Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 1

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran

Recent discussions on this blog regarding the version of Islam that has been adopted in Pakistan since its founding in 1947 have raised some questions that warrant a little more detailed study of the related issues surrounding  the cultural history of this part of the world. This series is an attempt to examine how cultures are transformed and put on a track diverging from its past.

In modern times when motorways and bypasses are built they are usually laid passing through isolated and uninhabited lands, away from our old familiar pathways and bustling towns. Travelling on these new roads, we move fast and reach our destination mostly in isolation from stations of our human history. In a short while, we get used to these new routes, and soon forget about our old traditional highways, and our old culture.

Cultural bypasses are also built the same way. We have seen one built before our own eyes and our getting used to it in a short time, as if our traditional pathways were never there. From an Indo-Persian cultural mooring, a great Arabist shift has taken place in our orientation and perspective of Islam in the last few decades that has moved us away from our traditional cultural highways of Islam.

Islam broke open with a big bang in Arabian deserts and spread fast into Syria, Egypt, and Persia. Here a rustic Bedouin culture clashed with two powerful ancient civilizations – the Roman and Persian Empires. Islam rapidly engulfed them and fully absorbed and permeated itself into their cultural and intellectual bodies, producing a new shining synthesis. In the process, it gave these civilizations a wholly new perspective and a new dimension.

In most of the Muslim lands the conversion of local population to Islam was almost complete. There was practically no need for developing ideological bases and cultural mechanisms to meet the requirement of living peacefully together with a sizable non-Muslim minority or an overwhelming non-Muslim majority. Muslim rule in Spain and India presented a different challenge: the need for finding ways and means for peaceful co-existence with a Hindu or Christian majority while the political and military power at the top was already in the hands of a small Muslim minority. Political peace and social harmony were the practical need of the day. This need essentially provided the foundation on which the edifice of cultural fusion was built while seeking to maintain the religious freedom and the plurality of independent belief systems. Long Muslim rules in both Spain and India produced the finest examples of religious and cultural tolerance together with exemplary advancement of scientific knowledge. While the developments and subsequent failures in Muslim Spain would merit a separate study, here we can briefly examine the effects of combining of the intellectual spark created in Muslim Persia and Khurasan with the deep philosophical mind of Vedantic India.

A crude attempt to create an artificial hotchpotch in India during Mughal King Akbar’s days understandably failed. The need was obviously for a more sophisticated and carefully cultured fusion of elements that are essential for a creative cultural life and peaceful coexistence among large blocks of people. This was in due course achieved in a fusion of multiple streams of cultural consciousness in India that is sometimes literally called Ganga-Jamni culture, not necessarily restricted to a particular geographical region of Hindustan where the two rivers – Ganga and Jumna – flow but as a symbolism for fusion of two different cultural streams in the whole of India.

Indian Islam evolved as an integral part of a new cultural explosion taking place in Khurasan, Persia, and Central Asia. Armed with the ideas of egalitarianism and universal brotherhood of Islam, the rich cultural traditions of Persia and Khurasan that had strong links with equally advanced and amazingly rich Chinese civilization via Mongolistan and the Silk Road transformed themselves into a powerful force bubbling with the spread of new ideas, discovery of knowledge and applications in technology. This was the torrent of cultural consciousness and thirst for seeking knowledge that found routes to India where yet another ancient culture was established for many thousands of years.

We are successors to this about one-thousand years old Indo-Persian Muslim cultural heritage that commenced when Lahore was made the capital of Ghaznavi rulers in 1022 and it emerged as a major centre of Muslim Persian culture in India. Persian became the official language of the court and the civil administration in Punjab. It was here that Ali Usman Hajwairi, Data Gunjbakhsh (d.1077) wrote the first Persian treatise on Sufism entitled Kashful Mahjub (The Unveiling of the Hidden). It was here that religious reformism of Mujaddid Alf Sani (d.1624) and Shah Waliullah (d.1762) freely intermingled with the studies of mystic cabalism of Ibnul Arabi (d.1240) and Shahbuddin Suhrawardi, and Vedantic philosophies of India to give rise to a unique spiritual eclecticism.

This cultural pluralism had a vast palette of ideas, poetic imagery, and an extremely rich vocabulary and idiom of expressions. As with the rise and fall of ruling dynasties the political backdrop kept on changing rather quickly in the main centre of secular power, Agra, and later Delhi, the cultural and social life in the rural villages mostly continued as is, except for the intermittent increase in taxes in one form or the other. Taking sustenance from a strong spiritual undercurrent of Vedantic thoughts in India mixed with mystic Sufi Islamic traditions coming from Iraq and Khurasan, strong Sufi traditions took roots among Muslims mainly in smaller towns of Hindustan, Bengal, Deccan, Punjab, Multan, and Sindh, away from the main centres of secular political power.

