• Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia

    London: I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2005. pp. 185.

    ISBN HardBack:
    1 85043 435 2 (HB)
  • Based on original field research and the work of various scholars, this publication seeks to explore the important issue of religious identities in South Asia, with particular reference to north India. The current perception of ‘Islam’ and ‘Hinduism’ as two monolithic blocks has its roots in a long and complex historical process during which identities were continuously shaped and reshaped. Even the contemporary period is far from being a reflection of a simplistic vision of two perpetually antagonistic and rival religions in South Asia.

    The author suggests that, in order to understand the complexity of this phenomenon, one must first explore the ways in which the categories ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ emerged in the context of medieval India. During this period, identities were predominately related to caste (jati), sect (panth) and regional traditions. The words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Turk’ or ‘Musulman’ which began to appear as opposite pairs in the devotional literature had a different meaning from that which is now commonly ascribed to them.

    Based on her research, focussed on northern India, the author demonstrates the extreme fluidity in these categories, including the existence of many “intermediary” identities that can be termed “liminal”. It has generally been assumed that this resulted from a spontaneous “popular” syncretism, or from the many fruitful exchanges that took place between Muslim mystics and Hindu ascetics. If the role of Sunni Sufisminfo-icon in the interplay between various local religious movements had not been largely studied, the impact of Ismaili Islam would not have been investigated to this day. As such, these studies have left many ideas that merit further exploration.

    In examining the different modes of interaction between Hindu and Muslim religious traditions, it becomes clear that one single phenomenon is not responsible for what scholars have called “syncretistic” movements or trends. While sharing sacred spaces and times can be considered a natural or spontaneous phenomenon, it does not imply a shifting of openly claimed identities. The apparent dual Hindu-Muslim character of some sectarian movements, of their founders and shrines, deserves a separate examination and prompts us to revise some of the earlier accepted research in this field.

    Compelled due to persecution to adopt religious dissimulation (taqiyyainfo-icon), the Nizari Ismaili communities of India, like other such persecuted minorities, illustrate an example where “liminal” identities continued over time and where individuals became custodians of the “threshold” between communities. While this has been possible in the past, when sharply demarcated identities had not yet emerged, the privileged position of these communities was endangered by the gradual formation of orthodoxies. This phenomenon is linked with the formation and consolidation of states during the later part of Mughal rule.

    Later on, the categorizing activities organised by the colonial powers, as well as the reformist and revivalist movements that appeared in the nineteenth century, eventually resulted in the creation of clear-cut identities and antagonistic blocs, which in turn led to increasing conflicts. The formation of two separate states, India and Pakistan, accelerated this process. Most people were compelled to join one of the main “blocs”, thus crossing the threshold that had, for centuries, ensured the continuity of exchanges and the fluidity of identities. The peaceful coexistence and tolerance that mainly resulted from that fluidity, as well as from the diversity of religious traditions, was replaced by increasing conflicts.

    Turning to the contemporary period, the author argues that the persistence of shared or liminal religious practices in South Asia tend to contradict the current idea of ‘Islam’ and ‘Hinduism’ as fundamentally opposed traditions. Open resistance to the challenges of communalism and new forms of precautionary dissimulation pave the way for further transformations.

  • Preface
    Note on Transcription and Transliteration


    1. Who is Hindu, who is Muslim?
    A Brief Historical Survey

    2. ‘There is no Hindu, there is no Musulman’:
    Standing on the Threshold

    3. Creating Orthodoxies

    4. Nation and Religion (1920-2000)

    Conclusion: The Metaphor of the Hidden Pirinfo-icon


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