Ladini, an Arabic word often translated as irreligious or non religious is being thrown around to describe President Nasheed, especially with more vigour after his Copenhagen speech. The content of the speech, otherwise benign to most ears, discusses various strategies to deal with Wahhabism and extremism in the Maldives. This particular aspect of the speech has been taken out of context to present Nasheed as a person against Islam in general, by government aligned media. Such a thought is scandalous in a country, where more than 98% of the population is Muslim as estimated by Pew Research Centre. In conjunction with this media campaign there has been a coordinated effort to spray paint the word ladini in yellow on numerous walls (yellow being the colour of his political party).

While it may appear that there’s widespread disapproval of the anti-Wahhabi rhetoric, the particular force with which this he been taken up by the media can only be explained in contrast to the upcoming Presidential elections which is just three months away and the narrative that aims to construct Nasheed as anti-Islamic, which has an ongoing history and a particular potency among the opposition. This, of course, isn’t the first time that a politician from the Maldives has been questioned on religious extremism by foreign media, an otherwise regular affair since 9/11, and Nasheed’s response doesn’t differ significantly in terms of content or tone.

Ladini, this specific word, does not enter our vernacular until the late 2000s and early 2010s, although the anti-Islamic label has been used in the past to describe Nasheed. Even in the run up to last Presidential elections in 2008, the more frequently used phrase was “Christian missionary”. This particular term takes ascendancy as Islamist parties (Adhaalath Party in particular) start playing their role as opposition.

In the Islamist vocabulary, in the region and around the world, ladini is the pejorative term for secular. However, this notion of the word is lost on most Maldivians. Most Maldivians readily take it to mean anti-religious, anti-Islamic, or kafir.

Of course, kuffar (infidel) is a highly charged term, of which usage is strictly regulated in Islam (takfir). The Islamist strategy seems to be to work-around this strict regulation to use a “softer” term such as ladini and still mean the same thing. Since the Copenhagen video surfaced, Islamist online media has offered various reasons why such a term could be used (archived here). In particular, they stress that this does not amount to calling Nasheed a kuffar, but that the term is justified since “he advocates for behaviour that is against religion”. Such a justification relies on merely the compound form of the word — a combination of both la (non) and dini (religious). Whether he actually advocated for any measures that is against Islam is debateable, and this justification glosses over the entire history and various meanings that are readily interpreted from calling someone ladini.

A brief anecdote will suffice. I tried to explain to a Maldivian friend that non-religious does not mean anti-religious. Every action cannot be described as for or against religion, and all non-religious activities are not anti-religious either. For example, having a coffee is not a religious activity (non-religious), and so it is a ladini activity. Of course, the expression on his face suggested that I was making an absurd claim.

The Islamist justification on DhiIslam also doesn’t explain how the Islamists came to use this term against Nasheed. Why this particular term? To understand that we have to examine the history of the term, and how it came to be.

Celebrations after Turkish War of Independence, 1923

The word ladini first appears in the works of Ziya Gökalp, a Turkish nationalist, who was described as the “leading ideologue of the Young Turks” and influential in the new Republic of Turkey in the early 1920s, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was a complete neologism he coined to mean “secularism”, but facing increasing criticism (from the Muslim clergy headed by the Sheikh al-Islam) because of its negative connotations, secularism was later translated as layik or laic in Turkey, loaned from the French term laïcité. This was, perhaps, a superfluous translation as Coptic Arabs had been using almaniyya for secularism long before this. Abdulhak Adnan Adivar, a Young Turk who served the early republic in various Ministerial positions described the experience as “Ziya Gökalp’s most unfortunate mistake”.

The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was met with mixed reactions in and outside the empire. This was a period in history when nationalism was beginning to take hold, and the empire was already dealing with separatist movements within its borders before World War I began. Arabs rushing to create Saudi Arabia consequent to the war, is just one example of the kind of reaction to fall of the Ottoman Empire.

But there too were those who were devastated with the loss of the Caliphate. For the first time in the history Islam, Muslims no longer had a Caliph. The Caliph was a powerful symbol in the Muslim imagination, and the occupation of the empire after the war was met with frustration and resistance. The Khilafat movement, based mostly in India, began as an attempt to prevent the dissolution of the empire, and prevent the sacking of the Caliph. This was a brief lived movement that ended in failure, unable to convince the British or the Turks, yet had a decisive impact on a young Indian journalist, barely eighteen, who joined this movement known as Abul A’la Maududi.

Abul A’la Maududi, founder of Jamaat-i-Islami

Abul A’la Maududi or Mawlana Maududi as he was commonly known was a towering figure whose influence in the Islamic revivalist movements of the 20th century was phenomenal. Together with Hassan Al-Bana and Sayyid Qutb of Egypt, all three born in the year 1906, they would shape the discourse of Islamist parties of the latter half of the 20th century. Roy Jackson notes in his biography of Mawlana Maududi “just as India often looked to Egypt, so Egypt often looked to India”. It is said that Hassan Al-Bana was influenced by Maududi’s book Jihad in Islam, and Maududi by Hassan Al-Bana’s activities with Muslim Brotherhood; also Maududi’s influence can be seen in Qutb’s later prison writings. Maududi will go on to found Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan after the partition, which will provide the model for most other Islamist parties around the world.

