Muslim Saints of South Asia: The Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries

By Ernst, Carl W. | Islamic Studies, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Muslim Saints of South Asia: The Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries


Ernst, Carl W., Islamic Studies


Anna Suvorova. Muslim Saints of South Asia: The Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries. London: Routledge/Curzon, 2004. Pp. 256. Hardbound. ISBN: 978-0-415-31764-1. Price: US $ 180.00.

The work under review, originally written in Russian in 1999, is a survey of the topic of sainthood in South Asian Islam. It consists of eight chapters, starting with an overview of "the Indian tomb," and then continuing with monographic treatments of major figures including 'Ali Hujwiri (d. 469/1077), Mu'in al-Din Chishti (d. 633/1236), Baba Farid Ganj-i Shakkar (d. 633/1236), Nizam al-Din Awliya' (d. 728/1328), and Baha' al-Din Zakariyya (d. 665/1276); the last two chapters treat warrior saints and mendicant saints.

This study retains in its English revision a distinctively Russian approach to Islamic studies that is inseparable from Orientalism. Throughout this study, a paradoxical combination of scientific condescension and personal appreciation remains an unresolved problem. The result is a perspective on South Asian Sufism that is unreflective and unintegrated into modern scholarly discourses on the study of religion. Like the many colonial sources quoted at face value throughout this work, it has the flavour of a gazetteer, containing an ambivalent combination of supercilious condemnation of superstition and a nonetheless positive aesthetic appreciation. In particular, this work avoids any engagement with the substantial critical literature on sainthood as a category in Islamic studies, to its detriment.1

What is one to make of the author's assumption that "any society with a traditional type of culture and a retarded [sic] type of consciousness . . . . was wholly determined by religious consciousness"? (p. 2). This unfalsifiable presupposition underlies many of the observations proffered by the author, despite the fact that political treatises (e.g., Barani) written during the Delhi Sultanate make it clear that the critical institution of Persian kingship has nothing to do with Islam, except insofar as it provides a protective structure for Islamic practice. The uncritical use of terms such as "syncretism," presupposing the dilution of pure religious essences, is another characteristic move repeated at many junctures. Here the author perpetuates the dominant Soviet-style approach that separates an uncorrupted textual Islam from the debased manifestations of popular religion.2 The author further assumes that the postulated domination of Muslim life by the shari'ah makes the existence of secular or non-religious aspects of life impossible. The fact that such a pure textual Islam is nowhere to be found in history does not seem to require any consideration in this approach, which is remarkably untouched by the last decades of social-scientific study of religion in Europe and America.3

An even more egregious assertion explicitly found throughout this work is the notion that somehow it is the "wild growth" and "chaotic diversity" of South Asian Islam that has uniquely led to such unfortunately heterodox phenomena as reverence for saints, whereas any global or comparative study of the history of Islamic civilization reveals that sainthood is an omnipresent characteristic of Muslim religious life, which is always inflected in terms of local lineages and cultural traditions.

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