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



Walking Away from the Theater of History

Kho’e hue jahan ka chehra pehen ke aun

Mitti men teri utrun tab kya pehen ke aun?

Shall I come wearing the visage of a lost world?
How shall I dress when descending into your clay?

—Riyaz Latif

In October 2012 a man went to watch a play in the ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla, a rather apposite location. Firoz Shah Kotla is a fortified palace-complex built by the cousin and successor of the infamously cruel Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq (r. 1325–51), the protagonist of Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq, the play being staged.

The man left the performance midway. In contrast to the illuminated stage he’d just left behind, the path out of the ruins was dark and eerie, framed by the jagged silhouettes of tall, crumbling walls rising against the light-polluted sky of the city beyond. As he neared the exit, he passed an alcove lit with candles where a few people were huddled in prayer. Here, he heard a voice, bodiless but resonant, and came to a halt. The voice was responding to the pleas (fariyad) of the people gathered there, but no one else seemed to hear it. His hair stood on end, listening to the voice from the invisible, but he was unafraid.

The ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla are located near the center of modern Delhi, the capital of the republic of India, and a vast metropolitan area that is home to more than sixteen million people. If you were to walk into the ruins on a Thursday afternoon, you would soon pass an alcove on your right, in what remains of a massive masonry gateway, thronged with women and a few men praying, lighting candles, and depositing petitions. If you were to ask someone, you would be told that this is the place of Nanhe Miyan. If you were to probe a little further, you would be told that Nanhe Miyan is a wali, a Muslim saint, who is also a jinn, a spirit made of smokeless fire. Nanhe Miyan is one of several jinn-saints venerated at different spots among the ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla, a place where religious practice has emerged outside of and parallel to existing institutional structures. It was at the alcove of Nanhe Miyan that Santosh Mishra had stopped, heeding a voice no one else could hear, while walking away from the staging of Tughlaq.

Girish Karnad wrote Tughlaq as an allegory for national disenchantment in the 1960s. The play plots the descent of an idealistic and intelligent ruler into the cruelty and madness for which the historical Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq is infamous. The play, translated into several Indian languages, continues to find resonance with viewers and readers more than fifty years later. Santosh Mishra’s story of his first encounter with the jinn-saints of Firoz Shah Kotla is an invitation to a radically different allegory: walking away from a familiar spotlit history of kings and statist dramatis personae toward another kind of relation to the past anchored in this ruinscape, to open oneself to the small voice of history,1 eloquently whispering in the dark.

The unfolding of this allegory, and its intricate connections to life in the contemporary city, is the concern of this book.

The idealism of the postindependence Nehruvian era gave way, from the mid-1960s, to a darker time of betrayed hopes, floundering social policies, and growing militant unrest. The central government was widely perceived as increasingly corrupt, venal, and autocratic. It was the tragedy of the present that led playwrights like Karnad to interpret the past as ironic prelude. This despairing vision of the past found a home in the ruinscape of Delhi in 1974, when Ebrahim Alkazi’s adaptation of Tughlaq was staged in the Purana Qila (Old Fort), two miles south of Firoz Shah Kotla. The ruins of the sixteenth-century fort served as a backdrop to a remarkably contemporary political fable: a year after the Purana Qila staging, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, a period of the suspension of electoral democracy and the rule of law that lasted nearly two years—the prime minister as Tughlaq.

A few months after the end of the Emergency of 1975–77 Firoz Shah Kotla came to prominence as a religious site in both popular memory and archival records. Many of those who come to Firoz Shah Kotla, both Hindu and Muslim, are from the areas worst affected by the excesses of the Emergency: the working-class Muslim and Dalit neighborhoods of Old Delhi, targeted by the state for evictions, forced sterilizations, and demolitions. Yet their relation to the past, among these ruins, is not one of despair but of hope and healing. They write their petitions to the jinn-saints among these Tughlaq ruins in a form reminiscent of the shikwa, a Perso-Islamic legal form of directly addressing one’s plaints to the sovereign, prominent in the political theory of the Delhi Sultanate. In the dreams and visions that direct them to these ruins, they see Muslim saints wearing archaic robes, harking back to the medieval past. They make themselves at home in a monumental ruinscape of vast, cool underground chambers and thick masonry walls, glimmering monolithic pillars, and tall Islamicate arches—architecture far removed experientially from the cramped, boxy, ill-lit, flimsy, and often airless dwellings in which the majority of Delhi’s population now lives.

