Love's Subtle Magic

An Indian Islamic Literary Tradition, 1379-1545

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Aditya Behl
Wendy Doniger
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     418 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Aditya Behl (1966-2009) was a bright scholar of vast erudition whose untimely death at the age of 42 was a great loss to multiple fields of study, including South Asian studies and Islamic studies. Love’s Subtle Magic is his posthumously published monograph, edited by his dissertation advisor, Wendy Doniger. The monograph illuminates the genre of Hindavi Sufi romance, and subtly deploys this genre’s emphasis on the magic of love to counter modern Hindu and Muslim nationalist sentiments. Behl furnishes us with an extraordinary account of this genre’s structure, themes, and functions. The best formulation of Behl’s argument is his own: “The genre [of Hindavi Sufi romance] exemplifies the gradual transformation of conquerors and conquered as they met on the landscape of the soul, defining its pleasures and possibilities. The literary past of modern standard Hindi was a shared past, to which the Sufis contributed a major literary tradition, reinventing themselves as desi Muslims in the process” (25).

Hindavi Sufi romance might be conceived of as a textual space, where—beginning in the fourteenth century—North Indian Muslim poets cultivated new cultural expressions and experiences using multiple value-systems. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point. First, when expressing and experiencing “surrender,” these poets had at their disposal the Islam of Qur’anic discourse and the prapatti of “the Vaisnavas and similar notions among other devotional poets in India” (5). Second, the Sufi idea of “mystical annihilation” (fana) was sometimes compared to “the stereotype of the self-immolation of the Indian sati” (23). What emerged was a “shared literary culture that was not monolithic, monolingual, or monoreligious” (19).

Behl presents sophisticated readings of four Sufi romances: Shaikh Manjhan Shattari’s Madhumalati; Qutban’s Mirigavati; Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat; and Maulana Da’ud’s Candayan. All four poets were doing something new: they were “double-distancing” themselves, re-orienting themselves toward Persian and Sanskrit literary and cultural traditions by embracing “the sweet, straightforward desi tongue” (21). The key aspects of the genre, according to Behl, are “formation of a Hindavi poetics of multiple meanings with a distinctive slant…use of landscape and coded language to denote interior and imaginative journeys, cultural and literary understandings of the Turkish conquest of Hindustan, gender stereotypes used to denote spiritual transformation as well as mystical love, the cosmological and ascetic context for the lush eroticism of the texts, and finally, the audiences for whom the pleasure of listening to narrative poetry was mediated by the Sufi practice of audition and theological interpretation” (29).

The above-mentioned poets who pioneered the genre of Hindavi Sufi romance defy modern-day nationalist identity categories. They were Sufis steeped in both Islamic and Indic discursive traditions and cultural norms. Behl demonstrates the futility of categories such as syncretism to describe the broader cultural universe inhabited by the authors of the Hindavi Sufi romances. Sufi authors such as Amir Khusrau modeled a “much subtler process of indigenization,” and adapted to “local literary and artistic forms to express new poetic and religious agendas within a complex multilingualism of religious and symbolic vocabularies” (16). The particular modes of relating to the self and others modeled in the Hindavi Sufi romances not only differ from, but also provide a powerful alternative to, the conflict-ridden Hindu-Muslim politics of the two-nation notion.

The communalist discourse of colonial India posited Hindi and Urdu as the national languages of Hindus and Muslims, respectively. According to this essentialist linguistic schema, modern-day Hindi is an indigenous language rooted in Hindavi but Urdu is a foreign tongue rooted in Persian and Arabic. Behl’s meticulous study debunks this linguistic schema, for he takes us to a time and place when Muslim poets spoke and composed in Hindavi and utilized indigenous motifs and symbols from the rich cultural-religious landscape of North India. In similar ways, Audrey Truschke’s Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Moghul Court (Columbia University Press, 2016) and Rajeev Kinra’s Writing Self, Writing Empire: Chandan Bhan Brahman and the Cultural World of the Indo-Persian State Secretary (University of California Press, 2015) challenge the linguistic essentialism besetting Muslim/Pakistani and Hindu/Indian nationalist historiographies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ali Altaf Mian is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Seattle University.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aditya Behl (1966-2009) was Associate Professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wendy Doniger is Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago.



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