Islam’s encounter with South Asia has had a long and storied past, and one that is not fully understood by a vast portion of the western population. The complexity of its history of conquest, colonialism, and exchanges across the various civilizations it has encountered has only added to the confusion and misunderstanding. Within this course I was given the opportunity to try to untangle and re-evaluate what I might have assumed (preconceived notions) around the historical development of Islam in the broader history of South Asia. In approaching this course we were challenged to discard the irrelevant modern biases that could otherwise cloud the interpretation or view of our understanding of how Islam entered and developed in India. By trying to place historic events into “their own terms” and contextualizing them without using modern day terminology, we were able to view the different communities, not as defined religions but different ethnic communities with different customs, teachings, and religious rituals. By incorporating this “cultural studies” approach we came to better understand the religious systems in South Asia were neither static nor self-contained, during their early development.
Having established an understanding of this fluid and adaptive nature that religions had, we began to then consider how these historical developments would influence Muslim religious identity. By understanding the expressions of the individual through adapted religious practices, we begin to see how they aligned with the greater Islamic population and within secular India. Understanding the history of Islam in South Asia helped me better understand the role Islam plays today in the lives of modern day South Asian Muslims. This becomes important when one realizes that the Islamic religion is solidly centered in South Asia where three countries alone represent 31.3% of the total world Islamic population of 1.62 billion. The Pew Research Center’s 2011 tracking study shows India’s Muslim population at 10.9% (177.3 million), Pakistan at 11% (178.1 million), and Bangladesh at 9.2% (148.6 million).
As I approached my creative response I saw the search for a Muslim identity woven throughout the courses’ readings. But just as there was a desire to define their identity, there was also a desire to allow for adaptation of local cultural differences. A desire to be defined with the greater Islamic population but at the same time to be allowed to adapt that identity to also belong to the community they lived in. The Muslim community in South Asia seemed to want to maintain the adaptive nature they experienced in their history. In our readings we saw how identity was achieved through art, architecture, religious practice through music and chanting, tomb visits and pilgrimage, those Muslims who live in India want to have rights as Indian citizens but respect of their religious freedom.
Identity through Architecture and the Sufi Sheikh: Unity found in Sacred Space
The idea of Mosque building was used to sanctify the land after the conquests of India that had cost so many lives in battle, but because the Muslims were still a minority in the land and undoubtedly morning the loss of their homeland, the construction of Mosques was not enough. There grew from this need a whole structure of support paid for by the sultanate, officials and people of means to pay stipends to those who would maintain the Mosques and tend to the devotional needs of the new Muslim community. The Sufi sheikh came forward to fulfill this emotional and spiritual need for the Muslim community as seen in the following of Mu’in al-Din Chishti who was called the “the Deputy of the Prophet in India” (Amir Khwurd, Siyar al-auliya, Delhi AH 1302/AD 1885, pg. 45). Mu’in al-Din Chishtis’ presence was thought to guard the welfare of Muslims throughout the Indian subcontinent. He provided a channel of intercession that could provide benefits in this world and the next, and he offered the opportunity for mystical experience. But the greatest benefit that these mosques and this spiritual relationship provided to the community was as a local Muslim identity that bound the newly formed community to the land where they now dwelt.
Identity of the Emperor as Light of God, Divine Legitimization
In Jamal Malik’s article “Sixteenth-Century Mahdism: The Rawshaniya movement among Pakhtun Tribes”, he described the case of the Roshnites of Eastern Afghanistan and North West Pakistan lead by Bayazid Ansari. Bayazid used the concept of light as having its starting point in God, the Nur and connecting directly to him. Malik tries to show similar features of the theory of Nur Muhammadi, the light of Muhammad, which developed by Ibn al-Arabi in the 13th century. It was this concept of the “Light of Muhammad” that later became part of the Sufi reform-movement of the 18th century called Tariqa Muhammadiya. Bayazid believed that he had reached total identity with God and with the Prophet through visions and dreams. He was convinced in being the one representing the light of God, Thus he was illuminated (rawsan) and his followers were the illuminated (rawsani). The light was the veil of the highest intelligence, and so he was God himself, the final authority. (S. Jamal Malik article pg. 45) Bayazid described the eight grades or levels that he passed through to achieve spiritual elevation, an experience based on the traditional Sufi path. Also, because he called God a deity, the Hindu population was able to accept his experiences. This use of divine light was echoed in Catherine Asher’s article “A Ray From the Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the Divine”, where she described how Shah Jahan also used the idea of divine light as a legitimizing symbol of his God given right to rule.
