XQs I: A Conversation with Teena Purohit

The inaugural issue of a regular series on CM, XQs (Ten Questions), is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies. The aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. I am actively looking for authors & interlocutors so, do get in touch with me. I hope to develop this series into a mainstay at CM. Many thanks – Sepoy

T_PurohitTeena Purohit submitted her Ph.D in Religion at Columbia University in 2007. She is currently Assistant Professor in Boston University’s Religion Department. Her first book is The Aga Khan Case: Religion and Identity in Colonial India published with Harvard University Press. You can access her full C.V. at her faculty page.

[Interview conducted by Sepoy, via email, June 10-15th, 2013]

HARDCOVER 198 pages $45.00 • £33.95 • €40.50 ISBN 9780674066397 Publication: October 2012
198 pages
$45.00 • £33.95 • €40.50
ISBN 9780674066397
Publication: October 2012
1. Both the jacket blurb, and your introduction makes a case against an “Arab-centered” perspective of studying Islam and Islamicate cultures. Could you start by telling me what do you mean here? What is the corrective you are offering?

The book centers on a discussion of a famous court case known as The Aga Khan Case of 1866. The primary argument I make is that the British colonial court redefined a local caste group in Bombay, the Khojas, as “Ismaili Muslim.” In the final judgment, the definitive claim was that they were “converts” to a Middle Eastern Islam. I analyze how this legal process unfolded, specifically, the ways in which the judge deployed what I call an Arab-centric framework in the adjudication process and in the final judgment.

What I mean by an “Arab-centered” approach is that it gives primacy to origins of Islam–the classical Arab period and Arabic texts. This approach was consolidated in the 19th century when Orientalists wrote definitive accounts of Islam on the basis of their philological work in Arabic. This perspective predominates today in the popular media as well as the western academy: Islam is thought to be understood primarily through Arabic religious texts (Quran and Hadith) and Arab-centric practices, such as pilgrimage to Mecca and praying in the direction of the Kaaba.

The judge determined the character of Khoja religious idenity through a tendentious interpretation of the gināns, the devotional texts of the Khojas. The alternative approach I offer is an examination of the gināns from a literary perspective as a way to think religion outside the language of identity. The gināns are body of South Asian Muslim devotional poetry composed in the Gujarati, Hindi, and Urdu languages between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. These texts have been primarily translated and interpreted by scholars of Ismaili studies, who have adopted an Arab-centric perspective to understand these texts. That is, they have analyzed the gināns as part of a continuous Ismaili tradition that can be traced to the origins of Islam.

I situate the gināns as “Islamicate” texts because I am interested in the how these texts are embedded in local contexts and how their texture and movement help us understand religious practices that are not derivations of an Arab Islam, but instantiations of local Islam, described by the poems as Satpanth. My analyses of the poems foreground how the Satpanth tradition reworks classical Sanskrit and Arabic forms and ideas, giving them new meaning and significance. These “borrowings” and “exchanges” set in motion particular ways of imagining community and belonging that are not based on a restrictive conception of identity.

2. A teacher at University of Chicago used to say: If someone was holding a gun to your head and asked you to explain your dissertation, what would you say? Leaving aside the pedagogic value of such a pronouncement, I do want to ask you to introduce your book.

The Aga Khan Case proposes new ways to attend to Islam in its diversity and global complexity. It argues that Islam cannot be studied as a discrete entity, separated from how it was embedded in different cultural milieux. My work calls for a fundamental reorientation by arguing that Islam needs to be examined through the ways it was transformed in local contexts. A historical approach reveals how Islam developed around the world in starkly different manifestations from the Arab context. To understand Islam as a global formation, then, we need to understand the heterogeneity that is internal to the religion. I illustrate this heterogeneity through the untold story of the nineteenth century Ismaili community of India. The Islam that emerged from this account cannot be extricated from its entanglement with a complex set of events and characters and their interactions in British india. The story I tell shows how an Islam emerges as a result of how local religious practices were read by the colonial court, the arrival of a mysterious nobleman from Persia who was a British agent, and a property dispute through which a religious “identity” was consolidated.

3. Tell us about the two communities which you cover in the book, the Ismaili Khoja as well as the Swami Narayan? What links them under your analysis?

