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The Changing Perspectives of Three Muslim Men on the Question of Saint Worship over a 10-Year Period in Gujarat, Western India1


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.

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V. Das (1984) ‘For a folk-theology and theological anthropology of Islam’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 18 (2): 292300.

D. Holland and K. Leander (eds.) (2004) ‘Ethnographic studies of subjectivity and positioning: An introduction’, ETHOS, 32 (2): 127139.

C. Lindholm (1986) ‘Caste in Islam and the problem of deviant systems: A critique of recent theory’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 20 (1): 6173.

M. Mines (1994) Public Faces, Private Lives. Community and Individuality in South India, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).

F. Robinson (1983) ‘Islam and Muslim society in South Asia’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 17 (2): 185203.

R. Robinson (2005) Tremors of Violence. Muslim Survivors of Ethnic Strife in Western India. (New Delhi: Sage Publications).

B. J. Soares (2005) Islam and the Prayer Economy. History and Authority in a Malian Town. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press for the International African Institute).

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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