All posts by michelboivin

Book: A Modern History of the Ismailis

Farhad Daftary (Ed.), A Modern History of the Ismailis. Continuity and Change in a Muslim Community, London New York, I. B. Tauris Publishers in association with The Institute of the Ismaili Studies, 2011.

The book edited by the well-known scholar Farhad Datary, the co-director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, is a welcome one. It is indeed the first synthesis proposing academic papers on a number of Ismaili traditions in the Modern period. The 400 pages book is divided into four parts: Nizari Ismailis in Syria, Central Asia and China; Nizari Ismaili in South Asia and East Africa; Nizari Ismaili in Contemporary policies, institutions and perspectives; and Tayyibi Mustalian Ismailis. FD coins the volume as a “modest first attempt at piecing together a history of the Ismailis during approximately the last two centuries”. According to him, the Modern period was distinguished by two main features implemented by the Ismaili imams, better known as Agha Khans. First is the construction of a “distinctive Ismaili identity” and second a focus on reform and modernization (pp. 12-13). Interestingly, the book highlights the diversity of the Ismailis in terms of cultural area, although the majority of the papers are devoted to the Khojas, the South Asia Ismailis. Last but not least, the book ends with three papers on the Tayyibi Ismailis, authored by Bohra scholars belonging to the other South Asia Ismaili community who does not acknowledge the Agha Khan as their spiritual head.

Michel Boivin

Book review: Mystiques et Vagabonds en Islam. Portraits de Trois Soufis Qalandar

Alexandre Papas, Mystiques et vagabonds en islam. Portraits de trois soufis qalandar, Paris, Editions du Cerf, 2010, 338 p.

The book by Alexandre Papas, a specialist of Sufism and a historian of Central Asia, is a poetic peregrination in the universe of the Qalandars of the Oriental Turkish world (from Xinjiang to the Bosphorus), from the middle of the 17th century until the middle of the 18th century. It arouses as much the emotion as the reflection on this mystic lifestyle, so far largely unknown.

Right from the start, the author questions the relevance of writing the history of the Qalandariyya’s path, considering the heterogeneity of its principles and practices (p. 13). He suggests following instead the journeys of three Qalandars as attested in their writings, inviting us to familiarise ourselves with the enjoyments and sorrows of their lifestyle, characterized by wandering, poverty and provocation. Based on their own writings (poetry, journey story and Sufi treatise), the author thus draws contextualized portraits of Mashrab the Drinker (1640-1711), Zalîlî the Vile (1676-1753) and Nidâ’î the Boisterous (1688-1760), three mystics who follow each other in time and space. The book closes with two appendices describing the Qalandar of Xinjiang at the turn of the century. These stand for yet another aspect of these mystics, accentuating, if it was really necessary, their irreducibility. However, the material presented in the first appendix enables to draw analogies between ancestor cult and mystic practice, an aspect which remains regrettably ignored in most studies on Sufism.

Despite his unusual approach, the author does not give up any idea of studying history. He tries to grasp the steppes of Asia through the mirror which these three Qalandars hold out to him and which reflects, on one hand, the effects of their practice of wandering, of provocation and of poverty on their society and, on the other hand, the life of the people. It is regrettable that the central hypothesis of the study, the idea of a resurgence of the Qalandar’s movement as an answer to a changing society in Central Asia and at an important turning point of its history is not supported by much evidence. Is this hypothesis only the result of the author’s analysis of the qalandari writings presented here or is it also based on other data, not set out in this book?

This book is an important contribution to the knowledge of a mystic path relatively unknown so far. It gives for the first time access to data concerning Central Asia in a western language. The second remarkable achievement of the book is its demonstration of how Islam is perceived by us, as clearly defined and limited categories “rarely find its reality in history” (p. 263). Indeed, during more than a century, the most opposite paths – Qalandariyya and Naqshbandiyya – were inseparable in the Central Asia Sufi practice. This book concerns all those interested in Sufism and the important historical data that the author provides will certainly help drawing a comparative approach between the Qalandariyya of Central Asia and of South Asia.