Creative Response to Week 3: Religious, Social and
Cultural Roles of Sufi’s in South Asia
“How did the rose
ever open its heart
and give to this world all of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being,
otherwise we all remain too frightened.” (Hafiz)
In this week’s creative response I wanted to focus on the role that the Sufi Shaykh played in the expansion of Islam in South Asian and the important role they played in helping the Muslim community feel connected to and find identity in their new land. The Sufi Shaykh was not just seen as a spiritual guide and intermediary to God, but also a way for the community to express concerns to the Emperor and his court. This intermediary role could thus be seen as existing both in this world and the next. The Sufi Shaykh would be visited by the whole community, both Hindu and Muslim because he was seen as bridging the religions, and indeed we have come to understand that the labels we use today to identify Hindu and Muslim as defined religions would not have been during the medieval ages. To the religious community of South Asia, he was a holy man who was not bound to any one culture or belief system.
For this project I created a clay tablet in the shape of a traditional Sufi robe. The clay representation is painted in a basic white to represent the purity of the saint life and thoughts. The Sufi Saint is an intermediary to God and as his thoughts are centered and focused only on God, his purity of spirit is best represented to me in this way. On the robe are the red roses that are often used when representing God as the Beloved, a symbol utilized by poets such as Rumi and Hafiz who often looked to nature for their imagery. To Hafiz, the Sufi was seen as a Lover seeking union with the Beloved, with the desire to become lost or annihilated in the Beloved. In his poetry, the Beloved is the source and incarnation of love and beauty, and the ultimate form of beauty was the rose unfolding in the garden for the Lover to yearn.
Creative Response to Week 4: Conceptions of Muslim Spiritual
and Political Authority in the Pre-modern Period
One of the major themes in the collection of readings this week was the inherent desire of pre-modern Muslim Emperors as legitimizing their right to rule as divinely granted by God, thus enabled Emperors to maintain their worldly strength through religious legitimization. In Jamal Malik’s article Sixteenth Century Mahdism: The Rawshaniya Movement among Pakhtun Tribes”, and Catherine Asher’s article “A Ray from the Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the Divine”, they describe ruling Emperors utilizing the imagery of light and undergoing acts similar to those experienced by Sufi Saints as a way to abandon and reconstruct their human natures so as to be seen as aligning themselves closer to the divine light of God. In Asher’s article she uses the case of Shah Jahan as epitomizing the Mughal emperor’s concern for adapting religious symbolism, especially elements associated with light and auspicious sight.
Thinking about how Mughal Emperors were inspired by their relationships and respect for the Sufis as close spiritual and personal advisors, I thought of how they might envision their own transformative experiences. Would the Emperors feel the same desire to burn their outer realities to come closer to God? Would they be willing to abandon themselves to that flame in order to become enlightened and ultimately better rulers to their people? How would they balance their temporal and spiritual ideals?
My interpretation of this transformative flame is a large (24 inch by 36 inch) white cut out against a black foam board. It started out as a large white circle, which I saw as representing the white light of God (Nur). Once I created this large white circle of light, I started to cut it into different sized pieces that would show the shattering of this divine light. As I cut the Nur, and started to bring the pieces together, I found that it started to become a large white flame. This now began to represent the flame that the Emperor would have to go through to burn away his external human and natural form in order to approach God. To the flame I added shading and different colored writing and elements that would give it an Islamic expression. What resulted was a beautiful experiential symbol of the divine light (Nur) of God that would then be granted to the Mughal Emperors.
Creative Response to Week 5: Mosque, Palace, and Tomb: Appropriation
and Innovation in Indo-Islamic Art and Architecture
“When you pass by our tomb wish for spiritual power,
for to the rends of the world it will be a place of pilgrimage.” (Hafiz-33)
This week’s collection of readings focused on Indo-Islamic architecture’s incorporation of local ideas, politics and cultures. Of particular interest was Ritu Bhatt’s article How Buildings Divide and Unite Us, in which the author argued that the process of British historians categorizing buildings by religion actually transformed buildings into “religious identities”. Unfortunately, this process affected the perceptions and practices of these buildings in such a way that they were no longer considered part of the local community but now “belonging” to a particular religious group. This act further divided the Muslim and Hindu communities and it became one more way for the British to assert control over the Indian population.
For my creative response to this weeks reading I created a simple painting of the Ajmer Shrine. Upon the dark midnight blue background I have painted the white lights that form the outline of the main dome of Ajmer. The lights in the painting hang as if floating in the night sky, creating a beacon to the visitor or pilgrim at night, a night scene that can create a parting memory to the visitor to be recalled later in times of need. The white, unconnected dots of the hanging lights are such iconic symbols that to see the painting is to automatically recognize the Shrine regardless of religious affiliation. The Shrine incorporates elements familiar to the Hindu/Indian population such as the visual open expanse of space, the incorporation of white marble, poetic recitation, and the use of qawwali singers.
