National Webinar on “Religious Interactions and Cultural Encounter in Medieval India”

New Delhi: A national webinar on “Religious Interactions and Cultural Encounter in Medieval India” was organised here by the Institute of Objective Studies on October 27, 2020. Dedicated to the memory of Jamia founders coinciding with the centenary celebrations of Jamia Millia Islamia, the inaugural session was conducted by Dr. Saifuddin Ahmad of Delhi University. The inaugural session began with the recitation of a Quranic verse by Shah Ajmal Farooq Nadwi, in-charge, Urdu Section, IOS.  

Inaugurating the webinar, Prof. Nishat Manzar of Jamia Millia, held that some of the rulers during the medieval period were tolerant to their subjects. European scholars did admit the fact that tolerance existed in the cities during the Mughal period. The webinar on the subject was appropriately timed, he said, adding that the places of worship at that time were free from restrictions. The Secretary General, IOS, Prof. ZM Khan, introduced the Institute’s academic and research programmes and said that IOS was a non-political and non-profit NGO. Subjects of research at the Institute included minorities and the marginalized sections of society. 

Among other activities, the Institute decided topics of research, invited research projects and also provided assistance to researchers. Those interested in research in specific fields were considered for assistance. Besides, the IOS was engaged in publication of books in different languages. A translation bureau was in place to get the translation of books in regional languages. Five regional chapters of the Institute were functioning to focus on local aspirations of the people. 

The institute also published research themes which had been made available on its website. It was conducting national and international seminars and symposia on various topics on a regular basis. The Institute had instituted two awards, viz; Shah Waliullah Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award. He said that the IOS was working in many areas and anyone interested in one of the areas was welcome. 

In his key-note address, Prof. Saiyid Zaheer Husain Jafri, professor of history in Delhi University, held that religious interactions and ‘cultural encounters’ in the context of Medieval Indian history involved an understanding of interactions and responses between Indian religions and Islam. While the term ‘cultural encounter’ would include the matters of day-today encounters which became the hallmark of diversities, there were responses to the linguistic, ceremonial and ritualistic practices of divergent groups within the framework of political and social behaviour. He said that perhaps religious interactions between votaries of Indian religions and of the Semitic religions were inherently and theoretically a distant possibility: the mass gathering for the prayers was something inherent for votaries of Semitic religions. 

The other possibility, he noted, could be in the realm of ideas, i.e., the notion of oneness of the Creator (tawhid/Adipurush) to one universe (Srishti) to humanity. It was interesting to note that these ideas became crucial during the 15th century in India’s medieval past. Thus, we found that Kabir and Nanak laid foundations for monotheistic thought, something noticed by both Abul Fazl (1601) and Shaikh Abdul Haq Muhaddis Dehlavi, who described Kabir as a Mawhid (a believer in oneness of God). Similar ideas abounded in Persian literature for Guru Nanak as well. It was interesting to note that the 5th Sikh Guru Arjun Dev, while compiling Guru Granth Sahib had only included the compositions of monotheistic saints like the hymns of Baba Farid, Shaikh Ibrahim and Rabi. Definitely, interaction did take place between the votaries of two distinct religious traditions, he observed. 

Prof. Jafri remarked that tasawwuf (sufism), its philosophy and practices occupied a seminal place in the social and intellectual history of Indian Muslims. After the establishment of the Turkish rule in parts of the Indian subcontinent, certain vital changes took place in the cultural life of the people. Some dialects were now spoken from Multan in the north to Gujarat, down to the Deccan. These dialects were the major vehicles for the transmission of ideas, but they were yet to become full-fledged literary languages, as they had no formal by recognised system of scripts. 

The sufi intervention contributed to the development of these dialects into literary languages, especially during the 13th century, when Baba Shaikh Fariduddin, the famous Chishti Sufi, started writing poetry in Multani/Saraiki (later on, incorporated in the Adi Granth). Similarly, Amir Khusrau also wrote compositions in Awadhi dialect. A number of Chishti-Nizami sufi centres were established in various parts of Indian subcontinent. The Sufi masters at these centres were adopting local dialects and using Persian script to compile their writings, including poetry, he said.

Prof. Jafri held that there was no homogenous Hindu community and the followers of Islam entertained diverse options of piety and spirituality. On the basis of hagiographic records and miraculous tales, glowing tribute was paid to a Qadiri sufi in Bansa in Awadh who had experienced divinity in a Hindu ensemble with Hindu Bairagis and finally it could be concluded that all this in no way underrated the fact that wahdat-ul-wujud (unity of God) remained generally the most acceptable sufi doctrine in Awadh. He said that this region was the abode of various Rajput clans who dominated the agrarian economy of the region and they, due to their strong caste affiliation, had full sway over the surplus generating segment of the agrarian society. 

