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Lesson Plan:
Islam in South Asia: Introduction to South Asian Islam

B. Zeynab Ali
Columbia University


This course will outline the history and contemporary dynamics of Islam in the South Asia. It will explore the intricacies of both belief and practice in the region. Important aspects of the Islamic tradition in the sub-continent will be overviewed in order to understand how these factors have shaped South Asian Muslim identity and political thought. A range of multi-disciplinary sources will be used.

I. Diversity of Islam in South Asia:

This section will address the diversity of Islam in South Asia. Various categories and outlooks such as orthodox Islamism and Sufi Islam, the doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shii Muslims and the multiple interpretations of each of these sects will be discussed. While South Asia is a diverse region, characterized by an eclectic array of political, ideological and communal issues, there are nevertheless certain similarities that are shared by its Muslim communities whether it be in the Muslim majority countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives, or the minority Muslim communities of India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. An analysis of such diversity highlights the ways in which South Asian Muslims dismiss the analytical salience of these religious categories in the course of everyday existence but simultaneously also invest them with power and influence to shape the political and social dynamics in the region. The ways in which cultural and ethnic identities impinge upon the religious identity will be discussed.

Selected Readings:

Asim Roy. Islam in South Asia: A Regional Perspective. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Barbara D. Metcalf. "Islam and Society in South Asia." The Journal of Asian Studies, ISSN 0021-9118, 02/1988, Volume 47, Issue 1, pp. 176 - 177.

Magnus Marsden ed. Islam and Society in Pakistan: Anthropological Perspectives. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Imtiaz Ahmad and Helmut Reifeld. Lived Islam in South Asia; Adaptation, Accommodation and Conflict. Reference and Research Book News. ISSN 0887-3763, 05/2007, Volume 22, Issue 2.

T. N. Madan. Muslim Communities of South Asia: Culture, Society, and Power. Manohar Publishers. 2001.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, "Diversity in South Asian Islam". Akhbar.

Suggested Activity:

Students could be divided into two groups, where one group will focus on the diverse religious dynamics within Pakistan, Maldives and Bangladesh, the Muslim majority South Asian countries and the other on the Muslim minorities in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Students should compare and contrast the particular ways in which Islam has developed in these two contexts. Alternatively the students may form six different groups and discuss the significance of the differences and similarities in the ways Islam is practiced in each of these countries.

II. Sufism:

Devotional religiosity, worship at Sufi shrines and adherence to Sufi saints are essential aspects of South Asian Islam. Sufi Islam, which usually manifests itself in dense networks, enjoins Sufi devotees not only in South Asia but across the world. Significantly such modes of religiosity are not only limited to the rural settings but are also actively upheld by the urban elite as well. Sufism is described as a mystical strain of Islam and the ecstatic form of worship associated with it have recently come to be represented as the "moderate" form of Islam in the Western media. However, with the help of the readings we will discuss how the present understanding of Sufism has come to reflect Western labels used to categorize the complexities of Islam. In many ways the moderate forms of Sufi Islam are widely seen as being more authentically "South Asian" than the reform-minded Islamists, who are considered to be rooted in Arab culture and have become politicized by global Islamist influences. Much of the prevalent discussion on Islam in South Asia is therefore based on a binary distinction between the good, tolerant Sufi Muslims and the bad, orthodox ones who are prone to terrorism and radicalization on the other. We will contest such outlooks while analyzing the present discourse.

Selected Reading:

Claudia Liebeskind. Piety on Its Knees: Three Sufi Traditions in South Asia in Modern Times. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Riaz ul Islam. Sufism in South Asia: Impact on Fourteenth Century Muslim Society. Oxford University Press. 2002.

Carl W. Ernst. Eternal garden: Mysticism, History, and Politics at a South Asian Sufi center. State University of New York Press, 1992.

G.A. Lipton. "Secular Sufism: Neoliberalism, Ethnoracism and the Reformation of the Muslim Other." The Muslim World. ISSN 0027-4909, 07/2011, Volume 101, Issue 3, pp. 427 - 440.

Arthur F. Buehler. "The Currents of Sufism in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Indo- Pakistan." The Muslim World. ISSN 0027-4909, 07/1997, Volume 87, Issue 3/4, pp. 299 - 314.

Nile Green. "Emerging Approaches to the Sufi Traditions of South Asia: Between Text, Territories and the Transcendent." South Asia Research. ISSN 0262-7280, 11/2004, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp. 123 - 148.

Paul L. Heck. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Journal of Islamic Studies. ISSN 0955-2340, 01/2009, Volume 20, Issue 1, p. 103.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. 1. How is the representation of the good Sufi Muslim made possible through a negative contrast with reformist political Islam?
  2. 2. Discuss the ways in which Sufism is both a rural and urban phenomenon which cuts across class, gender and ethnic boundaries.
  3. 3. In what ways has Sufi culture become politicized?

