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Civilisational Islam of South Asia

The significant shift from monument to text

Civilisational Islam of South Asia

While trying to locate nostalgia among the South Asian Muslims through historical building which were ravaged and ruined, I concluded my last week’s column with the following observation: these architectural symbols represented the syncretic ethos which was embedded in the civilisational Islam of South Asia.

Once it was seen in such a dilapidated state, Muslims flipped the central postulate of their ‘being’ from the ‘monument’ which was historical and represented their civilisation and culture to the ‘text’ and ‘scripture’. Therefore dargah (shrine) as the civilisational motif was replaced with the mosque and sufi with Baraka as his instrument of spirituality was substituted with maulvi who preferred text and shariat over the syncretic tradition that sufi and dargah epitomised.

Such substitution in what I call the ‘civilisational motifs’ proved quite ominous for the Muslim civilisation in South Asia. It is ominous simply because religious literalism tends to dump the civilisational currents, which are enmeshed in the historical tradition peculiar to a certain terrain. Thus the literalist religious trend unequivocally discounts the cultural-civilisational specificities that are formed as a result of quite a complex historical process.

One must underline the fact that sufi-maulvi binary was not noticeably stark during the medieval times as is being mostly depicted. Similarly, in most instances, mosque and dargah shared the same space as is the case of Data Ganj Bakhsh’s shrine. Same holds for Nizamuddin Aulia’s shrine in Delhi. In that shared space, sufi and maulvi co-habited without irking one another.

These two states manifesting in a sufi and a maulvi did converge in the same person. Such examples can be found even in this day and age. The maulvi came to represent the exclusionary tendencies only when the religious literalism, with its emphasis squarely on the text, started creeping into the subcontinent.

Interestingly enough, none of these reformers traced the Muslim identity in the texts. For them, civilisation couched in historical tradition was seminal to the construction of a Muslim identity.

The interesting development, however, came about with the emergence of Modernist Muslim Reformists by the second half of the 19th century. Muslim modernists like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914) and Syed Muhammad Latif (1851-1902) not only espoused British as the new rulers but also exhorted Muslims to adopt Western education and thought patterns. Alongside their unflinching support to the British during the days of War of Independence in 1857, they “perceived shrines, palaces and mosques as their heritage and symbols of Muslim rule in India”. They were visibly agonised over their destruction in the wake of the events of 1857.

After Delhi fell to the British, the Sikh soldiers were allowed to use Jamia Masjid Delhi as military barracks for five years. Another mosque (the Zeenatul Masjid) was given over to a Hindu who converted a part of it into a bakery. It was restored to the Muslims after 20 years. The British demolished all buildings including mosques, khanqahs, houses and havelies within the radius of 448 yards outside the Red Fort. The khanqahs of famous sufi revivalists like Shah Kalimullah and Mirza Mazhar Jan-e-Janan were completely obliterated.

This ruination of Muslim monuments evoked a great sense of loss among people like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Altaf Hussain Hali.

Not refuting CM Naim’s assertion that Sir Syed compiled Asaarul Sanadeed (The Remnant Signs of Ancient Heroes) at the behest of the Principal of Delhi College Dr Aloys Sprenger, one should not overlook the author’s own stimulus emanating from the pathos that he must have felt by witnessing the state of Delhi. That pathos is succinctly reflected in the author’s selection of a Persian verse with which he opens the book. He begins the book with a verse from Muhammad Jamal ud Din Urfi, “The ornamentations still left on the ruined walls and gates are the remnant signs of Persia’s heroes”.

In Asaarul Sanadeed, Sir Syed explores several archaeological sites and records minute details of each building that he studied. These buildings, for him, were the symbols of Muslims’ past glory.

When he visited Punjab in the 1880s, he delivered a lecture at Ludhiana and pronounced Muslims as nation in very strong terms. He traced Muslim distinctness in their civilisation that was articulated through monuments like Khanqahs, mosques and imam bargahs.

Altaf Hussain Hali like Sir Syed was known for his modernist streak, which was explicitly expressed through his poems in the Mushairas (poetry symposiums) of Lahore in 1874. He too despite being modernist considered Muslim (medieval) past extremely important as a constituent of their identity. In his famous poem Mad o Jazar-i-Islam (the ebb and flow of Islam), Hali mentions sufi khanqahs, shrines and mosques ‘to symbolise Muslim identity.’

The case of Syed Muhammad Latif is no different. Besides being a civil servant, he was an important historian with panache. His accounts on the Punjab and Lahore are good examples of a long duree historical tradition. His books have quite a broad spectrum, covering architectural sites as well as the social dimension of the people living in the Punjab. He also underlines architecture as the central feature of Muslim self-hood. To him ‘destruction of shrines and palaces became synonymous with the attack on Islam.’

Interestingly enough, none of these reformers traced the Muslim identity in the texts. For them, civilisation couched in historical tradition was seminal to the construction of a Muslim identity.

Even All India Muslim League highlighted architecture as one of the key determinants in defining Indian Muslims as a distinct nation. It was in 1942 when Muhammad Ali Jinnah enunciated, ‘We are a nation with our own distinctive culture and civilization, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of values and proportion…’

What this writer wants to underscore here is not some Hindu-Muslim primordial divide. It is the civilisational aspect of the Muslim ‘nationhood’ that is being prioritised over the religious dogma punctuated with the literalist/scriptural tradition. The latter is absolutely out of sync with the historical and civilisational pattern specific to South Asia.

In the current milieu where sectarianism is rampant, a focus on civilisation and history instead of religious literalism may serve to bring in harmony and peace.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.


  • It seems to me that such articles should be brought to the attention of all, especially young people. Will that happen?

  • Sorry, but I make no such assertion as you ascribe to me. I never say that Saiyid Ahmad Khqan wrote his book ‘at the behest’ of Aloys Sprenger. I only point out two things: Sprenger made the claim that he suggested the idea of the book to SAK; (2) and that the two were well acquainted. And I have pointed out the significance of ‘Urfi’s verse for him in my article at some length.

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