The early modern Bangla tales of the legendary or mythic pīrs are romantic narratives that speak to the often strange and puzzling encounters between Hindus and Muslims, especially Vaiṣṇavs and Sufis. Figures such as Baḍakhān Gāji and Satya Pīr navigate a world of foreigners and locals, courtiers and country bumpkins, in encounters ripe with a myriad of false assumptions regarding the place of religion and religious identity. Orientalists dismissed these tales as syncretistic rubbish; religious reformers claimed they were heretical; literary historians banished them to the genre of folk or women’s tales; and even linguists characterized their language as something other than Bengali. I wish to argue that these Muslim texts are undertaking a very serious cultural work that is not possible within the available restricted genres of Islamic history, theology, and law. These texts explore the subjunctive, not in the sense of the way the world should be, but how it might be imagined, how it might come to be. The work of these texts is to explore how an Islamic cosmology might accommodate itself to and then appropriate the predominately Hindu cosmology encountered in the Bangla-speaking world of the early-modern period. Each narrative operates according to a logic of ‘what if . . .’ and the narrative used for illustration will be the eighteenth century Mānik pīrer juhurā nāmā of Jaiddhi. Perhaps surprisingly, I argue that parody is the critical mechanism by which Islam in these tales provides a critique of local religion and culture that makes Islam in Bengal distinctive.
Tony K. Stewart is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities at Vanderbilt University and a specialist in the religions and literatures of early modern Bengal. His works include The Final Word: The Caitanya Caritamrta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition and Fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal.
This event is sponsored by Digital Islamic Studies Curriculum through the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.