This short essay is based upon and distills the argument of my longer article, “Locating Religion in South Asia: Islamicate Definitions and Categories," Comparative Islamic Studies, Volume 10, No. 2 (2017): 217-241.
“Religion” is one of those wrought terms of scholars: for years now, academics have debated its relative worth and, for some, worthlessness, traced its Euro-American and Euro-centric origins, located its lexical rise within the histories of oppression and persecution that typify Euro-American colonialism. And yet it retains usage, power, and meaning within both popular and scholarly circles alike. Just as “religion” informs and attempts to capture scholarly discourse in and outside the study of religion as well as how popular and varied publics use the term, “Islam” similarly informs Islamic studies across disciplines, even as it appears in fields that may not have methodological, theoretical, or topical overlaps with the study of religion. While scholars—including me—have been keen to point out the ways in which “religion,” and sometimes our conceptualizations of categories of religion like “Islam” are unmistakably rooted in imperial projects, it is nevertheless also important and accurate to investigate if and how other definitional systems influence these normative, hegemonic terms.
This digital essay briefly highlights how scholars might continue to investigate the role of native definitions of categories of (or like) religion, how they have been incorporated or ignored within the broadest definitions, and specifically how Islamicate texts contribute to the history of the study of religion. As I argued with more detail elsewhere, I aim to trouble the given relationship between the study of religion, definitions of religion, and non-European, non-Christian actors specifically by locating Islamicate, South Asian definitions of religion as analogous, related, and, in some cases, influences upon Euro-American definitions of religion.
Why South Asia?
Why South Asia? First, despite lengthy rule by Muslims in the region—starting with the Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century and ending, formally, with British colonial control in the mid-19th—scholars have and continue to ignore the role that Islam and Muslims in India play in the (sometimes intertwined) disciplines of religious and Islamic studies. Muslims in India produced enormous amounts of written work that dealt with, among other things, theological, political, institutional, social, and scientific topics, over and above poetic, musical, and literary contributions. Yet, Islamic studies has been slow to center South Asia and instead we see academic programs, language instruction and prioritization, scholarly training, and even popular conceptualizations imagine the Arabic-speaking and Arab Middle East as the unmitigated “center” of “the Muslim World.” Congruously, India is imagined as necessarily Hindu, especially in light of religious nationalism. Muslims in India—their histories, writings, lives, and contemporary issues—get lost in the shuffle of disciplinary boundaries, racialized understandings of regions of the world, and troubling assertions of authentic practices.
“South Asia—as the home of Sanskrit—helps build the space in which a linguistic-racial link between Europe and greater India is imagined; in turn, it builds the space in which non-Indo-Europeans, like Islamicate languages and Muslims, are reified as necessarily other. The othering happens twice: once within India and once within Europe.”Second, the history of religion often cites scholars who have themselves rooted their research in India, famously typified by F. Max Müller, but including many others as well. This means that European and American intellectuals draw knowingly or not, upon genealogies of religion that stem from South Asia and South Asians, as well those that are inherently Euro-American. The India of this religious definition, however, is an India inviolably tied to Sanskrit, an Indo-European language and a philological strategy through which to link European lineages to older, Indic ones. In other words, South Asia—as the home of Sanskrit—helps build the space in which a linguistic-racial link between Europe and greater India is imagined; in turn, it builds the space in which non-Indo-Europeans, like Islamicate languages and Muslims, are reified as necessarily other. The othering happens twice: once within India and once within Europe. And yet, this process of definition, tied to India and Indic sources and formative to the discipline of religious studies as well as its later relative, Islamic studies, fails to recognize the ways in which it elides historical evidence of Muslims and Islamicate languages as part of it.
So, you may ask again, why South Asia? Simply, it was a major site for networks of colonialism, imperialism, and intellectual reporting (i.e., Orientalism). The information gathered and produced about South Asia in turn produced material effects upon religious studies as well as the bodies of religious practitioners. Yet, Europeans were not the first to rule South Asia nor did European regimes alchemically concoct religious definition. Historically, of course, there is a time in South Asia where colonial and imperial intervention was not merely European but instead (and also) Islamicate.
Religion and South Asia
Why do we care about the category of religion and South Asia? Scholars have used South Asian sources and histories to ground their critiques of religion. But very few have taken seriously the possibility of South Asians as co-authors of this fraught category. Critiques of the category of religion are vital to its contemporary study as well as the contemporary study of Islam. We have, as scholars of religion/Islam, omitted investigating South Asian sources as part of the definitional systems of both “Islam” and “religion.” These aren’t debates about dusty books in deep library stacks, in my read. In fact, it is my contention that without South Asia—gazed upon, reported from, or thought about by both European and Indic, Islamicate actors—contemporary debates about religion would be all but impossible.
“Why do we care about the category of religion and South Asia? Scholars have used South Asian sources and histories to ground their critiques of religion. But very few have taken seriously the possibility of South Asians as co-authors of this fraught category.”
