Shahid Amin’s book tells the story of (or rather the telling of the story of) Syed Salar Masud, known popularly as Ghazi Miyan, a widely revered saint whose shrine in Bahraich in North India (bordering Nepal) is a place of pilgrimages that has, over the centuries, acquired the power of aura in popular consciousness. Ghazi Miyan is identified by his followers as the nephew of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (a historically unverifiable fact), the Turkic warrior who made repeated raids into northwest India in the early eleventh century. This claim of kinship explains the provocation in the title of the book, Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan; Mahumud of Ghazni is remembered as a brutal conqueror, yet his nephew, Ghazi Miyan, is remembered as a saint around whom a community of Hindus and Muslims continue to worship. In this richly textured study of competing narratives and memory, a genre of which Amin is one of South Asia’s foremost practitioners, he asks how a sense of community (of believers of various religions) is constituted because of, rather than in spite of, a history of conquest. Amin’s work is meant to upend scholarship that would “focus exclusively on the syncretism of such cults, without taking on board the narrative refashionings of conquest that these cults invariably entail” (8). Amin shows that the story of Ghazi Miyan challenges at once our understanding of how the Turkic conquest is “remembered” and our judgments about how figures who constitute that “event” ought to be remembered. For Amin’s Ghazi Miyan is a conqueror who turns into a protector (of, among other things, cows); a stranger who becomes kin; a warrior who is revered most as a saint. Helpfully, at the beginning of the book, Amin provides us with a brief outline of the life of the saint, as well as a glossary. This proves invaluable for the reader, as each (short) chapter toggles between multiple sources and temporal periods, while the main text in each chapter describes different characters and different sites of Ghazi Miyan’s afterlife. Amin’s recounting draws primarily on three main sources: a seventeenth-century Persian hagiography, Mirat-i-Masud; nineteenth- and twentieth-century Urdu and English renderings of folk stories about Ghazi Miyan; and present-day ballads about the life of Ghazi Miyan performed at his shrine by Dafalis, a Muslim community of balladeers. Although this is not the book’s primary purpose, an engagement with the larger implications (and politics) of the use of these sources would have been illuminating. For instance, while the book relies on both a “high” Persian text and folk sources to trace the telling of the Ghazi Miyan story, Amin himself problematizes this distinction, noting that it is “fruitless” to adjudicate between the reciprocal influence of an “arcane” seventeenth-century text and popular cultural stories of the saint (97). A more sustained analysis of what constitutes the arcane and the popular, the foreign and the local, the literary and the oral, would have been welcome. Although Amin repeatedly resists offering any single answer as to why a conqueror-warrior turns into a saint around whom a multireligious community coheres, his book suggests at least one consistent pattern: the centrality of the figure of the female devotee. Stories tell of Amina Sati (whose name has connotations for both the Muslim and Hindu communities), who welcomes Ghazi Miyan as her brother and is subsequently banished from her (Hindu) home (105–106). Her recognition of Ghazi Miyan as kin seems to offer a productive way to consider how “assent is generated across religious divides” (8). Similarly, in the story of the blind Zohra Bibi, who was “consumed by pining for the warrior saint,” we can see a desire that represents the gendered nature of devotion itself, and her “marriage-in-death” to Ghazi Miyan is annually marked by devotees to the shrine (65–66). The stories of Amina Sati and Zohra Bibi also suggest how we might bring together the dichotomy of the “ordinary” troubles for which people turn to the saint (infertility, marriage, etc.) and the “history” of the Turkic conquest. As Amin’s book shows, these are inextricably intertwined processes—both historical, both ordinary. While Amin is rightfully critical of scholarship that insists on syncretism as somehow inherent to Indian culture, at times his insistence on the “localness” of Ghazi Miyan tips in a similar direction. We can see this in the comparison he offers between the rituals of the saint and the commemoration of Muharram. While Amin notes that “the martyrdom of Husain … has undoubtedly been an important element of Indian popular religiosity,” he writes that it should not be seen as “the same as a regional medieval past connecting a Muslim warrior to the toponymy and cultural immediacy of the Gangetic heartland” (181). This observation is another place where Amin might have further unpacked his analysis. For while the differences between the rituals around Ghazi Miyan and the observation of Muharram are significant, the highly local way in which Muharram is observed (from rural Bengal to urban Hyderabad), suggests a parallel form of “cultural immediacy,” regardless of the origins of the story of Karbala. Let me finish with a quick return to the important work the book’s title does for Amin. The tension between conquest and community is one that has a particular resonance in modern India. In the fourth section of the book, Amin traces both the seventeenth-century “Islamicist disquiet” (157) with the rituals associated with Ghazi Miyan and the twentieth-century efforts of Hindu groups like the Arya Samaj to discourage Hindu devotees from worshipping at his shrine (167). The contemporary resonance will not be lost on Amin’s readers, as he notes: “Indeed, the prefix ‘Ghazi’ is only slightly less common in place names than the ubiquitous ‘Rama,’ standing for the legendary king of Ayodhya, a day’s horse ride from Bahraich across the river Saryu” (191). That is, the history of Muslim conquest has been deployed since the colonial period as a means of exacerbating sectarianism through the implication that Muslims are forever “foreign.” In contemporary India, this rhetoric found one of its most violent manifestations in the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu nationalists. Conquest, once a historic event that transformed north Indian social life and kinship, is now a productive fable that ties and tears apart India’s sense of community, a consistent trope used to justify the notion that Muslims can never be a part of the nation. Which is why, Amin argues, scholars find themselves making an argument for community against conquest—the Sufi versus the Turkic warrior—as if these were wholly unrelated historical phenomena. In their stead, Amin offers us the example of Ghazi Miyan as a figure and site of the “everyday memories” (the title of his last chapter) of conquest that do not in any way preclude the strong feeling of community engendered by the warrior-saint. The implications of this argument are far-reaching, even if Amin reaches for them obliquely. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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