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At the Confluence of Two Rivers: Muslims and Hindus in South India
Book Review
Yoginder Sikand

Author: Jackie Assayag

Publisher: Manohar, New Delhi

Year: 2004

Pages: 313


Compared with north India, relatively little has been written on the social history of Islam and Hindu-Muslim relations in the southern states of India. This is particularly unfortunate, given that Islam arrived in coastal south India considerably before it made its appearance in the north. The spread of Islam in most of south India, in contrast to much of the north was not accompanied by Muslim political expansion, being instead mainly the result of the peaceful missionary efforts of Sufis and traders. Furthermore, and again unlike the situation in much of the north, Hindu-Muslim relations in most parts of south India have been fairly tension-free, and continue to be so, although things are now changing with the rise, in recent years, of aggressive Hindu organizations in the region.

This book sets out to explore various aspects of Hindu-Muslim relations in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Thus it seriously challenges several key assumptions that underlie both commonsensical notions as well as scholarly writings on the vexed issue of the Hindu-Muslim encounter. Examining various shared religious traditions, cults and shrines in rural Karnataka with which many Hindus and Muslims are associated, Assayag questions the notion of ‘Islam’ and ‘Hinduism’ as actually practiced religions and as being two monolithic entities, neatly defined and clearly set apart if not opposed to each other. In turn, he challenges the understanding of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ as two distinct communities that have little or nothing in common at the level of social practice and religious belief and ritual. In this way, Assayag questions the grossly simplistic and misleading notion of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ as being inherently and necessarily the theological ‘other’ of each other.

The shared religious traditions in which many Muslims and Hindus in present-day Karnataka jointly participate forms the main focus of this book. Assayag provides interesting anthropological details of the beliefs and practices associated with the traditions entangled with the cults of various Sufis and local deities, showing how the common participation of both Hindus and Muslims in these cults helps promote a shared tradition and culture. Thus, Hindus flock in large numbers to Sufi shrines; rural Muslims often visit Hindu temples where some of them even ‘experience’ being ‘possessed’ by a local goddess; Hindus enroll as disciples of a Muslim saint; Muslims and Hindus jointly participate in rituals on the day of ‘Āshūra in the month of Muharram; a Hindu chooses a Muslim as the custodian of a Hindu shrine and vice versa, and so on. This shared religious tradition owes in part to the nature of the process of the spread of Islam in the region. Islamization, typically, took the form not of a sudden and drastic conversion, but, rather, of a long and gradual process of religio-cultural transformation that was limited in its impact, leaving many aspects of the converts’ pre-Islamic tradition somewhat unchanged. To add to this was the fact that Sufi saints used several local traditions and motifs in their missionary work so that much of the local traditions came to be understood as ‘Islamic’ by the converts. Furthermore, the belief in local ‘Hindu’ deities as well as Sufis – who were considered supernatural in many ways – that could cure ailments or grant wishes, attracted Hindus as well as Muslims to their shrines, a phenomenon that is still observable in many parts of Karnataka.

Yet, while all this undoubtedly helped bring Hindus and Muslims into a shared cultural universe and into closer contact with each other, the bond of shared tradition has not entirely been free of tension. In the case of several shared shrines and cults, the coexistence between Hindus and Muslims could, Assayag argues, be better described as ‘competitive sharing’, ‘competitive syncretism’ or even ‘antagonistic tolerance’. This is reflected in myths and counter-myths about commonly revered figures through which each community seeks to stress its superiority over the other, in the process of fashioning an identity for itself based on a re-written collective memory. Increasingly, this antagonistic aspect is becoming particularly pronounced, and reflected, for instance, in the current dispute over the shrine of the Sufi Raja Bagh Sawar, whom many Hindus now claim to have been a Brahman, Chang Dev, or the case of the shrine of Baba Budhan in Chikamagalur, which Hindutva militants now seek to convert into a full-fledged Hindu temple, denying its Islamic roots and association altogether. Assayag discusses these new challenges to the shared Hindu-Muslim tradition in Karnataka, the wider context of the process of urbanization, the rise of Hindutva militancy in the region in recent years and the consequent heightening of Muslim insecurities, the emergence of Islamic reformist movements and the role of the state in defining fixed religious identities and policing community borders.

As an anthropological study of Hindu-Muslim relations, focusing on the complex nature of shared or ‘syncretistic’ religious traditions, this book poses the important question of how local Muslims and Hindus identify themselves and relate to each other. In that sense, it rightly criticizes the notion of Hindus and Muslims as monolithic communities inherently opposed to each other. Not everyone will agree with everything that Assayag has to say, however. Some readers might find his language at times dull and heavy. Most crucially, his understanding of Islam and local Islamic traditions can easily be faulted. Thus, he refers to emergence of the Mapilla Muslims of the Malabar coast as a result of Mut‘a or temporary marriages contracted by Arab Shāfi‘ī Muslim traders (p. 37). He does not provide any evidence of this, and it is unlikely that this is correct, since Mut‘a is not recognized by the Shāfi‘ī school. He refers to the great Deccani Sufi Hazrat Bandanawaz Gesudaraz as ‘Bandanamaz’, and claims that his tomb is ‘worshipped’ by many Muslims (p. 39). This, of course, is completely incorrect, as the devotees of the Sufis do not worship their tombs at all. Here Assayag confuses reverence for worship. He refers to the Panjah, a hand-shaped metal object often displayed at village shrines during the month of Muharram, as generally having only three fingers, explaining this as ‘in keeping with the Sunni creed which recognizes only the first three Caliphs’ [p.77]. This is simply untrue. The Panjahs almost inevitably have five fingers, representing the Panjatan Pāk, the five members of the ‘holy family’ of the Prophet (sws). Further, as anyone even remotely familiar with Islam and Islamic history would know, it is simply absurd to claim that the Sunnis recognize only the first three ‘rightly guided’ caliphs. At several points he makes sweeping statements, again without adducing any evidence, as when he talks about the ‘masochistic character to which the austere piety of the Shiites is so inclined’ [p.76], or refers to the rulers of various Sultanates in the Deccan as ‘waging war’ to convert Hindus to Islam [p.39], or speaks of ‘Islamist militants’ (instead of ‘Islamic reformists’) seeking to purge the local religious tradition of various superstitious practices and beliefs [p.81].

Yet, despite these obvious flaws, the book does serve a valuable purpose, providing us with fascinating glimpses into the little-known world of small village-level communities that are generally ignored in ‘standard’ works on Hindu-Muslim relations in India.


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