By Delphine Ortis

More about Alexandre Papas

With Thomas Welsford et Thierry Zarcone, Central Asian Pilgrims. Hajj Routes and Pious Visits between Central Asia and the Hijaz, Berlin, Klaus Schwarz-IFEAC (under press).

With Lisa Ross, Les saints, la vie, la mort. Essai sur l’islam des Ouïghours au Xinjiang (forthcoming).

Voyage au pays des Salars (Tibet oriental, début du XXIe siècle), Paris, Cartouche, 2011.

Soufisme et politique entre Chine, Tibet et Turkestan. Etude sur les Khwajas Naqshbandis du Turkestan oriental,Jean Maisonneuve, Paris, 2005.


Book: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab

Farina Mir, The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab, New Delhi, Permanent Black, 2010.

Farina Mir’s book is the published version of the Ph. D. she defended with Ayesha Jalal as supervisor. The author is currently Assistant Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Her book is a highly sophisticated study of the vernacular culture in colonial Punjab. It argues that Punjabi vernacular culture “reveals a different story of social and cultural relations that suggested by socioreligious reformists’ tracts, language activists’ propaganda, and the Urdu press” (p. 24). Mainly based on literature published into booklets and other tracts, which were neglected both by the English officers and nowadays by scholars, Mir’s book is a quite innovative study since it gives evidence that the imposition of Urdu by colonial power in Nineteenth Century Punjab did not destroy vernacular culture of Punjab. Her study is mainly based on the exploration of what is usually coined as folklore in a more or less derogatory tone, like for example the different versions of the tale of Hir and Ranjhe. It allows her to demonstrate how vernacular culture, and also the use of Punjabi language, was able to resist State policy as well as religious nationalist discourses.

Farina Mir’s book is the published version of the Ph. D. she defended with Ayesha Jalal as supervisor. Her book is a highly sophisticated study of the vernacular culture in colonial Punjab. It argues that Punjabi vernacular culture “reveals a different story of social and cultural relations that suggested by socioreligious reformists’ tracts, language activists’ propaganda, and the Urdu press” (p. 24). Mainly based on literature published into booklets and other tracts, which were neglected both by the English officers and nowadays by scholars, Mir’s book is a quite innovative study since it gives evidence that the imposition of Urdu by colonial power in Nineteenth Century Punjab did not destroy vernacular culture of Punjab. She demonstrates how vernacular culture, and also the use of Punjabi language, was able to resist State policy as well as religious nationalist discourses.

Michel Boivin

Book: Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India

Kelly Pemberton, Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2010.

Pemberton’s book draws on a number of issues like the gender issue and also subaltern studies since she locates women as a subaltern group. She seeks to understand how it is possible for them to “develop a sovereign consciousness that both imbibes and rejects elements of a dominant framework of reference”. In other words, her book questions “how women are able to exercise authority in the shrine setting despite a lack of official sanction for that authority” (p. xvii). It thus implies a different approach from that of Shemeem Abbas which focussed on “female voice” in Sufi Rituals (2002, Austin, University of Texas Press). Pemberton is able to highlight the agency permitting women to become pirs. It is interesting to see how gender studies devoted to South Asia Sufism are developing. The next step would be to devote a study to a shrine where a Sufi woman is buried, and thus venerated.

Michel Boivin

PhD thesis: The Iqbalian Critic of Modernity

Nazeer, Saleha, La critique iqbalienne de la modernité. Une approche comparative [The Iqbalian Critic of Modernity. A comparative Approach], Ph.D., Iranian Studies, University of Paris 3, La Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2011.