As Santosh Mishra once did, let us walk away from the theater of history, from its all-too-familiar plots. The actors may wear the robes of the past and perform in the ruins of a medieval fort, but the story of political corruption and excess is the story of today, offering a vision of history that takes the modern state as its subject, viewing the past as a mere prelude to the tragic inevitability of the present. Let us return to the shadows, away from an all-too-familiar spectacle, until we, too, are stopped in our tracks by a voice, a voice that speaks of other relations to the past: the past not just as what was but as what could have been, and could be again;2 the past not as past and dead but as full of concepts and potentialities for life, for the present and the future.3

In Chapter 2 I show how those who come to Firoz Shah Kotla and petition the jinn-saints embody such a relation to the past. They do not remember the singular cruelty of Muhammad bin Tughlaq but, rather, enact the normative political theology of Indo-Islamic kingship, in which any subject could present a petition before the king and expect justice to be done.4 In a time when the postcolonial government’s relation to its poorer subjects is mediated by layers of bureaucracy, and characterized by a plenitude of hostility and a scarcity of care (Tarlo 2003; Gupta 2012), the religious act of petitioning a jinn-saint in the ruins of a sultan’s palace is also political—reimagining the subject’s relation to the state.

The letters written to the jinn-saints enact an intimate sovereignty, as I show in Chapters 2 and 3, a paternalistic government whose justice reaches far beyond the categories of care imposed by the postcolonial state on its subject populations. In this the religious practices at Firoz Shah Kotla are more radical than the “politics of the governed” on which Partha Chatterjee (2004) focuses. Chatterjee argues that in political society, collectives organize themselves into populations—categories of subjects whose biological care is the goal of colonial (and postcolonial) governmentality—and thus turn the logic of governmental classification and enumeration into a moral imperative for care. The letters written at Firoz Shah Kotla, by contrast, imagine a far more intimate and individualized relation to sovereignty. And while populations and communities have been empowered in colonial and postcolonial India to “colonize the life-world of the individual” (Das 1995, 16), the letters deposited and the stories told at Firoz Shah Kotla imagine a justice that allows for the undoing of the often oppressive norms of family and community and allows women and men to make ethical choices that contradict societal morality: a Muslim woman, for example, articulating her love for a Hindu man.

How can we recognize as ethical the articulation of desires that contradict social norms? How do we understand the articulation of such nonnormative desires in a religious space where religion is widely considered, in both academic and commonsensical understandings, to be the source and staunchest upholder of communal morality? In asking these questions, this book enters the terrain of the anthropology of ethics and freedom (Laidlaw 2002, 2013) in Chapters 3 and 4, and it brings the concerns of this literature into conversation with the anthropology of Islam. This is, of course, an ongoing conversation but one that has been dominated by “virtue ethics” (Mattingly 2012), focusing on the deliberate cultivation of virtuous selves through bodily practices such as veiling (Mahmood 2005) and sermon audition (Hirschkind 2006), and adherence to strict moral codes. The practices of piety studied in Mahmood’s and Hirschkind’s seminal books, as representatives of this literature, focus on Islamic revival movements in Egypt, movements that focus on what Shahab Ahmed (2016) has called prescriptive authority, finding (and following) norms for pious behavior within the limits of the righteous examples of the Prophet Muhammad and the earliest followers of Islam. So even though the literature on virtue ethics in Islam is concerned with the cultivation of moral selves, this ethics looks a lot like following rules. There is no room in such an understanding of ethics and its relation to religion for understanding much of what we see at Firoz Shah Kotla, where people act in ways that constantly challenge and contradict normative morality. Men and women mingle and talk and laugh easily with each other; Muslims and non-Muslims freely interact and eat together; and jinns are treated and petitioned as saints, saints who are asked to bless interreligious unions: none of this fits with ideas of pious behavior if prescriptive morality is taken to be the norm for Islamic ethics.

