All posts by michelboivin

PhD thesis: Inventories of historic towns in Sindh

Anila Naeem, Recognising historic significance using inventories: a case of historic towns in Sindh, Pakistan, Joint Center for Urban Design – Oxford Brook, 16 November 2009.

“This research deals with two connected problems in the context of Sindh, the south-eastern parts of Pakistan: the lack of adequate and flexible methods for assessing urbanized historic traditions, and the lack of knowledge and understanding for these. Addressing both issues, the research aims at developing methods for assessing historic built form traditions in the region, using its historic towns as case studies. This research derives its frame of reference by combining methods of historical urban geography and urban morphology, with principles of urban area conservation, to study the historic urban traditions in Sindh, and identify their value of significance as not only important historic sources, but also as economic and environmental assets of the region.

The defined objectives of research are achieved through investigations at two levels – regional and town. The regional level work develops a historicogeographic map of Sindh identifying the significance historic urban centers and presents their typo-morphological analysis. The town scale research develops a method for systematic documentation and inventory of historic places, and presents a method for analysis and evaluation to reinstate their significance and guide the development of effective policies and proposals for a possible revival of historic urban centers. The process of research involves a literature review on the history and background of the region and its case study towns. It further builds research data through inductive field research to develop a comprehensive documentation of the case study town. The outcomes of the research indicate a rich and unique urban fabric that represents socio-economic, political and cultural developments of the region. In addition, it represents a historic urban environment shaped through local building traditions and materials that developed in response to the climatic and environmental conditions in the region. The present state of affairs, as evident from the research outcomes, points towards an urgent need for conservation initiatives to ensure the survival of this historic built fabric into the future.

Historic towns of Sindh have never been surveyed or documented methodically in order to build inventories of historic places. The absence of effective implementation tools added by threatening development pressures, jeopardize survival of the historic built environments. There is thus an urgent need to identify and document the existing historic fabric and develop viable policies for their preservation; ensuring economic sustainability for the communities involved and allowing management of natural and environmental resources to achieve a balanced growth and development in the region.”

Keywords: inventory, documentation, historic urban centers, Sindh, Shikarpoor, Pakistan, conservation policy guidelines


Book review: L’ascète et le bouffon by Christiane Tortel

Christiane Tortel, L’ascète et le bouffon. Qalandars, vrais et faux renonçants en islam ou l’Orient indianisé, Arles, Actes Sud, 2009.

The publication of an academic book on the qalandars is a true event. Despite the existence of a book by Ahmed Karamustafa (1994), another one by Katherine Ewing (1977) and masterful papers by Simon Digby (1984), the article of the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam gives evidence of the scarcity of academic works on the topic. Christiane Tortel is a freelance specialist of Persian literature who is a recognized translator of referent treatises of Sufism (1998). Christiane Tortel, an expert in the collection of rare manuscripts, is also well acquainted with fieldwork since she has visited numerous shrines and temples in different parts of Asia.

This 439 pages book is a very ambitious work, in a previous version, a Ph. D. defended at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Études in Sorbonne University. After an introduction, the first part is devoted to “Asceticism, transgression and quackery. The pariah and the jester” (pp. 25-228). The second part is devoted to “Unpublished texts: presentation and translation” (pp. 229-305). Beyond the notes, bibliography and index, one will appreciate wonderful pictures discovered in various libraries of Europe and Asia.

The main thesis proposed by the author is that the role played by India in Islamic and Christian worlds has been under evaluated. The main basis of this misunderstanding is that since Antiquity, the historians always classified the Indians among the Africans since they were seen as Blacks. The author uses the figure of the qalandar to track the way by which Indian characteristics have penetrated Islam and Christianity. The problem is that this policy implies the use of innumerable references written in innumerable languages over many centuries. The consequence is the details makes one lose the thread of the demonstration implemented by the author. The argument would have been more convincing if it had been more tightly focused on the figure of the qalandar, and possibly the main transmitters of this figure, the gypsies.

The second part provides very useful data. The author also gives useful summaries of the relations between the Qalandariyya and “institutionalized” tarîqas like the Sohrawardiyyas or the Chishtiyyas, especially in South Asia. Last but not least, Christiane Tortel provides us the French translation of unpublished manuscripts. They include treatises of the Faqr-nâma genre, like Risâla-yi tawba attributed to Abû’l-Hasan Kharaqânî (d. 1033), or the Risâla-yi qalandarî, translated into French from an anonymous Persian manuscript she has found in Tashkent. Another remarkable piece is a rare example of scholarly literature of the qalandarî type, the Qalandar-nâme composed by Abû Bakr Qalandar Rûmî (d. 1321) from Crimea. Although the conclusion of this huge work is contained in a single page, where the author restates that Qalandariyya is a late extension of Indian renunciation, this book ultimately provides a useful basis for further study of the topic of qalandar, as the author states herself (p. 188).

