At the Confluence of Two Rivers—Muslims and Hindus in South India
Author: Jackie Assayag
Publisher: Manohar, New Delhi
Compared to 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 on 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 the 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 Hindutva organisations in the peninsula.
This book sets out to explore various aspects of Hindu-Muslim relations in Karnataka state. In doing so, 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 practiced religions, two monolithic entities, neatly defined and clearly set apart, if not opposed to each other. 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 beliefs and rituals. Assayag thus challenges the grossly simplistic and misleading notion of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ as being inherently and necessarily the theological ‘other’ for either.
The shared religious traditions in which many Muslims and Hindus in present-day Karnataka jointly participate form the main focus of this book. Assayag provides interesting anthropological details of the beliefs and practices associated with the traditions within the cults of various Sufis and local deities, revealing how the common participation of both Hindus and Muslims in these cults helps to promote a shared tradition and culture. Thus, Hindus flock in large numbers to Sufi shrines; village Muslims often visit Hindu temples where some of them even ‘experience’ being ‘possessed’ by the local goddess; Hindus enrol as disciples of a certain Muslim saint; Muslims and Hindus jointly participate in rituals on the day of Ashura in the month of Muharram; a Hindu chooses a Muslim as the custodian of a Hindu shrine and vice versa.
Such shared traditions owe their existence in part to the nature of the process of the spread of Islam in the region. Islamisation, 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, and left many aspects of the converts’ pre-Islamic tradition largely unchanged. Plus, the Sufi saints used several local traditions and motifs in their missionary work so that much of the local tradition came to be understood as ‘Islamic’ by the converts. The belief in the power of the local Hindu deities as well as Sufis as powerful beings, being able to 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 of 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 been entirely devoid 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 fashioning an identity for itself based on a re-written collective memory.
Increasingly, this antagonistic aspect is becoming particularly pronounced as 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 Brahmin, 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 associations altogether. Assayag discusses these new challenges to the shared Hindu-Muslim tradition in Karnataka in the wider context of the process of urbanisation, the rise of Hindutva militancy in the region in recent years and the consequent heightening of Muslim insecurities. The author also discusses the emergence of Islamic reformist movements and the role of the state in defining fixed religious identities and policing community borders.
Reverence vs. worship
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 critiques 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 be faulted. Thus, while he refers to the emergence of the Mapilla Muslims of the Malabar coast as a result of mut‘a or temporary marriages contracted by Arab Shafi‘i Muslim traders, he does not provide any evidence of this, and it is unlikely that this is correct, since mut‘a is not recognised by the Shafi‘i school. He refers to the great Deccani Sufi Hazrat Bandanawaz Gesudaraz as ‘Bandanamaz’, and claims that his tomb is ‘worshipped’ by many Muslims. This, of course, is incorrect, as the devotees of the Sufis do not worship their tombs at all.
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 recognises only the first three Caliphs’. This is quite untrue. The panjahs almost inevitably have five fingers, representing the panjatan pak, the five members of the ‘holy family’ of the Prophet. Further, as anyone even familiar with Islam and Islamic history would know, it is absurd to claim that the Sunnis recognise only the first three ‘rightly guided’ caliphs. At several points the author makes sweeping statements, not backed by evidence, such as when he refers to the ‘masochistic character to which the austere piety of the Shi‘ites is so inclined’, or when he refers to the rulers of various Sultanates in the Deccan as ‘waging war’ to convert Hindus to Islam, or when he speaks of ‘Islamist militants’ (instead of ‘Islamic reformists’) seeking to purge the local religious tradition of various superstitious practices and beliefs.
Despite these obvious flaws, the book serves a valuable purpose, providing a fascinating glimpse into the little-known world of village-level communities that are generally ignored in ‘standard’ works on Hindu-Muslim relations in India.