The following project uses creative responses to explore the evolution of Muslim identities in South Asia. In particular, I focus on the active construction and maintenance of identity, the ambiguity and blurred edges that surround the identity, and the power struggle of authority for defining identity.

The first project speaks more broadly to the evolution of the Muslim identity in South Asia and how it has been transformed over centuries. The Turko-Persian world had enormous significance during the early days of the Mughal Empire, and the Indian subcontinent was considered a continuation of that tradition and legacy. An important takeaway from a study of this early period in Muslim societies in South Asia was the lack of exclusive identification on religious terms. In fact, the first marker of identity was one of ethnicity in which the Turks were differentiated from the people of Hind or indigenous peoples of the subcontinent, as elaborated by Carl Ernst (Ernst, 1992). In addition to ethnicity, other group markings such as language crossed religious borders. For example, the Hindu administrative civil servant class became fluent in Persian as it was the language of the state, but did not find discrepancies between the language and their religious identities. According to Christopher King in One Language: Two Scripts, “One could share the Urdu Persian cultural tradition with the Muslim community without jeopardizing one’s status as Hindu” (King, 1994).  This broad approach to language and affiliation with ethnicity later took on a far greater religious dimension into the modern period.

This expansive cross-cutting vision of South Asia slowly narrowed as time went on to the development of a strong sense of religious nationalism that culminated in the Partition between India and Pakistan in 1947. Partition was a horrifying act which split apart families, communities, and destroyed identities in widespread “emotional, material, and physical dispossession” (Zamindar, 2010). Ideas of religious nationalism and seeking to protect Muslim interests had manifested in the creation of Pakistan. Yet Pakistan became in a quandary as a Muslim state, who simultaneously refused to accept all Muslims (Zamindar, 2010). Thus, the process of marking who was an “insider” or “outsider” became “nearly impossible without any representable limit with which to construct this national difference” (Zamindar, 2010). In this sense, the modern South Asia had constructed notions of negative identity and belonging in a manner that is simultaneously exclusive yet arbitrary and unclear. Fast forwarding to modern times, identity has taken on an even more exclusive focus by reducing complex histories into monolithic narratives that fit neatly into imagined histories of the Hindu/Muslim divide.

From this overview of the evolution of identity from expansive and fluid to restricted in modern times, I next move on to the more humble beginnings of Islam in South Asia, away from the centers of politics and religion. Rather, this is the spread of Islam through folk songs and tales spread by Sufis in the Deccan Plateau, where religious identity took on a more fluid nature. Elements and ideas of Islam were woven into the fabric of rural life in villages as these women sang Sufi folk songs about domestic tasks and spun their wheels. This gradual process of assimilating concepts and notions was a mechanism not of “conversion” in the Christian worldview of radical transformation, but a gradual integration of ideas. Importantly, these songs were written in the vernacular, and also empowered women in providing a religious significance of household tasks. As one song states, “As the chakki turns, so we find God” (Eaton, 1974). In this sense, the lines of identity were very much blurred. The women singing these songs may not have actively identified as Muslim, but may have ascribed to some of the fundamental tenets of Islam. Eaton describes this process as “Islamic acculturation” in a process that is facilitated through “dress, food, speech, etc” (Eaton, 1974).

In addition to spreading folk songs among rural villages in the Deccan Plateau, Sufis played an important role not only in providing a cross cultural and religious bridge, but also in being intimately tied to other elements of political power and authority. The Sufis held mass appeal in South Asia, to identified Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and other practitioners alike. At dargahs across the subcontinent, practitioners of all faiths would come to participate in spiritual and religious rites, creating an ambiguous space of universal spirituality and creation of “popular Islam” (Damerel, 2012). It was at dargahs and Sufi shrines that the lines of identity would become blurred, marking a “unique, original, and ambiguous Muslim religious territory” (Damerel, 2012). However, the great spiritual presence and power of Sufis was not without a tethering to the material and political world. In particular, Sufi light mysticism was coopted in the narrative around Akbar and his divine right to rule as a Mughal emperor (Asher, 2004). Both Hindu and Muslim rulers in South Asia would pay for the upkeep of and pay homage to Sufi shrines because of their cultural significance. In that sense, a conception of Sufis as the wandering spiritual leaders is only one dimension – they held great political power and significance as well.

