Sunday, August 8, 2010

South Asian Space and Islamic Faith

As the monsoon season rages on and off here in South Korea, I spend more and more of my time at home or in cafes around Gwangju reading. As of late I’ve spent time with Richard M. Eaton’s Essays on Islam and Indian History, published by Oxford University Press in 2002. Eaton teaches in the History Department at the University of Arizona and his reputation as a scholar of both Islam and South Asia is well known. Like many compilations of essays the preface attempts to justify a reasoning about the order of the essays included. While I don’t find any one theme or course through the book just cause for their mutual inclusion, the essays are well researched and written. The book is divided into four sections, with each covering a particular set of issues and spaces.

Section one looks at the role of theory in Eaton’s approach to history and analyzes the edge of Historical methodology. In “Islamic History and World History” Eaton argues the powerful and largely ignored reality that Islam from its inception into the contemporary comprises a huge component of World History. This is an epic which has reached out into every quarter of the world in its affect. He successfully makes the case that from the European time of the medieval from just a brief interlude after the collapse of Rome, Islam as a way of ordering human life and civilization has weighed heavily upon history, directly or indirectly. Students of the now growing field of World History must take the reality of Islam as a dominant periodization into account to meaningfully represent the past at all. The de-centering of the Euro-American historical enterprise gains much from this vantage. Chapter two delves into the process Christian missionaries used in converting people on the border region of North Eastern India and Burma/Myanmar. Eaton includes this essay on European Imperialism and religious conversion in an attempt at a comparative analysis.

In the essay he shows how the apparatus of the school and the ritual of baptism washed away cultural practices of what missionaries described as “the miserable worship patterns handed down to them by their ancestors” as Eaton quotes J. E. Tanquist, missionary and Baptist on page 56 from the Papers of J. E. Tanquist, Bethel Theological Seminary Library, St. Paul, Minnesota, published in 1935. Angling his study of Islam in South Asian in this way, Eaton can thereby better show the interaction of Islam in the region. Chapter three examines the different visions of Calcutta and India generally as seen from Europe, China, and from the Muslim traveler Abdul Razzaq showing the historical interest in India’s wealth and agricultural prestige into early modern history. Chapter Four sketches the much needed larger project of a comprehensive study of temple desecration in South Asia. In the essay Eaton describes the oft used tactic of Hindu and Islamic princes' and kings’ theft of rival kingdom’s gods. Eaton shows how temples used to justify the kingdoms of South Asia were targets for rival leaders and as such their spaces were often sacked or else their featured god/s were razed and taken back to the conqueror’s capital to be displayed as war trophies. This essay, perhaps more than any other in this collection, reaches deeply into the present politics of South Asia. The site of the Babri Masjid has taken on especial importance in contemporary Indian politics and a thorough going investigation of the history of temple desecration requires the attention of South Asian scholars of all fields at present. This chapter begins such a project. The last chapter of this section examines the theory of subaltern studies, especially in its encounter with culture studies and post-modernity.

Chapter five looks at the Subaltern school of thought in South Asian History and its implications for World History also. He describes the move to recover the struggles of the unrepresented consciousnesses of everyday persons. This he shows through a detailed explication of academic engagements with the skeptical school of postmodernity. As encounters between Subalternists and Postmodernists increased, he argues, the Subaltern school broke between those who saw the project as impossible and those who saw the necessity of continuing the project in spite of the difficulties involved. I came out of this chapter with, perhaps an unintended, invigoration to continue listening to the voices from below as outlined by the early Subalternist arguments and ironically Jean-Francois Lyotard (who is not mentioned in the chapter).

Sections two, three, and four mark out some spaces of South Asia. Chapters six, seven, and eight focus on the Deccan and the influence of Islam therein. Eaton shows how the geographical line of the Krishna river was imagined as a divide between an Islamic space to the north and a Hindu space to the south. Eaton shows that division is somewhat false and that similarities and cultural exchanges at the time prove that the late invention of this division by Orientalist scholars produced this division in the British archives. Chapter seven attempts to revitalize interest and scholarship in the largely historically forgotten city of Firuzabad. He shows that despite the cities prominent role in South Asian history it has received little if no serious consideration by academics. Chapter eight outlines the how women played a more important role in the spread of Islam and Sufi literature and thought into South Asia than generally recognized. I would have liked more evidence but the chapter is unfortunately a short one which largely consists of argumentation.

Eaton divided section three into two essays and chapters on the shrine of Baba Farid. The first chapter examines the shrine of as a source of political and religious legitimacy, not uncommon of shrines throughout both Islam and Hinduism in the subcontinent. The second reveals the views of local Punjabis living in the immediate vicinity of the shrine. The former chapter shows how the shrine served as a point of contestation but more importantly a point of agreement and thus social and religious cohesion for rivaling religious and political factions throughout Punjab. The latter chapter shows how the shrine looks at the shrine as a mechanism for social transformations among the non-literate ‘masses.’ He examines the spiritual power of the shrine among the local devotees of the shrine. The physical presence of the shrine, Eaton argues, mediated ‘the book’ between the literate and the ‘common villagers’ living within travel of the space of the shrine.

The last section and last essay of the book shifts the geographical enquiry of the publication to Bengal and asks “who are the Bengal Muslims?” First he outlines the spread of “the cult of Allah” into the region as one of many competing religious ideologies. Then he shows the region was a long standing agrarian culture. Eaton then argues that rather than the mere assimilation of the space and inhabitants of Bengal into a monolithic and all encompassing Islam of piety, the spread of a somewhat distinct religion intimately linked to the use of the plow and cultivation of the ground seeped into Bengal over centuries and developed unique features not found elsewhere in Islam.

This collection of essays, while loosely connected by the theme of Islam, save for two divergent chapters, reads smoothly. I would recommend this book to students of Islam as well as students of South Asia. Moreover, much can be learned for those interested in missionary activity as well as those interested in syncretism, a term Eaton twice attacks in these pages. Moreover the chapter on post-modernity, as a historiography may be the best I’ve read for historians, especially those intrigued by Subaltern Studies. As a consequence of reading this book I will certainly read Eaton’s forthcoming “Power, Memory, and Architecture.”

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