Introduction and Reflection

On this blog, I have put together six creative responses to weekly discussion readings. They deal with and express several different themes. Here I will pull out a couple of the major themes and discuss how my responses reflect these themes. They are: 1) authority and 2) the vernacular.

First, let us talk about authority. We have asked many questions related to authority this semester. Who has authority? Where do they get this authority from? Whom do they command authority? Is it political? Religious? I will strive to answer these questions for the relevant creative responses.

The Sufi folk poetry painting, though it may seem not to have anything to do with authority, does hint at the authority and position of the Sufi pir. As Eaton points out, the folk songs emphasized the importance of the pir as an intermediary between the singer and God. The pir has spiritual authority, drawn from a mystical/esoteric lineage traced back to the Prophet Muhammad. Thus he could claim to be the spiritual heir of Muhammad and imbued with the power that Muhammad commanded over spiritual matters. Notably, few Sufi orders actively involved themselves in the temporal and political realm. At the same time, a large number of non-elites, particularly women, enthusiastically gathered around pirs and participated in dargah worship. This following and popularity gave the Sufis enough influence to be noticed by political power players like the Mughals.

Speaking of the Mughals, my Mughal light imagery painting more directly addresses authority and power. Jahangir is positioned above both the kings and the Sufi shaykh, signifying his dominion over both the temporal/political and the spiritual/divine. The Mughals without a doubt had authority. Their political authority and power came from several sources: a Timurid/Mongol lineage of great conquerors with a history of military might; strategic alliances with local powers like the Rajputs solidified through marriage; a strong administration and bureaucracy; and economic policies that brought wealth to the empire. Despite this substantial political power base, the Mughals, starting with Akbar, also sought to draw authority and legitimacy from the Sufi Chishtis’ aforementioned popularity among adherents of many faiths. Akbar and later emperors established themselves as patrons of the Chishtis and their dargahs. Akbar also secured the power to interpret Islamic law in the case that the ulama disagreed. He thus positioned the Mughals as protectors of the spiritual, both popular (Sufis) and traditional (ulama). Using the Perfect Man concept and illumination philosophy, Akbar portrayed himself as a semi-divine figure responsible for the spiritual development of all his subjects who could be venerated by all of them. The spiritual dimension of the Mughals’ authority helped them appeal to the masses. They were connecting themselves with authority already recognized by the native population: the Chishtis.

The struggle between Bengal and West Pakistan is also deeply related to authority. In many ways, rebellion results from loss of authority. After years of social, economic, cultural, and linguistic oppression, the people of East Pakistan decided that Islamabad’s authority over them was no longer legitimate. It was clear that West Pakistan was not using its authority to benefit Pakistan in any way. Perhaps that is a key to establishing authority. The people will give it to you if they get something in return, be it assistance, guidance, spiritual redemption, or protection. The American Revolution and the separation of Bangladesh both suggest so.

Similarly, Islamic fundamentalism is all about the community’s authority over individuals. It emphasizes uniting spiritual and political authority in the hands of the “right” Muslims, as determined by a narrow communalist definition. Part of this involves excluding other interpretations of Islam and Islamic authority.

I see the Gujarat Riots as an example of the failures of authority. For the secular state to work, all the citizens have to buy into the secular power structure and accept the authority of the state. In return, the state promises to protect the rights and persons of all groups, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, age, or gender. Opponents need to agree to trust in the political process and the secular society enough to conduct their battles in the civic realm, through the press and the legislature and the ballot box, not through violence. All of the above clearly did not happen in Gujarat. The government did not protect the Muslims. The Muslim community, both by circumstance and choice, didn’t integrate in with the rest of secular society. The Hindu nationalists’ rhetoric refused to accept the rights of Muslims as guaranteed by the modern secular state by massacring Muslims for their religious beliefs. Trust was broken, and without this trust in authority, a modern civic society, which ensures freedom for all its inhabitants, can’t function.

