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Sovereign Violence: Temple Destruction in India and Shrine Desecration in Iran and Central Asia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2015

A. Azfar Moin*
University of Texas at Austin


Was the destruction of Sufi and ‘Alid saint shrines as a rite of conquest in Iran and Central Asia a phenomenon comparable to the desecration of temples in war in India? With this question in mind, this essay examines the changing nature of Islamic kingship in premodern Iran and Central Asia and compares it to developments in Indic kingship. It begins with the thesis that the decline of the caliphate and the rise of Muslim saints and shrines in thirteenth-century Iran and Central Asia led to a new form of “shrine-centered” sovereignty practiced by the rulers of these regions. This development, in turn, gave rise to a notable pattern in which Muslim kings threatened or attacked the shrines of their enemies’ patron saints in times of war. A focus on this ritual violence, which remains neglected in the studies of Islamic iconoclasm and jihad, reveals how the protocols of violence and accommodation that governed these Muslim milieus became analogous to those enacted by Indic kings who also sacked temples of rival sovereigns in times of war. With the spread of Muslim shrines and the related belief that the “real” sovereign was not the caliph but the enshrined saint, Islam and Hinduism developed comparable grammars of “gifting” and “looting.” This argument allows for a new, transcultural perspective to examine the premodern history of India, Iran, and Central Asia, connected by the rise of Muslim saints and their shrines.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2015 

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