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Popular Religion in South Asia

A system of beliefs, rituals, practices, and attitudes among Muslims that deviates to some extent from the dictates of the shari`ah has been a dominant element in South Asian Islam for centuries. Although Islam demands absolute conformity with the shari`ah in all matters, public or personal, religious or mundane, and rejects compromise with non-Islamic culture, in reality it assimilated ideas, values, and symbols from different societies and traditions during its expansion. Often described as “rural,” “folk,” or “syncretic religion,” popular religion in Islam does not in fact reflect only the values and perceptions of the illiterate masses, as opposed to the orthodoxy of the elites. Its sources are complex and varied and are not limited to a particular stratum of society. Even among highly educated urban Muslims, traces of popular religion are often conspicuous, especially in birth rites, marriage ceremonies, veneration paid to saints and shrines, and a host of other social ceremonies.

South Asian Islam demonstrates the multifarious character of popular religion and its ability to survive the pressures of orthodoxy, modernism, fundamentalism, and priestly ban. What sets South Asian Islam apart from the austere faith that emanated from Arabia in the sixth and seventh centuries CE is the unique mixture of Perso-Arabian norms and values, characterized as “authentic Islamic,” with the various regional traditions and cultures of the subcontinent. More than five hundred years (1203-1757) of Muslim dominance in the region affected the lives of millions in various ways, yet this does not seem to have altered fundamentally the social and religious values and perceptions of the majority of Islamic converts. But indigenous traditions alone did not give shape and substance to popular religion in South Asian Islam; the individuals who introduced the faith in different parts of the region equally contributed toward its popular and unorthodox character.

Origins and Development. A basic problem in conceptualizing South Asian Islam is the tendency among scholars to overemphasize the impact of classical Islam in shaping a distinctive Muslim culture in the region. Such a view not only romanticizes the role of immigrant Muslims as the standardbearers of authentic Islam; it also minimizes the importance of the indigenous cultural traditions of South Asia in molding Islam in the region and ignores the fact that the great majority of South Asian Muslims (at least go percent have been converts from local tribes and castes, usually from the lower social strata).

Historically, Islam came to South Asia in several stages through traders, conquerors, and migrants. The small body of traders, many of whom settled in peripheral colonies along the south, west, and east Indian seaboards and in coastal Sri Lanka, came generally from Arabia, while the conquerors and migrants came mostly from Central Asia and Afghanistan (with the exception of the marginal conquest of Sind by the Arabs in 711 CE). Many came in search of fortunes, and others as religious missionaries. It was these immigrant Muslims who formed the core of early Islamic civilization in South Asia, to be strengthened later by the Turkic Mughals who ruled the subcontinent between 1256 and 1757, as well as a handful of Persians and Arabs who came at different times for different reasons.

It is easy to perceive that these Muslims from diverse social and cultural milieus could not have been the bearers of a single Islamic system. They each brought their own particular social norms, values, and traditions. Thus popular Islam in South Asia shows some strong Shi’ 1 influences even though it is generally Sunni in character; there are widespread traces of tribal customs and ceremonies, including nomenclatures indicating past tribal affiliations (reflected in modern family names such as Khan, Malik, Mir, Mirza, or Yusufzai); and unIslamic festivals like the Nawruz (Persian New Year’s festival) are celebrated. [See Nawruz.]

Interaction with Hinduism also contributed to the creation of popular Islam. Though politically dominant for several hundred years, the Muslim elites constituted a small percentage of the total population and therefore relied heavily on the support of the Hindus. Many of them married into Hindu families, participated in local rites, rituals, and ceremonies, and even adhered to some of the social restrictions associated with the Hindu caste system. Perhaps many, especially the `ulama’ were concerned to guide the community strictly in accordance with the shari`ah, but this could hardly be achieved. Aspects of indigenous culture became embedded in the Islamic tradition, inexorably altering its character. Islamic art forms in South Asia, social ceremonies, birth and marriage rituals, and many other practices bear strong marks of this interaction and assimilation. Nor was this a one-way process: Islamic cultural influence was equally felt at certain levels of Hindu society, encouraging the growth of syncretistic rituals and movements.