Literature, like Abu’l Fazl’s Ā’īn-i Akbarī, demonstrated religious classification and categorization and was both well-known and foundational to British conceptualizations of “religion.” Despite this text’s centrality to imperial scholarship, its import to the foundation of study of religion is largely unrecognized. The very structure of power causes it—and texts like it—to go unseen: because British scholars imagined Muslims and Islam to be inherently foreign to India, they produced an intellectual space in which Islamicate contributions, notions, and definitions ceased to be possible as native to and necessarily part of the South Asian milieu.
What if, instead of “religion” inherently denoting a foreign, imposed term, it could stand alongside and in conversation with analogous, Islamicate categories of identification, classification and study? Despite countering viewpoints, I maintain that dīn is such a term.
Famed scholar of religion W. C. Smith understands that while there is not a correspondence between religion and that which it describes, there is indeed a correlation between the signifier (dīn) and signified (religion). He writes that
the Arabic language has, and has had since the appearance of Islam and indeed from shortly before, a term and concept that seem to be quite closely equivalent to the Western ‘religion.’ Indeed this word—namely, dīn—is used in all the various senses of its Western counterpart.
Smith understands dīn to function in very similar ways as does “religion.” This is important not only because Smith demonstrates a corollary term and provides a linguistic and cultural pathway to investigate corresponding ideas between supposedly Western and non-Western ideas. I agree with him and what his claim tells us about religion: categorical thinking about what we call religion is not merely a modernist, colonial, or imperial process.
“Dīn may not directly translate to religion, nor does religion necessarily translate to dīn, but the two terms attempt to capture similar and corollary concepts. They attempt to describe not theology or faith, but rather, the socio-cultural and even ethno-linguistic divisions between people who claim varying belief systems.”
Dīn may not directly translate to religion, nor does religion necessarily translate to dīn, but the two terms attempt to capture similar and corollary concepts. They attempt to describe not theology or faith, but rather, the socio-cultural and even ethno-linguistic divisions between people who claim varying belief systems. A standing critique of translating dīn as religion fits here—but I think even the critique demonstrates analogous framing, rather than destroy the comparison. Most recently articulated by the late Shahab Ahmed in his lengthy and comprehensive tome, What is Islam?, the critique of marking dīn as religion is as follows: dīn is both like and unlike religion; it is, more than “religion” in a Western sense, meant to describe a totalizing way of life. It is important to note that the uses of dīn—much like those of “religion”—vary from the very specific (e.g., the True Religion of Christians) to broader, categorical uses (e.g., people with religions; religious people).
Textual Uses of Dīn
What about the textual evidence? We have a number of Islamicate sources, both from within and beyond South Asia, that take seriously groups and boundaries that later orientalist work would describe as “religious” as well as set forth to establish and explain categories analogous to religion. Texts by Muslims that both created and comprised a scholarly tradition that deal directly with the idea of religion as a category of identification, as well as a means by which individuals navigated space, date as far back as the late eleventh century. We can’t explore them all here, but it’s worthwhile to list a few.
“We have a number of Islamicate sources, both from within and beyond South Asia, that take seriously groups and boundaries that later orientalist work would describe as ‘religious’ as well as set forth to establish and explain categories analogous to religion.”
One such text is Abu al-Ma`ali’s work, entitled Bayan al-adyan (The Account of the Religions, c. 1092 CE). In al-Ma`ali’s work, we observe a sense of dīn that does not necessarily refer to theology, but rather to identity, group identity and, most importantly, the language through which a scholar should express those differences; Abu al-Ma`ali is not a theologian writing about differences but rather a scholar interested in studying subjects who happen to be religious.
Al-Bīrūnī (d. 1048), likewise, offers another important contribution, for it seems to represent the first Islamicate understanding of Indian religions within Arabic writing as a unitary phenomenon. Al-Bīrūnī specifically wrote about Indian religions, including treatises on the Bhagavadgītā and Patañjali’s yogasūtras. His work, as Carl W. Ernst points out, is important because it uses Islamic categories as templates to make sense of India. Thus, al-Bīrūnī, as an agent of a conquering political force evaluated the Indic religious landscape by both drawing upon established “outsider” categories (i.e., those of Islamic scholarship) as well as “insider” knowledge sources (i.e., Sanskrit epics and treatises). This shows us an analogous system to thinking about, devising definitions of, and making comparisons between religion and religions.
