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The Appropriation of Islam in the Maldives  

Boris Wille

The Maldives is one of four Muslim majority countries in South Asia. The contemporary Islamic Republic of the Maldives frames itself as a “100 percent Muslim nation.” The state religion is Islam, all 380,000 citizens are Muslims by law, and the practice of other religions is prohibited. Ever since the first Muslim exposure, probably in the 10th century, Islam has gradually evolved into a sociocultural configuration that affects most domains of archipelagic society and culture. It shapes foreign relations, informs legislation, and influences arts and architecture, as well as language and scripture. Scholarship of Islam and Islamization in the Maldives acknowledges the historical trajectories of the appropriation of Islam as well as its contemporary relevance in Maldivian identity and state politics.

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Bangladeshis in Italy  

Andrea Priori

The Bangladeshi population in Italy boomed in 1990, spreading from Rome and forming local enclaves shaped by migration chains; it is the second-largest Bangladeshi group in Europe and sees a preponderance of Sunni Muslims, a large majority of working-age men, and poor access of women to employment. Although both Italian institutions and migrant associations promoted a monolithic image of the “Bangladeshi community” as a category of political visibility, Italian Bangladeshis present considerable variety in terms of geographic origin and ideological affiliations and important differences in terms of social origins between endangered middle classes and urban middle classes with steady economic situations. Interaction with the Italian institutions results in further differentiation between “legal” and undocumented migrants, which overlaps, in part, with that between those in northern Italy, where Bangladeshi workers are generally entitled to full rights, and those in Rome and the south, where the informal economy is widespread. The large presence of undocumented working-age men fuels marginality and exploitation, both by natives and co-nationals. Patronage relations between co-nationals are crucial in providing access to emigration, housing, and employment and add to the dynamics of self-organization, especially in the case of secular associations. A peculiar characteristic of Italian Bangladeshis is the tendency to form mononational organizations (both secular and Islamic) that proliferate by virtue of scissions, along with transnationalism and entrepreneurship. In contrast, the new generation tends to move beyond communal introversion and transnationalism, but this is limited to only those with promising careers. Even among young people, extensive areas of marginality exist; this results in the persistence of attitudes typical of the migrant generation and reproduces among those who grew up in Italy the distinction, characteristic of the situation of the migrants, between those who have been successfully incorporated into Italian society and those suffering social exclusion.

Article

Buddhist and Muslim Interactions in Asian History  

Johan Elverskog

In the popular imagination, the meeting of Buddhism and Islam is often conceptualized as one of violence; namely, Muslims destroying the Dharma. Of course, in more recent years this narrative has been problematized by the reality of Buddhist ethnic cleansing and the genocide of Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Yet, what needs to be recognized is that the meeting between Buddhists and Muslims has never simply been one of confrontation. Rather, the interaction of these two religions—which has been going on for more than one thousand years across the length and breadth of Asia (from Iran to China and Indonesia to Siberia)—has also involved much else, including artistic, cultural, economic, and intellectual exchanges.

Article

Indigenous Religions in the Asian Uplands: Perspectives on Landscape in Northeast India  

Claire Scheid

Indigenous religions in the Asian uplands comprise a broad spectrum that includes a variety of unique site-specific practices, rituals, and beliefs. Just as the Asian uplands are a vast territory home to multiple cultures, they are also home to multiple indigenous religions. It is important not to conceptualize indigenous religions as homogeneous or static; rather, they are specific, organic systems particular to a given community that may vary even from household to household in design, praxis, and content. Similarly, it is tempting to presume that all indigenous religions in the Asian uplands must integrate the hilly or mountainous terrain around them into their cosmologies, ontologies, or eschatologies; this is also a fallacy. While some indigenous religions do worship or deify the topography that surrounds them—such as the Lepcha and Lhopo (Bhutia) of Sikkim, India, whose veneration of Mount Khangchendzonga is central to their understandings of the cosmos—others—such as the Adi of Arunachal Pradesh, India, and the Khasi of Meghalaya, India—consider certain upland sites in nature as sacred but do not incorporate them into the framework of their religious conceptualizations or practices in a primary way. To illustrate the variety of indigenous religions found in the Asian uplands, and their independent relationships with, and conceptions of, nature and landscape—and to highlight the diversity extant even between those in close proximity to each other—examples can be found in four ethnic communities (the Adi, the Khasi, the Lepcha, and the Lhopo [Bhutia]), all classified as “scheduled tribes” under the Constitution of the Indian Republic and located in Northeast India. Through a survey of these four groups, it becomes apparent that “indigenous religions” vary greatly in upland (and other) areas—and practically, and ethically, cannot be effectively generalized. It is easiest to glean a working comprehension of the characteristics of indigenous religions in the Asian uplands through recognizing the distinctive qualities of a sampling of individual ethnic communities that reveal great differences despite their geographical similarity. Indigenous religions do not exist in sterile isolation from other “mainstream” religions; boundaries between indigenous religions can be permeable, even if the religions themselves are very different; globalization is changing how indigenous religions are articulated, as they take on new structures for the sake of preservation; and while a mountain may be the center of an upland Northeast Indian religion, equally, it may not be.