The new Muslim intellectual elite, the service gentry and sufis were given land grants in this area only. Often there were problems between the grantees and the superior right holders over the prime land or the preferred plot of land in the village. He observed that the analyses of only some data from the Chishti sufi centres in the upper Gangetic valley showed that these centres continued to be the standing samples of a shared past. It also appeared that in developing such a pluralistic ethos, the opposition seemed to have emanated from within the sufi circles and, in this case, mainly from those who adhered to the Qadri and Naqshbandi traditions, he concluded. 

Presiding over the webinar, Prof. Yaqub Ali Khan, professor of history, Aligarh Muslim University, observed that being strictly contemporary and genuine documents, the inscriptions or the epigraphs provide first-hand information and valuable data. They threw a flood of light on the polity, society and economy of the age of the Sultans and the Mughals. Inscriptions were valued source material which supplied a missing link in the chronology of the rulers and the territorial expansion of a state and unusual events of communal tension. The inscriptions not only supplied information regarding political history, they also provided the basic data on religious harmony and tolerance. He said that the sufis, intellectuals and elite classes became part and parcel of Indian composite culture. Khanqahs (hospices) played an important role in promoting communal harmony and tolerance. Indo-Islamic architecture flourished and it became deeply embedded in Indian culture and society, he said.

While Prof. Syed Jamaluddin, director, historical projects of IOS, presented the welcome address, the assistant secretary general, Prof. Haseena Hashia, extended a vote of thanks. Summing up the proceedings of the inaugural session, she said that the institute was focusing on the topics that promoted social harmony. Certain projects to that effect had been taken, she observed. The proceedings of the session were conducted by Dr. Saifuddin Ahmad of Delhi University. 

Technical Session-I

The first technical session focused on Sufi-Bhakti Interactions. Prof. MK Pundhir of AMU was in the chair. Prof. RP Bahugna, professor of history, Jamia Millia Islamia, was the first speaker of the session. He said that a lot of work on Sufi-Bhakti interaction had been done. There was conflict between Vaishnavites and Shaivaites, and interaction between Buddhists and Jains. There was growth of religions in India before the advent of Muslim rule. Different scholars had portrayed Hindu-Muslim conflict in different ways. Dr. Tarachand was one of the scholars who wrote on the influence of Islam on Indian culture. He observed that Hindu-Muslim relations had attracted attention of scholars live Dalmia and Farooqi, Knonika and Hussain. These scholars wrote books on the subject some five years ago. In sufi literature, several researches also included Kabir and Guru Nanak. In hagiographic texts, names of Guru Arjun Dev and Sheikh Farid figured. He also referred to encounters between Guru Nanak and Sheikh Farid with the verses of the latter figuring in Aadi Gurugranth. During the late Sultanate and early Mughal period, dargahs were active in engaging with sufis and Hindu yogis. There was also a reference to the conflict between Sikh gurus and sufis, and assimilation of Sikhism with sufism. He observed that sufism was part of a universal religion that found echo in Rajasthani literature. In hagiography, not all the sufis were included. For instance even Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya and Sheikh Ahmad Sarhindi were not included in it. 

Referring to the emergence of Ganga-Jamuni tahzib (composite culture) he said that under the Delhi Sultanate and in the Mughal courts, Hindus and Muslims developed a syncretic culture as a result of which sufis wrote extensively in Hindavi. It was a culture that was marked by elitism and conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Religious interaction between Hindu saints and sufis was one of the features of the medieval period as far as cultural relations were concerned. There were also instances of conflict between Vaishnavites and Shaivites during the Kumbh fair. He held that if one wanted to know more about the interaction between Hindu saints and sufis, he would have to move away from elite religious groups. There was glorification of Dadu and Kabir who contributed significantly to the Bhakti movement in 16th and 17th centuries. Modern secular historians should also focus on this aspect, he added. 

Dr. Waseem Raja of Aligarh Muslim University was the second speaker of the session who focused on ‘Growth of Syncretic Cultural Ethos during Medieval North India: A Perspective from sufi and bhakti Traditions’. He said that while Bhakti movement was born out of a revolt against the dominance of orthodox society, sufis led a life of seclusion. The latter’s stress was on Haq (Truth). They were against the ulema and mysticism was their way of life. This brought to the fore question of Beshara (Those who did not adhere to Shariah). He observed that the sufis were the successors of Ahle-Suffa who used to make their presence felt before the Prophet of Islam (PBUH). In 17th century, sufi hospices were centres of amalgamation. Thus a new perspective of religious life emerged that was characterised by interaction between Hindus and Muslims. 