Not all the indigenous themes in South Asian Islam came from the Muslim elites’ contacts with Hinduism. Through a slow process of acculturation, missionary efforts, and Sufi influence-supported by the Muslim state-many of the region’s other indigenous peoples were converted to Islam. Especially between the thirteenth and eighteenth century, millions of people from Bengal, South India, Sind, Punjab, Kashmir, and Nepal were absorbed into the expanding Islamic society. But the perceptions of the converts did not change overnight. They continued to live under the same social conditions, bound by the same caste rules that governed the lives of their Hindu neighbors; they followed the occupations particular to their caste groups, wore the same dress, and had similar names; they propitiated the same deities and sang hymns in praise of local gods and goddesses, even though some of them may have understood the basic dogmas of their new faith. Technically, they had converted to Islam, but this little affected their older way of life.

True to the traditions of peasant societies, the religious beliefs and rituals of the indigenous Muslims of South Asia-who generally belonged to the lower strata of the society and lived in rural areas–often reflected a concern for immediate problems. This is partly manifested in the unusual reverence paid to the village exorcist, who might be either a Hindu ojha or a Muslim pir, to the shrines of pirs or Sufis, and to the older mythical heroes, gods, and goddesses. To the average Muslim peasant, boatman, fisherman, or woodcutter, whose survival depended on the mercy of nature, belief in the miraculous powers of ojhas, pirs, faqirs, and deities is but one way of seeking immediate protection against disaster. Thus, in the coastal districts of eastern Bengal, Pir Badr, legendary patron saint of sailors, was venerated by both Muslims and Hindus, much as many Sindhi Muslims observed the cult of Khvaja Khizr. A host of other cults-including those of Zindah Ghazi, Mobrah Ghazi, Shah Madar, and Panch Priyas-formed part of the popular mythology of South Asian Islam and continue to play a role in the lives of millions.

Throughout history, the `ulama’ as self-proclaimed guardians of orthodoxy, have consistently focused attention on the need of the community to conform to the Qur’anic way of life, as they interpreted it, theoretically rejecting all compromises with local custom. The rural mullahs-whose own knowledge of Islam might well be inadequate-also attempted to purge un-Islamic beliefs and rituals from Muslim society. Pressure for rigid conformity to the Qur’anic ideal progressively mounted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the rise of a number of Islamic revivalist movements. This had a powerful impact on average Muslims, gradually transforming their worldview in favor of a distinctive Islamic identity. Within popular religion, however, change was limited and at times contradictory. Villagers continued to cultivate the older forms of faith in songs, hymns, spells, and unorthodox rituals. A whole range of observances recognized by the orthodox as non-Islamic borrowings persisted, perhaps with an Islamic veneer, and often with approval from certain sections of the `ulama’ especially the rural mullahs and pirs. A notable example of the persistence of older customs was the practice of using amulets containing incantations for good luck or for the cure of specific illnesses. Now offered by the mullah or pir instead of the Hindu exorcist in exchange for money or a gift, the amulets merely replaced Hindu incantations with Qur’anic verses. Likewise, the efficacy of vows and offerings to spirits or saintly figures of the past, which form part of popular Hindu mythology, was never seriously questioned. The Islamic veneer imparted to a host of local customs and practices thus did not imply a rejection of older forms of faith, but merely a reorientation of them.

Principal Features. One of the dominant features of popular religion in South Asian Islam is the veneration paid to pirs, living or dead, and to their shrines. Introduced by immigrant Muslims, the bases of pirism were strengthened further in South Asia by the HinduBuddhist notion of guru (preceptor) worship. Asim Roy (1983) has pointed out how a complex body of myths and legends became incorporated into the pir cult and institutionalized in the popular veneration of shrines holy to saints or pirs as well as those of mythical personages like Khvajah Khizr and Pir Badr, who are credited with specific supernatural powers and worshiped with offerings.

The pir is not merely a spiritual guide to millions of Muslims, both literate and uneducated, but someone semidivine. He commands blind obedience from his disciples and is credited with amazing virtues and powers.

Occupying his position more often than not by accident of birth, the pir, in association with the village mullah, plies a lucrative trade in amulets and charms. A yearly gathering (`urs) at the site of the pir’s residence (dargah) or at the tomb (mazar) of a dead pir adds color to the system by a variety of rituals and observances not in conformity with the shari`ah. This is particularly true of pirs who follow the tradition of certain non-tariqah Sufis, often referred to as galandaris, in emphasizing unconventional forms of worship and make music, dance, and dhikr (chanting God’s names in rhythm) the primary themes of their religious activity. Richard Eaton has shown in his pioneering study (1978) of Sufis in the Deccan that the rituals at many Sufi shrines tend to draw on local vocabulary, customs, music, and dance, thus creating an Islamic milieu that transcends the formal boundaries of orthodoxy. [See Dhikr.]