It is because of this immediate recognition that the Ajmer Shrine is a good example of how shrines in general were used and incorporated into the daily lives of the local community. They were not just religious centers but also places for community interactions. In earlier times this shrine would have helped to anchor the community together with a sense of identity, a united religious affiliation undefined by labels. The use of religious labels would come later under British rule and would become a source of division.
Even the pilgrimage of Akbar to Ajmer symbolizes the interconnectedness of the religions of that time; Married to a Hindu wife and unable to conceive an heir, he walks barefooted to Ajmer for the saint’s blessing. Today, Ajmer is still one of the most visited sites in India and continues to be used by people across religions, countries, political affiliation and caste. It has found a way to maintain its relevance within the religious community, while still maintaining its Islamic identity.
Creative Response to Week 10: Islamic Reform Movements, Islamization
and the Politics of Gender
This weeks readings focused on the issues of women within Islam and what we saw was how women are used as the “battleground” of the ideological warfare between the competing visions of Islam. This raises the questions, more so than ever of “which women?”, “which Islam?”, and in “which context?”. Depending on which Islam one ascribes to, will determine the conversation and the desired outcomes. As is often the case in gender issues, there will always be the view of the women involved and often times the men who are in the position of power. What complicates the conversation within the Islamic religion is the wide and varying views of the “appropriate” role women should take. What we saw through the readings was that regardless of the ideology, the role of women was seen as the driving force behind the future of Islam. “If one wants to effect how one believes or what one knows about Islam”, you look to change the women and mothers. It was understood that women were the transmitters of knowledge and the teachers of the future generations of Islam. To the British, these women needed to be rescued from purdah and to be set free from the fires of sati, and during reform, women needed to be retrained to not pray at tombs and adhere to the “right” acts of Islam.
My creative response to this week’s readings was to develop a poster directed towards young women. It is a play on the idea of paper dolls that always came with different outfits that you could cut out and put on your doll to give her a different look or identity. The young woman at the center of the poster is carrying books to clearly identify her as a college student and she is surrounded with the outfits representing different life choices. Through the Aligarh movement, the idea of education was brought to the forefront, and with the establishment of the Women’s College in 1906, education became a valuable choice for women, and an anchor of their identity. In my poster the traditional dress of a conservative Islamic woman is always a part of the decision making process because it represents the ongoing issue of “values”. How does a woman hold on to Islamic values while choosing their careers and future? How does the Qur’anic text get applied to the modern woman? Who defines these values in a nation state and how are woman’s voices taken into consideration? These were the issues which spurred the woman’s movement in India in the 90’s and one could argue are still unanswered. To Aga Khan, the 48th imam, “all women should be educated, even before the boys”. But he does not represent all Islamic men’s voices, and women (even the highly educated female scholars) are not in control of the conversation.
Creative Response to Week 12: Bing Muslim in Contemporary South Asia:
The Indian Experience
The articles for this week turned our attention back to the thinking and ideas that were part of the conversations surrounding the creation of an Islamic state. The articles looked at everything from the modernist who helped form the Islamic nation state, to the modern day issues of Muslims in India as shown in the Sachar Committee Report. These articles attempted to represent the changes experienced by the Muslim community as they attempted to deal with problems associated with rapid social change and the loss of Muslim power as it navigated its way through the formation of a true Muslim identity and nation. One of the articles that drew my attention was Wilfred Smith’s 6th chapter from his book Islam in Modern History, written in 1957. In this article he articulated the fear that the partition might have created two Muslim entities that were in direct conflict with each other. He spoke about the lack of strong leadership and the need for clearly defined goals, issues that seem to continue to plague the divided Muslim communities.
My creative response was to go back to the beginning of the creation of Pakistan and the Partition. The collage I created shows the image of Mother India wrapped in the colors of India’s flag. The image of Mother India had been used heavily during India’s independence as an attempt to show the unity of all the different ethnic and religious groups as one single India. While each group might be regionally and religious different, they still maintained a united Indian identity. In my collage the Image of Mother India is cut in half by the shape of the Radcliff Partition Line. The line is in bright red and the blood from this line is pooled at the bottom of Mother India bringing to question all of the unnecessary bloodshed. Black and white photos taken during the time of partition showing the frantic and desperate nature with which the partition occurred surround this dissected image.
Still today the question of whether the partition was “worth the blood-shed” or if it “might have been done in a different way or different time” continue to enter into conversations. Even the imagining of whether Muslims could have achieved political strength as a minority within India (Iqbal’s original thought) under one united Muslim voice, might be pondered. Ultimately, the separation was seen as leading to a more defined Islamic identity, but still the same question of leadership and identity continue to be as relevant today as during partition.