridge Essays’ (1856) on Roman Law republished later as “Village Communities in the East and the West” (1871). These discourses from Maine much influenced Gandhi as well as Spear of whom Maine used Metcalf’s observations. “Maine has said that India was a congeries of village republics,” Gandhi wrote(Gandhi 114). We see this is the same Greek city-state expressions Metcalf used. We can see Gandhi’s reference these discourses when he says “It is pointless to find out whether the villages of India were always what they are today”. If they are never better, it is the reflection upon the ancient culture in which we take so much pride” (Gandhi 110). Therefore, Gandhi decided “Independence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic […] having full powers”(Gandhi 114). Finally we see Spear's traditional village comes from Metcalf and others. During the Mughāl period great cities with suburbs abounded. Without this Orientalism, Gandhi would never have said what he said. He needed this apparatus.




Work Cited


Bayly, C. A. Knowing the Country: Empire And Information In India. University of Cambirdge. 1993.


Brittelbank, Kate. Tipu Sultan’s Search for Legitimacy Islam and Kingship ina Hindu Domain. Oxford Press 1997.


Gandhi.  Odin reader. My picture of Independence Odin 114



Eaton, M. Richard. Rise Of Islam And The Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760. University Presses of California, Columbia and Princeton. 1996.



Foucault, Michael. The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction. Vintage Books. Random House Inc. New York. 1990.



Foucault, Michael.  Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other writings 1972-1977. edited by Colin Gordon. The Harvester House Press. 1980.



Spear , Percival The twilight of the Mughalsv South Asia Books. 1991



Said, Edward W. Orientalism.  Random House. Vintage Books Edition 1979



Mysticism, Islamic. Bibliography. 1939. UC Berkeley Reader History 110A 2005.

See: Muqātil ibn Sulaymān 



Copyright © 1999- 2006 Michael Johnathan McDonald. All rights reserved.

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