And what we see at Firoz Shah Kotla is not exceptional: much of everyday life in the Muslim world, the ordinary ethics (Lambek 2010) by which life is lived, does not fit the models of pious selfhood or moral rule-following of Islamic revivalist piety (Al-Mohammad and Peluso 2012). This has led to an “anthropological divide” between the study of revivalist and “everyday” Muslims (Fadil and Fernando 2015), with the everyday being marked, in Fadil and Fernando’s reading of the work of Schielke (2009), for example, as the site of resistance to pious norms or, in other words, of impiety.

But rule-following and modes of self-cultivation based on “pious imitation” of the salaf have not been the only norm for Islamic ethics, historically speaking. Shahab Ahmed (2016) criticizes modern academic understandings of Islam for focusing only on “prescriptive authority” in the formation and transmission of the Islamic “discursive tradition” (Asad 1986) and ignoring “exploratory authority” in the constitution of the tradition. By exploratory authority, Ahmad alludes to the historical freedom of Muslims to explore a multiplicity of truths and values, which he extrapolates from the literary and poetic self-expression of Muslims in what he calls the “Balkans-to-Bengal complex” from the fourteenth century to the nineteenth—literature and poetry such as the divans of Rumi and Hafez, which are in no way inseparable from “religious” life. Muslims could experiment with religious truth, and ideas of pious behavior, because they were not just bound to follow the “text” of the Quran and the hadith as interpreted into codes of pious behavior by jurists but had the potential to access the “pretext” of the revelation: the revelatory potential of the invisible (ghaib) realm that was manifest not just in the seventh-century Quran but in continuing potentials for poetic inspiration, mystical experience, and philosophical insight, which, as Ahmad points out, have had a far greater role in Muslim religious life and ethical self-expression, historically speaking, than “the mimesis of a pristine time of the earliest generations of the community (the salaf)” (S. Ahmad 2016, 81). Ahmad’s opening up of the academic understanding of the Islamic discursive tradition to include the exploratory dimensions of Islamic piety ties in well with Amira Mittermaier’s (2012) critique of the paradigm of self-cultivation in the anthropology of Islam. Mittermaier calls attention to the limitations of this paradigm, with its “emphasis on intentionality and deliberate action [that] obscures other modes of religiosity that center neither on acting within nor acting against but on being acted upon” (2012, 247). Mittermaier’s work (2011) focuses on the power of revelatory dreams in everyday life in Egypt and the ways in which dreams not only challenge the idea of the individual, bounded, rational subject but also open up ethical potentials for dreamers that challenge and exceed reformist ideals of pious behavior and normative morality. Following Ahmad and Mittermaier, we can see the everyday not as impious but as charged with the potential of revelation and hence of ethical expressions not necessarily constrained by legalist understandings of sharia. It is such an everyday, shot through with the ethical urgings of dreams and visions, and the affective charge of the jinn, that one encounters at Firoz Shah Kotla. And here we encounter ethics not as rule following or as technologies of self-making but rather as a set of qualities (Lambek 2015). The ethical qualities encountered and exemplified at Firoz Shah Kotla are gharib nawazi (hospitality to strangers), which I write about in Chapter 3, and nonpatriarchal fatherly affection, which I write about in Chapter 4.

The jinn-saints of Firoz Shah Kotla are antipatriarchal father figures, perceived as the fathers of daughters, not of sons, and women far outnumber men in this space. In patrilocal and patriarchal North Indian culture, the babul, the father of the daughter destined to go away to another, is a figure of unconditional childhood affection and intimacy. To articulate desires that contradict the normative morality of family and community, Hindu and Muslim women—and the men who love them—come to pray to and petition the jinn-saints at Firoz Shah Kotla.