Khanqahs became centre of peace for the seekers of solace and peace of mind. Practice of concentration by the sufis and meditation by the jogis brought them together. This interaction became the byproduct of Indo-Islamic culture. 

Humanitarian approach of sufism in Indian context helped conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. He said that local language too played a significant role in bringing people closer to Islam. This was exemplified by the fact that Sheikh Fariduddin spoke the local language of Punjab. This was the reason why Sikhism learnt a lot from sufism. He concluded by saying that the sufis preached love and compassion which appealed to the people. Prof. Syed Jamaluddin, presented his paper on sufi poet from Braj Bhoomi, ‘Syed Shah Barkatullah-Using Idiomatic Expression for Cultural Unity’. He said that Syed Barkatullah stood out amongst the pioneers of cultural unity in the seventeenth-eighteenth century India. Syed Barkatullah became known to his contemporaries as Sahib al-barakaat, who was considered to be a strong link in the chain of Islamic tradition in India. 

He belonged to the category of sufis who emphasised the principles of human unity and tolerance for the new India created over centuries by political forces and the sufi network. He observed that following the customary oriental curricula, Sahib al-Barakaat studied Quranic sciences, fiqh, logic, philosophy, etc. Besides these sciences, he studied classical Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit. 

He read the Gita, the Vedas, Upanishads and Hindu philosophy. He wrote a wide range of books in prose and poetry. Shah Barkatullah belonged to the ‘Reeti Kaal’ (Reeti period) of Hindi poetry with its emphasis on spiritual reform of the people. He followed that tradition of mysticism which was called ‘Rahasyavaad’ in Hindi poetry. The message of Sahib al-barakaat through popular idiom seemed to be relevant in a multi-cultural country like India, Prof. Jamaluddin remarked. 

Technical Session-II

The second technical session was devoted to ‘Cultural encounters and Critique Binarism’. It was chaired by Dr. Sandhya Sharma of DU, Prof. M. Ishaque of Jamia Millia was the first speaker of the session who focused on the role of non-conformist sufis in promoting syncretism and integration of medieval society. He said that the concept of non-conformism came from Christianity. In sufi tradition, Shaikh Badiuddin alias Shah Madar was declared a non-conformist sufi by the historian Mulla Abdal Qadir Badayuni. He was called ghair-muqallid (one who does not follow any imam, a non-conformist). Though there were conflicts among sufis of different orders, the doctrine of pluralism, national integration, love and communal harmony eclipsed all such differences. He said that Islam taught how to transform self to contribute to harmony. Love, virtue and compassion were the medium to achieve nearness to God. 

Thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were marked by both conflict and compromise. He opined that the Indian sufis were almost non-conformist and this was corroborated by the presence of the followers of Madari sufi order in every part of India. Associate Professor, CAS, dept. of history, AMU, S. Chandnibi who presented her paper on Cultural Encounters in Medieval South India’, observed that south Indian socio-political-cultural scenario was completely different from its contemporary north India until the beginning of the 14th century. Taking advantage of the two lengthy coastal lines, they developed contacts with east and west from the ancient period. The socio-cultural atmosphere did not change when Vijayanagara empire came into existence and uprooted the Madurai Sultanate.

She held that Vijayanagara, Bahamani sultans and Gajapatis of Odisha were the major contemporary powers of the medieval south India. 

Mohammad Rahmatullah, research scholar in history, Jamia Millia, spoke on ‘Understanding religion and politics in Mughal India: Perspectives from a sevententh century Pranami hagiographic text’. He said that much of the discourse in historical studies on Medieval Indian history had been dominated by centre-oriented scholarship in relation to the region. Regional approach had facilitated an alternative in the realm of ideas of history to understand and perceive both centre and region. He held that Beetak of Laldas not only provided information on Devchand and Prannath (1618-1694) who were instrumental in the spread of Pranami ideas and its followers but also it was very informative in terms of social, political and religious worlds of 17th century India. 

The Beetak was actually a reflection of what Laldas was imagining about his guru, Prannath who had been known as the founder of Pranami sect. in 1665, Prannath travelled to Diu in the Indian ocean. He stayed at the house of his old friend, Jairam Bhai Kasara. Later, he travelled to Mandavinagar, Kacchha via Prabhaspattan, Navibandar and Probandar in 1665. Documents like Beetak highlighted the significance of the historiography of the 17th century politics and religion, he said. 