One particular question related to authority has popped up again and again: who has the authority to interpret and define Islam? The Sufi pirs, claiming to be the spiritual heirs of Muhammad, maintained their authority as intermediaries between worshippers and the divine. Yet they had a fairly inclusionary concept of Islam. Similarly, Akbar and Dara Shikoh used their temporal power to develop inclusionary definitions of Islam. Akbar controversially gave himself the authority to interpret Islamic law for the ulama. The conflict between Bengal and West Pakistan goes back a long time, to the conflict between the ruling class ashraf and the peasant converts of Bengal, the ajlaf. The converts practiced a different kind of Islam, which was seen as lessen or invalid by the ashraf. In this case, the ashraf claim the authority to define who is and isn’t Muslim. Finally, Islamic fundamentalism is all about who has the authority to interpret Islam. Mawdudi is deeply concerned with Pakistan being populated by “real” Muslims, who follow the same philosophy that he does. He give himself the power to define Islam, and focuses on the community’s authority to regulate the religion and lives of its inhabitants. The definition is all about excluding non-Muslims and adherents to other interpretations of Islam.

Now, let us move on to the vernacular. Though we spent a fair amount of time discussing why these terms are rather inaccurate, I will refer to the process of vernacularizing as a union between the “Islamic” and “Indic”. This mixing and matching (I hesitate to use the term “syncretism”) done across the South Asian subcontinent with the arrival of the Muslims synthesized new ideas and perspectives through translating concepts from culture to culture. Sufi folk poetry took an indigenous form and imbued it with basic Islamic principles. It ended up spreading the Sufis’ message to a whole new group of people through its appeal among lower class women. The Mughals also experimented with blending different religious traditions. Akbar and his descendants positioned themselves as semi-divine figures to be adored by all their subjects, partially through the practice of appearing at the jharokha balcony for darshan, an audience with their subjects. Darshan is a Hindu word referring to seeing and being seen by a deity or idol in a Hindu temple. In adopting this term for their audience, the Mughals incorporated native traditions in with their empire. Dara Shikoh also sought to unite the mystical traditions of Islam and Hinduism, feeling that they had a common root. The Tamil poetry is a great example of translation theory. That is, using one language to express the ideas of another language. Anapiyya uses the vocabulary of the traditional pillaittamil poetic form to compose a devotion to Muhammad, and in the process finds new and interesting equivalencies. In fact, he ended up making a piece of art significant both in the history of Islamic devotional poetry but also in the history of Tamil-language poetry (as considered by both Muslims and Hindus). Finally, the roots of the cultural divide between East and West Pakistan come back to the way Islam was incorporated into the vernacular in each place. Specifically, certain people who wanted to strictly define Islam had issues with the issues with Bengali’s “Hindu” roots and thus the “Hindu”-ish practices. In translating Muslim worship to the Bengali context, preachers had to find ways to express “Muslim” ideas in a language that had no basis for it. Yet I would argue that these moments of translation and mixing end up making the culture more interesting, more varied, and ultimately richer. A key for Hindu-Muslim-Sikh relations to move forward in the South Asian context is to recognize this history and process.

Sufi Folk Poetry


<em>Mir'aj of the spinner, a la the Prophet's Night Journey</em>. Watercolor.

Mir’aj of the spinner, a la the Prophet’s Night Journey. Watercolor.

This is a watercolor painting that depicts some of the themes in Richard Eaton’s piece on Sufi folk poetry in the Deccan. In that piece, from our section “Religious, social, and cultural roles of Sufis in South Asia”, Eaton discusses the Deccan folk songs containing simple Islamic ideas created by Sufis. These songs were sung by village women during their chores, such as spinning at the charkha. The chakki-namas and charkha-namas emphasized the link between the women’s work and spiritual closeness with God and the mystical pir. I wanted to portray this idea of attaining mystical Sufi experience through humble work. Thus I put the woman spinning on her charkha in the heavens, as they are depicted in paintings of that core Sufi story, the Mir’aj of the Prophet. Specifically, I used the painting below, which is from the Deccan as well, as inspiration. Sufis see this story not literally, but as a spiritual metaphor for a mystical encounter with God that we all may attain through conquering the ego and patronizing a Sufi pir. The Sufi folk literature brought that message of God’s love to these women doing backbreaking, almost certainly unappreciated, labor. These women didn’t convert to Islam as we think of in Western culture, but slowly, by singing these songs, the basic Islamic tenets wormed their way into the village life. I thought that this reading made a very compelling argument about how “conversion”, which we really shouldn’t call conversion, to Islam, at least in the Deccan, happened. The shift towards Islam came not by force from above but from using a preexisting cultural form to spread Islam’s message and, perhaps unintentionally, appealing to the humblest members of society.

"The prophet Muhammad's miraculous night journey from Mecca to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, mounted on Buraq, his celestial steed, from a Falnamah." India, 1610-1630. This painting, from the Deccan, is part of the Nasser D Khalili collection. I took this picture from flickr user <a href="" target="_blank">Paul K</a>.