The influence of the persecuted followers of Shia denominations from the Sunni Turk dominated Muslim lands in Iraq, Khurasan, and Persia trickling in to seek refuge in India also gave a strong impetus to the evolving Sufi traditions here. Unlike Sunni Islam, Shia belief system, particularly of the Isma’ili denominations, lays special focus on the esoteric study of the hidden mysteries of batin, the inner self. For years, the Sultanates of Multan and Thatta in Sindh remained under political rulers subscribing to the Qaramatis, an Ismaili offshoot that was predominant in South of Iraq in the region today known as Kuwait and Bahrain. After these independent Sultanates were later destroyed by aggressive Sunni military adventurers, many of their notables had little choice but to diffuse in other lands taking cover of Sunni or mainstream Shia identities.

The proliferation of Sufi mystics like Bulleh Shah, Sultan Bahu, Sachal Sarmast, Lal Shahbaz, Latif Bhittai, Ghulam Farid, and Amir Khusro, Guru Nanak, and Bhagat Kabir singing heart rending poetry in both local languages like Punjabi, Multani, Sindhi, and Urdu (old Hindustani) and in Persian, and eminent Sufis like Datagunj Bukhsh in Lahore, Fariduddin Gunjshakar in Pak Pattan, Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Bahauddin Zakariya, Shah Rukne Alam, and Shah Shams Tabrez in Multan, Khawaja Baqi Billah, Nizamuddin Auliya, and Bakhtyar Kaki in Delhi preaching and practicing a highly tolerant, inclusive and peaceful Islam gave rise to a form of cultural milieu quite unique to India. Barring some academic discourses and intellectual treatment of ideological issues, most of the imagery, frames of reference, and vocabulary used by these Sufi luminaries were drawn from the local cultural stock or from Persian traditions, which had developed a considerable familiarity over many centuries of cultural interactions.

Between the 11th and 19th centuries more Persian literature was produced in India than in Persian speaking world of Persia, Khursasan, and Central Asia put together. Such was the momentum that it even survived the brutal aftermath of the Great Mutiny and establishment of the direct rule of British Crown in India in 1857. As late as the 1st quarter of the 20th century, many Persian books, newspapers and magazines continued to be published from Lahore alongside Urdu, Punjabi and English newspapers and periodicals.

Together with the rest of the Indian society at large this particularly apolitical Indo-Persian cultural Islam found itself least prepared to challenge the new European powers rising on the horizon after collapse of the Mughal Empire during the 18th century. The European powers swiftly took control of the decadent political structures of Indian society. Armed with powerful Cartesian logic, scientific knowledge, and modern technological advances, these powers soon started having a profound impact on the daily lives of the common men in British India. After scoring initial successes over local coastal rulers, the European Imperial powers engaged among themselves as to who would be the paramount power in India. With Great Britain emerging as the victorious nation, it found practically no match for its competition among local forces and succeeded in putting them in complete disarray.

To be continued in Part-2



  • sunni
    Posted at 06:11h, 30 August Reply

    Indian Islam is the best example for religious tolerance. Muslims in India are living in co-existence with other religious people. There is good respect among each other. Mosques, Hindu temples and churches are seen with great respect without any difference among them

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 04:51h, 01 September

      Question is, are Indian Muslims very different from Pakistanis or Bangladeshis?

      I believe leaders can make a nation tolerant by instilling an overwhelming sense of security or brutal by whipping up phobia.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 06:22h, 01 September

      Anil: I agree with your claim. Even within Pakistan, Muslims today are very different from the Muslims of the 1960s. Most analysts ascribe this to the influence of Zia ul Haq. But religious fundamentalism has increased in general. A much more interesting question is whether Indians today are the same as the Indians of the 1960s because in this case there is no Zia ul Haq equivalent to point to. Is the Indian elite as liberal as it was then? There is some other dynamic that seems to be at work.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 08:33h, 30 August Reply

    “It was here that religious reformism of Mujaddid Alf Sani (d.1624) and Shah Waliullah (d.1762) freely intermingled with the studies of mystic cabalism of Ibnul Arabi (d.1240) and Shahbuddin Suhrawardi, and Vedantic philosophies of India to give rise to a unique spiritual eclecticism.”

    I can’t help cringe a bit when Shah Waliullah’s name is taken among Sufis. He despised Akbar and his attempt at making Deen-e-Ilahi. He happily invited the Iranian ruler, invoking the concept of jihad for Islam, to over throw the muslim rule in India and re-establish rule over the kuffar Hindus. This is not very Sufi, is it?

    Some of the sufis were declared outlaws by Islamic orthodoxy. Some of the sufis were staunch othodox muslims holding onto the kafir muslim worldview. The relationship between orthodox Islam and Sufi Islam has been one of conflict and both strains have tried to capture the hearts of the muslim masses. The dargahs and the associated practice continues to come under intense criticism of Islamic orthodoxy, which I believe has managed to retain the superiority in terms of authority on Islam even if the masses still thronged to the Sufis.

    • kamran
      Posted at 12:46h, 31 August

      Vinod: No need to cringe as,

      Firstly, you’d notice in the text Shah Waliullah’s name has been taken together with but not as one among other Sufis. Precisely, this was the point I wished to highlight that in this great cultural inetraction seemingly opposing ideas from different extremes like those of Mujadid Alf Sani (the one who actually resisted Akbar’s Din-e-Illahi) and Shah Waliullah freely intermingeled with the ideas of mystic sufis like Inbul Arabi and Vedantic philosophies to produce a synthesis.