What makes Muslim saints become such antipatriarchal figures for women and men across religious divides, when the image of Islam, in the contemporary mediascape, is so thoroughly oppressive, especially of women? The antipatriarchal potentialities of Islam, which coexist with the patriarchal juridical consensus, center on the popular memory of the Prophet Muhammad, and his relations with the women in his life, especially the loving relation with his daughter Fatima. In Chapter 4 I show how these memories have continued as affective and ethical potentialities in the popular realm, especially through the figures of jinns and paris (fairies) linked to Fatima. These are figures celebrated in eighteenth-century rekhti poetry, poetry written by men but celebrating urban femininity, and the early modern vernacular cityscape (Argali 2006; Vanita 2012). In the corpus of this poetry Nanhe Miyan’s name recurs often.

Rekhti poetry virtually disappeared from the canon of Urdu poetry after the debacle of 1857. The failure of the widespread rebellion of that year, and its brutal and vengeful crushing by the British, was seen as a civilizational defeat, especially by the Muslim elite of North India, particularly those belonging to Delhi. In looking for causes for their defeat, they turned upon their own culture and religion, looking on them anew through the lenses of the conqueror (Vanita 2004, 2012; Pritchett 1994). Now they, too, saw their culture as inferior to the culture of the victorious British: too irrational, too effeminate, too sensual. Rekhti poetry was censured as both symptom and cause of this degeneracy, and both this poetry and the world that it celebrated—the world of desiring women, the world of the affective pulls of jinns and paris, sanctified through rituals—were seen as uncivilized and un-Islamic and were excised both from the corpus of Urdu poetry and from the reformist and revivalist visions of Islam then taking root in colonial India. These visions were part of the modern paradigm of distinguishing true (religion) from false (superstition), a distinction inseparable from the effects of colonial power and epistemology (Asad 1993; Josephson 2012; Ramberg 2014). For revivalist Islam, as for Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist reform, “Only some ways of talking with and relating to gods and spirits qualify as religion, as a modern category of human experience and practice. . . . The understanding presumes a divide between the territory of the human and the realm of the transcendent and dematerialized divine” (Ramberg 2014, 15).

The imams, the officially appointed leaders of prayers in mosques, to whom I spoke, including the imam of the mosque at Firoz Shah Kotla, had adversarial reactions to the sanctification of the jinns at Firoz Shah Kotla and to the practices of veneration and petition related to them. They dismissed these practices and beliefs as ignorant, misguided, and superstitious—as not-quite-acceptable in the fold of Islam. If we were to follow a dominant strand in the academic study of Islam, then we, too, would have to recognize these practices as not-quite-Islamic: for here Islam is recognized only in the ways those authorized to interpret it—learned, seminary-trained men such as the imams, familiar with the foundational texts of scripture and law—choose to define “correct” Islamic practice. But what are now seen as deviant practices, such as attributing saintliness to jinns, spread across a vast geography from Morocco to India (Westermarck 1926). These are not “local” deviations, then, but an entire popular strand of Islamic thought and life that, in conversation with foundational texts and figures but unconstrained by the patriarchal assumptions undergirding modernist understandings of sharia, gives us an Islam of plenitude, of enormous potentialities for ethical life.

This parallel Islamic discourse is accessible not only to Muslims but also to non-Muslims. This discourse, and the potentialities it holds open for ethical life, spreads not just through mosques, and the texts and discourses of religious leaders, but through voices and visions, stories and songs, and even cinema: Bombay cinema is a popular cultural form renowned for its “Muslimness.” It is an industry whose commercial products of popular entertainment, directed at a majority non-Muslim market, are often replete with Islamic theology and ethics (Kesavan 1994; Bhaumik 2001; Bhaskar and Allen 2009). There are intricate connections and parallels between the mise-en-scène of Bombay cinema and the religious landscapes and dreamscapes that I encountered in Delhi. In cinema and dream, and in the often dreamlike space of Firoz Shah Kotla, people move through architectural forms closely associated with the medieval Muslim past, encountering figures dressed in garb that would not have been out of place in a seventeenth-century Mughal miniature. Both in cinematic stories and in people’s narratives of their lives, the passage through these ruins, whether singular or oft recurring, is fundamentally transformative of the self and its relation to the world.

