XQs XXV - A Conversation with Jyoti Gulati Balachandran

Posted by sepoy on December 10, 2020 · 29 mins read

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 Shireen Hamza for conducting this interview. Please see the archive of previous twenty four XQs.

JGB Book Cover

Jyoti Gulati Balachandran is Assistant Professor of History at Penn State. She is a historian of medieval and early modern South Asia and the Indian Ocean world, focused on social and cultural histories of Muslim communities in Gujarat and the western Indian Ocean. She is the author of Narrative Pasts: The Making of a Muslim Community in Gujarat, c. 1400-1650 (Oxford University Press, 2020). Her next project is a history of Muslim scholarly networks in the sixteenth-century, using a variety of Arabic narrative texts produced in Gujarat and the Hejaz.

Q. You start your book by describing a trip you and your infant son made to Mangrol, a remote town in Gujarat, on the Arabian Sea. There, Sayyid Muhammad Zakir showed you his family’s genealogical chart, connecting them to the fifteenth-century Sufi shaykh, Siraj al-Din Muhammad Shah-i Alam. What led you to this project, which expands our sense of medieval Gujarat as a region? What led you to seek out texts in family libraries and other non-traditional “archives”? What new dimensions did these sources bring to the project?

I had worked closely with Sufi texts as a graduate student in Delhi University. I was particularly fascinated by the possibility of reading ‘religious literature’ to write social histories. It was a lot of fun (and a challenge) when I read Amir Khwurd’s fourteenth-century Chishti Sufi tazkira (biographical compendium) for my M.Phil. I completely dismantled the organization of the text to recover less obvious social relationships between Sufi disciples and reconstructed the multiple hierarchies of power that were embedded via the author’s construction of the Chishti silsila (spiritual lineage). So I knew that I wanted to continue working with Sufi texts. Still, Gujarat happened more or less by accident. During my coursework at Delhi University and UCLA, I was struck by the fairly thin historiography that existed on Sultanate and Mughal Gujarat outside of the region’s historical significance in the maritime world of the Indian Ocean. Why was it the case that much had been written on Sufis and Sufi texts in north India, Bengal and the Deccan, but hardly anything on Sufi lineages in Gujarat? If Gujarat was connected to the western Indian Ocean, it surely was also a part of the larger political, social and literary developments that were shaping other parts of the subcontinent? These questions animated my early research as I looked for narratives surrounding fifteenth-century Sufis in Gujarat.

Early on, the difficulty of collecting such narratives became evident. There are large gaps in extant textual production between Sultanate and Mughal Gujarat–many texts have perished or exist in fragments, and several others continue to be in the hands of Sufi descendants. Z. A. Desai and other scholars had been able to retrieve many such texts–which made the work of scholars like me possible to begin with–but several continue to be outside of scholarly access. Given the limited number of Sufi texts I had been able to locate in the archives and shrine-libraries, the urge to seek out personal collections was guided by the desire to get a fuller picture of extant Sufi textual production concerning fifteenth-century Sufis. These ‘new’ texts demonstrated to me more clearly the importance and extent of inter-textuality in Suhrawardi writings between the fifteenth and the seventeenth century. They also brought home the importance these texts continue to play in connecting contemporary Sufis to their prominent ancestors in particular ways. There remain many personal and shrine collections in Gujarat, that hopefully will become available to scholars in the near future.

Q. You propose a methodological reorientation towards Sufi texts, not only as sources of history to be mined for facts, but as texts which propose their own visions of the history of Islam in Gujarat. For example, you disaggregate “hagiography” into the separate genres of malfuzat, manaqib and tazkirat. How did you come to understand these texts in this way?

On the surface, Sufi texts often tend to read very formulaic and synchronic. One of the things I learnt first-hand while working on Amir Khwurd’s Chishti tazkira was the ingenuity with which the author had repurposed the Chishti sufi Nizam al-Din Awliya’s malfuzat (compilation of oral teachings) in his text to give structure and coherence to the Chishti tariqah (spiritual order). He was able to achieve a specific vision of the historical role of the Chishti silsila by choosing to write a biographical compendium as opposed to a different kind of text. It became clear to me that close attention to questions of genre and inter-textuality was critical in tethering Sufi texts to their material foundations and recovering historical change. That lesson shaped the way I approached Sufi narratives; the manner in which the authors constructed, consolidated, and altered the centrality of specific Sufis in state and community formation in the region.

