Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi

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Anand Vivek Taneja
South Asia in Motion
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , November
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The decrepit, dark, and abandoned forts and mosques built by historical North Indian Muslim rulers seem empty to us today. However, as Anand Vivek Taneja details in Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi, his new ethnography of Delhi’s medieval monuments, these spaces are incredibly full and offer new ways of thinking about everyday religion, time, the environment, state ideology, and the place of Muslims in India both historically and today. 

The book’s chapters focus on major themes of the study, such as ethics, translation, and the role of the—often ideologically forgotten—past. Taneja draws on diverse source materials, including interviews, government documents, literature, and cinema. The history and current use of these sites are examples of meaning making that Taneja describes as the “invisible religion” of North India (169). The ethics of multi-religious interaction in Muslim medieval monuments sustains their relevance for all Indians, regardless of religious identity. Consistent moves to declare these spaces “dead” by the state—despite requests for religious use—are evidence of what Taneja identifies as ideological motives for keeping North Indian Muslims firmly in the past of postcolonial, post-Partition, India. 

The title of the book, Jinnealogy, references the presence and influence of Islamic jinns at Firoz Shah Kotla, a 13th century monument in Delhi. Beginning in the late 1970s, people began leaving supplications to the jinns, a development that Taneja links to post-Emergency dislocations and trauma. These requests take the form of letters that are affixed to cavernous spaces within the monument; the notes may ask for help with employment, an upcoming marriage, or, as Taneja explains is often the case, they are written by women seeking agency in their interpersonal relationships. As a conceptual frame, jinnealogy describes the logics of justice, knowledge, and enchantment that compel people of all faiths to seek recourse in spectacular figures that have the ability to link people in different eras, regardless of time and space. Although jinns are not present at all of the historical sites Taneja discusses, this concept describes the complex interactions that continue to take place at the Firoz Shah Kotla. 

In a key argument of the study, Taneja uses these spaces and their social worlds to argue the meaningful ways that Islamic discourse and Muslim practices contribute to national religion, culture, and ethics. While doing so, he reframes a major way that South Asian Islam has been theorized by contemporary scholarship. In the anthropology of religion in South Asia, many studies have noted the role(s) of Muslim practices and spaces—notably the Sufi dargah—to non-Muslim experience. In so doing, they define these practices and spaces as liminal, or as “ambiguously” Islamic (Bellamy, Carla. The Powerful Ephemeral: Everyday Healing in an Ambiguously Islamic Place, University of California Press, 2011), given that they seem to exist outside the boundaries of “normative” Islam. Building off of Shahab Ahmed’s (What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton University Press, 2016) arguments about authority and the construction of Islamic tradition, Taneja asserts that this ambiguity is in fact inherent to Islam (144). If Muslim spaces also serve as shared sacred places for Muslims, Hindus, and even those who would claim no religion, this is not because they are an aberration or outside of tradition. This, Taneja argues, is Islamic tradition. 

A broader understanding of what constitutes North Indian religion, and Indian culture, serves to make sense of the widespread presence of Muslims and Islam within it. It helps to answer several questions that Taneja poses, such as, what motivates non-Muslim Indians to seek justice, agency of desire, and connections to nature within historical Muslim monuments? How are we to explain the popularity of Muslims in Bombay cinema, past and present? As Taneja elaborates using diverse examples throughout the book, symbolic Islam is an ethical resource that remains relevant to communities including and beyond Muslims, despite the efforts of the Indian state to erase this heritage for ideological reasons. 

This book will be essential reading for those interested in the anthropology of religion, South Asian studies, and Islamic studies. Taneja’s diverse ethnographic approach depicts the multiplicities of North Indian religion and culture. At a time of increasing Islamophobia in India and globally, Jinnealogy presents a compelling argument of possibility anchored in the discourse and history of a Muslim community that is essential to the city and culture of Delhi, past and present.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jaclyn A. Michael is Assistant Professor of Asian Religions at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga.

Date of Review: 
February 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anand Vivek Taneja is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Anthropology at Vanderbilt University.



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