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.