The book focuses primarily on the story of the the 19th century Khoja community of Bombay and their conflicts with the Aga Khan, who was a Persian exile employed by the British as a soldier and spy. He was also object of devotion to many Khojas. The elite Khoja caste leaders and their cohort opposed his role in the community, but many Khojas welcomed him and acknowledged his divine authority. The Aga Khan Case ruled in the Aga Khan’s favor for several reasons (which I outline in the book), one of which was the popular support he garnered from the community. In trying to understand why so many Khojas revered him, I make the argument that Khoja religious practices centered on Imamate expectation, and that the Aga Khan stepped in as the long-awaited Imam. The Satpanth practices of messianic expecatation are thus cental to my argument about why the Khoja majority supported the Aga Khan and why the judge was sympathetic to the Aga Khan’s claim as Imam.

Now, the Swami Narayan story and history is very different. This particular community was established as a Vaishnava sect of Hinduism in the context of princely Kach and Kathiawad. Despite the fact that their stories are so different and that one group is Muslim and the other group is Hindu, there are some striking comparisons between the two groups that I reflect on in the book. Both identify and are identified as “sects,” within a dominant tradition. However, I argue that both groups ought to be understood as religious formations that consolidated under charismatic leadership in the 19th century colonial context. I draw a parallel between the Aga Khan and Sahajanand Swami, the founder of the Swami Narayan sect, who was regarded as an avatar of Vishnu arriving in need for the people and thus similarly, a fulfillment of messianic expectation. I discuss another connection between the two groups in the book, which is an account of Satpanth Gujaratis who allege that Sahajanand Swami, spent time as a Satpanthi and drew some of his ideas from the Satpanthi milieu. Whether this was actually happened, I’m not sure, but I reflect on that possibility. Swami Narayan scholars have thus far have not acknowledged this connection, and some have in fact argued quite stridently against my readings that aim to show affinities between Satpanth and Swami Narayan texts.

4. The interaction of these communities with British colonialism also made them global (in a particular way). Can you reflect on how your work helps us think about the communities’ layered, overlapping geographies? How does your historical analysis of the relationship between community and political and juridical power help us understand the contemporary social and religious work that these communities engage in?

It is interesting that today both communities are disaporic formations that are primarily Gujarati and Kachi speaking and have built themselves up through very similar structures of philanthropy, tithing, and devotion to their charismatic leader in many of the same global locations–Gujarat, East Africa, the U.K., and U.S. I have found, through somewhat unpleasant ways, that both groups have developed elaborate bureaucratic structures and institutions that are invested in communitarian accounts of their leaders and history. Manuscript access has been denied by gatekeepers of alleged academic institutions and my work has been vigourously contested by men — always men — who represent the scholarly face of the community. One of the more amusing instances was a series of email exchanges initiated by Swami Narayan scholarly representatives about my dissertation that could not be undertaken directly by the man himself who was disputing my work since his renunciant position in the order precluded him from speaking to women! This is all to say, that the institutional apparatuses of both groups were set in motion in the colonial period and have continued to develop and grow into networks that work actively to protect and preserve the histories and received narratives of these communities.

5. The two things that resonated most critically for me in your book were your discussion of “invention” and “construction” in reference to Muslim identity as well the issue of “messianic” for understanding sense-making within a community. What is the theoretical purchase of these arguments for you?

The point I wanted to make with the Ismaili story is that there is nothing natural about religious identity. The Ismaili case illusrates quite dramatically that identity is a label. I describe identity as constructed because it was legally mandated by the state. It was given parameters—the most important being allegience to the Aga Khan—that had to be accepted. Those Khojas who did not accept the Aga Khan’s role as Imam were forced to secede from the group. Ismaili identity was legally constituted, but it gives us insight to the working of any religious idenity. The modern, bounded—what I call identitarian—idea of religion is never a given.

The “messianic” in my use of the term is a concept that I analyze and discuss in relation to Satpanth beliefs and practices in the gināns. What I argue is that messianic ideas in the poems, which are conceptualized through both Hindu and Muslim idioms, activate a way of thinking and belonging to a community of devotees and a path of practice that is not circumscribed by the terms and logic of modern religious identity. The messianic does not represent a syncretistic or a happy past between Muslims and Hindus, but rather, reveals the interaction, tension, and push and pull between Indic and Islamicate concepts that can help us understand, in microcosm, the processes through which Islam indigenized.

6. I am interested in the process that undergirds your own production of this monograph. Could you share something about the transition from dissertation to book? What changed? How? What struggles you had to undergo to coax a manuscript out of the dissertation?