Michel Boivin (CNRS-CEIAS,EHESS, Paris)


Paroles d’un soufi. Abû’l-Hasan Kharaqânî 352-425/960-1033, présentation, traduction du persan et notes par Christiane Tortel, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1998.

A. T. Karamustafa, God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200-1550, Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press, 1994.

S. Digby, “Qalandars and related groups: elements of social deviance in the religious life of the Delhi Sultanate”, in Y. Friedman, Islam in Asia, Jerusalem, The Magnes Press, 1984, pp. 60-108.

K. P. Ewing, Arguing Sainthood. Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam, Durham and London, Duke sUniversity Press, 1977.


MA dissertation: The Imami Ismaili community in South Asia

Laurence Gautier, The evolution of the role and status of the Imam within the Imami Ismaili community in South Asia (1947-1993), M.A. thesis, ENS/EHESS (Paris), 2009.

“This dissertation examines the evolution of the concept of Imama after 1947, in a context of communal tensions and rising Islamic fundamentalism in South Asia. It puts the emphasis on the efforts of Sultan Muhammad Shah and of his successor Shah Karim, imams of the Imami Ismailis, to defend their community – a religious minority in both India and Pakistan, and to preserve their own authority – the target of many controversies. To achieve both objectives, they developed privileged relationships with the authorities in the two new independent states, especially in Pakistan. Above all, they reinterpreted their role and status as imams by using the elements of the Ismaili tradition, which would strengthen the Muslim identity of their community and legitimize their own authority. The temporal dimension of the Imama became essential. Shah Karim later created a large network of NGOs, further shifting the focus of attention from religious controversies to development issues. Being the “Imam of the Time”, Shah Karim not only adapted the understanding of faith to the changing times, he also gave a new definition of his role as imam. The Imama, considered as a fundamental of faith, therefore appeared as a concept in constant evolution.”


Book: South Asian Sufism

Soren Lassen and Hugh Van Skyhaw (ed.), 2008, Sufi Traditions and New Departures. Recent Scholarship on Continuity and Change in South Asian Sufism, Islamabad, Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, 215 p.

This book is the first one to be published on Sufism by the TIAC in Islamabad. The book gathers nine contributions mostly written by German scholars and other scholars working, or who have worked, in Germany. Noteworthy is a posthumous paper of Annemarie Schimmel she has delivered in 2002 on Muslim culture in the Deccan, which is also available through a CD. Sufi traditions are scrutinized in several provinces of the Indian subcontinent, like Rajasthan, Bengal, Punjab and others. Moreover, the be shar paths of Sufism are the topic of three contributions. A first one by Fateh Muhammad Malik is devoted to the Malâmatiyya in Punjab. A second one by Ute Falash deals with the Madariyya in India. Finally Jürgen Wasim Frembgen’s paper focuses on an enraptured saint of Udaipur. In conclusion, the book mirrors well both the diversity of academic approaches to South Asian Sufism, and the variety of the Sufi expressions in this area.

Michel Boivin

More infos


Book: Sindh. Past Glory, Present Nostalgia

Pratapaditya Pal (ed.), 2008, Sindh. Past Glory, Present Nostalgia, Mumbai, Marg Publications, vol. 60, n° 1, 180 p.

This collective book aims at making the public aware of the long and rich cultural heritage of Sindh, at the crossroads of Iranian, Central Asiatic and Indian Rajasthani-Gujarati worlds, and open on the Arabian Sea. From the remains of the protohistoric Mohenjodaro to the history of the modern Karachi and its inhabitants; from Budhhist and Hindu art and architecture, Islamic conquest and the development of Islamic architecture, to contemporary art, traditional crafts, and regional cookery; from history, political and cultural encounters through coinages to British production of representations on the region. It also points out some crucial studies that should be undertaken, for example about Buddhist sculptures, Hindu art and architecture, the medieval port of Banbhore which needs a new survey, etc. In sum, it highlights a composite Sindhi culture and identity, spoiled with the Indo-Pakistan Partition, in 1947.

Johanna Blayac


More infos


Book review: Islamic Sufism Unbound by Robert Rozehnal

Robert Rozehnal (2007) Islamic Sufism Unbound. Politics and Piety in Twenty First Century Pakistan, New York & Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

In this book, which is a revised version of a PhD defended at Duke University with Bruce Lawrence as supervisor, Robert Rozenhal addresses a central question: “What do contemporary Chishti Sabiris make of modernity?”. He explores how they “accommodate a life of spiritual discipline and religious piety to the myriad demands of their daily experiences” (p. 8). What the author calls “alternative modernity” is made up of “a range of practical strategies to integrate Sufism into the complex matrix of twenty-first century life” (p. 9). Contesting the essentializing and reductive lenses with which Western scholars interpret Sufi thought and practice, he stresses the need of a “more nuanced, multidimensional, interdisciplinary reading of Sufism’s multiple dimensions – its public and private manifestations – doctrines and practices, its piety, and its politics” (pp. 13-14). In his methodology, Robert Rozenhal combines manuscripts and fieldwork, to bridge a disciplinary divide.