Yet while some modern understandings of the past are not nuanced enough to understand the complexity of Muslim identity in the past of South Asia, other understandings project novel modern notions into historical contexts. A key example of this phenomenon is on the discussion of architecture and identity in South Asia. Colonial and modern day interpretations of architecture tend to take current conceptions of identity and belonging and project them into the past such that each arch or entryway in a building is not without religio-political implications. From the perspective of the British, the deliberate categorization of space was a mechanism of dividing Hindus and Muslims in a bid to further legitimate the colonial enterprise (Eaton, 2000). As Bhatt and Patel succinctly summarize, “What the colonial ruler had explained, he, of course, controlled (Bhatt and Patel, 1998). In line with this idea of actively constructing difference  and projecting it back historically, Michael Meister conducts a similar exercise in his description of the “Two-and-a-half Day Mosque.” As a result, buildings and architectures have become increasingly politicized and interwoven with the politics of identity.

Perhaps the only other cultural element more intertwined with the politics of identity than architecture is language. The idea that scripts inherently have religious leanings is one that has become rooted and unrooted all within the South Asian context. The mix between language and identity has several layers. First, the discussion of language also brings forth differences in class through the ashraf/ajlaf divide, in which the ashraf were the wealthy, educated elite who had access to Persianate languages while the ajlaf spoke in the local vernacular. Next is the invocation of religion and the script. For example, both Hindu and Urdu share the same fundamental linguistic commonality, but use a different script – signifying the Hindu or Muslim version of language. The “connection of script and language” became the rallying point of constructing religious identities around language (King, 1994). But in no other situation, was the connection between the politics of identity and language more apparent than in the conflict between East and West Pakistan. Bengali was seen as a Hindu language, and West Pakistan attempted to enforce the use of Urdu as “a language which…. embodies the best that is Islamic culture and Muslim tradition.” (Ziring, 1971). Interestingly, the characters of the script themselves were denoted with embodying “Muslim tradition.” Language eventually became the rallying call and flashpoint for the later Bangladesh Liberation War, but it came as a symbol of more systemic racial and economic tension.

Lastly, questions of gender are inexplicable with identity of Muslims in South Asia. The landscape of Muslim women in South Asia is at its face befuddling. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have had female heads of state. Yet at the same time, Pakistan has struggled with having a history of legally encoded limitations on the freedom of women and their sexuality (Haq, 1996). The body has become militarized as the battlefield for ideologies: between fundamentalism and the West, the wealthy and the poor. Women and their bodies have become the physical symbol of Islam; the battle of ideologies is being played out on human terms. At the same time, there are distinct counterpoints to the simple narratives about women in Islam emphasized by all sides. For example, the 48th Nizari Ismaili Imam strongly advocated for the improved status of women in the Ismaili community through numerous edicts and changes to marriage contract law (Asani, 2009). As a result, the status and experiences of Muslim women in South Asia vary dramatically across a wide spectrum.

Overall, the questions of identity that surrounds the identity marker of “Muslim in South Asia” are multi-dimensional, constantly shifting, and have more depth than is commonly portrayed in the media. These versions of identity did not just come into being as a natural force, but were actively constructed, promoted, and maintained by various groups throughout history. Understanding the diversity of practice, belief, and identity of Muslims in South Asia is crucial for how we related to the world.