Q. Shaykh Ahmed Khattu (d. 1445) emerges as a star of the book. He plays an important role in the formation of Gujarat as a state and region, which you illuminate through the texts his disciples wrote about his life and oral sayings, as well as through the history of his tomb complex at Sarkhej. What is the shape of Shaykh Ahmed Khattu’s relationship with political power that emerges from these two early texts by his disciples, the Tuhfat al-Majalis and the Mirqat al-Wusul? How do they form the “first narrative moment” of the Muslim community in Gujarat?

You are right about Shaykh Ahmad Khattu as a star of my book. I have often thought of writing a short biography on this fascinating Sufi! From the texts on his life and teachings compiled by his disciples around the middle of the fifteenth century, it is very clear that Ahmad Khattu saw sultans as partners in the flourishing of the Muslim community. Even in their recounting of Ahmad Khattu’s life prior to Gujarat, the authors presented Ahmad Khattu as a charismatic figure sought out by political elites and the likes of the famous Suhrawardi Sufi Jalal al-Din Husayn Bukhari (d.1383). The desire for political patronage among Sufis of various lineages was common by the beginning of the fifteenth century, while Sultans in Delhi and across the Indian subcontinent actively sponsored Sufi shrines not merely as acts of devotion but also to partake in the authority exercised by the (deceased) Sufi. To Ahmad Khattu’s disciples, the formation of the Gujarat Sultanate and the arrival of Ahmad Khattu in Gujarat around the same time was a fortuitous collaborative moment that ensured the success of the new political dispensation in Gujarat. To be sure, the relationship between Ahmad Khattu and the Gujarat Sultans was not completely devoid of conflict. However, the underlying idea of Sufi-Sultan collaboration in the Tuhfat and the Mirqat with the special role played by Ahmad Khattu became the foundational narrative in the Persian historiography on Gujarat. The designation of these two texts as marking the “first narrative moment” is of course retrospective: pretty much all the later texts that recognized Ahmad Khattu as the “royal” Sufi based their narratives on the Tuhfat and the Mirqat. These two texts, then, presented a certain historical imagination in which Ahmad Khattu was the axis around which the Muslim community (led by the Gujarat Sultans) began to cohere and prosper in the fifteenth century.

Q. You take us on a tour of Shaykh Ahmed Khattu’s tomb complex in Sarkhej, both visually, through your photographs and spatial analysis, and textually, through extensive research into Sultanate patronage. The tombs of several rulers of the Gujarat Sultanate are also housed by a mausoleum in that complex, which may be surprising to those who have read about the relationships between Sufi saints and Sultans in Delhi. How did this shrine complex change in the centuries following Khattu’s death? Why is this complex, and other tombs of Sufi saints in Vatwa and Rasulabad, so important to help us understand the formation of Gujarat as a region, during Sultanate rule?

Sacral spaces like the Sarkhej complex and the Suhrawardi tomb-shrines were important spaces for the oral dissemination of narratives that tied the fortunes of the Gujarat Sultanate with certain Sufis. Without an understanding of the role that these commemorative shrines played in reinforcing the textual memory of the buried Sufis, our grasp of the ‘narrative past’ will be incomplete. The elaborate addition of palatial structures along with royal mausoleum in the Sarkhej complex reflects how Ahmad Khattu and the Gujarat Sultans had been inextricably linked in the fifteenth century. Even today, it is not uncommon to find visitors praying at the tomb of Ahmad Khattu to also offer respects at the tombs of the Gujarat sultans buried in Sarkhej. In Ulughkhani’s (c. b. 1540) narration of the ascension of Sultan Bahadur Shah (r. 1526-37) in his Arabic history of Gujarat in the early 17th century (based on a sixteenth-century Persian chronicle), the Sultan’s regular pilgrimage at the sites of Sarkhej, Vatwa and Rasulabad along with the tombs of earlier Gujarat Sultans was a powerful statement on the interweaving of political and sacral spaces, with a specific regional orientation. The three tomb shrines together formed a sacral geography that worked in tandem with the textual markings of these Sufis as central to the identity of a region during the sultanate period.

