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Sufi Shrine Conference

Final Report

“Practice, performance, and politics of Sufi Shrines in South Asia”

August 2014

American Overseas Research Centers in South Asia (AIBS, AIIS, AIPS, AISLS)

AIPS is working in collaboration with other regional Overseas Research Centers, American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS), and the American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies (AISLS) on a conference titled, "Practice Performance, and Politics of Sufi Shrines in South Asia".

One of the most prominent features of religious and cultural life in South Asia is the presence of numerous shrines commemorating the tombs of Muslim holy men and women, testifying to the enduring tradition of Sufism, or Islamic mysticism. These range from huge historic complexes, such as the shrine of Mu`inuddin Chishti in Ajmer, to informal roadside structures with nothing but a stone and a flag. Sometimes dating back many centuries, the more popular of these Sufi shrines serve hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at annual festivals, frequently with significant participation by Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and others, in addition to Muslims. Some shrines are the subject of multiple narratives, as different clienteles may believe that a Hindu yogi is buried there instead of a Sufi saint.

Although some individual shrines have been the subject of sporadic research, little has been done to bring together scholars who study shrine-based Sufism as a broadly South Asian phenomenon. Four American overseas research centers focused on South Asia – the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies, the American Institute of Indian Studies, the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, and the American Institute of Sri Lanka Studies – propose to convene a workshop to address key questions relating to this important topic, such as:

  • What are the major issues concerning Sufi shrines in South Asia and North and West Africa today?
  • What roles do gender, language, and religious identity play in shrine practice?
  • How are shrines related to the politics of colonialism and the nation-state?
  • What factors have led to attacks on and destruction of Sufi shrines?
  • How do controversies over Sufi shrines in South Asia compare to attacks on Sufi institutions in North Africa and the Middle East?
  • How does shrine-based Sufism relate to reformist and extremist Muslim groups?
  • How do South Asian Sufi shrines connect to transnational audiences through print media, music recordings, and the Internet?

The workshop is envisioned as an event held over 2 ½ days in July 2014 at a convenient location in India, such as Aurangabad (a mid-sized destination with modern facilities and a historic local Sufi tradition), bringing together scholars invited from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and America. Presentation of brief summaries (20 min.) of pre-circulated papers will permit extensive discussion of comparative issues, key concepts, and methodologies for understanding Sufi shrines. If the participants and convenors agree, a volume containing papers from the workshop could be published by a South Asian press, preferably with distribution to all four countries. This workshop will be an excellent opportunity to clarify a topic of international significance while at the same time building academic connections between American, South Asia, and North and West African scholars.