Evolving Identity with Geography


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The two maps pictured above with the attached quotes from famous poems represent the evolution of identity in South Asia. In the first map, the borders are expanded outside of the modern day frontiers of India and Pakistan to include Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. This expansive vision of South Asia calls back to the incredible influence of the Turko-Persian world on the language, culture, and practices in South Asian societies. It also calls back to a time when borders were not fiercely guarded as is done in the modern nation state. The first map has blended colors of green, orange, and yellow throughout this conception of the South Asian subcontinent to express the fluidity of affiliation in the ever-changing landscape of kingdoms during and before the Mughal Empire. The quote, “I know not who I am” is from a famous Sufi Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah, whose poetry has had universal appeal to Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and practitioners of many religions. This quote in particular speaks to the ambiguity in affiliation proposed by Bulleh Shah: the rest of his poem goes on to speak of how he is neither “hindu or turk,” “believer…or infidel.”

The second map represents a vastly different conception of identity post-partition and the independence of Bangladesh. In this map, each nation state has its own color and there is no mixing across boundaries, representing the mentality of nationalism that can be seen in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Dominant conceptions of nationalism function on negative notions of identity, by excluding other groups. As a result, Pakistan defines itself as the Muslim state, India the secular but dominant Hindu state, and Bangladesh the ethnically Bengali state. The quote in the middle from the Second Coming is a reference alludes to the horrors that were a part of creating these exclusive notions of identity: Partition and the Bangladesh Liberation War that left destruction in its path, separating communities, instigating bouts of unmitigated violence and massacres, and a refugee crisis of internally displaced persons rejected by both sides. These modern notions of religio-political identity leave little space for the ambiguity of Bulleh Shah.

Weaving in Ideas of Islam and “Conversion”



The small quilt represents the weaving together of ideas about Islam and religion into household through daily tasks. The quilt was produced by stitching together four pieces of different colored cloth. In the bottom right quadrant is a stitched heart, in the top left quadrant a moon, and in the other quadrants are silver stars. The heart, moon, and stars symbolize the connection of the day-to-day life chores of village women spinning together cloth or grinding grain to contemplation of the heavenly questions of life beyond earth and death, the meaning of love as a transcendental experience, and the greater purpose of life.

The quilt was inspired by the work of Richard Eaton who described the Sufi folk poetry which was used as the vehicle to spread ideas about Islam, primarily sung by women during domestic tasks in the home (Eaton, 1974). These folk poems elevated simple chores into important tasks, empowering women in this process of spreading Islamic ideas in these agrarian villages. The quilt additionally shows the process of Islam spreading through South Asia not as a simple black and white moment of conversion, but rather as gradual passing down of concepts through songs and lullabies to children. The ideas of weaving in religious concepts into already established worldviews also recalls the work Sufia Uddin who suggests the need to use “terms they could comprehend,” in order to verbalize the spiritual within preexisting frameworks (Sufia Uddin, 2006 ). These ideas again reinforce the concept of the spread of Islam in South Asia not as an immediate, but more gradual process.


Light and Shadow – Sufis in South Asia


light blurry goodlight

Three of the 99 names of Allah were cut out of a cardstock: Al-Barr (the Doer of Good), Al-Aleem (the Knower of All), and Al-Haqq (the Truth). Light was shined through the empty spaced to filter through and become projected words on the wall. This particular creative project has several connotations. The one at the surface was to highlight the themes of Sufi light mysticism that were common in it practice, in addition to the practice of meditating on the  different names of Allah. The significance of light was the symbolic representation of the light of God (Asher, 2004).  Many Chisti Saints had the color white incorporated into their shrines to symbolize this (Asher, 2004). In this representation, the names of Allah are illuminated in light against a dark backdrop, combining two common elements that are thematically significant in the Sufi tradition.

However, this project also touches how this association of light with Allah was coopted into a politics of imagery used by the Mughal court in the reign of Akbar. The imagery of light was in particular used by Abul-Fazl, one of Akbar’s main advisors. Abul-Fazl claimed that Akbar was “the illuminator of the universe” and established a divine right to rule for Akbar, (Asher, 2004). In such statements, there was a deliberate “blurring of the lines between divinity and royalty” (Asher, 2004). The project shows one image in which the names of Allah is blurred and the light does not clearly shine through, to express these ideas of light imagery were coopted and “blurred” for ulterior political purposes. In general, this highlights the complicated and all-encompassing grey space that the Sufis played in South Asia. They were simultaneous spiritual arbiters and holders of great political power, populist appeal, and connections across boundaries of religion.