Associated with pirism is the veneration paid to saintly shrines, genuine or mythical. Popular devotion to shrines, like obedience to pirs, is not limited to a particular region; it is pervasive all over South Asia, from Kashmir to South India and beyond. Almost every locality has its own mazar where people make offerings and vows. Susan Bayly mentions that in a south Indian coastal town twenty such shrines are believed by local Muslims to contain the remains of actual companions (Sahabah) of the Prophet and are held in high esteem (1989, p. 109) These and other shrines are frequented by pilgrims and devotees-educated and illiterate, rich and poor-to cure illnesses, to ward off malevolent influences, to fulfill cherished desires, or to gain ultimate salvation. Although the idea of worshiping the shrines themselves may not be clearly perceived by the devotees, some of the rituals performed there, such as paying obeisance, lighting candles, and offering flowers, are antithetical to monotheistic Islam. The degree to which people seem to depend on the miraculous powers of saints and shrines in effect renders the omnipotent God somewhat irrelevant (and ineffectual) in these nominal Muslim’s lives. [See Sufism, article on Sufi Shrine Culture. ]

Among attendant practices mention may be made of Mawlid al-Nabi and Muharram. These festivals were not of South Asian origin but were imported from other Islamic lands. Mawlid al-Nabi is ostensibly a celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, in which hymns recited in praise of the Prophet bestow on him an aura of divinity and suggest elevating him to a status rivaling God. The devotees’ perception of the Prophet thus takes on the character of the Christian notion of Jesus; he becomes the intercessor as well as the protector. Likewise, the Muharram ceremony, commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn, reflects the popular tendency of hero worship. Despite its Shi’i origins, Muharram has been equally popular with the Sunni Muslims of South Asia. The tragedy at Karbala in the seventh century CE, when Husayn was brutally murdered by the Umayyad caliph Yazid, has always appealed deeply to South Asian sentiment. Until recently, elaborate commemorative festivals, in which Hindus also participated, were held during the first ten days of the first month of the Islamic calendar. Although it has diminished in importance lately, it is still an occasion for remembrance marked by festivities. The extreme veneration of Husayn is also reflected in the homage paid to his mother, Bibi Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter. The idolization and glorification of Fatimah probably has nuances that go beyond the limits of Islam. [See also Mawlid; Muharram.]

Popular Islam in South Asia also features various rituals and practices associated with birth, circumcision, and marriage. The birth of a child is usually followed by a period in which the mother is regarded as unclean, which is basically similar to Hindu custom. The canonical ceremony of `aqiqah (naming of the child and seeking God’s protection for him/her by animal sacrifice) is rarely observed, but when it is, it includes elaborate rituals, dancing, and singing. Circumcision, usually performed by a low-caste Muslim, is equally a social event that has little to do with the Islamic faith, although a mullah is invited to give it an Islamic touch.

It is the marriage ceremony that displays some of the most distinct local customs within popular Islamic culture. Although the actual marriage contract (nikah) is administered Islamically by the qadi, a whole range of rituals and practices that precede and follow the nikah, have transformed marriage into a social, nonreligious event; these include a large dowry given to the bridegroom by the bride’s parents, an exchange of sweetmeats and gifts, dancing, singing, and feasting. Many customs associated with marriage ceremony-for example, welcoming the bride (especially in Bengal and parts of South India) with offerings of rice or wheat, and the ceremonial procession of festively attired women carrying gifts to the bride’s home-have been inherited from the folk culture of South Asia. Muslims from affluent classes, however, make every effort to wrap an Islamic cloak around these ceremonies while denouncing others, especially the poor, for their un-Islamic conduct. [See Birth Rites; Circumcision; Marriage and Divorce. ]