Another profitable example of Islamicate definitions of South Asian religions is Muhammad ibn `Abd al-Karīm Shahrastānī (d. 1153), whose famous text Kitab al–Milal wa’l-Nihal (c. 1125) or The Book of Religious Sects and Creeds in many ways sets a high bar for this genre of literature. Shahrastānī’s work is notable both in terms of what he says as well as how he says it: the work is neither a polemic against nor a scathing critique of Indian religions. Instead, Shahrastānī generously compares the religions of India (`ārā’ al-hind) to the Sabians, a monotheistic group mentioned in the Qur’an alongside Jews and Christians, and often glossed as “people of the Book” (‘ahl al-kitab). The people of Hind—those who we might today call both Hindus and Buddhists—are treated as (theologically incorrect) religious Others. While the twelfth century text conforms to scholastic norms and expectations of its period, it accomplishes a written, well-read, and well-cited record of religion as a category of inquiry—i.e., part of what an Islamic scholar might need or want to know. Furthermore, it allows another avenue into thinking about South Asia’s location vis-à-vis religion, religious definition, and the intellectual or imperial uses of such categories.
The works of al-Ma`ali, al-Bīrūnī, and Shahrastāni trouble the understanding of “religion” as necessarily a product of Europe, imposed upon hapless colonized subjects; similarly, they trouble the understanding that “religion” as a universal category to which people subscribe (even if in inferior, problematic ways) is itself uniquely the product of Christian thinkers. These Islamicate scholarly works stand to suggest an analogous intellectual engagement with—and comparable categories for—what we term “religion.”
While these Islamicate texts discuss Indic religion and prefigure the European interest in Indic practice, they may not be strictly South Asian in origin. As mentioned above, the Ā’īn-i Akbarī (The Institutes of Akbar), however, is one such document that is distinctively South Asian in its composition, authorship, and distribution. It is the last volume of the last book within the larger Persian work Akbarnāma (The Book of Akbar, c. 1590). The whole Akbarnāma was written by Abu’l Fazl Allami (d. 1602), the renowned courtly scribe of Mughal Emperor Jalāl ud-Dīn Muhammad Akbar (r. 1556-1605, d. 1605). The Akbarnāma is a narrative written in grandiloquent, bombastic prose, which becomes a stylistic form for authors who follow Abu’l Fazl. The Ā’īn-i Akbarī, as the final volume of the Akbarāmā, is not written in such terms; rather, it is exceptionally descriptive, does not follow a narrative form, and reads as a compilation of factual data. In fact, many contemporary authors that cite the Ā’īn-i Akbarī are historians and social scientists who plumb the text for its data more so than its content (Moosvi 2008).
The Ā’īn-i Akbarī is, in its contemporary edited form, divided into five sections. The fourth section—the relevant one, here—gives a geographic, religious and, proto-ethnographic description of Mughal India. This is where Abu’l Fazl lists, interrogates, and evaluates Hindu and Indic norms of religion, philosophy, and praxis, and where he most readily demonstrates what we would recognize as an academic impetus to classify, categorize, and interpret religion and religions. Abu’l Fazl is not a modern author, carefully distancing himself from his subject; rather, he sees Islam as the religion and acknowledges Hindu traditions within that framework. This functions in a way that is analogous to the more theorized ways in which Christianity stands in for “the religion” and a diversity of traditions, “religions.” It also reflects, therefore, the ways in which Abu’l Fazl imagines Islam vis-à-vis power structures (the Mughal Empire), “true religion” (Islam), and demographic realities (non-Muslim majority as subjects).
Additionally, in the Ā’īn-i Akbarī, Abu’l Fazl discusses not only the different religious groups but also—and this is worth underscoring—Akbar’s official courtly policies surrounding different religions and religious groups. Because Akbar had a policy toward religious groups, and based much of his policies on the religious definitions present within Islamicate literature, his reign might be thought of as one that has many of the features we typically associate with other imperial models, i.e. Europe’s colonies and empires.
Indic Sources and Religion
In other words, the structural ways in which religion comes to be developed and deployed in the colonial period as a method of defining difference between groups is a part of the ways in which authors like al-Ma`ali, al-Biruni, Shahrastani, and Abu’l Fazl used dīn. It should, therefore, indicate an analogous taxonomy for what we call religion. Beyond etymologies, what the use of dīn stands to indicate is that religion—as a system that is both about faith and not about faith, is both tied to political power and used in conversation—is not necessarily a unique category, nor does it necessarily stand uniquely apart from non-European conceptualizations.
“Islamicate traditions, with a preexisting understanding of religion, cannot be said to merely have had an outside terminology imposed upon them with no vocabulary by which to understand: while the actual word religion may have been a foreign imposition, the translated concept was not.”
South Asia was, has been, and continues to be a major site of the discourse and dialogical process of definition with respect to religion, and as such it is time to move to Indic sources to flesh out the understandings of religion within that arena. I have suggested that Muslims have produced, created, revised, and understood religion in a way that parallels Western usage well before the colonial encounters of the seventeenth century onward. In this way, Islamicate traditions, with a preexisting understanding of religion, cannot be said to merely have had an outside terminology imposed upon them with no vocabulary by which to understand: while the actual word religion may have been a foreign imposition, the translated concept was not. And it ought to be a bigger part of the conversation we have today about the category of religion.