“The prophet Muhammad’s miraculous night journey from Mecca to the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, mounted on Buraq, his celestial steed, from a Falnamah.” India, 1610-1630. This painting, from the Deccan, is part of the Nasser D Khalili collection. I took this picture from flickr user Paul K.

Richard Eaton, “Sufi Folk literature and the Expansion of Indian IslamPreview the documentView in a new window,” History of Religions 14 (1974): 117–27.


Responding to Asher’s “A Ray from the Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the Divine”


<em>Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings as an example of Mughal light imagery</em>. Watercolor.

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings as an example of Mughal light imagery. Watercolor.

In our week focused on pre-modern Muslim spiritual and political authority, one of the examples we looked at was that of Akbar and the Mughals. Asher’s article discussed how Akbar and his descendants drew on both their political power and the spiritual authority of the Sufis to legitimize their rule. Akbar’s advisor Abu al-Fazl honed illumination philosophy to cast Akbar as the Perfect Man, an enlightened leader who serves as both political ruler and spiritual guide to his subjects. Akbar soon secured the power to decide religious interpretations for the ulama and was portrayed as a devotee/member of the popular Chishti order of Sufis, securing his claim to spiritual authority. Through paintings and architecture, Akbar’s spiritual authority was visually depicted with light imagery. Though Jahangir had Abu al-Fazl assassinated, he was happy to expand on Fazl’s philosophy and imagery. I wanted to convey this light imagery and also learn more about the art of Mughal miniatures.

In my painting, which is based off of the Mughal miniature “Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings”, Jahangir displays both his spiritual and political power. Jahangir sits above both the kings and the Sufi shaikh, indicating his superior status temporally and spiritually. The halo marks him as a Perfect Man, who radiates the divine light of God. In choosing the Sufi over the royalty, Jahangir makes two points. One, he values spiritual and religious authority over political power. Two, he can choose to prefer the Sufi shaikh because he is so powerful that the kings must come to visit him. Jahangir also sits on a throne made of an hourglass, showing that he transcends the temporal world.

Catherine Asher, “A Ray from the Sun: Mughal Ideology and the Visual Construction of the DivinePreview the documentView in a new window” in M. Kapstein, The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience, ed. Matthew T. Kapstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 161–93.

<em> Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings</em>, ca. 1615-18, Signed by Bichitr. Held by the Freer Gallery of Art, I took this image from their <a href="" target="_blank">website</a>

Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings, ca. 1615-18, Signed by Bichitr. Held by the Freer Gallery of Art, I took this image from their website

Venerating the Prophet using a Pillaittamil


<em>Anapiyya's Cenkirai</em>. watercolor, construction paper, and Conte crayon.

Anapiyya’s Cenkirai. Watercolor, construction paper, and Conte crayon.

This mixed media piece is a response to Paula Richman’s “Veneration of the Prophet Muhammad in an Islamic Pillaittamil.” That article was from our “Boundaries in South Asian Muslim Literatures”, where we explored how South Asian Muslim authors found new ways to express “Islamic” ideas in South Asian vernaculars. I wanted to illustrate one of the cenkirai verses from the Tamil poet Anapiyya’s Napikai Nayakam Pillaittamil, which Richman analyzes in her article. In the Tamil language poem, Anapiyya venerates the Prophet Muhammad. He draws from a long history of Islamic devotional poetry but puts it in a highly structured traditional Tamil poetry form, the pillaittamil, wherein the poet, taking on a maternal voice, addresses a great figure (gods, epic heroes, etc.) as a baby while extolling their adult feats. Richman argues, and I agree, that the structure of the pillaittamil allows Anapiyya to praise Muhammad in new and interesting ways. Each section, or paruvum, has a dictated topic to address within its verses. For example, in the cenkirai paruvum, the speaker encourages the baby to sway back and forth and undulate its limbs about like grasses moving to and fro in the wind. In the cenkirai verse Richman analyzes, Anapiyya links baby Muhammad’s swaying with a cosmic dance celebrating him. Rumi also wrote about the universe dancing, but Anapiyya finds new ways in incorporate both traditions, as seen in the verse below.

Lotus-faced houris with eyes like lilies dance.

Celestials in heaven joyously dance.

The prophets and their sons, versed in revealed texts and commentary, lovingly dance.

