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India Islamic Traditions, 711-1750

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Item Code: NAR921
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Author: Richard M. Eaton
Language: English
Edition: 2006
ISBN: 9780195683349
Pages: 445
Other Details 9.00 X 5.50 inch
Weight 400 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

This volume investigates Islamic traditions in their historical context and addresses some basic questions related to Islam. Focusing on different genres of Islamic traditions, it also explores fundamental issues like representations of Muslims and non-Muslims, linkages between Islam and political power, and the interactions between Islamic traditions and unique regional cultures of South Asia. Part of the prestigious Themes in Indian History series, this reader will benefit students and teachers of medieval Indian history and religious studies, as well as informed general readers interested in the Islamic heritage of the subcontinent.

About the Author

RICHARD M. EATON T Richard M. Eaton is Professor of History at the University of Arizona, Tucson, USA.


India was severely shaken in December 1992 when religious activists demolished the Babri Masjid of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh,"built in 1528 by the first Mughal emperor. Unprecedented in recent history, this act dramatically brought late twentieth-century Indians face to face with their pre-colonial past. 'We all live today in a IO26-1528-1992 present,' wrote Shahid Amin four years after the incident, 'and not in the 1757-1885-1947 of the past.' I Many were stimulated to raise, or to rethink, long-dormant questions. How did South Asia become home to more Muslims than those who live in the entire Middle East? How were religion and state power related in pre-colonial times, and how did Muslims in political authority interact with non-Muslims? More fundamentally, is Islam best understood as a foreign intrusion in South Asia? Or, over the course of more than twelve centuries, had Muslims and Islamic traditions become indigenized as natural elements of India's cultural landscape? What, exactly, were those traditions, and how did they change over time, or vary from region to region within South Asia?

These are some of the questions addressed by contributors to the present volume. It is the aim of this introductory essay to assess the state of scholarship respecting Indian Islamic traditions that emerged between 711 and 1750; to chart the changing ways that scholars have thought about them, especially in the decades since 1947; and to locate the debates concerning these traditions within larger interpretive frameworks. For the study of history is a dynamic enterprise. Where pre-colonial Islamic traditions are concerned, as with any theme in India's history, historians are not only finding new ways of answering age-old questions; they are asking new ones. In the following pages of this Introduction, some of these questions are highlighted for extended discussion, namely:

a) What were 'Indian Islamic traditions', and how did they operate across time and space?

b) How and why has Islam been represented as a foreign intrusion in pre-colonial India?

c) How has the growth of Indo-Muslim communities been explained?

d) How can one explain variety and change in Indian Islamic traditions in the face of claims of a continuous tradition of 'orthodoxy'?


Indian Islamic traditions in the pre-colonial period encompass an enormous range of thought, practice, artifacts, and performance. They include the letters and recorded conversations of Sufi shaikhs, the works of religious scholars ('ulama), vernacular epics, romance tales, mosque inscriptions, visual arts, yaw wiili music, commentaries on the Qur'an, historical chronicles, folk ballads, legal opinions, hymns, travel memoirs, dramatic performances, biographies of the Prophet, biographies of great shaikhs, and more. The great variety of traditions reflect in part the great variety of sects, linguistic communities, and social classes found among pre-colonial South Asian Muslims-land-holding or self-styled 'high-born' (ashr) classes claiming Arab, Turkish, or Afghan origins (Saiyids, Shaikhs, Mughals, Pathans); Sunni Muslims adhering to Hanafi and Shafi'i legal traditions; Shi 1 Muslims belonging to the Twelver and Isma'ili sects; distinct ethnic communities such as the Mappilas of the Malabar coast or the Marakkayar long-distance trading community of the Coromandel coast; or in rural areas, a host of fragmented, caste-like endogamous groups (yuum, baradar) of craftsmen, artisans, small traders, herdsmen, farmers, and service groups such as barbers, butchers, oil-pressers, or washer men. Contrary to popular belief, South Asian Muslims were far-very far-from constituting a homogeneous or monolithic community.