The fate of Ahmad Khattu’s shrine was very different from the persistence of Ahmad Khattu’s memory in textual narratives. While we still hear about the Sarkhej complex in the early Mughal period–many notables including the famous poet at Akbar’s court, al-Ghazali, were buried in its vicinity–the shrine itself lost much of its patronage as the centuries went on. Without the active royal patronage of the Gujarat Sultans and later Mughals and in the absence of a clear spiritual line after Ahmad Khattu’s death, it is not surprising that the Sarkhej complex fell into disrepair. The survey of monuments in Ahmedabad by British archaeologists in the nineteenth century note the poor state of buildings and the funds that were being spent to carry out renovations at the shrine. But it was not until as recently as the early 2000s that restoration at Sarkhej began in earnest. On the other hand, the shrines dedicated to Ahmad Khattu’s Suhrawardi contemporaries in Vatwa and Rasulabad flourished greatly as the management of the shrine and the responsibility of keeping the memory of the Suhrawardis alive fell on the shoulders of the disciples who were also direct descendants of the Suhrawardi Sufis.

Q Another geography that emerges from these two texts is spiritual, connecting Gujarat to the Maghreb, where the teachers of Shaykh Ahmed Khattu’s teacher, Baba Ishaq, were from. Sufi shaykhs in Sindh and Iran had dreams about Shaykh Ahmed Khattu’s virtue and piety. The great Suhrawardi Shaykh Jalal al-Din Husain Bukhari, renowned for his travels in the Muslim world, apparently met Ahmed Khattu in Delhi and prophesized his greatness, along with the other two great Sufi shaykhs of fifteenth-century Gujarat, his own descendants! What are the broader geographies in which Gujarat was implicated, crafted by Sufis, traders and other Muslims who settled there, and how did these shift in the fifteenth century?

It is a fairly well-established fact that Gujarat’s geographical location in the northwest Indian subcontinent next to the Arabian Sea facilitated connections overland in all directions and across the Indian Ocean. The multiple overlapping geographies that emerge from Ahmad Khattu’s texts are centered around spiritual practice, religious education, pilgrimage, and commerce. One telling illustration of the extent of these geographies is the chapter dedicated to Ahmad Khattu’s travels (real and imagined) in the Mirqat between north India, Central Asia, Iran and the Hejaz. He had almost made it to the Deccan too if Sultan Muzaffar Shah (r. 1407-1410) hadn’t convinced him to stay in Gujarat. And while it is hard to fully grasp the scope of links between Gujarat and northwest Africa, Ahmad Khattu’s initiation in the Maghribi silsila does reinforce the circulation of spiritual adepts from farther locations to the Indian subcontinent. Connections to Sindh that particularly emerge from Suhrawardi texts are similarly not surprising considering the well-trodden trade routes between these locations that in fact aided in the movement of one of the descendants of the Suhrawardi lineage in Uch to Gujarat. The later consolidation of initiation genealogies in Suhrawardi texts further expressed the relevance of spiritual connections with lineages in Central Asia and Iran. In other words, the Sufi texts that I look at are, to a large extent, well-entrenched in the broader trans-regional connections that Gujarat was implicated in for centuries.

I believe that on a macro-level, these connections shift/get amplified in at least two significant way in the fifteenth century with the establishment of the Gujarat Sultanate. First, there are much closer ties that develop with the Red Sea region as the court of the Gujarat Sultans becomes an attractive location for Muslim scholars from Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula to seek employment. For their part, the Sultans also begin to invest a great deal of resources in Mecca towards charity and establishment of institutions of learning and other infrastructure. There were similarly closer connections with East Africa as Habashi (Abyssinian) military slaves came to fulfill the needs of the sultanate army and play important roles in sultanate politics, especially in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Second, as much of my book argues, the fifteenth century is where we can begin to locate an emerging ‘regional’ sense of identity in narrative texts despite the continuing importance of trans-regional connections. Now, defining a regional geography/identity can be productive and frustratingly elusive at the same time. I discuss how I was conceptualizing the ‘region’ of Gujarat in my introduction–its boundaries are fluid, it can be geographical, ideational, and driven by the perspective of specific individuals/groups invested in giving Gujarat certain historical meaning. Within the contours of the textual material that my book investigates, it does become possible to discern in the fifteenth century the outlines of a composite identity where the authors imbued Gujarat with a unique history. 

