XQs XI – A Conversation with Mitra Sharafi

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Tapsi Mathur for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII, IX, X.]

Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian of South Asia at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA. Her first book, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947 was awarded the Law and Society Association’s Hurst Prize in 2015. She is currently working on her second book project, “Fear of the False: Forensic Science in Colonial India,” along with articles on abortion during the Raj and the expulsion of Asian and African law students from the Inns of Court. Her research has been recognized by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. She hosts the South Asian Legal History Resources website and is a regular contributor to the Legal History Blog.

Mitra Sharafi, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014; Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2017)

 What is the larger question that frames your work and can you tell us a little about what drew you to this project?

I was interested in how minority communities engage with law. There are plenty of examples historically and today of minority communities trying to avoid interaction with the state—particularly where there is a history of conflict and exploitation by the state. Equally, there are many examples of communities handling their intra-group disputes internally. But one day as I was leafing through the Bombay law reports, I noticed Parsi names everywhere and on both sides of many cases. Why would members of the same small, tight-knit community take each other to court, especially in a South Asian context where there were so many non-state options for dispute resolution? And why would they do so particularly in sensitive intra-group disputes over religion (temple disputes) and family (matrimonial and inheritance cases)? I was intrigued. Here was a minority community that took its inside disputes to court readily and often, in contrast to the more common patterns of avoidance (of the state) and containment (within the community). Continue reading “XQs XI – A Conversation with Mitra Sharafi”

Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – II


The Indigenous Peoples’ Day teach-in, held on October 12, 2017, was organized and moderated by Richard Reinhardt and Christine Chalifoux at the Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop (RIW) on Religion in the Pre-Modern Atlantic at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in coordination with the organizers of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day March of Indignation. Professors Gregory Dowd and Michael Witgen gave us a history of indigenous people and colonization in Michigan and the Midwest. Mallory Whiteduck talked About Indigenous forms of resistance, and Salman Hussain talked about solidarity. These presentations were followed by an open conversation, particularly addressing the March of Indignation that took place on campus, organized by student and community groups. Following is a report on the teach-in that occurred three days after the march.

Previously: Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – I 

Continue reading “Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – II”

XQs X – A Conversation with Anand Vivek Taneja


[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Dr. Riddhi Bhandari for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII, IX.]


Anand Vivek Taneja is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. He studied at Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia, and at Columbia University, where he received his PhD in Anthropology in 2013. His research and teaching interests include urban ecologies, enchantment and ethics, animality, historical and contemporary Islam and inter-faith relations in South Asia, post-colonial urbanism, Urdu literature, and Bombay cinema. He was awarded the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences for Jinnealogy. 

Taneja, Anand Vivek. Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi. Stanford University Press, 2017.



