An enchanted Islamic ruinscape in Delhi sheds light on the Indian past and future.
Monuments built by India’s pre-modern Muslim rulers are increasingly the target of Hindu nationalist ire. Even one of India’s biggest tourist attractions, the Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and long considered one of the wonders of the world, has recently been excoriated as a “blot on Indian culture” by a Minister of the Union Cabinet. Hindu nationalist groups affiliated with the fascist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that currently controls the central government—have a long history of antagonism towards medieval Islamic architecture. In 1992, a mob egged on by RSS and BJP leaders destroyed the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which they claimed was built over the birthplace of the Hindu god-king Rama.
However, as I show in my book, antagonism is not the only relationship that Hindus in contemporary India have with the built remains of the pre-modern Muslim past. In Delhi, Firoz Shah Kotla, the ruins of a fourteenth-century medieval palace built by Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq have become famous as a dargah, or Muslim saint shrine, to which Hindus and Muslims flock in the thousands every Thursday. The common sense here, among both Hindus and Muslims, is that more Hindus come here than Muslims do. Unusually, the saints here are not human, but jinns or genies.
In Islamic cosmology, the jinn are mortal, but they live much longer than human beings. Stories are told in Delhi, for instance, about a jinn who had met both Moses and Jesus and brought their greetings to Prophet Muhammad when he encountered him. The ability of the jinn to supersede human chains of memory and genealogy through their sheer longevity is what I call jinnealogy. These jinnealogical narratives are often told and retold at Firoz Shah Kotla, a site where jinns—in a theologically novel fashion—are considered saints. This sanctification of the long-lived jinn happens in a city where human chains of memory and belonging—and the geography of Muslim saint shrines—has been violently disrupted by the violence of Partition in 1947, and by post-colonial politics, which have sought to remake the city anew, and disconnected it from its pre-modern Muslim past.
Yet the jinn-haunted ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla serve as thresholds of time, where the material remains and architectural forms of the past combine with the relative quiet and stillness of the ruins to make a space where people gain a sense of multiple temporalities rather than just living in the frantic present of the contemporary city. Here the rushed (and stalled) time of the city’s traffic gives way to reverie, in which people encounter the saints—in both dreams and waking visions—dressed in robes from the pre-modern past, inhabiting this medieval ruinscape. Many of the narratives of “healing” that are told in this space are narratives of radical ethical self-fashioning, drawing implicitly on the ethical precepts of pre-modern Sufism. Here we see the pre-modern “past” not as inert history but as a series of potentials for the present and the future. Here we see Islam as not (just) a religious identity but as an ethical inheritance shared by Muslims and Hindus.
Here we see Islam as not (just) a religious identity but as an ethical inheritance shared by Muslims and Hindus.
For instance, in these ruins Hindu and Muslim visitors revive the medieval Muslim juridical practice of the shikwa, in which a sovereign’s subjects submitted petitions addressed to him personally—petitions that he was duty-bound to read. At Firoz Shah Kotla, people deposit similar petitions, expressing their desires or grievances. However, people now deposit multiple photocopies of these letters in various alcoves all over these ruins, as if addressing the multiple departments of a government bureaucracy. What we see here is not just a blending of old and new governmental forms—but a re-imagination of people’s relation to the state—where the sovereign is still obliged to read people’s most intimate and everyday problems. For those who come here, the past is thus not a closed chapter—what was—but rather an open field of potentiality—what could have been, and could be again. At this site, it is not the state-centered history of battles and conquests that matter in relation to the past. Here sultans are displaced by the visions of saints, and the everyday ethical possibilities created through the history of Islam in India are opened up.
One evening at Firoz Shah Kotla, I spoke with an employee of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), under whose jurisdiction much of India’s pre-modern built heritage lies. This ASI employee, who has been posted on duty to many of Delhi’s medieval monuments, told me that in all the old monuments of Delhi, not just here, but in all the forts (including the seventeenth-century city wall of Old Delhi) there are buzurgon ke saye, the shades of Muslim holy men. You see them not just at night but also in the day. In the account of this ASI employee, who identified as Hindu, all medieval fortifications in Delhi associated with Muslim rule, are sacred spaces, blessed by the presence of these holy figures.
How do we understand this view and its relationship to the Islamic past alongside that of the nationalist narratives that are also widespread in Indian media and culture? These perspectives offer two radically different relations to the buildings of the pre-modern Islamic past. The Hindu nationalist version of history is more easily parsed: it internalizes the biases of nineteenth-century British historiography, which sought to justify British colonialism in India as liberation from the “tyranny” of Muslim rule. But “Muslim conquest” has not always been remembered as a traumatic blow to national pride—as the Hindu right wing is wont to remember it.
For those who come to Firoz Shah Kotla, the insistence on the sanctification of the long-lived and long-remembering jinn in this amnesiac city, and the location of the dargah in the ruins of a pre-modern palace, is an insistence by those who come here that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past; it continues to hold open potentials for the present and the future.