Punjab Research Group

Raziuddin Aquil, ed. Sufism and Society in Medieval India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2010

Posted in Book reviews by Pippa on November 14, 2011

Reviewed by Usha Sanyal (Queens University of Charlotte)

This is an interesting collection of essays on aspects of Sufism during the twelfth through eighteenth centuries by well-known scholars in the field, such as K. A. Nizami, J. M. S. Baljon, and Simon Digby, among others. All nine essays have been published previously. They are brought together here, along with an introductory essay by Raziuddin Aquil, the editor, as part of Oxford University Press’s Debates in Indian History and Society series. Thematically, many of the essays are concerned with the role of Sufis in the subcontinent in Islamization and conversion of Hindus to Islam, with the authors taking different stands on the issue. Subsidiary sets of issues relate to Sufis and their relation to the state and to possession of wealth and property, as well as relations between different Sufi orders and between Sufis and scholars of Islamic law (the ulama), language, and social class. One essay, by Richard M. Eaton, deals with the role of women’s songs in transmitting Sufi ideas to illiterate villagers in the seventeenth-century Deccan.

Aquil frames the primary concern of the book, namely, the roles that medieval Sufis played in the conversion of Hindus to Islam, in historiographic terms by focusing on the perspectives of the essay writers themselves. Broadly, Aquil sees three distinct scholarly positions: those whose “writings … emphasize the pluralistic character of Indian society and the commendable role of Sufis in providing a practical framework for communal harmony” (essays by Nizami, S. A. A. Rizvi, and Carl W. Ernst, in Aquil’s view, belong in this group); those who adopt “a more empirically sustainable approach even while remaining committed to the idea of secularism and such other virtues expected from historians in Indian academia” (in this group, he places the contributions by Eaton, Digby, and Muzaffar Alam); and those who take “a Muslim separatist position” (the only example in the volume is the piece by Aziz Ahmad) (p. x). On the one hand, Aquil expresses strong disagreement with Ahmad, writing that he “offers a somewhat cynical interpretation marred by his separatist outlook, which, in turn, was influenced by the post-Partition Muslim predicament in the Indian subcontinent” (p. xv). On the other hand, Aquil feels that Nizami, for example, is prone to making broad generalizations, characterizing the ulama as “conservative and reactionary theologians,… [leaving] the Sufis to rise to the occasion, releasing ‘syncretic forces which liquidated social, ideological, and linguistic barriers’ between Hindus and Muslims for building a ‘common cultural outlook.’” In contrast, Aquil clearly esteems the work of those he terms “empiricist,” describing the essay by Alam, for example, as a “balanced and empirically dense argument on the question of community relations” (p. xvi). Seen in this light, the essays not only offer different perspectives on the roles of Sufis in medieval India, but also illustrate different academic approaches, over the past fifty years, to that history.

Read full review: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=32240

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