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Beyond Stereotypes

Amit Dey

Edited by Barbara D. Metcalf
Permanent Black, 2009, pp. 474, Rs. 795.00


The volume under review includes the work of more than thirty scholars of Islam and Muslim societies in South Asia. The representation is very balanced in the sense that along with many eminent scholars in the field some budding scholars have also contributed to this book. So some of the research findings are refreshingly new. The contextualization of primary texts contributes to a new appreciation of the lived religious and cultural experiences of the world’s largest population of Muslims. The contributors have consulted sources available in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati, Hindavi, Dakhani, and other languages which highlight a wide variety of genres, many rarely found in standard accounts of Islamic practice. Drawn from premodern texts, modern pamphlets, government and organizational archives, new media, and contemporary fieldwork, the selections reflect the rich diversity of Islamic belief and practice in the subcontinent. Each reading is introduced with a brief contextual note from its scholar translator, which has enhanced the value of the book. Ali Asani (chapter I) explains that Ismaili reformers in the colonial era challenged community practices in order to align Ismaili doctrines and expressions with less sectarian oriented and regionally specific beliefs and practices. This appropriating nature of Islam is actually a celebration of South Asia’s cultural pluralism which was earlier anticipated by the medieval Indian sufis. Contributions in Section one informs us how the sufis and the sultans who competed with each other for legitimacy, shared royal metaphors. For example, in Persian texts, Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya, one of the most illustrious Chishti sufi saints of South Asia, is portrayed as the Sultan ul Masaikh, meaning the leader of all the sufi saints. Sultan is apparently a political term used by a Muslim ruler as a source of authority. Here the same term is being applied to a sufi in order to elevate his position in the spiritual hierarchy. Shaikh Nizamuddin’s implicit rivalry with contemporary Sultans as a source of authority, is a well known fact. Chishti sufis in the South Asian context are often portrayed as a symbol of religious syncretism who elaborated and popularized the doctrine of Wahdat ul wajud (Everything is He). In other words if God is reflected in everything, then non-Muslims cannot be denounced as infidels (kafir). This inclusive approach, which is also a reflection of cultural pluralism, made the Chishtis immensely popular among the non-Muslims in South Asia. Even ...

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