      Secondly, Sufi is a generic term and does not necessarily always mean the stereotype image of a pacifist mystic. There are different schools of sufi thought like Qadri, Chishti, Suhrawardi, and Naqshbandi, each differing in their views on various aspects of Tariqat. Some like Naqshbandis are quite hard in thier insistence on strict observance of Sharia code in the conduct of daily lives while others are quite lax, to the extent of being accused of complete deviation from the correct path of Islam by the believers.

      Third, although, it is not a point of any argument here, but for his own, and his followers’ beliefs, Shah Waliullah was indeed a practising sufi who had given bayet to his father, Shah Abdul Rahim, another known sufi and founder of the famous seminary Madarsa-e-Rahimia of Delhi. In fact, Shah Waliullah had extensively worked to build bridges between orthodox Muslim scholars and Sufis and attempted to clarify many misgivings among orthodox Muslims about Sufis in general.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:22h, 01 September

      Kamran, I think you clearly get my larger point of frustration that goes beyond Shah Waliullah and that is, Sufism which is often spoken of as a very tolerant form of Islam also had orthodocy-sanctioned intolerant strains. At the end of the day, what Islam stood for was still dictated by orthodoxy who managed to weild political and intellectual power over the masses of muslms. A more accurate statement would be, the tolerant-Sufi Islam rarely got political and intellectual dominance in the muslim world. Would you agree with me?

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 07:40h, 31 August Reply

    It is appropriate to insert here a relevant (and as usual, excellent) column by Stanley Fish on how arguments shift between groups and individuals, between culture and psychology: We Have Seen This Movie Before.

    The Conclusion:

    The formula is simple and foolproof (although those who deploy it so facilely seem to think we are all fools): If the bad act is committed by a member of a group you wish to demonize, attribute it to a community or a religion and not to the individual. But if the bad act is committed by someone whose profile, interests and agendas are uncomfortably close to your own, detach the malefactor from everything that is going on or is in the air (he came from nowhere) and characterize him as a one-off, non-generalizable, sui generis phenomenon.

    The only thing more breathtaking than the effrontery of the move is the ease with which so many fall in with it. I guess it’s because both those who perform it and those who eagerly consume it save themselves the trouble of serious thought.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 23:57h, 31 August Reply

    Kamran: A number of points emerge for consideration from this account:

    1. What were the differences that caused the higher social classes to accept Islam in Egypt, Syria and Persia (and later in Malaya and Indonesia) but not in India (and Spain)?

    2. I read a paper (I can’t trace the reference yet) arguing that the intellectually most dynamic period of Islam (based on a count of publications per year) was the period during which it moved from a minority to a majority in Syria, etc. because the need to produce the ideological and cultural bases for attracting the native populations was greatest.

    3. Once the assimilation yielded a dominant majority, this dynamism declined markedly and a conservative attitude aimed at preserving the status quo took over. This happened well before the Mongol invasion which most analysts deem to be the turning point in the dynamism of Islam.

    4. I agree with an earlier comment you made about the Indian exception. The newcomers to India were invaders who happened to be Muslims. Islam had lost its intellectual and social dynamism by then if point #3 above is correct. Religion was incidental to the enterprise and aims of the invaders to be used for political purposes, at best. This was analogous to the later European invaders who happened to be Christian but were not the bearers of a Christian cause. This is a major difference that is not given sufficient attention in the bitter reinterpretation of the past.

  • Vijay
    Posted at 10:41h, 01 September Reply

    Superb. Vintage South Asian Idea.

  • Pingback:The Indo-Persian Synthesis : Vijay Vikram
    Posted at 13:13h, 01 September Reply

    […] been a while since I wrote on this blog. And a very good piece by a chap called Ahmad Kamran on The South Asian Idea has pushed me into rectifying […]

  • Vikram
    Posted at 00:03h, 14 March Reply

    I feel that the author is missing some key points with respect to Islam and India.

    With respect to the North Western part of the subcontinent and Islam, the key turning point was the conversion of a branch of Turks to Islam in the late 800s. The Central Asian Turks, with their expertise in horse back riding, and combat, periodically invaded the more agrarian societies to their south.

    The last manifestation of this phenomenon with regards to India was the Kushan empire, which had capitals at both Mathura in the Gangetic plain and Bagram in Central Asia. But the Kushans adopted Indic religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, and became thoroughly Indianized.

    With the new generation of Muslim warriors from Central Asia, this was not true. They retained their faith and their affinity for Persian traditions, which had been thoroughly absorbed into Islam. One must not forget that even though Muslim rulers displaced native ones in Sindh in 700s, and Punjab in 1000s, Sindh remained Hindu majority till the 1500s and Punjab till the 1900s.

    Overall, until 1871, only 19% of the entire population of subcontinent converted, and after the Muslim population has risen rapidly for various demographic reasons. But the surplus produced by Hindus was controlled by Muslim rulers for a long period of time and this has produced a distinct Indo-Muslim culture.

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