Navigating Language and Translation



In this project, the word identity was taken and inserted into Google Translate – it was inputted and translated first to Arabic, then to Urdu, and lastly to Bengali. This mechanism of online translation recapitulates many of the issues with translation that were discussed. Google translate also in a way embodies what Tony Stewart calls the “search for equivalence” in meaning from one word to the next (Stewart, 2001). In his explanation of the spread of Islam in the Bengal, this search for equivalence was used to translate ideas in Islam using the vernacular and preexisting notions that existed in the “original conceptual structure” of the language instead of adhering to “strict and unambiguous use of Islamic vocabulary” (Stewart, 2001).

It also references the perceived hierarchy of languages and what languages are perceived to be more Muslim than others. At the bottom is Arabic read left to right. Urdu, a Persianized alphabet of the language of Hind sits in the middle as language straddling two identities: that of the ethnic South Asian, and the connection to the Turko-Persian/Arab world through its stylized alphabet. At the top sits Bengali with its Sanksrit-rooted alphabet and language. Speakers of all three languages practice Islam, yet historically the Arabic and Persian rooted forms have called for dominance above others. A key example of this idea was the significance of language as a flashpoint in East Pakistan which precipitated to the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Constructing a Work of Art



Just as religious characteristics were ascribed to language, this was also done to architecture. In this project above, I created a puzzle. The image it contains is of a room inside Fatehpur Sikri, the palace created by Akbar during his reign as a Mughal Emporer. The architectural elements inside this room were then photoshopped to bear different colors. The picture was then turned into a puzzle, so that each time one views the image it would have to be actively constructed and put together. This puzzle of Fatehpur Sikri functions as a metaphor for the way in which the religious connotations for certain architectural structures are actively constructed and maintained to keep their validity.

The inspiration for this puzzle came from the description of Michael Meister of the “Two-and-a-half Day Mosque.” In his article, Meister stated, “so closely related to Hindu ceilings, and so much a creation of the Hindu tradition that none but Hindu workmen could have made it, still seems to this author, from certain of its details, a work commissioned for the Muslim overlords” (Meister, 1972). This conception of having “ceilings” or doorways or arches containing inherent religious values led to the coloration of each of the elements in the Fatehpur Sikri puzzle having a different color to symbolize the connotations of identity that others ascribed to them. At the same time, the way in which Meister describes the construction of the mosque with intentional “Hindu” elements even though the broad ideology of Hinduism as it is conceived now likely did not exist then, mimics the way in which modern elements in Photoshop can be projected back through history to the image of Fatehpur Sikri.

Battleground of Bodies


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In this project, I created a paper puppet of a woman. She is covered with splatters of paint that are spreading and melding across, attempting to gain control as the dominant colors. The puppet is a representation of how the bodies of women in Islam are metaphorically instrumentalized and turned into the battleground for competing ideologies. Whether the Western “plight for their Muslim sisters” or the fundamentalist “symbolic space…for sanctity and honor,” the bodies of women have become the backdrop against which such ideological battles occur (Haq, 1996). Yet these reductionist imaginings of gender in Islam fail to comprehend the complex experiences of women in Islam. This concept also ties into the larger question that we have discussed about what the ‘real’ Islam entails, and it seems to be whichever voices are the loudest and well-funded: whichever colors can spread the quickest across the paper puppet. Yet almost inevitably, that voice is rarely the one of the woman in question.

Also when discussing issues of gender in Islam – a key question is “Which women?” The puppet has an anonymous face, but the impact of status is crucial. For example, elite women in high-powered political families or of high socioeconomic live very different realities from those in rural villages, one of the criticisms of the Women’s Action Forum in Pakistan (Haq, 1996). Elite women from political families have held the highest political offices in the countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh, but the everyday concerns and realities of women from the lower classes do not closely align.


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