Q Women shaped Gujarat as a region. I started to understand how, in your chapter on the genealogical texts composed in the “second narrative moment”–a moment dominated by the seventeenth-century Suhrawardis of Gujarat. I was struck by the beautiful details about women’s lives that you pulled out of these sources. Stories like Bibi Mughli’s– a widow of a sultan who married one of the fifteenth-century Suhrawardi shaykhs–are fascinating. What most surprised you about the narratives of women’s lives, in these Sufi texts? How are women present in the broader histories of learned Muslim men in your book?

It is always heartening to find references to women in what is undoubtedly a male-dominated textual and material world: the authors and protagonists are all male. Much of my information on women came from seventeenth-century genealogies (part of larger texts) though this information is very uneven and is often limited to only women’s names and whom they married–the authors were more invested in tracing their lineage from the male line of descent. I had low expectations for women’s presence in the texts I was investigating so it was surprising to come across a few instances where the authors highlighted certain women’s piety, devotion and intellect. The case of Bibi Mughli (and her sister) is truly fascinating and highlights the role women played in matrimonial alliances that often also served political purposes. In this specific case, it highlighted the connections of Gujarat’s royal and Sufi elites with the Jam rulers of Sindh. The existence of Bibi Mughli and other royal women was also marked by tombs located next to or within the same complex as the funerary monuments of the Gujarat Sultans. Beyond the genealogical frameworks where women become visible, there are several references to women from different socio-economic backgrounds in the mid-fifteenth century texts dedicated to Ahmad Khattu’s life and teachings. Women are present as disciples, slaves, wives and daughters of notables. There are instances of women wishing to marry Ahmad Khattu and a female disciple of Baba Ishaq (Ahmad Khattu’s spiritual mentor) attending to him after Ishaq’s death. There is one episode where Ahmad Khattu goes into trance listening to a woman sing. We don’t get any details on the names and lives of most of these women, but the fact that one can pull out multiple instances of women, both elite and non-elite, does offer us a glimpse of the important roles that women played in the social, political and spiritual lives of learned Muslim men.

Q. Your dissertation is titled “Texts, Tombs and Memory: The Migration, Settlement and Formation of a Learned Muslim Community in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.” As you developed your dissertation into this book, how did your project shift? How did you decide that “Narrative” should have titular importance? Were there changes in our contemporary world–developments in scholarship, or other factors–that influenced your decisions? 

My dissertation was fairly narrow in its focus on three prominent fifteenth-century Sufis from Gujarat and how they inspired historical imagination through textual production and fairly large tomb-shrine complexes dedicated to them. In some ways, parts of my dissertation were trying to emulate the works of Richard Eaton, Carl Ernst, Nile Green and others who had brought the role of Sufis to the centerstage of mainstream historiography. As I revised my dissertation, I knew that I needed to zoom out, broaden the scope of my arguments, and tell what the story of fifteenth-century Sufis looked like from a 30,000 ft level. The way in which my dissertation was written, however, constrained my ability to reframe my research so I rewrote most of it. For me, teaching undergraduate students had been particularly enlightening: their questions made me more confident and comfortable in articulating historical processes broadly without qualifying every single sentence. I began to tease out some large questions that were embedded in my dissertation and not fully developed.

One such question was the irony that despite a long record of Muslim settlement in Gujarat, we do not come across narrative texts until the fifteenth century. In the Persian textual production that began in earnest in the fifteenth century, what was the place of Sufi narratives? How did Sufi texts, along with state-histories, reflected upon the consolidation of the Muslim community in Ahmedabad under the Gujarat Sultans? How did this textual imagination shift between the fifteenth and the early seventeenth century? My experience of getting access to Muhammad Zakir’s personal collection of texts on fifteenth-century Sufis when I went back to do more research for my book also helped me recognize the extent to which these Sultanate and Mughal texts continued to be foundational to the story of fifteenth-century Gujarat. Muhammad Zakir is himself devoted to transcribing and translating several of these texts and reproducing the past visualized in these texts. Thus, the foregrounding of texts and narratives in my book not only provided a thematic focus to my book but also became a critical tool to understand historical change in Gujarat.