Santosh Mishra’s halting at the alcove of Nanhe Miyan, hearing a voice from the unseen, is not a singular story. Nor is the story he tells of the subsequent changes in his life and in his sense of self. It is popular common sense at Firoz Shah Kotla that more Hindus come here than Muslims do. And many of those who come here, both Hindu and Muslim, come after encountering the saint in their dreams, an encounter that leads not just to the instrumental resolution of problems but to significant changes in their affective lives and ethical choices.

What do the jinn-saints whisper to them among these ruins, and in their dreams?

The jinn-saints, I would wager, speak of and speak to a deep history that constitutes the North Indian self, a self far older than the Partition based on the incommensurability of Hindu and Muslim. They whisper of a past of the Sufi ethic of gharib nawazi, hospitality to strangers, which made Sufi shrines places of hospitality, open to all. They speak, as I show in Chapter 5, of the long histories of translation that have made Islamic ideas and concepts an indistinguishable part of Indic life and ethics. They speak of the history of Sufi theological concepts such as fana, the annihilation of the self, opening up possibilities for everyday life: the disentangling of the self from caste and familial identities and obligations (identities empowered and not dissolved by the politics of the postcolonial state). They speak of Islam as an ethical inheritance and not a religious identity, the inheritance of a premodern past shared by Muslims and non-Muslims.

This inheritance should not have survived. After 1857 the British actively worked to destroy the memory of Mughal sovereignty and demonize the history of Muslim rule (Chatterjee 2010a; Ernst 1992, 18–22). This project fed into the construction of communalism from the late nineteenth century onward and contributed to the growing violence and distrust between communities (Pandey 1990), culminating, in a sense, in the mass violence and demographic shifts of Partition, which saw millions of people uprooted from their intimate geographies, including the majority of Delhi’s Muslims.5 Partition violence saw the destruction of scores of Muslim shrines and tombs in Delhi, erasing a shared sacred geography virtually overnight. The post-Partition, postcolonial Indian state, haunted by the specter of Hindu right-wing violence, operates in a mode of archival amnesia, actively working to forget all ways of being, all claims to belonging, all landscapes and property claims that preceded its inception in 1947.

In contrast, as I show in Chapter 1, in the stories told at Firoz Shah Kotla, and in other parts of Delhi, jinns are linked to deep time, connecting human figures thousands of years apart. In these stories long-lived jinns serve as interlocutors connecting figures as distant in time as Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad or, in a story directly linked to Firoz Shah Kotla, the Prophet and the famed theologian Shah Waliullah of eighteenth-century Delhi. In these stories jinns are the figures of the transmission of memory beyond all possibility of human history. These stories became increasingly popular in post-Partition Delhi, as did the public veneration of jinn-saints at Firoz Shah Kotla. The popularity of jinns, and their links to deep time, increased in a city whose landscapes, public life, and archives were increasingly marked by the deliberate forgetting of a past—the pre-1947 city—barely a generation old. The jinns are figures, we could say, of apotropaic mnemonics, magical figures of memory who serve as an antidote to the magical amnesia, the sleight of hand, of the postcolonial state, which makes things disappear not by keeping them out of its archives but by making them disappear within.


1. This is a reference to Ranajit Guha’s famous essay (1996), which asks us to move beyond statist paradigms in the writing of history.

2. On critiques of Western historiography and its insistence on banishing “temporal pollution,” see Palmie and Stewart (2016).

3. In arguing for the past as holding open potentialities for life, I am drawing on both Nietzsche’s ([1874] 1980) thoughts on the relation of history to life and Koselleck’s (2002) thoughts on conceptual history. Linked closely to Koselleck’s idea of concepts—which transcend political events and periodization—is his idea of the “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” the co-occurrence of forms of life usually divided by discrete periods, such as “medieval” and “modern.” For parallel ethnographic examples see Lambek (2002, 2016) and Wirtz (2016).

4. For a broad overview of the political theologies of Indo-Islamic kingship see Alam (2004). For the (normative) duty of the king to accept petitions from all subjects, see Nizam al-Mulk ([c. 1090] 1960).

5. I use “in a sense” here to indicate that the work of Partition has not concluded but remains an ongoing process of dispossession and disruption, especially for religious minorities in India and Pakistan, as Vazira Zamindar’s (2007) work shows.