ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Alien Until Proven Otherwise

Piety and Politics in the Early Indian Mosque by Finbarr Barry Flood, Debates in Indian History and Society Series (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2008; pp LXVIII + 274, Rs 695.






Alien Until Proven Otherwise

Samira Sheikh

he Park 51 controversy in New York has drawn world attention towards mosques in Muslim-minority lands. Although the proposed structure in New York is not to be a mosque but a cultural centre, it has nevertheless become the subject of intense discussion. What does the building of a mosque connote, especially close to the site of a spectacular act of iconoclasm? Can the aesthetics or form of a Muslim house of worship ever be detached from the discourses within which it is seen by non-Muslims? The current controversy surely makes the book under review a particularly apposite read, especially since it brings together essays that technically analyse early Islamic architecture in India with those that disaggregate discourses around them.

Alien Symbols?

Any conversation on the Indian mosque must perforce be conducted against the backdrop of the Babri mosque. Thanks to Hindu nationalists, the very phrase “Indian mosque” has been rendered problematic, conjuring up “foreign” domed structures superimposed on razed temples. In spite of the fact that the earliest mosques in India have been standing for over 800 years, mosques are still seen as alien impositions of an external faith. The position of mosques in India’s landscape stands

Piety and Politics in the Early Indian Mosque

by Finbarr Barry Flood, Debates in Indian History and Society Series (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2008; pp LXVIII + 274, Rs 695.

in for the position of Muslims: bearing only ambiguous allegiance to Indian soil. While Sufi dargahs are valorised as indigenous, syncretic and pluralistic, mosques, as spaces designated exclusively for male Muslim worship, have been consistently viewed with suspicion: alien until proven otherwise. Early mosques are, in addition, seen as symbols of religious conquest, as material emblems of the victory of Islam.

While hypernationalist discourses reject mosques outright, even professional historians have been uncomfortable with early Indian mosques unless they can be shown to demonstrate indigenous authorship or architectural form. There has been an anxiety, in the face of Hindu nationalism, to “root” mosques within an Indian sphere of production. This zeal to indigenise and naturalise the mosque has severed links to the architectural contexts of their Ghurid sponsors, many of whom formerly ruled in Afghanistan and Persia.

It is to this overheated terrain that Finbarr Barry Flood brings a selection of scholarly reflections on the early Indian mosque. Urging us, with Mohammad Mujeeb, to

december 4, 2010

look beyond the “rhetoric of the medieval historians and the political slogans of our own times”, Flood has assembled important essays published on the “conquest mosques” of the period between the earli

est Ghurid conquest of parts of north India in 1192 and the early years of the Delhi Sultanate in 1230. The book is in three parts. The final section is on three Ghurid mosques in Rajasthan: in Ajmer, Kaman and Khatu Kalan; another set of essays is devoted to the Qutb mosque and Minar in Delhi; and the first section interrogates pre-Ghurid mosques in India, the history of “Islamic” iconoclasm, and the question of when and which Hindu temples were destroyed in the medieval period. As important as any of the essays is Flood’s substantial introduction.

Perhaps the most plangent of the anthologised essays is Mohammad Mujeeb’s Nehruvian plea in 1972 to turn from polarising identity battles to an informed aesthetic appreciation of the finished building

– in the case of his essay, the Qutb complex in Delhi – and to the dialogic aesthetic choices made by Muslim supervisors and Hindu craftsmen. “It would be fairer and more precise”, he argues, “not to make distinctions on the grounds of religion when the real difference lies in the degree to which the standards and aesthetic principles of sculpture and architecture have been applied...” (p 122). The Hindu stonemasons who carved the Qutb’s elaborate ornamentation “asserted themselves as technicians”, he argues, a stance reiterated a few years later (in 1978) by Fritz Lehmann, who again asserted the autonomy of the

vol xlv no 49

Economic & Political Weekly


Qutb’s craftsmen over religious divisions: “Craftsmen and builders were never too proud to take the wages from whatever ruler gave them the chance to express their skills” (p 148).

Islamic or Indian?

Much of the unease around the Ghurid mosques centres on origins: are these Indian or Islamic buildings? Can Islamic mosques be Indian? Are these structures precursors of later, “genuinely” Indo-Islamic mosques? Can they be celebrated as part of Indian architectural heritage? Lehmann articulates this dilemma by comparing the buildings to the plight of Indian Muslims:

The Indian Muslim thus partakes of the double odium of apostate and Quisling. To scholars with this outlook it is hard to see the early Indian mosque as a new kind of Indian aesthetic achievement since the buildings seem so clearly symbolic of events and social developments which are themselves unacceptable as Indian events (p 131).