In spite of their variety, however, and despite the plethora of South Asian Muslim communities from which they sprang, the traditions mentioned above shared common elements. First, they were all discursive traditions, in the sense that they were rooted in written or oral genres that had sufficient historical depth to lend there the weight of authority. And they were Islamic traditions inasmuch as they all related themselves in some way to the Qur'an or the Traditions of the Prophet.'- Thus, for example, when a writer of a compendium of Sufi biographies sat down to do his work, there would already have existed in his mind an established model of what such a work should be like, and that model would in turn have had its roots in formulations and explications of piety traceable to the foundational texts of the religion. The same was true of visual arts, such as miniature paintings or mosque architecture, inasmuch as their creators, too, had inherited models for their endeavors, though; of course, there was always room for innovation within the framework of those models.

The historical role played by pre-colonial Indian Islamic traditions becomes clear when seen in light of an apparent paradox-namely, how the Qur'an, which had been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Arabic, was mediated to South Asia, a non-Arabic-speaking region. In a recent study, Lamin Sanneh elaborated on what he considers a critical difference between Christianity and Islam. Christians, he argues, freely translated the Bible out of Hebrew and Greek into numerous languages, thereby allowing scripture to enter other cultures from within their own structures of language and thought. Muslims, on the other hand, prohibited the Qur'an from being translated and required that rituals like formal prayers (salat) be performed only in Arabic, which in Sanneh's view effectively conjoined the Islamic religion with Arab culture. As Sanneh puts it, the religion `is implanted in other societies primarily as a matter of cultural identity', resulting in the displacement or rejection of prior cultural identity.

What is striking about this position is its narrow, literal sense of 'translation'. Given that the Qur'an was never translated in its entirety into any of South Asia's vernacular languages in pre-colonial times, one might wonder how South Asians could have come to comprise a third of the world's Muslim population. Clearly, Islam was, and had to have been, 'translated' into India. To say this, however, requires a broader conception of translation than the sort of word-by-word rendering of Qur'anic scripture into non-Arabic languages that Sanneh has in mind. In fact, the non-translatability of the Qur'an may well have compelled Muslims to be creative-perhaps more so than they might otherwise have been-in devising ways to adapt the content of the Qur'an to Indian literary genres and modes of communication.

One finds considerable variation, for example, in the ways that scripts served as vehicles for the transmission of Islamic traditions in India. One way this was accomplished was by adapting the Arabic script, which is phonetic and hence easily portable across language barriers, to existing vernacular languages. By the tenth century this had already happened on the Iranian Plateau, where modern Persian emerged from the adaptation of the Arabic script to the base language of pre-Islamic Iran. This facilitated the influx of a vast amount of Arabic vocabulary into modern Persian, together with the direct transmission of Qur'anic ideas of prophethood, cosmology, divinity, and so forth. In India, too, from about the fourteenth century the Arabic script-by this time, the Perso-Arabic script-was gradually adapted to vernacular languages and dialects, ultimately producing Urdu literary traditions in both the Deccan and north India. As had occurred earlier in Iran, the use of the Perso-Arabic script greatly facilitated the direct transmission of Islamic terms and the ideas they carried into Indian vernacular traditions.

A second means by which concepts originally expressed in Arabic entered Indian thought streams was through the use of both Indian scripts and Indian vernacular languages. Whenever this happened, South Asians inevitably built upon, and even expanded-as in the case of the Bengali or Tamil traditions examined in this volume-notions of cosmology or divinity that were already embedded in the literary traditions of those scripts. That is, the production of 'Muslim Bengali' or 'Muslim Tamil' traditions necessarily involved a good deal of creative engagement with Hindu literary genres. Still other Indian Muslims neither adapted the Arabic script to a local vernacular nor used an existing script for their purposes, but created an altogether new script and adapted it to vernacular speech. This happened in the case of the Khojki script of Ismaili communities of western India, also examined in this volume. In sum, South Asians of the pre-colonial period exhibited considerable ingenuity in integrating Qur'anic ideas into India's vernacular languages without actually translating the Qur'an into any one of them.

Each of these scripts served to carry, sustain, and stabilize a great variety of Islamic traditions in India. And here again, it appears that the non-translatability of the Qur'an stimulated forms of creativity that would not have been necessary-or even possible-had that text been translated directly into Indian vernaculars. Consider the tradition of interpreting scripture by writing commentaries (taftin on the Qur'an. As Andrew Rippin writes:

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