Q How do you imagine scholars teaching with your book?

I see my book participating in several scholarly conversations including discussions on the importance of the fifteenth century, on region-making, on Sufis and state formation. But there are at least two significant ways in which I imagine scholars teaching with my book. The first concerns how we understand Gujarat, not only within the maritime context, but also in relation to narrative and historical processes that had given shape and coherence to the past of multiple Muslim communities across the Indian subcontinent. The second would be as an example of how one can explore Sufi texts, or religious literature more generally, to write broader social histories. It is possible to break through the formulaic and the synchronic in Sufi texts, to ground them to their material worlds, and recover change over time.

Q In the book’s conclusion, you mention the role these narratives, these many texts, play in shaping the pan-Indian imperial framework of Mughal scholars. This is just one of many arguments you make that is immediately interesting and accessible to a wide range of people. If you had to choose one thing that you would like your readers–in the academy and beyond, in Gujarat and beyond–to take away from this book, what would it be?

That is a tough question! I think here I’d like to say something I resisted to add in my book for various reasons. It is hardly a new point that Gujarat’s recent history of communal violence against Muslims and the increasingly militant Hindu nationalist discourse in modern India derives its strength from a very selective understanding of India’s past in which Muslims are vilified. While these issues didn’t necessarily animate my research–I wanted to study fifteenth-century Gujarat in its own terms–I’d like my readers to appreciate that learned Muslim men played an integral role in defining the region of Gujarat. The history of belonging–to a place, to a state, to a community–that I recover in my book was one, albeit a critical one, of the many ways in which different historical actors representing different religious and spiritual orientations imagined Gujarat and their relationship to it in the early modern period.

Q Which five books do you feel you are most deeply in conversation with?

JB: This book has been informed, in both small and big ways, by the scholarship of so many historians that it is hard to clearly delineate the historiographical threads that helped weave this project together. But before anything else, I must acknowledge the tremendous amount of love and labor that an entire generation of scholars based in Gujarat put in to reconstructing the region’s medieval and early modern past. The work of historians like B.A. Tirmizi and Z. A. Desai may not be easily accessible in the libraries outside of India, but it has been absolutely critical in the development of my project.

Specific to Gujarat, I found Samira Sheikh’s Forging a Region: Sultans, Traders, and Pilgrims in Gujarat, 1200-1500 (OUP, 2010) to be a helpful survey of long-term large-scale historical processes that had shaped Gujarat by the end of the fifteenth century. Working with Sanskrit and other vernacular narratives from medieval Gujarat, Aparna Kapadia’s recent book In the Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-century Gujarat (CUP, 2018) adds an important perspective on the shared articulation of power by the Gujarat Sultans and their contemporary Rajput chieftains. While none of these works is concerned with Sufis or Sufi narratives, read together they provided me a much richer picture of Sultanate Gujarat than what we had a decade ago. My book intersects with a growing scholarly interest in the fifteenth century not as a period of decline but of dynamic political, social and literary processes. The recent edited volume by Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh, After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India (OUP, 2014), is useful in grasping the wide-ranging historical processes that were shaping polities and societies in many parts of the Indian subcontinent.

On broader questions on historical narratives and how they have constructed regions and distinctive regional identities in South Asia, I found engaging with Chitralekha Zutshi’s work on Kashmir, esp., Kashmir’s Contested Pasts: Narratives, Sacred Geographies and the Historical Imagination (OUP, 2014) to be particularly productive. And finally, if I were to pick one book among the numerous that have shaped my understanding of how to read Sufi texts in conjunction with shrines and other ritual practices, it would be Nile Green’s collected essays in Making Space: Sufis and Settlers in Early Modern India (OUP, 2012).

Shireen Hamza is a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and a managing editor of the Ottoman History Podcast. Her dissertation is a history of medicine and Islam in the medieval Indian Ocean world.