Lehmann’s plea to take the discussion of these early mosques away from considerations of religious conflict and see “Sultanate mosques as evidence of the nature of Sultanate society” echoes through much of the book. Sunil Kumar offers a deconstruction of readings of the Qutb complex in the last century and a half, with a comparable argument that sees these buildings as a tool that educate their viewer about “the complex, fragmented political and religious world of India’s Middle Ages” (p 156). Kumar’s essay, first published in 2001, is the counterpart to Flood’s introduction. He points poignantly to the historically constituted discomfort with which many Indians see the Qutb mosque. While the Qutb Minar can be celebrated uncritically, the mosque, so evidently constructed from reused materials, brings to mind the “destruction, power, and might” (p 151) that have come to be associated with the “Islamic conquest”. Kumar identifies two streams in the historiography of the Qutb complex: the secular Indian version in which “Islamic inspiration was dependent upon indigenous craftsmanship for its ultimate realisation” (155) versus the strand espoused by scholars such as Anthony Welch and Robert Hillenbrand, for whom the buildings were essentially structures defining and expressing Islamic conquest. In their emphasis on “Islamic-ness”, Kumar

Economic & Political Weekly

december 4, 2010

argues, such scholars come close to the colonial-period readings of these structures by Alexander Cunningham of the Archaeological Survey of India, and by Sayyid Ahmad Khan.

Flood draws a somewhat different historiographical division to that proposed by Kumar. On the one hand, he finds evidence of an “indigenising” trend which finds unbroken continuity with preconquest Indian architecture in the Ghurid mosques. Such a view valorises the agency of the mosques’ Indian builders and finds their architectural values written into the buildings to the extent that they are no longer considered “Islamic” but “Indic”. From this perspective, the Muslim patrons and users of the mosques can only be seen as alien. On the other hand is the “foreignising” perspective of scholars who see in the Ghurid mosques persistent continuities with Afghan and Iranian models. Such a view is typified by Robert Hillenbrand’s article on the Ajmer mosque (1988), which emphasises borrowings not from Indic, but from other Islamic traditions. Local traditions, he claims, were only reflected in surface architectural detailing, and the building showed only cursory and pragmatic use of local Jain building tradition. Another article that places the Ghurid mosques firmly in the Islamic world is one by Anthony Welch, Hussain Keshani and Alexandra Bain, who argue that the Qur’anic and other epigraphs carved on the buildings in the Qutb complex were carefully chosen to “proclaim Islam’s domination and new dominion” within the Hanafi madhhab or legal school. These quotations were aimed not only at the non-Muslim population but also positioned their patrons within Islamic schools and debates.

Much of the discursive baggage that besets the Ghurid mosques can be attributed to colonial authorities, says Flood. James Tod’s characterisation in 1829 of the Turks as the “Goths and Vandals of Rajasthan”, followed by a long series of colonial archaeological experiments and classifications in the 19th century produced the Ghurid mosques as “intrusive anomalies within the basic taxonomic structures of colonial and post-colonial scholarship” (p xix). Colonial categorisation was imbued with anxieties about miscegenation

vol xlv no 49

and purity and a desire to delimit and characterise architecture by religious denomination, a tendency that was inherited by subsequent writers. Thus, Michael Meister mentions “ornate Hindu pillars”, “Hindu patterns in details” and “Hindu interiors” that were produced by Hindu craftsmen in his 1972 article on the “Twoand-a-Half Day Mosque in Ajmer”, and goes on to describe how the building’s unprecedented “height and airiness” was a “sign of the creative impulses stirring in the hearts both of the plunderers and of the plundered” (226-27). But by 1993, Meister was proposing a new vocabulary, that of a permeable membrane, to understand “the interaction of Islam and Hindu India” (p 253), in his discussion of another two Ghurid mosques in Rajasthan, those of Kaman and Khatu Kalan.