“Discussion about the characteristics, opportunities and challenges of modernity has been a prominent theme in Western and Eastern poetry, literature and philosophy over the past few centuries. Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) has also contributed to this discussion but his thought remains largely unknown outside the Muslim world. The present inquiry will be a small step in redressing this shortcoming. The first part of the inquiry seeks to identify the defining characteristics of modernity and the challenge that they pose to human well-being, with reference to the ideas of well-known Western thinkers (most notably Goethe and Blake). Quantification, detached objectivity, excessive reliance on technology, and subjugation of others for economic gain are the key factors in this regard. The next part describes Iqbal’s analysis and critique of modernity with respect to these four characteristics using his poetical works where his position is most succinctly expressed. Iqbal uses a wide range of sources from both the East and the West-poetry, literature, philosophy, theology, and modern science. As wide ranging as his use of different sources is, Iqbal’s analysis of modernity remains self-consciousnessly attached to the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition. This analysis also shows his ideas have been expanded upon in one part of the Muslim world – post-Independence Iran, using the works of two modern Iranian thinkers, Ali Shariati and Jalal Al-e Ahmad. The inquiry seeks to demonstrate that Iqbal’s insights remain relevant even today for all those experiencing modernity – whether in the East or in the West.”

The Diwân-e Qalandar, introduced and translated by Mojan Membrado

Very little is known about the origin of the Diwân-e qalandar attributed to Sufi Saint La’l Shahbâz Qalandar who died in 1274 in Sehwan Sharif, in Sindh. The edition we used was compiled by Illahi Bakhsh and published at Sukkur in 1998. Unfortunately, the editor does not say a word on how this poetry came to him. He mentions that he was helped by scholars and mystics in translating Persian poetry into Sindhi language. He was mainly supported by the “gâdî nashîn of Sehwan of Sehwan Sharif”, Sayed Sadiq Ali Shah Sabzwari1.

The book appears to be a collection of poems stemming from popular oral tradition. It informs us on some features of the faith that prevailed in the context where it was collected. We chose to study an excerpt in order to identify some of these features.

The first poem of Diwân-e Qalandar is comprised of 26 pages (pp. 2-28) in the tarji’band style. Tarji’band is a poetic style in which all the sections of a poem are related to each other by the same couplet which appears systematically at the end of each section. This couplet – called tarji’ (in Arabic) or bargardân (in Persian) – is:

Heydariyam, qalandaram, mastam / bandeh-ye Mortezâ ‘Ali hastam”: “I am a Heydari, I am a Qalandar, I am intoxicated/ I am submissive to Mortezâ ‘Ali” (passim).

Heydari means “relating to Heydar”, “a follower of Heydar”. Heydar (“lion” in Arabic) is one of the nicknames of Ali. Mortezâ (“adequate”, “desirable”) in the second distich is another of his nicknames. Broadly speaking, Heydari refers to those who venerate Ali; but in its specific sense it is a reference to the Heydari order of dervishes2. This couplet is recited in sama’ gatherings (prayer assemblies accompanied with music, song and dance).

From a literary point of view the poem presents a myriad of spelling errors and inconsistencies in the poetry rhythm. As to its structure, it contains 40 sections. Each section is composed of four distiches and ends with the tarji’ couplet as mentioned before. In the first section the author says that since he has felt Ali’s love he has become a Qalandar and a Heydari (kamar andar qalandari bastam / az del-e pâk Heydari hastam). In the second section Ali is recognized as a vali (a friend of God and His representative)3 and in the third section as a theophany, mazhar allâh – the manifestation of God in the human body.

Asad allâh ham yad allâh ast / Vali allâh, mazhar allah ast / Hojjat allâh qodrat allâh ast / Bi nazir ou zât-e allâh ast”: “He is the God’s lion, God’s hand / God’s friend and representative, God’s manifestation / He is the proof of God and God’s power / There is nothing similar to him, he is God’s essence” (p. 2).

Considering Ali as the essence of God is an affirmation which transforms this poem to a highly antinomian text; as, for all Muslims God’s, essence is unique and imperceptible, nothing could be compared to it.

However, as shown in sections 4 and 5, those who scan this poem are indeed Muslims: in section 4 there are multiple references to the verses of the Koran and in section 5 a reference to the prophet of Islam who according to the author, approves of what is said in this poem about the status of Ali.

