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Religion/Devotion/Theology Contexualized

Harbans Mukhia

Edited by Rosalind O'Hanlon and David Washbrook
Routledge, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 303, 00.00


The collection of eight essays in this slim volume follows from a conference on the theme held in 2009 at Oxford. A strong running thread binds the volume together even as there is mercifully no overarching uniformity. The thread that runs through it places the various explorations of issues of religion/devotion/theology in their historical contexts. One common, among several, emphasis is the widening of the scope of 'reference across many forms of religious culture, and the negotiation of more composite forms of religious identity' (p. 7), detached from its conventional moorings in colonial knowledge and brought far back into the preceding Mughal era. Indeed, the editors are aware that the 'negotiation' is susceptible to even earlier trajectories, although the scope of the conference restricted their search to the Mughal period. Interestingly, barring the first essay, 'The Debate Within: A Sufi Critique of Religious Law, Tasawwuf and Politics in Mughal India' by Muzaffar Alam, all other essays deal with problematics internal to Hindu 'religious culture'; whether this is by accident or design is unclear from the Introduction. An accomplished piece of research and writing in itself, its placement along with the other essays marks it out as somewhat odd, even as its line of argument coheres well with that of the rest of the contributions. If, in popular perception, the 'Ulama and the Sufis constituted dichotomous entities, the scenario of internal cleavages in each is quite familiar to historians. Muzaffar Alam reinforces the heterogeneous nature of inter-order Sufi discourse between the Naqshbandis and the Chishtis in the later part of the Mughal era. If Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi denounced Akbar as a heretic and a threat to Islam, Shaikh 'Abd-al Rahman Chishti lent support to the emperor's policy of sulh kul, peace with all (p.25). Fair enough. But I suggest that the origins and the ground support for sulh kul go beyond the enunciations of one or another Shaikh; the substitution of the conception of one universal god in vernacular imagination in lieu of sectarian Hindu and Muslim gods-a conception Akbar found very attractive-seems to comprise the major movement towards the evolution of sulh kul. John Stratton Hawley's 'The Four Samapradays: Ordering the Religious Past in Mughal North India' explores the attempt to locate common ground among the four sects established by Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Madhva and Visnusvami. He goes into fascinating details of what divided the four and the rationale for the ...

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