The Villain of the Piece

Flood’s ascription of religious essentialism to colonial writers is close in tone to Richard M Eaton’s widely cited article on temple destruction (first published in 2000 and reprinted here). Eaton lays much of the blame for contemporary Hindu nationalist grievance about Islamic iconoclasm and desecration at the door of Henry M Elliot, the compiler of several volumes of extracts from medieval Indian writers, who carefully chose histories that would portray Muslim rule as despotic, barbaric and anti-Hindu, and in contrast, show up the “justice and efficiency” of British rule (p 65). Eaton makes a series of important points that are worth summarising here: first, that it is wrong to attribute medieval temple desecration to an “essentialised theology of [Islamic] iconoclasm”, as pre-Islamic kings regularly attached and looted enemy kings’ temples. (70). Islamic rulers were well aware that temples were the sites of royal authority. Thus, as Eaton argues and demonstrates on maps, desecrations took place “on the cutting edge of moving military frontiers”, and it was usually temples closely associated with enemy authority that were destroyed or turned into mosques. In later times, Muslim successor states expanding into non-Muslim domains deployed the same vocabulary of temple desecration. Mosques, in contrast, were not seen as politically active manifestations of


Muslim royal authority, and were not usually the focus of political attack.

Andre Wink’s analysis of medieval characterisations of Indian idols claims that “Islamic iconoclasm in India reflects the structural urge for social atomisation and the attempt to integrate the authority of the Muslim emperor among local polities and elevate it above them” (p 30). This article, reprinted from the second volume of his Al-Hind (1997) anticipates some of Eaton’s key arguments by showing that 13th century Turkic invaders were familiar with the sacred geography of north India (which led them to target Mathura, Kanauj, and Somanath), and understood the nexus between king and temple. While temples were destroyed as a way of uprooting local political authority, conquest did not result in widespread religious conversion or demographic shift.

In order to understand the vocabulary of the Ghurid “conquest mosque”, it is important also to trace the very earliest mosques in south Asia. Alka Patel’s useful article summarises the archaeological, epigraphic, and textual evidence for Muslim settlement in India before 1192-93 on the coastline and in the hinterland. It is generally accepted now that trade did not die out in “early medieval” times, and Muslim merchants and job-seekers had settled in south Asia from the late seventh century. Patel describes Muslim settlements in Sindh: in Daibul, Banbhore and Mansura, all of which can be dated to the eighth century. Less well known is the evidence for a Muslim community far inland, in eighth century Gwalior, a hypothesis based on a mihrab in Gwalior fort studied by Michael Willis. Architectural remains from the 11th century are also to be found in Swat, and from the mid-12th century, there is a cluster of buildings and inscriptions that testify to the existence of a Muslim, probably Ismaili, merchant community in Bhadreshvar, in Kachchh. Most of the architectural remains from these sites show modest buildings, in which reuse of locally available materials was rare. Errors in the Arabic text of inscriptions and the prevalence of local building canons would suggest that Indian craftsmen were involved in construction and carving.

The Indo-Ghurid mosques, in contrast to their pre-conquest predecessors, were large, spectacular, and often characterised by elaborate reuse of temple materials. They were manifestations of Ghurid “bombastic self-fashioning” in Afghanistan, extended eastwards into the Indus valley and then Delhi and Rajasthan, in which the audience was partly the defeated non-Muslim populace, and partly other Muslims, such as the Shi’i Isma’ilis already popular in these regions. While they had many similarities with other Ghurid structures, the “conquest mosques” in India were a distinct type. One feature of these mosques was “reused material”. This is a contentious question and Flood is careful to address it thoroughly.

Anachronistic Scrutiny

Ghurid mosques in India employed recycled materials, in some cases even when alternatives were available. Speed may have been the reason in some cases, but in other instances the objective was to recontextualise and nullify icons and politically significant religious architecture. There was considerable variation, though: “The range and variation in alterations to figural imagery...suggest that while the impetus for neutralising it derived from the patrons, the parameters of implementation were left to the agency of the individual mason” (p 1). The Ghurid mosques were templates for conveying multiple messages: in their carefully selected Qur’anic epigraphs, they spoke to both Muslims and non-Muslims, literate and non-literate. Texts were chosen to convey theological messages, and calligraphic styles to employ the manual dexterity of local craftsmen to create a new visual vocabulary. The Indo-Ghurid mosques, says Flood, have suffered anachronistic scrutiny and discourses that alienate them alternately from their Afghan and Indian contexts. Perhaps the way out is to step beyond modern nation state boundaries to restore their connected, contested Indo-Afghan histories, and to recover the aesthetic choices and technical conversations of their Muslim and Hindu makers. This volume makes an e xcellent start in that direction.

Samira Sheikh ( teaches history at Vanderbilt University, the United States.

december 4, 2010 vol xlv no 49

Economic & Political Weekly

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here


To gain instant access to this article (download).

Pay INR 50.00

(Readers in India)

Pay $ 6.00

(Readers outside India)

Back to Top