Section 6 refers to Noseyr (or Nosayr), a figure well-known to all “extremist” Shi’i orders. As we know, Noseyri is the name of a Shi’i order which is established in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, also known as Alawis. But the reference made to Noseyr and his followers (Noseyri) is not necessarily understood in relation to this order. According to a myth widespread in certain Shi’i communities, Noseyr was a slave of Ali and recognized the latter as God. As, according to Islamic belief, regarding a human being as God is heresy, Ali killed him. Then he remembered the promise he had made to Noseyr’s old mother who had asked him to protect his son and bring him back to her alive, so Ali restored Noseyr back to life. Once Noseyr was raised from his death, he told Ali: “if I had any doubt about your divinity, now that you brought me back to life I am more than sure that you are God”. Ali killed him again and this scenario repeated seven times. Then God ordered Ali to let Noseyr be: “I am the creator of the universe and I am God for all the creation, but I give permission to Noseyr and his followers to recognize you as God”4. In this poem we read “man Ali dânam, Ali gooyam / chon Noseyri keh bandeh-ye ouyam”: “I know Ali, I call Ali / like a Noseyri I am Ali’s slave” (p.6). Moreover in section 34 the name Noseyri is given to the faith described in the poem. “Chon Noseyri keh nâm dâram man / Ali vali allâh âshkâram man”: “As my name is Noseyri / the fact that Ali is a vali of God is obvious to me (or: As a Noseyri that I am / I claim obviously that Ali is the vali of God)” (p. 24).

Sections 7 and 8 are dedicated to Ali. In section 9 we read “Sarvar-e harkeh Mortezâ bâshad / Peyrov-e din-e Mostafâ bâshad”: “whoever takes Ali for his lord / Is a follower of the religion of the Prophet” (p. 6); and in the section 12 it is said that whoever is not a follower of Heydar (Heydari) is a non-believer, “Gheyr-e Heydari ham agar dâni / kâfari o yahûdi o nasrâni”: “If you believe in anything else but Heydar / You are a non-believer, a Jew, a Christian” (p. 8). We see here that in the author’s view any belief other than in Ali is considered useless.

Pages 10 to 20 (sections 13-28) are a praise to the ‘Fourteen Immaculate’ -Mohammad, Ali, Fâtemeh and their descendants the Shi’i imams. This part testifies the Duodeciman Shi’i feature of the author’s faith. In section 21, relating to Imam Kâzem, the seventh imam for duociman Shi’ies, there is a sudden aggressiveness. The author insults the enemies of this imam. It might be intended for the Shi’ites who do not recognize Kâzem as the seventh imam, e.g. the ismailians. “Doshman-e oust kâfar-e motlaq / beshno khâreji sag o ahmaq”: “His [Kâzem’s] enemy is an absolute non-believer / Listen you outsider!, you dog, you imbecile” (p. 14).

Some military features and a warrior spirit are observed in sections 30, 31 (pp. 20-21). “[…] Tabar-e Heydarist dar datam / Qâtel-e ân jami’ man hastam […]”: “I am bearing a Heydari axe / I am the killer of them all [all the enemies]”. The aggressiveness toward enemies mentioned in section 21 recurs in section 33, where the outsiders are addressed as dogs, idiots and imbeciles. Section 35 (p. 24) curses ibn Moljam (The assassin of Ali), ibn Ziyâd (the Governor of Kufa and one of the leaders of the army of Yazid during the battle of Karbala where Hosayn the third imam was martyred), ibn Khattâb (‘Omar, the second Caliph), Shemr (The assassin of Hoseyn).

Some parts of the poem are expressed enigmatically, using numbers instead of names. For example, in section 36 we read: “Yek sad o si o yek monâfeq dân / Si sad o dah ou movâfeq dân / shesh sad o shast o yek motâbeq dân / Yek sad o bist o haft fâseq dân”: “Consider the 131 as a hypocrite / Recognize 310 as an allies / 631 is adopted / 127 should be considered sinful” (p. 24). These numbers might be the names converted by the abjad5 system.

The identity of the author is acknowledged in the sections 38 and 40. “[…] manam Shahbâz bandeh-ye dargâhash […]”: “I am Shahbâz the slave of his threshold” (section 38, p. 26); “[…] manam ‘Othmân Marvandi bandeh-ye dargâhash […]”: “I am Othmân Marvandi², the slave of his threshold” (section 40, p. 28). However, comparing the literary quality of this text to some other poems attributed to Othman Marvandi6, one can conclude whether this text is his or not, and whether it has been distorted by oral transmission.

