Interview with Kishwar Rizvi, 2010

Kishwar Rizvi is Assistant Professor of Islamic Art History and Islamic Architecture at Yale University. She has recently completed a book: The Safavid Dynastic Shrine: History, religion and architecture in early modern Iran (London: British Institute for Persian Studies, I. B. Tauris, 2010). Dr Rizvi co-edited with Sandy Isenstadt another book, Modernism and the Middle East: Architecture and politics in the twentieth century (University of Washington Press, 2008). During her visit to Paris in December 2009, Annabelle Collinet (Louvre Museum), interviewed her about her work and projects. Continue reading Interview with Kishwar Rizvi, 2010

PhD thesis: Indo-Islamic Societies through Arabic and Persian inscriptions

Johanna Blayac, Genesis and history of the first Indo-Muslim and Indo-Islamic Societies through Arabic and Persian inscriptions (7th-14th centuries), PhD thesis in History, EPHE, Paris, 16 December 2009.

“Islamic inscriptions of the Indian subcontinent, that were collected and published since the end of the 18th century, have not been studied with a global problematic until now. The first two-hundred and ninety-six Arabic and Persian known inscriptions from the region (7th-14th centuries) are put together here, – listed, (re)edited, and analysed, to study the formation and history of the first Indo-Muslim and Indo-Islamic societies, through the multiple aspects of epigraphic sources, both textual or philological and material. This thesis thus begins by showing the various political, social and economic processes operating during the different phases of Muslim and Islamic penetration and implantation in the different regions of the Indian subcontinent through the chrono-geographic  distribution of the inscriptions. It subsequently studies, by region and then by dynasty during the Delhi sultanate period, the composition and the representations of the Indo-Muslim elites, merchants, religious men, statesmen and soldiers, from the very texts of the inscriptions and the names and duties they provide. At last, it considers the first regional architectural remains, greatly composite, and the epigraphic programmes of the main monuments ordered by the sultans of Delhi, as “architectural” discourses, and thus reflects of the articulations and “tension” between the Islamic phraseology and the social, political and religious contexts.”

Keywords: Medieval India, Islamic epigraphy/inscriptions, Islamic conquest, Muslim settlement, Delhi sultanate, Indian Ocean, Sind, Gujarat, Kerala, Indo-Islamic societies, composite cultures.


PhD thesis: From Sufism to Sufislamism in Pakistan

Alix Philippon, Pir politics. From Sufism to Sufislamism: recombination, modernization and mobilization of “brotherhoods” in Pakistan. PhD thesis in Political Sciences, IEP Aix-en-Provence, 8 December 2009.

“Generally posited as the mystical trend within Islam and often hyped as an alternative to the more politically active Islamism, Sufism, through its various orders and leaders, the pirs, is however a key to understanding “Muslim politics” (James Piscatori and Dale Eickelman). A major repertoire of Islamic language, Sufism is an ambiguous signifier which has undergone a process of politicization: its semantics has become a stake in the power ratio between many contending groups, both state and non-state. Within the Pakistani Islamist field, the movement which has the most loudly trumpeted its affiliation to the Sufi identity is the Barelwi movement. Often overlooked by scholars, this theological school has been experiencing a revival since the 1980s, through the burgeoning of many new religious and/or political organizations, generally structured on the pattern of the brotherhood. Recruiting in sociologically modern circles, these brotherhoods, established in urban centres, have often successfully attempted to redefine themselves in accordance with the demands of modernity. They have notably rationalized and internationalized their organizations, and become conscious of the importance of socio-political stakes, prompting them to adopt a posture of committed activism, thus demonstrating how “tradition” may become a powerful vehicle for change and political mobilization. In order to designate such groups claiming Sufism and Sufi identity as a register for Islamist mobilization, I have coined the concept “Sufislamism”. Besides enabling an enhanced analysis of the various  interactions between Sufism and Islamism, this concept may also improve our understanding of the highly fissile politicization of the doctrinal fractures inside the Islamist movement in Pakistan, thus helping to chart the deep waters of identity politics, especially those of intra-Sunni sectarianism.”

Keywords: Sufism, Islamism, identity politics, modernization, mobilization, Pakistan


Transnationalism and Regional Cults, a paper by Pnina Werbner

Transnationalism and Regional Cults:

The Dialectics of Sufism in the Plurivocal Muslim World


Pnina Werbner

Keele University

May 2009


You can download the whole paper at the bottom of this page.


Introduction: the Problem of Comparison in Sufi Orders

I have been thinking for some time about the possibility of comparing Sufi orders, conceived of as focused, central place organizations, as they exist in different parts of the Muslim world. The challenge is, as I see it, how to formulate a set of analytical concepts to create a theoretical approach that encompasses Sufi ritual and religious movement, and which can be applied to Sufi practice in geographically distant geographical locations, from North Africa in the West to Pakistan and Indonesia in the East. I stress practice as against Sufi cosmology or poetry, since my aim is to understand the sociological and economic dimensions of Sufi orders.

Of course, it cannot be taken for granted in advance that comparison is a valid project. Superficially, even in a single locality, there is an enormously wide range of types and styles of Sufi shrines and saints, from major shrines of great antiquity, managed by descendants of the original saintly founder and guardians of his tomb, to minor saints with a highly localised clientele (see Troll 1989; Werbner and Basu 1998). The question is: if even in a single locality, shrines differ markedly, how much more so if we try to compare, for example, Sufi orders in Pakistan and Indonesia? In the following discussion, I highlight key analytical terms that I believe are crucial for a comparative account of Sufi orders.