Article

Jewish Merchants in the Indian Ocean Trade  

Elizabeth Lambourn

The history of Jewish merchants in the Indian Ocean trade is a story in two parts. Before the modern period the scarcity of surviving material and textual sources causes this community’s history to wax and wane depending on the place and the period. Historians are left to grapple with the question of whether such microhistories can be read as paradigmatic. After 1500 a plethora of documents and material remains allow a far more detailed history and analysis, as well as across an expanded area. Especially after 1700, Jews from Europe and the Middle East entered colonial flows, joining long-standing Jewish communities along India’s western seaboard and in the Yemen, and in time establishing new businesses across the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Far East. Academic research into these networks is sparse and quite dated until the colonial period, when a new wave of work integrating Jewish merchants into larger narratives occurred.

Article

Kashmir: From Princely State to Insurgency  

Mridu Rai

Paradise lost, on fire, or on a river of hell: purple prose abounds in descriptions of Kashmir today. But in this instance, the hyperbole may be alarmingly close to reality. Since 1989–1990, Kashmir (i.e., the Valley rather than the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir for which the name is often informally used) has been a battleground pitting a popularly backed insurgency—sometimes accompanied by armed militancy—against Indian state dominance undergirded by one of the highest concentrations of armed forces among civilians in the world. The armed forces are about 700,000 strong in the Valley, producing an astonishing average of one soldier for every eleven civilians. A death toll in calamitous numbers (perhaps 70,000 killed and 8,000 “disappeared”, many of whom are presumed dead) countless instances of rape and torture, and the declining health of civil liberties as of individuals in Kashmir have many worried. Most accounts seeking to explain this state of affairs begin around August 14–15, 1947. On this day were born not only the two nation-states of India and Pakistan but also the rival claims of both to Kashmir. If Kashmir’s troubles were only about the Indo-Pakistani territorial contestation, 1947 would be where to start. However, the “Kashmir Problem” encompasses other contentious aspects that have drawn less attention and whose roots are buried deeper in time. These include a crisis of legitimate governance and the interweaving of religion and politics—all playing out in the midst of contested relations between different loci of central and local power. A narrow focus on the year 1947 alone, moreover, holds Kashmir’s history hostage to Indian and Pakistani official narratives. This is evident in the work of countless political scientists and policy experts. New scholarship has pushed historical examination to go further back by at least a century, if not more, to capture vital transformations in the understandings of sovereignty, territoriality, and the legitimacy to rule that shaped Kashmiris well before 1947. These changes cast long shadows that reach into the present.

Article

The Portuguese Estado da Índia (Empire in Asia)  

Zoltán Biedermann

The origins of the Portuguese Estado da Índia—the sum of all Portuguese Crown possessions east of the Cape of Good Hope—can be traced back to the late 1400s, most importantly to the inaugural voyage of Vasco da Gama from Lisbon to Calicut (Kozhikode) in 1497–1498. After some initial hesitations, the Portuguese Crown created a governorship for India in 1505, with a seat at Cochin (Kochi) later transferred to Goa, to oversee commercial, military, administrative, and other activities in an increasing number of possessions along the shores of East Africa and Maritime Asia. Portuguese trading posts (feitorias), forts, and fortified towns across the region resulted from conquest or, more frequently, from negotiated agreements with local rulers, on whose cooperation the Portuguese generally relied. The Estado reached its apex in the second half of the 16th century, drawing vast resources from trade around the Cape and within Asian and African waters, while investing increasingly in military and religious campaigns in a variety of regions from southeastern Africa to the Moluccas (Malukus) and Japan. Despite significant losses to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the English East India Company (EIC) during the 17th century, the Estado survived until the 20th century. Goa became a part of the Indian Union in 1961, and Macao integrated into the People’s Republic of China in 1999. The perceived decadence of the Estado during much of its history is at odds with its longevity and has prompted longstanding debates about the nature of Portuguese power in Asia; its reliance on trade, military might, and imperial ideas; and its intertwinement with Asian polities and societies.