Finally, popular Islam in South Asia espouses some of the principal features of caste system, which divides society on the basis of birth. Although educated Muslims emphasize the egalitarianism of Islam, the role of caste in molding popular Islamic culture in the region can hardly be overemphasized. Variously termed qaum, biradari, or jati, these Muslim social divisions are modeled after the Hindu caste system. However, the rationale for rankings among Muslims in South Asia is generally based on claims of foreign ancestry, primarily Arab, Persian, Central Asian Turkic, or Afghan. Although the question of foreign descent has become somewhat irrelevant today owing to long years of intermarriage among indigenous converts and immigrant Muslims, even the flimsiest claim to such status can make a difference. Generally, those of “foreign” descent tend to consider themselves different from and superior to the indigenous Muslims and to maintain a conscious distance from them. The terms ashraf (“noble”) and ajldf or atraf (“lowly”) are generally used to refer to the two categories. There are distinctions based on birth even at the level of ashraf society, between syed (Ar., sayyid; supposedly, the descendants of the Prophet), shaykh (of Arab origin), mughal (descendants of Central Asian Turks), and pathan (of Afghan origin). However, it is mostly in the lower strata of Muslim society that caste restrictions are still common, based on Hindu notions of the purity and impurity of occupations. Many of the lower endogamous groups, like dhobi (launderer), kalu (oilpresser), jolha (weaver), and hajjam (barber), still maintain strict rules governing the conduct of their caste groups and will not intermarry or eat with others. The members of these groups maintain close contact with their respective clan even when they are away, and their “caste councils” play an important role in their communal life. This is particularly common among South Indian lower-caste Muslims. But even in the state of Uttar Pradesh, regarded as the heartland of South Asian Islam, caste groupings based on occupation exist to a considerable degree among the non-ashraf Muslims.

Popular religion in South Asian Islam thus represents a tradition that is far from egalitarian, and that worships at the shrines of saints, believes in miracles, charms, and magic, and pays unquestioned obedience to the pir. As noted, beliefs and practices in ashraf and educated society do not necessarily conform to Islamic dogma, but their practices generally have an Islamic veneer. Lower orders of the ajldf society have never applied this veneer to many of their customs and rituals, which remain linked to local culture. Despite educated Muslim claims, popular Islam in South Asia thus still retains much of its older form, with minor modifications and adjustments. Whether Hindu cultural influence was the major source of this popular culture, or whether it was a natural consequence of years of interaction between indigenous Hindu-Buddhist culture and various Islamic traditions, are questions that remain open to discussion. But popular Islam has certainly proved closer to the hearts of millions than have the orthodox dogmas. The people’s unquestioning affection for age-old practices reflects the close relationship with nature and the immediate environment common to popular traditions in all religions.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in South Asia; Pir; Syncretism.]


Ahmad, Aziz. Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment. Oxford, 1969. Seminal work on the nature of interaction between Islam and Indian culture; essential for the study of popular traditions in South Asia.

Ahmad, Imtiaz, ed. Caste and Social Stratification among Muslims in India. 2d ed. New Delhi, 1973. Family, Kinship and Marriage among Muslims in India. New Delhi, 1976. Ritual and Religion among Muslims in India, Columbia, Mo., 1982. Useful collection of essays on Indian Muslim beliefs, rituals, practices, and society in different regional contexts.

Bayly, Susan. Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900. Cambridge, 1989. Valuable survey on the growth and development of Islam in South India.

Eaton, Richard Maxwell. Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India. Princeton, 1978. Pioneering study of Sufis in the Deccan, with a useful reading on their roles in propagating and popularizing Islam in South Asia.

Ewing, Katherine. “The Sufi as Saint, Curer, and Exorcist in Modern Pakistan.” Contributions to Asian Studies 18 (1984): 106-114. Highly imaginative essay on the modern-day roles of pirs in Pakistan.

Ikram, Sheikh Mohamed. Muslim Civilization in India. Edited by Ainslie T. Embree. New York and London, 1964. Useful study of developments in South Asian Islam in the medieval period, which includes the Muslim perspective.

Mujeeb, Muhammad. The Indian Muslims. London, 1967. Provides valuable insight into the nature of developments in South Asian Islam. Essential for an understanding of Islamic culture in a nonArab setting.

Roy, Asim. The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal. Princeton, 1983. Excellent work on how the exogenous Islamic culture adjusted itself to the requirements of a specific situation, with a good deal of information on popular Islamic traditions in medieval Bengal.

Titus, Murray T. Islam in India and Pakistan (1929). Karachi, 1990. One of the earliest comprehensive surveys of Islam in South Asia.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/popular-religion-south-asia/

  • writerPosted On: June 27, 2017
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