The sun’s chariot, pulled by seven lively horses, dances.

The sun dances.

The ambrosial luminary dances.

The stylus and the tablet dance.

The throne and the footstool dance.

The heavenly city, best of worlds, dances.

The jinns and the many living creatures, produced by the great power of the Deathless One, take you as their ideal and dance.

Munificent jewel who returned after bathing in the celestial waters, play cenkirai.

Master Muhammad, Lord of the holy light, play cenkirai.

In my artwork, I tried to show the sun, moon (“ambrosial luminary”), stylus and tablet, throne and footstool, and heavenly inhabitants rejoicing around the infant Muhammad among the cosmos. As Richman writes, the stylus and tablet and throne and footstool are all Sufi mystical symbols “of power and magnificence associated with the divine unfolding of the cosmos.” I love the joy in Matisse’s Dance, so I used that as a model for my dancing celestials. All these figures were cut out and glued onto the galactic background painted in watercolor.

<em>Dance (I)</em>, Henri Matisse, 1909. Held by MOMA. Image from MOMA's <a href="">website</a>

Dance (I), Henri Matisse, 1909. Held by MOMA. Image from MOMA’s website.

Paula Richman, “Veneration of the Prophet Muhammad in an Islamic PiḷḷaittamilPreview the documentView in a new window,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 113, 1 (1993): 57–74.

The follies of Pakistan


<em>Bengal's Escape</em>. Conte crayon and pen and ink.

Bengal’s Escape. Conte crayon and pen and ink.


My cartoon here depicts a theme I saw running throughout the course: the failures of religion as a sole identifier, as seen in the case of Pakistan. In particular, I am responding to the Bengali language movement articles by Lawrence Ziring and Rafiqul Islam that we read for the “Politics of language and religious identity in South Asia” section. Both articles showed how poorly matched East and West Pakistan were, at least on the language level, and how that led to the eventual formation of Bangladesh. Using what I learned by reading these pieces, as well as Stewart’s and Uddin’s essays from earlier weeks, I tried to illustrate the relationship between East and West Pakistan, if a bit hyperbolically.

Pakistan was formed to be a homeland for all South Asian Muslims. Behind the idea of a homeland lies Jinnah’s claim that Muslims constitute a culture and a nation. However, as the articles I mentioned above show, that just isn’t true. The “culture” that Muslim League separatists spoke of was their culture, that of the Urdu-speaking, urban, North Indian and Punjabi Muslim elite. The masses of Bengal, as well as most inhabitants of West Pakistan, didn’t share in this ashraf culture. Their journey to and practice of Islam was very different, as well as their language, script, culture, and social status.

West Pakistan, or at least the ruling Punjabi class, refused to accept the validity of Bengal’s Islam, language, script, or culture. East Pakistan contained the majority of Pakistanis, which threatened the elites’ power. Furthermore, the ruling elite were largely ashraf and Bengal was mostly ajlaf low-caste converts, so classism and racism also played into how West Pakistan treated East Pakistan more as a second-class colony rather than a full part of the country.

My cartoon shows Bengal running away from West Pakistan, trying to break free and celebrate its own culture. West Pakistan lassos it and pulls it back in, using Islam as the lasso. The only thing that tied East and West together was religion, but that wasn’t enough. Moreover, the Islam practiced wasn’t even the same interpretation.


Lawrence Ziring, “Politics and Language in Pakistan: Prolegomena 1947–1952Preview the documentView in a new window,” Contributions to Asian Studies 1 (1971): 107–22.

Rafiqul Islam, “The Bengali Language Movement and the Emergence of BangladeshPreview the documentView in a new window,” Contributions to Asian Studies 9 (1978): 142–52.

Tony Stewart, “In Search of Equivalence: Conceiving the Muslim-Hindu Encounter Through Translation Theory,” in India’s Islamic Traditions, 711–1750 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 363–92.

Sufia M. Uddin, “Islamic Themes in Premodern Bengali Literature and LifePreview the documentView in a new window” Chapter one , Constructing Bangladesh: Religion, Ethnicity and Language in an Islamic Nation.(Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006) 17-40.

Building walls: the origins of Islamic Fundamentalism


<em>Mawdudi walls them off</em>. Pen and ink.

Mawdudi walls them off. Pen and ink.