My dissertation, was like most dissertations— in need of serious trimming, coloring, and styling. What I mean to say, it is that the dissertation was flat, filled with clunky footnotes and generally had zero oomph. I knew there was a story buried in the mess but extracting that thread was the most difficult part. I kept writing, rewriting, and giving it to others (well one signficant other especially who kept telling me, for 5 years, that it still needed a haircut). The book is mostly historical, and textual, but something clicked after I conducted ethnographic work which I speak about in the opening. I was able to make a connection between a situation I saw in the contemporary conext—the barbed wire fence at the Satpanth site in Gujarat creating and dividing Muslim and Hindu devotees—and the creation of Ismaili identity by the court in 1866 that sealed the frame for the book.

7. Tell me about the writing itself. The form of it. Did you experiment? Did you want to?

Writing about the court case was fun because I could envision a colorful cast of characters—Khoja leaders, the Aga Khan, and various colonial state officials. Finding a way to narratively connect the Khoja and Aga Khan story to the textual analysis of the gināns was much more of a struggle. I wanted to experiment much more with the prose than I actually did. I kept Shahid Amin’s “Event, Memory, and Metaphor” as well as some of his other pieces as a template in my head. I didn’t even come close to his unique, creative, and rigorous style. But I’m happy, in hindsight, that I devoted so much time in trying to figure out who to connect the main story to the textual analysis, which ultimately led, in an unforced way to the main theoretical claims about the politics of modern identity formation and the expansion of Islam.

8. Why is there no bibliography?

It’s HUP’s new policy, not mine!

9. Can you recommend five recent works that complement your own?

Nile Green’s Bombay Islam, Michel Boivin’s La Renovation du Shi’isme Ismaelien En Inde Et Au Pakistan, Amrita Shodhan’s Question of Community, Rachel Sturman’s The Government of Social Life in Colonial India: Liberalism, Religious Law, and Women’s Rights, and James R. Brennan’s Taifa: Making Nation and Race in Urban Tanzania.

10. As an author of a brand-new work that also makes historiographical intervention, could I ask you for a State of South Asian Studies in Five Sentences? “We need more … ”

We need more work that thinks critically about the relationship between modern and premodern South Asia. Premodern scholars—whether classical, medieval, and/or early modern—tend to stay within their own sub-cliques and conversations. It’s often hard to enter their discussions if you’re not working on the same language or speak the same manuscript lingo. Those who work on modernity pretty much don’t engage with premodern scholars, and if they do, it is always cursory. Social scientists in particular, when interested in premodern scholarship, always seem to be extracting and mining for ideas that fit into their own frames and questions.

Thank you so very much, Teena, and I hope your book travels far!

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7 thoughts on “XQs I: A Conversation with Teena Purohit”

  1. “The point I wanted to make with the Ismaili story is that there is nothing natural about religious identity.”

    Love that line. So true.

  2. Teen Purohit gives a clear historical and theoretical picture to the context of my growing up as a Khoja in the transition period from Satpanth to Ismailism that continues to this day. Helps to clear the fog in my head. Thank you

  3. Thank you for these contextualizing author interviews! I like that you let the author speak for herself/himself, revealing the writerly process that is part self-discovery. Additionally it is great that you are specifically focusing on academic scholarship on South Asia.


    ismaili underlying leadership. academic researchers and that matter ismailis at large know the grim fact about the community. infact there are only 2.5 m ismailis against 1.2 billion mainline muslims. of this total ismailis 85% live in east and central asia and earn abarely $2 a day (less than africans) thus making community one of the poorest. on the other hand 85% of resources of community are used on egoistic projects for richest of richest. even 15% who are in west all are not that better off – in canada of 65,000 ismailis 45% are on welfare or on the verge of welfare. as ismaili want to maintain their fictional image of advanced community, they do not want to know or talk about this poor sector. THIS IS INDEED PATHETIC …!!!

  5. “There’s nothing natural about religious identity”: I am an Ismaili but I discover more about my identity in relation to everyone, necessitating a language that has the power to conjure what is natural and break bounds beyond what is national. Religious identity is an illusion, a fake safety net which can cause schizophrenia. In minority situations where education fails to bridge the yawning gap between the established culture and the dearth of culture (if culture is grounded in an identity with, for example, ancestral land) it is forgivable to allow for the use of the broken bridge of religious identity, where it is represented by an image that cannot really compete with sovereign wealth. Must read the work and then say more. Great interview.
    Hans – we (your ‘they’) are not together. Your stats may be close and it’s a snapshot in time that illustrates a depressing state of affairs, I grant you, but one that probably has a better chance of changing for the better because of direction of education towards the constitution of authentic (versus negative-colonial) culture. In Canada’s case, for example, who wants to identify with a culture that has alienated those who have rights to the land and how it should be governed?

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