Sufis as architects of Muslim spaces in India

Published - April 23, 2012 10:43 pm IST

Chennai: 13/03/2012: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column:
Title: Making Space, Sufis and Settlers in Early Modern India.
Author: Nile Green.

Chennai: 13/03/2012: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: Making Space, Sufis and Settlers in Early Modern India. Author: Nile Green.

Sufism (tasawwuf in Arabic), the esoteric physiognomy of Islam, is probably the only school of thought which has remained above suspicion in the post 9/11 Islamophobic onslaught. And if any reason could be attributed to this unimpeachability it is its inherent pacifism. Although Sufism has several etymological denotations the simplest and best explanation was given by Al-Hujwiri, the famous 11th century mystic of Lahore. In his renowned treatise, Kashf al-mahjub Hujwiri quotes a Prophetic tradition to define a Sufi as the one who adopts safa (purity) and gives up kadar (impurity). Such straightforward renditions have contributed to the immense popularity of Sufism across the globe. In India too it is believed that a huge percentage of Muslims have historically been the adherents of the inclusive Sufi traditions.

It is this Sufi history which happens to be the theme of Prof. Nile Green's latest tome Making Space wherein he explores the role of itinerant “saints” and “blessed men” in the emergence of Muslim communities in early modern India. Most of these saints, according to Green, sought refuge in India after the sacking of “the great Sufi cradle of Khurasan” by the Mongols, and the mass persecution of Iranian Sufis under the Safavids. Green's thesis is that Sufi shrines serve as “gates through time” (dargah means gateway) where the past is recounted in narrative and rendered visible in architecture and ritual, and therefore, have been crucial to the making of Muslim space on Indian soil.

These dargahs, or “the death spaces” as Green calls them, helped define Muslim identity by linking community to territory and territory to hagiographic texts of memory known as tazkirat . In other words, a mausoleum that immortalised a saint was kept alive through the stories and rituals that surrounded it, and the resulting “architectural embodiment of collective memory” helped create a Muslim space by acting as a bridge between the past and present.

Interestingly, Green does not go into the “intellectualized doctrinal abstraction” of Sufism. He confines his research to a dispassionate analysis of the historical role of the Sufis as social actors — both during their lifetime and after their death — in the creation of Muslim settlements in India.

But he does mention quoting Hujwiri that Sufism should not be talked about in a different breath from Islamic law or the study of Hadith. For, to the likes of Hujwiri the notion of a discrete ‘Sufism' at even a step's removal from ‘Islam' would have been “a troubling and unfamiliar idea.”

Rise of shrine cults

And, even while treating them as purely historical events Green drops enough hints to suggest that most of the rituals that have come to be associated with the shrines today did not have the approval of the buried Sufis. For instance, he speaks of how “shrine cults” rose to a high degree of importance a few centuries after Hujwiri's death. Even today many shrines in India are said to facilitate the exorcism of jinns in clear violation of the teachings of the very saints in whose name it is done.

Green feels that such commemorative rituals extolling the miraculous powers of the buried saints were meant to attract the more material forms of investment required to maintain and preserve the sacred space. This argument is substantiated by the huge monetary contributions some South Asian Muslim shrines regularly get, the most recent example being the donation of a million dollars by the President of Pakistan to the Ajmer dargah.

A substantial part of Green's research is devoted to the Mughal imperial expansion into the Deccan (1640-1690) and their policy of co-option and creation of Sufi shrine complexes in south India which was continued by Aurangzeb's successors, the Nizams. Green recounts the story of how Aurangzeb himself came to be buried at the shrine of Zaynuddin Shirazi (d.1369) in Khuldabad on the advice of Sufi Shah Nur as expiation for killing Sarmad, the free thinker and close associate of Dara Shukoh. Mention is also made of the migration of Sufis to Arcot where they were patronised by the Nawabs of Carnatic especially Sadatullah Khan and Muhammad Shah who built shrines in their honour.

One of the most significant findings of Making Space is the absence of communal overtones in the Sufi narratives. Extracting from the works of leading Deccan litterateurs, Azad Bilgrami and Sabzawari, Green highlights the presence of numerous Yogis at the shrines in Khuldabad and says that if at all there was rivalry during those times it was not between Hindu and Muslim power centres but between the Muslim saints and the sultans. The saints refused to bow down to the kings.

In short, Making Space is a chef-d'oeuvre which expertly weaves together various aspects of Muslim cultural history to produce a coherent account of how Muslims carved out a space for themselves in India. It is essential reading for anyone who has a dispassionate interest in the ethno-history of early modern India.

MAKING SPACE — Sufis and Settlers in Early Modern India: Nile Green; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 795.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.