Gilmartin & Lawrence Beyond Turk & Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities In Islamicate South Asia

It was a William Dalrymple review, ‘India, The War Over History’, in The New York Review Of Books that first bought my attention to this work. It remains on my reading list and has already been referenced in my India project writings a few times. Gilmartin & Lawrence’s Beyond Turk And Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities In Islamicate South Asia brings together some fine academics to offer a more complex, inter-twined reading of South Asian history, dynasties and communities.

Two articles in particular have fundamentally changed my understanding of Indian history. Both touch on sensitive topics that occupy very simplistic and inflammatory spaces in the popular historical imagination. Richard M. Eaton’s essay ‘Temple Desecrations And The Indo-Muslim States‘ fundamentally transforms our understanding of the history and reasons for temple desecrations as he carefully examines the evidence of such acts from the period prior to the arrival of so-labelled ‘Muslim’ armies and also that during ‘Muslim’ dynastic rule. It discusses in great depth the practice of temple desecration between Indic dynasts and points to it as an act of political conquest and symbolic erasure of a defeated dynast (the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue?). It offers a continuity of this practice with the arrival of Islamicate dynasties in the region.

Most importantly, it highlights the need to see specific acts of temple desecration in their specific historical, political and economic conditions, rather than merely as a knee-jerk ‘Muslim’ iconoclasm which is how they are popularly viewed. This essays goes some ways to helping us understand why only specific temples were ever targeted, while others and the vast majority, left untouched. It also explains why so many temples in fact were funded and supported by Islamicate dynasties, even under the otherwise orthodox Mughal ruler Aurangzeb.

The other article is by Phillip B. Wagoner’s ‘Harihara, Bukka, and the Sultan: The Delhi Sultanate in the Political Imagination of Vijayanagar‘. This latter article challenges the popular idea that the Vijaryangari kingdom was a bulwark that Islamicate Delhi Sultanate, pointing towards ample evidence to the high degree of cultural, architectural, political, economic, creative and military sharing, influences and outright borrowing from the Delhi Sultanate that marked the dynasty of the Vijayanagari kings.

I write ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ in quotes here primarily because I now find these terms highly inadequate to describe the complex individuals and dynasties of the medieval period. It is irresponsible to refer to Babur, for example, as a ‘Muslim’ dynast, reducing his complex personal, political and economic motivations for various acts of warfare, peace, society and arts to simply that of his religious heritage.

In fact, challenging this very terminology is one of the principle objectives of Gilmartin and Lawrence’s work. They instead attempt to offer us the terms Islamicate and Indic to incorporate the more complicated and multifarious ideas and ideals that actually inform and infuse these dynasties. As the describe in their introduction:

To open up the space between reductive religious orientations and mobile collective identities, one needs a new vocabulary that is not restricted to modern connotations of words such as Muslim and Hindu. It was to remedy the inadequacy of English popular usage that historians Marshall G.S. Hodgson coined the term Islamicate. For Hodgson, the neologism Islamicate allowed students of civilizational change to refer to the broad expanse of Africa and Asia that was influenced by Muslim rulers but not restricted to the practice of Islam as a religion. It is for the same reason, to suggest the breadth of premodern South Asian norms beyond Hindu doctrine or practice, that we employ the term Indic in the essays that follow. Both Islamicate and Indic suggest a repertoire of language and behavior, knowledge and  power, that define broad cosmologies of human existence. Neither denotes simply bounded groups self-defined as Muslim or Hindu.

This is an important and fascinating work indeed. I also particularly enjoyed Tony K. Stewart’s piece called ‘Alternate Structures of Authority: Satya Pir on the Frontiers of Bengal’ which has been instrumental in turning my attention to a region of India I know little about. It appears that I may to travel there to add it to the project.

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