The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Forging a Muslim identity in south Asia

Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia Edited by David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence, India Research Press, Rs 595

The articulation of any form of identity is replete with tensions and riddled with paradoxes. The issue of religious identities, especially when encased in a structure of received difference like that of Hindu-Muslim, is even more complex. For here, we have a range of protagonists from the politician to the rabble-rouser, from the ideologue to the historian, setting about defining identities as fixed categories of opposition and difference or of affinity and accommodation. For south Asia, the problems have been compounded given the reality of communal tensions and polarization and of a confused conceptual armoury of definition and explanation of inter-community exchanges. Recall for instance the persistent refrain of irreconcilable difference between two opposing religious systems or of the so-called elements of syncretism and synthesis that marked the everyday social communication and cultural practices of the two communities. In both cases, adhering to the universality of Ram and Rahim or to the never-to-be-reconciled difference between Turk and Hindu has remained the dominant feature of the construction of Muslim identity in south Asia.

The book prefers to take an alternative position, what the editors choose to call contrarian. It attempts, through a range of essays dealing with discrete aspects of Muslim presence and participation in local life in the subcontinent, to make a case for a dynamic Muslim identity that is related closely to local imperatives. The emerging identity located its referential terms within both the larger intellectual framework of the Islamicate as well as within the more immediate and particular milieu in which it operated. Identities were thus not entirely bound entities for they drew from a repertoire of diverse sources of language and meaning as well as of local realities and contingencies. In this was implicit a tactical deployment of rhetoric, ritual and practice that emphasized difference and sameness alternately to facilitate an ongoing constitution of identity.

The first section deals with literary genres and architectural forms, the essays focussing on the tactics employed to create and consolidate religious identities in a specific context. The practice of the satyapir cult in Bengal and the expressive articulation of a Tamil Muslim identity through the medium of a literary convention, the Cirappuranam, is taken up by Tony Stewart and Vasudha Narayanan respectively. Stewart argues that the satyapir cult, widely prevalent in Bengal, was not so much an expression of syncretism as a product of complex negotiation with imperatives of the immediate material context. Satyapir in his Indic and Islamic representations embodied the virtues of pragmatism in a hostile world. For both religious hierarchies, the deity had a special niche — as a metaphor for getting by in a tough world. So with all the differences in description borrowed at random from a larger repertoire of myth and legend, the deity satisfied similar needs of the community of followers whose orientations were strikingly complementary. The same equivalence was clear in the Tamil Muslim society — a region where the Islamic presence had very different ramifications and dimensions in contrast to northern India. The melding of a distinctly Tamil Muslim identity, pioneered largely by traders, reflected the complexities of the negotiation. One important device used by the latter was the adoption of Tamil literary conventions in putting forward a framework for Muslim identity and religious participation in a world that was both Tamil and Muslim.

The second section deals largely with Sufi tazkiras and biographies. The third section deals with the functions of the state in redefining general and particular identities. Richard Eaton’s essay stands out in this section as he proceeds to talk about the polemics of temple destruction that Muslim states adopted. Much of the contemporary evidence on temple destruction, Eaton argues, is based on Elliot and Dowson’s work that was written partly to validate British rule in India and to thereby de-legitimize Muslim rule. A selective use of this work, backed by fragmentary epigraphic evidence, has enabled Hindu nationalists to inflate the myth of Muslim fanaticism and obfuscate the more complex processes of negotiation between religion and the ruling state.

Eaton thus locates the problem within the larger context of state power and its need to adopt certain strategies to buttress its newly acquired authority. The rhetoric of temple desecration was one such strategy in the early period of Muslim rule. Temples were not just sources of huge wealth, a major consideration in the initial Islamic onslaught, they were recognized as the most important sites for the contestation of kingly authority. Thus whether temples were destroyed or not in counts of hundreds and thousands, the rhetoric of temple destruction was in full evidence. Eaton points out that most of the acts of temple destruction occurred at the cutting edge of moving military frontiers and that they were almost never directed at the people The target was the enemy king and the image that displayed his state deity. Royal temples were charged political monuments and therefore were vulnerable to outside attacks, Muslim or otherwise. Equally, there was a strong movement towards temple patronage under the imperial Mughals, a feature that was as constitutive of state-building as destruction was.

This volume emphasizes the point that there was not one fixed identity but that it continuously configured and reconfigured in response to changing local conditions. However, it is also a fact that most of the case studies refer to shatter zones, where the Islamic frontier was necessarily changing and different.

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