Dr. Gulfishan Khan of AMU, touched upon the topic ‘Sheikh Hishamuddin: Some early colonial encounters and inter-faith dialogue’. She briefly discussed the engagement of the sufi saints with their Hindu counterparts. 

Presiding over the session, Dr. Sandhya Sharma dwelt on the binary of Muslim and Hindu communities. She said that Shri Krishna Pranami cult had Hindu Vairagis and in this tradition Islam was used as a metaphor. Islam had different meaning in Pranami tradition and the metaphor used therein had to be understood in terms of identity. Referring to the Ballabhi marg, she quoted an adage popular in the tradition. It said ‘Sooraj ka urooj hua maghrib se aur zaahir hua mashriq mein (The sun rose in the West but appeared in the East). Both Lal Das and Pran Nath believed in the truth as enunciated by Islam. Prem Nath was considered an embodiment of the Prophet (PBUH) and Lord Krishna. In Premnathi tradition, terms like Rasul, Momin, Allah were used. The script of such usage was Hindi but the language was Islamic. Premnath interpreted the concept of qayamat and called for religious unity around the globe, she added. 

Technical Session-III

Dr. Gulfisha Khan chaired the third session which focused on tolerance, assimilation and syncretism.  The first speaker of the session was Dr. Saifuddin Ahmad, who presented his paper on ‘Assimilation and co-existence: A perspective from Urdu literary tradition in eighteenth century north India. He extensively quoted the writings of Mirza Mazhar Jaanejanan, Mir Taqi Meer and Nazir Akbarabadi to drive home the point that all of them vouched for Hindu-Muslim unity. Amir Khusrau and Dr. Allama Iqbal too fell in that category, he said. 

While Dr. P.K. Yasser Arafat of DU threw light on ‘Romantic sultans in the Intimate Empire–Reading medieval sexuality, gastronomy and penal order in the age of hate’, Dr. Sandhya Sharma touched upon “Islam a metaphor: Some issues of religious identities, Pranami tradition during seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Mughal India’. Dr. Abdullah Chishti of Jamia Millia focused on ‘Efforts of syncretism: Interaction of Islam and Hinduism in the backdrop of religious revival in early eighteenth century’. The last speaker of the session was Pradeep Singh, a Ph.D. scholar in the history department of Jamia Millia. He discussed ‘Syncretic markers at the darbar of an Udasi guru, Guru Rama Rai’. 

Technical Session-IV

The fourth technical session was chaired by Dr. Waseem Raja. The session was devoted to tolerance, harmony and assimilation. Prof. Yaqub Ali Khan, who initiated the discussion, held that the medieval period of Indian history was marked by religious tolerance as was evidenced by the coins minted by Muhammad Ghori. Some of the coins had the image of a Goddess engraved on one side of it, he said. Prof. M K Pundhir of AMU read his paper on ‘Some ruined structures at Agra: A study of architectural synthesis.’ He observed that though a lot of work on the structures of medieval period had been done, a lot of them still remained to be identified. In this connection, he said that about 400 structures existed in Agra alone and not all of them had so far been discussed. 

Valedictory Session

Addressing the valedictory session, Prof. ZM Khan, pointed out that the topics discussed at the webinar reflected the whole philosophy, culture and history of India. The discussion academically served the great cause of the idea of welfare of society. They contributed to the harmony and integrity of India in a small way. Referring to the role of the IOS in paying its attention to reforms in education, uplift of marginalised sections, delimitation of constituencies, he said that its journey was on. He expressed the willingness of the Institute to assist those interested in taking up research in these areas.  

In his valedictory address, Prof. RP Bahuguna emphasised the need for understanding what constituted religion and religious studies in pre-colonial India. He said that the medieval India did not constitute only Hindus and Muslims, but a majority of religious groups was outside the pale of religious identities. Only elite religious identities were studied though multiple religious identities were at work. Elite Hindu and Muslim identities predominated the period. He called the period a ‘competitive spirituality’ as sufis and Sikh gurus were competitors. So were Shaivites and Vaishnavites. Similarly, Madhya margis denounced Meera, he added. 

Presiding over the session, Prof. M Ishaque agreed with Prof. Bahugna’s view that a one-day webinar was not enough to deliberate on the topic that needed to be discussed in detail. The topic constituted an important aspect of human history. Calling for the study of changes in the study of history, he said that one could understand today’s issues in the context of our past. Referring to Babarnama, he said that it was one of the finest autobiographies of the world. 

At the end, Prof. Syed Jamaluddin extended a vote of thanks to all the participants and reiterated that the IOS was looking for young researchers to come forward and coordinate with its efforts. The webinar was attended by several scholars and students of history. 


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