I was intrigued by Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr’s argument about the origins of Islamic Fundamentalism in his article we read for the “Emergence of Muslim communal identity and nationalism” unit. As he points out, we in the West interpret modern Islamic fundamentalism in many ways, but always as in opposition to the West, Western values, modernity, and the secular nation state. However, Sayyid Abu’l-Ala Mawdudi, who formulated the basics of Islamic fundamentalism and was from India, did not conceive of the ideology as a reaction to the West per say. Rather, Mawdudi articulated Islamic fundamentalism in the context of the Indian independence and Muslim separatist movements. As he saw it, the greatest threat to the Muslim communalism he felt was necessary was the Hindu-controlled Congress Party and its idea of “composite nationalism”. The Congress Party tried to appeal to Muslims with this idea to gain their support. Mawdudi could not let this happen. His Islamic fundamentalism used religious justification to make joining the Congress Party an unworkable option for Muslims. The focus on the self-enforcing community withdrawn from the outside world sought to cut off Muslims from their Hindu neighbors, emphasizing their status as a separate nation. If a Muslim interpreted Islam in a way that allowed for composite nationalism, they were wrong, deemed “nominal” Muslims under Mawdudi’s terminology who chose “pagan” society. “Real” Muslims lived in this “Islamic” community, which excluded Hindus and upheld Mawdudi’s values. By constructing the dialogue in such religious and moral terms, Mawdudi made it so that a Muslim’s support of the Congress Party was akin to a renunciation of their religion.

I tried to show in my pen and ink drawing this walling off of the South Asian Muslim community. Core tenets of Islamic fundamentalism like the community-defined relationship with Islam, the strict obedience to a narrow interpretation of Islamic law, and the limits on individual moral behavior set by the community make up the stones in the wall that confines the Muslims to only one interpretation of Islam, Mawdudi’s “real” one. On the right side of the wall are the concepts being blocked off, most importantly a composite nationalism and the Congress Party, but also shared South Asian cultural heritage and alternative Muslim traditions.




Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, “Communalism and Fundamentalism: A Re-examination of the Origins of Islamic FundamentalismPreview the documentView in a new window,” Contention 4, 2 (1995): 121–39.

Understanding the horrors of hatred


<em>Massacre at the Gulberg Society, a la Goya's The 3rd of May</em>. Pencil

Massacre at the Gulberg Society, a la Goya’s The 3rd of May. Pencil.


Of all the readings we have done this semester, none struck me the way Jo Johnson’s Financial Times article “Radical Thinking” did. Part of our unit on “Being Muslim in contemporary South Asia: the Indian perspective”, it details the systematic discrimination and oppression that Indian Muslims face today and the potentially disastrous consequences for Indian society and safety. In particular, I had a very strong reaction to the violence of the Gujarat Riots. The accounts and stories, which not only described the horrifying bloodshed but also an utter lack of state accountability and trust in the government, disturbed me.

I immediately thought of Goya’s “The 3rd of May 1808”, which brutally depicts the mass execution of Spanish resistance members by Napoleonic troops during the Peninsular War. The image elicits a gut response similar to the one I felt reading about the Gujarat Riots. I wanted to capture that same quality in my creative response. I decided to adapt Goya’s painting to show the massacre that occurred at the Gulberg Society, where many Muslims tried to take refuge, ultimately unsuccessfully. A Muslim former MP Ahsan Jafri had tried to use his government connections to protect those who had taken shelter with him there. Instead, he and the others were viciously butchered by a crowd of 20,000 while police stood by.

There is so much betrayal in that story: betrayal of the secular state’s social contract, where the state promises to protect all citizens from harm; betrayal of the presumption of influence, as Muslims and Jafri himself believed his power was enough; and betrayal of basic human decency, because one would hope that ones’ neighbors and fellow citizens would never chop you limb from limb and then burn the body. I saw that betrayal and desperation on the faces in Goya’s painting and that was what I wanted to convey in my response. The pencil drawing shows Jafri and others pleading for their lives, backed up against a wall by the angry mob with a pile of dead bodies at their feet.


Jo Johnson, “Radical ThinkingPreview the documentView in a new window,” Financial Times, March 31, 2007.

<em>The Third of May 1808 in Madrid or "The Executions"</em> by Francisco Goya, 1814. Held by Museo Del Prado, I got this image from their <a href="" target="_blank">website</a> for personal use.

The Third of May 1808 in Madrid or “The Executions” by Francisco Goya, 1814. Held by Museo Del Prado, I got this image from their website for personal use.