III. Political Islam in South Asia:

We will discuss why some elements in South Asian Islam have become overtly politicized and how the advent of colonialism led to the domination of political Islam in South Asia. The growing influence of the religious-political elite in the public sphere, has resulted in a consequent increase in intra-Islam sectarianism and a persistent deterioration of women's rights. The recommended readings will highlight the political, social factors that allow the religious elites to play a disproportionate role in "framing" the narratives of religion and in shaping the interaction between Islam and politics. We will discuss how politics, not theology, explains the ways in which Islamic values and beliefs are translated into calls for political action, which seek to influence public opinion. The political use of Islam by the state promotes an aggressive competition for official patronage between and within the many variations of Sunni and Shia Islam, with the clerical elite striving to consolidate their political presence, raise jihadi militias, and expand madrassa networks. However, not all elements of political Islam uphold violence as a socio-political strategy. Villifying all Islamist elements as fundamentalists ignores the complexity of the discussion taking place in South Asian madrasas by the ulama (trained men of Islamic piety) and dismisses their historical and ongoing interaction with the Sufi-derived forms of Islam.

Selected Reading:

Vali Nasr. "Blurring the Lines: Islam and Politics in South Asia." Harvard International Review. ISSN 0739-1854, 1996, Volume 18, Issue 3, p. 24.

Vali Nasr. The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan. University of California Press, 1996.

Ayesha Jalal. Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia. Harvard University Press, 2008.

Irfan Ahmed. Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami. Princeton University Press, 2009.

Humeira Iqtidar. Secularizing Islamists? Jama'at-e-Islami and Jama'at-ud-Da'wa in urban Pakistan. University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali. Islamic Pakistan, Illusions & Reality. National Book Club. 1996.

Jamal Malik. The Madrassas in South Asia: Teaching Terror? Routledge, 2008.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. 1. Assess the role of the madrasa networks in the development of political Islam and sectarian organizations in South Asia.
  2. 2. Analyze the impact of political Islam on Muslim women in South Asia.
  3. 3. Discuss the nature of interaction between political Islam and Sufism in South Asia.
  4. 4. How has the concept of jihad, with its particular political context, developed over time in South Asia and come to be related to politics of some Islamic political parties?

IV. Negotiability of the South Asian Muslim Identity:

With the help of the prescribed readings, the students will explore how the distinction between Sufi and Islamists becomes irrelevant when the complexity of everyday lives of the Muslims is considered. Such work will also allow us to question the assumption that the moderate form of Islam is experiencing an internal conflict with global forms of Muslim reformism. While the religious public sphere in South Asia continues to be dominated by political Islam, academic analysis and ethnographic studies show that there is a vast gap between the official narratives of the religious elite and the actual lived religion, which is tolerant and diverse. South Asian Muslims do not always conform to pre-existing Islamic traditions, whether they are Sufi-derived or Islamist, but rather deploy personal and collective forms of creative thought and reason in order to forge new and constantly emerging modes of being Muslim.

Selected Reading:

Muhammad Qasim Zaman. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton University Press, 2002.

Mahmood Mamadani. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. Random House. 2005.

Yoginder Sikand. Voices against terror : Indian Ulema on Islam, jihad, and communal harmony. Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, 2010.

Wahiduddin Khan. Jihad, Peace, and Inter-community relations in Islam. Rupa & Co., 2010.

Katherine P. Ewing. Shari'at and ambiguity in South Asian Islam. University of California Press, 1988.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. 1. How can "South Asian Islam" be located meaningfully in particular cultural and geographical contexts?
  2. 2. Are the moderate and pluralistic forms of Islam in South Asia under threat from the politically inspired Islamist versions?
  3. 3. In what ways do South Asian Muslims negotiate their Islamic identity? What are the various positions taken between the Sufi-influenced and the Islamist positions?
  4. 4. How is South Asia's cultural heterogeneity played out and contested in the realm of religious life?

Further Recommended Reading:

Jurgen Wasim Frembgen. "From Dervish to Saint: Constructing Charisma in Contemporary Pakistani Sufism." The Muslim World. ISSN 0027-4909, 04/2004, Volume 94, Issue 2, pp. 245 - 257.

Katherine Ewing. "The Politics of Sufism: Redefining the Saints of Pakistan." The Journal of Asian Studies (pre-1986). ISSN 0021-9118, 02/1983, Volume 42, Issue 2, p. 251.

Shemeem Abbas Burney. "Risky Knowledge in Risky Times: Political Discourses of Qawaali and Sufiana Kalam in Pakistan- Indian Sufism." The Muslim World. ISSN 0027-4909, 10/2007, Volume 97, Issue 4, pp. 626 - 639.

Khwaja, Asim Ijaz. "The Madrasa Myth" (with T. Andrabi, Pomona, J. Das, World Bank, C. Fair, Georgetown). Foreign Policy. June 2009.

Farish Noor, Martin van Bruinessen, and Yoginder Sikand (eds). The Madrasa in Asia. Political Activism and Transnational Linkages. Amsterdam University Press, (2008) p 123-140.

Islam in South Asia in practice. Ed. by Barbara D. Metcalf. Princeton U. Press 2009.

The Study of Muslims in South Asia by Barbara D. Metcalf (lecture transcript)

"A Single Space: Islam in Britain and South Asia." The Economist (US), ISSN 0013-0613, 05/2009, Volume 391, Issue 8629, p. 55

Yoginder Sikand. Bastions of the Believers: Madrassas and Islamic Education in India. Penguin Books India, 2005

Robert W. Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Schooling Islam: the culture and politics of modern education. Princeton University Press, 2007.

"South Asia's welcoming Sufi shrines. " Guardian.

"Sufism in India: Its Origin, History and Politics." SAAG.

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