The study of this kind of dervish popular literature is nevertheless interesting because it informs us about a form of dervish piety and perhaps also be the manner in which Marvandi’s ideas were understood among popular layers of society.

  1. Dîwân-e qalandar, ed. by Illahi Bakhsh, Sukkur, p. VI. []
  2. This is more than a supposition, as we will see further (section 30, p. 20), the author affirms bearing a “Heydari axe” (tabar-e Heydari). Axe is an element of dervishes panoply. On Heydari order, see among others Mehmed Fuad Köprülü, Abdülbaki  Gölpinarli and Ahmet Yashar Ocak. []
  3. For more details on the meaning and the impact of this codified status in shi’ism see Amir-Moezzi, “Notes à propos de la Walâya Imamite (Aspects de l’Imâmologie Duodécimaine, X).” Journal of American Oriental Society, 2002, 122(4), 722-741. []
  4. For the full version of this story see Hâjj Ne’matollâh Jeyhûnâbâdi, Shâhnâmeh-ye Haqiqat, Tehran, 1984. []
  5. The Abjad numerals are a decimal numeral system in which the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet are assigned numerical values. The Abjad numbers are used to assign numerical values to Arabic words for purposes of numerology. For example the word “Allâh” ا has a numeric value of 66 (1+30+30+5). []
  6. Sheykh Othmân Marvandi (d. 1274) known as “La’l Shahbâz Qalandar” is a Muslim mystic of the Indian subcontinent. His other nicknames are “Seyf al-lesân”, “Shams al-din”, “Makhdoom”, “Mahdi” and more but he generally used “Othmân” or “Shahbâz” as his pen name. According to some sources he was a Qâderi dervish. Other sources designate him as the founder of the Qalandari Shahbâzi order (See for example: ‘Affân Saljouq, Bâ la’l Shahbâz beraqsim, Heydarâbâd: Khâneh-ye Farhang-e Iran). []

Book: Sultans, Traders, and Pilgrims in Gujarat

Samira Sheikh, Forging a Region: Sultans, Traders, and Pilgrims in Gujarat 1200-1500, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2010, 265 p.

As a historian of Medieval India, Samira Sheikh publishes a slightly revised version of the Ph. D. she prepared at Oxford University some years ago. The book is most useful since it provides both a broad synthesis of the formative period of Gujarati identity, as well as a very comprehensive analysis of the interaction between the different strata which gave birth to the pre-modern state, namely the Sultanate. Moreover, the issues addressed by Sheikh obviously concern a large part of North India. For example, she gives valuable arguments regarding the processes of formation of groups like the Rajputs. Last but not the least, Sheikh is well aware of the most recent trends in the history of India, in other words the post-colonial studies, and she is thus able to provide a balanced understanding on how pre-modern Gujarat provided the essential features on which modern Gujarat was to be built.

Michel Boivin


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Book: Le mahdi incompris

Marc Gaborieau, Le mahdi incompris. Sayyid Ahmed Barelwî (1786-1831) et le millénarisme en Inde, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2010, 339 p.

Sayyid Ahmed Barelwi is a well known figure of Islamic revival in South Asia, usually associated with the last phase of the expansion of British colonization at the beginning of the 19th century. His career is both a religious one, as well as a military one. He headed the last resistance against the Western expansion of the British Empire in India. But his fame is due to the different roles he played among his Muslim followers. Finally, the two careers merged through his death as a martyr on the battlefield at Balakot in 1831. During his lifetime, he, himself proclaimed to be the khalifa of Khorasan but after his death, some of his disciples venerated him as the Mahdi, the Muslim saviour who will come for the Day of Judgement. Mainly based on colonial sources, the book does not attempt to explain why Sayyid Ahmed Barelwi was a “misunderstood Mahdi”. Nonetheless, a step forward was achieved since in a previous publication, Gaborieau called him the “forgotten Mahdi”.

Michel Boivin


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