1. Can you talk about how Jinnealogycame into being. Why did you pick this name?

Firoz Shah Kotla, the place that is central to the book, is known by those who come here as a dargah, or Muslim saint shrine. Except that the saints here are not human, by most accounts, but spirits known as jinn. Now Delhi is a place known as bais khwaja ki chaukhat, the threshold of twenty two saints, it has long been a center not just of Muslim political power in India, but also a major Sufi center. So one of my major questions going into this project was why the jinn became popular saints in Delhi in the late nineteen seventies, as they did at Firoz Shah Kotla, in a city with so many human saints? What was the relation of this theological newness to transformations in the life of the city? One of the recurring stories that I encountered at Firoz Shah Kotla, which I recount at length in the book, is the ability of the jinns—who in Islamic cosmology are much longer lived than human beings—to serve as links connecting human beings centuries and millennia apart. For example, conveying the greetings of Jesus to Prophet Muhammad, and in story directly linked to Firoz Shah Kotla, authenticating the knowledge of Shah Waliullah of Delhi through an old jinn who was an eyewitness to the life of the Prophet. This ability of the jinn to supersede human genealogies of memory and transmission is what I have called jinnealogy. And jinnealogy, as I found, was a recurring motif in post-Partition Delhi, not just in the stories told at Firoz Shah Kotla, but also in the popular theological literature being produced in the city. This was happening at the same time as there was a huge erasure and suppression taking place of Muslim landscapes of memory and sacrality in Delhi, partly through the enormous violence of Partition, and partly through the subsequent policies of the post-colonial Indian state. As one of my interlocutors told me at Firoz Shah Kotla, 1947 men valiyon ka Dilli se nata tut gaya. 1947—the year of Partition and Independence—severed the relation of the saints to Delhi. But jinnealogy allows for the potential of memory and continuity—and a reclaiming of space—in a city marked by enormous violence, disruption, and official amnesia. The mode of knowledge and its transmission that jinnealogy implies is not just a counter to most “official” modes of knowledge production and remembrance in post-colonial India, but is also counter to many ideas of what “authoritative” religious knowledge and its transmission looks like in the field of Islamic Studies. Jinnealogy, as a concept and as a title, allows me to pithily suggest these differences from our usual understandings, as puns often do, so it kind of had to be the title. Also, I do actually trace a genealogy of jinn-veneration in Delhi from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial in the book, so it is a jinnealogy in that sense too!

Continue reading “XQs X – A Conversation with Anand Vivek Taneja”

Islamic-Jacobinism: The Making of the Muslim Intellectual

By Ahmad Makia

This essay is about the Islamic-Jacobin political condition. It looks at the traditions of Muslim intellectuals and the oppositional discourses that resist Western civilization’s prophetic claim over history, identity, literature, language, and politics. The term Jacobinism is used emphatically, to echo the work of CLR James, the French Revolutionary Wars, European Enlightenment and Islam, as well as cross-continental negotiations of nationhood, and ideologies of self-determination, equality, and liberty. It proposes a ‘cross-dressing’ methodology for intellectual exchange and political practice.



In Europe a malcontent thinks of carrying on a secret correspondence, of going over to the enemy, of seizing some town, or of exciting foolish complaints among the people. A malcontent in Asia goes straight to the prince, amazes, strikes, overthrows: he obliterates all memory of his existence: in one moment slave and master, usurper and lawful sovereign — Usbek to the Same, Letter 104, Persian Letters

Persian Letters narrates an artificial epistolary exchange of two Persian Muslim travelers, Usbek and Rica, who embark on a cultural journey to France. Their letters recast observations, critiques, and contemplations on French society to friends and mullahs in their native hometown, Isfahan. The book is a literary work that was published anonymously in 1712, and was written by French intellectual and political philosopher Montesquieu.

When released, the work was widely successful, and praised as a satirical and critical portrait of Bourbon nobility and Christian society. Today, Persian Letters endures as an example of the Enlightenment’s contribution to global humanitarian values, and is also considered one of the philosophical works that inspired and paved way for the French Revolution of 1789–99 (somehow foretold in the quote above).

What I find curious about Persian Letters is the plural authorial position that Montesquieu assumed. I contend that the invented Muslim Persian voice provided the French public with an opportunity to escape conceptions of itself as a self-enclosed civilization belonging to a mono-European continental enterprise. By displacing the landlocked national voice, Montesquieu created an unprecedented political provocation around the authorities that buttressed French monarchical society. His impersonation of an ‘outside’ voice, and sympathetic literary representation of male Muslim bodies, suggested at the deficiency of Christian modernity, which led the French public to imagine, confess, and perform, something genuinely new about itself: a self-determined statehood1. Continue reading “Islamic-Jacobinism: The Making of the Muslim Intellectual”

  1. Subversive disguise was an emerging practice in 18th century modern France, especially carnivalesque transvestism, usually for the purpose of status reversal and blurring of social boundaries, as well as in international relations: Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée Éon de Beaumont posed as a woman for almost twenty fours years to Empress Elizabeth of Russia to gain her confidence. []