Maududi was the first to coin the term “Islamic State”, and he had a unique political philosophy that he envisioned to ground such a state which he called “theo-democracy”. To understand why he developed such a philosophy, we must understand the circumstances that shaped his intellectual and political life. In the 1920s, as Turks were celebrating the birth of a new republic, Muslim communities in the Middle East and South Asia were devastated. The world was left without a Caliphate, the might of British colonialism was everywhere, and it is within these circumstances of insecurity and uncertainty that the idea of an Islamic State, as a rigid homogeneous, exclusionary and authoritarian body, is invented.

For Maududi, and as he liked to often compare, Islam is different from nationalism, socialism, capitalism and all other -isms, and stands apart as a complete and total system, and it is only within that system a Muslim person can be a wholesome Muslim. It is also in this idea of an Islamic State as wholesale rejection of all “Western” ideas, that we encounter ladini.

Urdu pamphlet by Maududi - Sekularizm-ka-haqeeqat

This is the first page from a small pamphlet he wrote, titled “Reality of Secularism”, which would help us to situate the word ladini in its semiotic context. We’ll attempt to locate the meaning of ladini in Maududi, through differences he emphasizes and comparisons that he makes.

Maududi starts off by saying —

Secularism — which can be referred to as dunyawia or ladini. The basic premise of secularism is that God, His guidance and His worship are matters that belong to the personal domain of an individual. Outside of this personal domain, all worldly matters must be viewed from a strictly worldly perspective, divorced from any religiosity, based purely on human intellect and man-made moral and ethical systems.

From a contemporary understanding of secularism, this would sound strange, yet was no different from the positivist ideas that were adopted by the Turks with much enthusiasm. Whether such a clear demarcation between the private and public is possible, and/or has ever been achieved is highly questionable. Such a clear break between public/private and the binary secular/religious has been problematized by scholars such as Casanova, Asad and Taylor. Also, this is our first clue to the meaning of ladini — the secular is separation, separation from the divine. This definition of secularism is already posited in a frame that pits secularism vs. religion, such that a reader will have to make choice, to choose secularism and lose his/her way of life, to be cut off from the divine.

He then goes on to describe his various objections to a secular world, thus —

This dogma started in the West due to the fundamentalism and backwardness of Christian theologians. However, with the passage of time, this reactionary dogma became the permanent way of life and the first pillar of the modern civilization.

He associates secularism with retrogression and backwardness, and his contrast, the religious then is progress. On the face of it, this is again an absurd claim. He was living in a time of unbridled modernity, coupled with the advent of science and technology. By modern civilization he must’ve meant the British, who had unparalleled power then. Why would he make such a claim? Khaled Abou El Fadl in his polemic The Great Theft would describe this as “apologetics” with “supremacist thinking” who remained “uninterested in critical historical inquiry”. Roy Jackson, in his biography of Maududi would offer a much more nuanced view. He says that Maududi was operating in a framework that could be referred to as ‘transhistorical’, looking back to a golden age as utopia, a utopia that he was actively engaged in to recreate, where this transhistorical taints everything he does in everyday life. Within this utopian measure then, it would’ve been easy to dismiss anything modern as backward, without further thought. 

It makes no sense that two men, both of whom are individually under God’s jurisdiction, become independent of that very God as soon as they interact with each other. If God himself divided up the matters like that, there should be some proof for that. And if human beings invented these limits on God’s jurisdiction, then is this plain transgression against the Lord of this universe?

On the face of it, this again is a strange claim, and goes against our experience of the quotidian. Human interaction is rarely transcribed in religious terms, or in reference to religious experience. Why then does he claim that to think of an act as such is transgression - to divide up matters is also to transgress against God’s will? This again goes back to the transhistorical view, and the recreation of the utopia of the Islamic golden age. The model is Prophet Mohamed, whose every act is considered a religious act by Maududi. Hence, to recreate that utopia, every act must be recreated exactly in the way Prophet Mohamed acted. In a sense Maududi was literalist not just in word, but in act too. 

Human beings rely on their countless social connections for their very survival.And it is only God Almighty who can show human beings how to negotiate these social connections in a manner that is just and equitable–and most importantly, permanent.

The secular, unmediated by the divine, which he equates with a world that is guided by human intellect and desire is coupled with the whimsical, as opposed to the divinely inspired or guided which is permanent.

To conclude, when an Islamist says ladini, they are offering a term overloaded with these notions of separation, transgression, retrogression, and the whimsical. It is also, haunted with the spectre of colonialism, subjugation of Muslim communities and betrayal. While the average Maldivian may take away a different understanding of the word, these are the roots from where ladini arrives, and this is where and how this word enters our vocabulary.