After an introduction devoted to “Mapping the Chishti Sabri Sufi Order”, the book is divided into six chapters: 1. Sufism and the Politics of Muslim Identity, 2. Muslim, Mystic, and Modern: Three Twentieth-Century Sufi Masters, 3. Imagining Sufism: The Publication of Chishti Sabri Identity, 4. Teaching Sufism: Networks of Community and Discipleship, and 5. Experiencing Sufism: The Discipline of Ritual Practice. Robert Rozenhal’s approach is undoubtedly innovative but since he focuses on the Chishti Sabri tradition, he sometimes makes rapid formulations. For instance, he states that “Pakpattan now stands as the unrivalled center of a distinctly Pakistani Sufism” (p. 26). It is a pity that his contextualization of Sufism in Pakistan is more or less restricted to the Chishti Sabri tradition. Obviously, it does not include the southern province of Sindh, although it is known as “the land of the Sufis”. What about other major Sufi centres like Multan or Sehwan Sharif?

The most important contribution of this book is to show through a fine analysis how plural the discourses on Islam are in Pakistan today. The author makes it clear that “what is at stake here is the definition of Islamic orthodoxy” (p. 34). One can nevertheless regret that the author’s demonstration is more related to the state than to radical Islam. He argues that “the state’s control of Sufi tradition (…) has never been totalizing or hegemonic” (p. 227). He also states that “Sufi identity is capacious, broader, and deeper than the parochial constructions of religious nationalism” (p. 228). The “alternative modernity” embraced by Chishti Sabri Sufi order is framed within an “alternative geography” that delineates an expansive Indo-Muslim sacred landscape centered on Sufi shrines, an “alternative history” that links the disciples ultimately to Prophet Muhammad through a sacred genealogy (silsilah), an “alternative community” rooted in a teaching network, and an “alternative authority” thanks to the experiential knowledge acquired through the Sufi ritual practices.

Michel Boivin (CNRS-CEIAS-EHESS, Paris)

More publications

“A ‘Proving Ground’ for Spiritual Mastery: The Chishti Sabiri Musical Assembly,” The Muslim World Vol. 97, No.4: October 2007): 657-677.

“Faqir or Faker? The Public Battle Over Sufism in Contemporary Pakistan,” Religion 36 (2006): 29-47.

“Debating Orthodoxy, Contesting Tradition: Islam in Contemporary South Asia,” in Islam in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives, ed. R. Michael Feener (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004): 103-131.

“From Sufi Practice to Scholarly Praxis: Reflections on the Lessons of Fieldwork for the Study of Islam,” in Items and Issues: Social Science Research Council. Vol.3, No. 1-2 (Spring 2002).

Book: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, le messager du qawwali

Pierre Alain Baud (2008) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, le messager du qawwali [Nusrat Fath Ali Khan, the mesenger of qawwali], Paris, Editions Demi Lune.

Pierre-Alain Baud has published a number of papers on Sufi music from Pakistan. Although he began by focusing on Shah Latif’s musical tradition at Bhit Shah in Sindh, he was one of the first Westerners to personally meet Nusrat Fath Ali Khan in the 1980s. He accompanied him on several tours in Europe and elsewhere. Since the book is published for a large audience of French-speaking readers, the approach is more journalistic than academic. He nevertheless draws a useful  contextualization regarding Sufism in Pakistan, and the Sufi milieu in which Nusrat grew up. It must be remembered that Nusrat’s most famous hit was Dama dam mast Qalandar, a song devoted to La’l Shahbâz Qalandar of Sehwan Sharif that he converted into a universal hymn of tolerance.

Michel Boivin

More infos


Book: Ginân. Texts and Contexts

Tazim Kassam and Françoise Mallison (eds) (2007) Ginân. Texts and Contexts. Essays on Ismaili Hymns from South Asia in Honour of Zawahir Moir, New Delhi, Matrix Publishers.

The ginâns are devotional hymns of the Khojas, Nizari Ismailis of South Asia, disciples of Shâh Karîm, better known in Europe as Aga Khan IV. The contributions collected in this volume by Tazim Kassam and Francoise Mallison are offered to Zawahir Moir. Following the foreword by Christopher Shackle, the book offers a bibliography of Zawahir Moir who is without doubt the most knowledgeable expert on ginâns. The fifteen contributions reflect the diversity and dynamism of ginân studies. Among the issues under discussion, are ginâns the devotional heritage shared by the Khojas and other communities in Gujarat and Sindh. Historians also point out the interest of the role of the ginâns in the construction of Khojas identity during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Michel Boivin