This writer has just published a book, addressing some of the fiercely contested issues about religion and politics in medieval India, especially with regard to the crucial presence of Sufis, who styled themselves as friends and lovers of God. The critical social and political roles played by Sufis, in contexts in which religion and politics are inextricably linked to each other, are of enduring interest, not only to historians and scholars, but also to political propagandists and general public. Enjoying widespread veneration even in situations of hostility with regard to Islam and Muslims in general, Sufis are central to an understanding of religious interactions and community relations historically.
The chapters included in the book can be read as stand-alone pieces focusing on some of the most fascinating as well as contentious themes in medieval Indian history—subjects and issues which are otherwise either left untouched by historians, because of their sensitive nature or abused by interested parties in their communal propaganda. When read as a monograph, the volume as a whole attempts to combat all kinds of intellectual absurdities, sometimes plain deceit and wickedness which mar our understanding of the place of Islam in medieval Indian history, especially the significant presence of Sufis, who were devoted to the love of God and service to humanity.
Historiographically, important issues which are also topical in these times of interdependence of religion and politics—the latter exploiting religion for legitimacy and justification of violence, and religion needing political support for expansion and imposition on the gullible—have been dealt in detail, neither bounded by a particular ideology, no matter how exalted its claim to panacea may be nor by identity politics with its separate blinkers. It is possible to research and understand contested historical questions rising above petty politics of various shades of red, green or saffron.
One can remain deeply tied to the practice of empirical research of an old style historian concerned about sources and evidence for the specificity of time and space and yet learn to retain a critical balance between the particular and the general through fruitful interactions with scholars working in the larger fields of social sciences and humanities. The wide-ranging topics covered in the book include contestations over the legitimacy of Sufi practices such as music and dance; Sufis’ distance from and involvement in politics and their perceived ability to perform miracles as a source of power and prestige in society; and the politically sensitive question of conversion and Islamisation, with Sufis indeed playing important roles in the formation of Muslim communities in various regions of the Indian subcontinent. These themes and issues have been subjected to a lot of abuse by political groups in modern times.
One of the main objectives of this book is to address these modern concerns with a more informed and accurate understanding of what happened in medieval India, when large parts of the subcontinent were ruled by a host of Muslim dynasties, with their roots in what is now Afghanistan and Central Asia. These dynasties created large empires, with considerable political stability and conditions for harmonious social relations and tolerance for religious, cultural and ethnic diversities; peaceful coexistence of a remarkable kind that has come down to modern times in the form of an amazing unity in diversity—a phenomenon the world outside is often unable to comprehend.
A look at the fascinating historical legacy makes it intelligible—a broad-based political system creating conditions for a pluralistic social and cultural milieu, with Sufi saints and other religious gurus playing significant political and social roles. Religion and politics are closely linked to each other, yet those in the business of government are expected to maintain critical distance—not in the western-modern sense of secularism, but a peculiar Indian notion of recognising the presence of various religious groups; indeed, often using them for legitimacy and validation, but not allowing them to dictate terms. Yet, in a context like medieval India, Sufi saints did play major roles in shaping political culture as well as social mores. They enjoyed large followings of the kind that has continued in modern times—followings transcending communal religious boundaries. Despite some questionable appropriations and tactical compromises, Sufism remains the heart of Islam, practising and preaching in the language of love even in these times of terror and violence.
(Based on my book, Lovers of God: Sufism and the Politics of Islam in Medieval India, just published by Manohar Books, New Delhi).