Article

Religion and Environment in Bhutan  

Elizabeth Allison

Religion and the environment have been entangled for millennia in Bhutan. When Buddhism was introduced from Tibet in the 7th and 8th centuries, it incorporated existing animistic and shamanistic understandings of the landscape, developing a unique spiritual ecology built on long coevolution with the landscape. The notable disseminators of Buddhism in Bhutan—Songsten Gampo, Guru Rinpoche, Terton Pema Linga, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, and others—sanctified specific sites on the landscape with their Buddhist teachings. The cultural forms introduced by the Shabdrung in the 17th century have been nurtured into the 21st century, providing a strong sense of cultural identity and historical continuity. Building on cultural and religious traditions, Bhutan’s leaders shaped a contemporary nation fed by a wellspring of ancient wisdom, connecting environmental policy and practice to Buddhist roots, in the context of rapid modernization and change. The guiding development model Gross National Happiness emphasizes the interdependence of economy, ecology, culture, and governance. Forest and conservation policies draw on Buddhist values for their relevance, as do waste and reuse practices. Bhutan’s 2008 constitution codifies the obligations of all Bhutanese to maintain culture, ecology, and religion. A long cultural and religious history interwoven with the landscape has created a uniquely Bhutanese Buddhist form of traditional ecological knowledge that contributes to ongoing cultural continuity and ecological resilience.

Article

Religion, Caste, and Displacement: The Matua Community  

Carola Erika Lorea

The struggle against untouchability, the religious history of Bengal, and the study of postcolonial displacement in South Asia can hardly be considered without paying attention to a roughly two-hundred-year-old low-caste religious and social movement called Matua. The Matua community counts at present fifty million followers, according to its leaders. It is scattered across a large area and connected through a trans-local network of preachers, pilgrims, institutions, print, and religious commodities. Most Matua followers are found in West Bengal; in southern Bangladesh, where the movement emerged in the 19th century; and in provinces where refugees from East Bengal have resettled since the 1950s, especially Assam; Tripura; the Andaman Islands; Uttarakhand; and the Dandakaranya area at the border of Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. Building upon an older Vaishnava devotional stream, the religious community initiated by Harichand Thakur (1812–1878) and consolidated by his son Guruchand Thakur (1847–1937) developed hand in hand with the Namashudra movement for the social upliftment of the lower castes. Rebelling against social marginalization and untouchability, and promising salvation through ecstatic singing and dancing, the Matua community triggered a massive mobilization in rural East Bengal. Partition and displacement have disrupted the unity of the Matua movement, now scattered on both sides of the hastily drawn Indo-Bangladesh border. The institutional side of the Matua community emerged as a powerful political subject, deeply entangled with refugee politics, borderland issues, and Hindu nationalism. In the 21st century, the Matua community represents a key element in electoral politics and a crucial factor for understanding the relation between religion, displacement, and caste, within and beyond Bengal.

Article

Sufi Dynastic Families in Pre-Mughal India  

Sushmita Banerjee

In South Asia the proliferation of Muslim settlements between the 13th and the 15th centuries was accompanied by the expansion of sufi fraternities. Sufis were revered as venerable figures due to their status as the possessors of spiritual grace and intuitive knowledge. Many sufis cultivated a comportment that was endearing, avuncular, and charismatic. They also gained renown for their textual productions, some more than others. Conventional historiography classifies sufis according to their affiliation to sufi silsilahs (spiritual order): Chishti, Suhrawardi, Firdausi, Qadiri, and several others. The linear perception of a silsilah as a chain of transmission of authority from a sufi pīr (spiritual master) to his murīds (disciple) and k̲h̲alīfās (spiritual successor), and the fixed notions about precepts and praxis have conflated the heterogeneous spiritual paths of individual sufis. Most of the spiritual orders did not expand in a unilateral manner. The classification of sufi silsilahs by similitude and differences precludes the complex, multistranded evolution of sufi praxis. The perception of a homogeneous silsilah is premised on the textualization of the genealogy of sufis in the taz̠kirāt (biographical dictionary).The perception that a hegemonic spiritual order is based on a linear and exclusionary chain of transmission of authority as evident in the taz̠kirāt can be challenged by taking recourse to the discourses of individual Sufis in the malfūz̤āt (utterances). The malfūz̤āt represent the spiritual path of charismatic sufi preceptors who relied on select historical personages from an “omnipresent past” to define their praxis rather than on a linear history of sufi preceptors. By contextualizing sufi texts in their contexts, the negotiation and competition among the lineal and spiritual descendants can be traced. In the 14th century neo-eponymous sufis effortlessly transited from one sufi affiliation to another (Nizamiyya to Chishti, for instance), but in the 16th century sufi texts highlighted the simultaneous, multiple affiliations of sufis, thereby complicating the history of the sufi silsilahs.

