Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 March 2008
In many religious traditions, those who mediate relations between men and gods are often the focus of controversy and moral ambiguity. The ethnography in this paper outlines a number of perspectives on the role of such intermediaries (here ‘saints’) in Muslim society in western India. In the South Asian literature, historians have provided a thorough treatment of the doctrinal history and content of these debates. However, very little attention has been paid to how living individuals interpret and rehearse these debates in practice. The examination of the changing perspectives of three Muslim men on the question of saint worship over a 10 year period reveals the following. First, an individual's relationship with ‘saints’ is often determined primarily by social context rather than simply by doctrinal allegiance or the compulsions of particular ‘beliefs’. Second, discourses of religious reform are also powerful social objects that can be used as political instruments for purposes other than simply refining the religious practices of a community. Finally, many commonplace assumptions in the literature—notably on the nature of belief and the significance of doctrinal divisions among Muslims—do not withstand ethnographic scrutiny.