One problem in the project of comparison I am proposing has to do with language. In parts of the Muslim world there appears to be a reluctance to use the analytic armoury of concepts developed elsewhere. Hence, Indonesian scholars, for example, prefer to use vernacular concepts to describe the ritual and organisational practices of Sufi orders, and this then leads a description of these cults that seems to imply that they are quite different from Sufi orders and cult practices in Pakistan, for example, or Morocco. One challenge, then, in the project of comparison is to begin to disentangle the meanings of vernacular terms in order to be able to explore if comparison is, firstly, possible and second, where difference lies. I began this project when I undertook a reanalysis of research on Sufi orders in Indonesia, which seemed to expose many unacknowledged areas of possible comparison between Indonesia, Pakistani and North African Sufi orders and the cults they generate (Werbner 2008). While it had been recognised in Indonesian studies that the ideas of Sufi theosophy were shared with the rest of the Muslim world, rituals practices seemed quite different. My reanalysis highlighted aspects of the cults that were described but left untheorised by south-east Asian scholars.

Key Terms

Broadly speaking, charting the differences and similarities between Sufi orders as embodied traditions requires attention beyond mystical-philosophical and ethical ideas, to the ritual performances and religious organisational patterns that shape Sufi orders and cults in widely separated locations. We need, in other words, to seek to understand comparatively four interrelated symbolic complexes: first, the sacred division of labour – the ritual roles that perpetuate and reproduce the cult; second, the sacred exchanges between places and persons, often across great distances; third, the sacred region, its catchment area and the sanctified central places that shape it; and fourth, the sacred indexical events – the rituals – that co-ordinate and revitalise organisational and symbolic unities and enable managerial and logistical planning and decision-making. Comparison requires that we examine the way in which these four dimensions of ritual sanctification and performance are linked, and are embedded in a particular symbolic logic and local environment.

I begin with an example from my own research. The Sufi cult I studied in Pakistan (P. Werbner 2003), was in many senses remarkably similar organisationally to other, non-Muslim regional cults and pilgrimage systems elsewhere (for examples, see R. Werbner 1977).  It also fitted the model of Sufi order cults analysed by Trimingham (1971), which was mainly based on his extensive knowledge of Sufi orders in the Middle East and Africa.

During his lifetime, Zindapir, founder of the Sufi order of the saint I studied, established a lodge that extended globally: to Britain and Europe, the Middle East and even South Africa. Emerging as a saint during the 1940s, in the dying days of Empire, Zindapir began his career as an army tailor contractor for the seventh Baluch regiment, and his cult membership expanded through the recruitment of state employees, in this case soldiers and army personnel. These in turn recruited members of their families and, when they retired to civilian life, their co-villagers or townsmen. The cult expanded further as these soldiers went to work as labour migrants in the Gulf or Britain. Disciples were also recruited from among the stream of supplicants coming to the lodge to seek blessings and remedies for their afflictions from the saint, and from among casual visitors curious to see the saint and lodge itself, a place renown for its beauty. Some disciples joined the cult after meeting Zindapir or his vicegerents on the annual Hajj to Mecca. Such recruitment chains form network clusters whose members share either occupational or geographical proximity (or both).

Zindapir’s disciples met regularly to perform zikr at the lodge branches of the order, located throughout Pakistan. They gathered at the central lodge of Zindapir weekly, monthly, and in most cases, annually, at the ‘urs, the three-day ritual festival commemorating the mystical ‘marriage’ of a deceased saint with God. Some pilgrims arrived for the festival as individuals, but most came in convoys of trucks and buses from established branches, travelling in some cases for over 24 hours. The sacred exchange at the cult centre was extensive: the groups arrived bearing with them sacrificial offerings of grain, butter and animals. They returned bearing gifts from the saint – gowns or caps, and in some instances, the sacred soil of the lodge itself. During their three-day stay at the ‘urs, all the participants were fed and nurtured by the saint himself. The hundreds of beasts sacrificed, the hundreds of thousands of baked chappatis and nans, the enormous cauldrons of sweet and pilau rice distributed during the ‘urs, feed some 30,000 people over three days, a major logistical challenge. But the saint also feeds pilgrims to the lodge throughout the year, in what may be conceived of as a form of perpetual sacrifice. The lodge itself has been built with voluntary labour in the name of God, usually in the weeks preceding the annual ‘urs. The crowds depart following the final du‘a, the supplicatory prayer enunciated by the saint himself on behalf of the whole community.

This annual celebration at a saint’s lodge or shrine is known in South Asia as the ‘urs. In North Africa it is known as mawlid. It commemorates the death/rebirth of a saint, the moment of his unification or marriage with Allah. The ‘urs is the organisational hub of sufi saints’ cults. The festival gathers together individual supplicants and pilgrims alongside organised groups of devotees and disciples who visit the festival annually and cultivate a special relationship to the saint and the Sufi tariqa or order he founded. These groups or congregations often travel great distances to attend the annual ritual. They frequently come from different linguistic, ethnic and even religious groups. Although the celebration marks the high point of the year, it cannot be understood apart from the more enduring links that constitute the organisation of the order.


You can download and read the whole paper here: WERBNER Paris Transnationalism and Regional Cults

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: Territory, Soil and Society in South Asia

Daniela Berti & Gilles Tarabout (dir.), 2009, Territory, Soil and Society in South Asia, New Delhi, Manohar, 379 p.

A pluridisciplinary team of researchers has raised the question of territory in this book, which is the revised and English version of a previous publication in Italian. Beginning with the study of territorial representations in the Vedic texts to end up with a contribution about the mobilization of territorial categories by the Hindu nationalists during political processions, the authors have also taken into account in their theoretical framework the territory as a divine or spiritual jurisdiction, that is to say, a territory where the power and authority of various social groups exert on. Given the few studies on the notion of territory as both a cognitive category and a category of analysis of social change, it is certain that this book will not go unnoticed in the landscape of publications on Indian society.

Rémy Delage


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Society, Culture and Territory

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