Article

Sufi Orders in 18th–19th-Century South Asia  

Moin Ahmad Nizami

For Muslims of South Asia the 18th–19th century was a period of consequential developments. With increasing colonial interventions and economic disruptions, it was also marked by movements of tajdīd (revival) in the socio-religious sphere that has influenced modernist understandings of Islam. These attempts to revive and restore a new vigor in Muslim communities were at once local and global—something that religious leaders in South Asia shared with their counterparts in other parts of the Muslim world. Among the overarching religious trends of this period may be included multiple affiliations within different Sufi orders, and a Sufi-ʿālim (Sufi-scholar) rapprochement. This enabled the coalescing of different Sufi orders and provided a religious leadership that could cater to both the educational and spiritual needs of the Muslim communities. Among the different Sufi orders of the period, the Naqshbandīs remained at the forefront of such revival efforts, with the lead provided in north India by Shāh Walīullāh (d. 1762). His attempts at an unprecedented tatbīq (reconciliation) provided the ideological underpinning for many later developments. The Naqshbandīs in Delhi produced some of the key religious thinkers and poets during the two centuries—Mīr Dard (d. 1785), Mirzā Maẓhar (d. 1781), Shāh Ghulām ʿAlī (d. 1825), and Shāh Abū Saʿīd Mujaddidī (d. 1835), among others. Their teachings and influence were not restricted to Delhi but spread quickly and made an impact in the Hijaz and elsewhere. Simultaneously, there was a revival of the two major branches of the Chishtī order—the Chishtī-Niẓāmī and the Chishtī-Ṣābrī—in different parts of the subcontinent. Over the 18th century, the revived Chishti order, with its distinctive approach toward tajdīd, spread across South Asia and contributed to the establishment of Islamic seminaries. The Chishtī-Niẓāmī branch moved from Delhi to Punjab and Deccan, while the Chishtī-Ṣābrī networks spread in the Gangetic basin and the Awadh region. Other Sufi lineages that remained popular, albeit to a lesser degree, were the Qādirī and the Shaṭṭārī, which were particularly active in the Deccan, Gujarat, and Sindh. With the Ṭarīqa-i Muḥammadia of Saiyid Aḥmad Rāe-Barelwī (d. 1830), developments in South Asia also mirrored the larger international picture of emerging activist Sufi movements of anticolonial nature (sometimes termed as “neo-Sufi”).

Article

Tantra in South Asia  

Hugh B. Urban

Tantra is historically one of the most important but also most often misunderstood, understudied, and poorly defined currents within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of South Asia. Widely dismissed by European Orientalist scholars and Christian missionaries as a degenerate form of black magic and debauchery, Tantra has been embraced by contemporary popular and New Age audiences as a liberated path of sensual pleasure and sexual freedom. While it has been defined in many different ways by modern scholars, Tantra has played a central but often ambivalent role in South Asian religious, social, and political history. In the 21st century, Tantra remains an important though often misunderstood religious presence, both in the few surviving Tantric lineages of South Asia and in the various popular forms of tantra-mantra (in India) and “Neo-Tantra” (in Europe, England, and North America).

Article

Were-Tigers of Odisha in Adivasi Folklore  

Stefano Beggiora

The Meriah Wars, a series of conflicts that bloodied the central districts of the state of Odisha (India) in the 19th century, pitted the indigenous populations of the Konds against the British army. Historiographic sources demonstrate that although the apparent British casus belli claimed an intent to suppress the Konds because of their practice in human sacrifice, the evidence remains unreliable and incomplete on how the Konds actually followed this ritual and indicates that the British Raj’s true motivations lay elsewhere. Sources instead illustrate concretely that the British Raj focused its actual attention on areas that, until recently, drew scarce interest but reflected its increasingly urgent need to extend and consolidate the colonial rule in the belt of central-eastern India. This cultural clash with the Konds would later highlight the limited understanding of Europeans about the crucial role that many indigenous peoples played in the political balance and as social subjects in the buffer zones on the edge of the forests. If it has been reported that the Konds were often chased, persecuted, and shot down like beasts and that their villages were set on fire in this dark page of colonial history, it is also true that their communities were fluid entities capable of evading peace treaties, using the harsh and unexplored jungle terrain to their advantage and sometimes mounting a strenuous resistance. This uncontrollability is probably the main reason for their misrepresentation in colonial sources, which often emphasize the gruesome aspects of human sacrifice and the Konds’ prowess in the witchcraft arts. It is in this context that the ability of some tribesmen to transform themselves into were-tigers and possibly prevail over an otherwise stronger enemy is first recorded. The practice of theriomorphism has survived to this day, along with a shamanic-type religiosity among the Kond minorities still populating the Kandhmal district. Therefore, an ethnographic approach allows not only for a detailed investigation into this still little-known phenomenon and a clearer analysis of certain aspects of this community’s history but also a deeper understanding of the wide relational spectrum of the Konds with their territory and the wildlife surrounding them and as they coped with the challenges imposed by modernity.