Formation of a Muslim Community in 15C Gujarat


A review of Texts, Tombs and Memory: The Migration, Settlement, and Formation of a Learned Muslim Community in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat, by Jyoti Gulati Balachandran.

The western Indian region of Gujarat underwent major political and social changes in the fifteenth century. The establishment of the Gujarat Sultanate in 1407 altered the political and human landscape of the region. From the heartlands in the central plains of Gujarat, the sultans incorporated large parts of this diverse land in a process that tied together settlement, agricultural expansion, urbanisation, and trade. Under the sultans, who asserted their Sunni Muslim identity, communities of varied creeds developed uninterruptedly. The sultans, however, contributed to the development of one community in particular: they encouraged Muslims from elsewhere to migrate and settle in their realm, thus facilitating the development of a local Muslim community. Among the Muslims migrants, men of spiritual knowledge held a special place.

The main interest of the dissertation is this very kind of migration. Focusing on three fifteenth-century Sufis, namely the unaffiliated Shaykh Ahmad Khattu and the Suhrawardi Sufis Sayyid Burhan al-Din ‘Abdullah and his son Sayyid Siraj al-Din Muhammad, Jyoti Balachandran investigates the emergence of a community around holy men. She argues that their spiritual knowledge and prestige gave them access to the elites, gradually turning them into the nuclei around which a “community of learned Muslim men” (p. 12) was forged. Balachandran further stresses that two interrelated developments contributed to the emergence of this community. First, the migrants began to produce Persian and Arabic literature that “captured the expansion of a community” (p. 14) and supported its crystallisation. Second, for the first time in Gujarat, Sufi hospices and tomb shrines became centres of regional pilgrimage and literary production, providing geographical structure to this community.

Chapter 1 discusses the history of migration, settlement, and literary production of Muslim communities in Gujarat prior to the establishment of the sultanate. Balachandran states that Muslim migration to Gujarat can be traced back to the twelfth century, even if sporadically, and was associated with maritime and overland trade. She emphasises the special character of migration and settlement in Gujarat comparing to other parts of the subcontinent. First, Muslim settlement was usually not associated with agriculture. Second, religious people, including Sufis, do not seem to have filled a significant role in the process. Third, the early period saw only limited textual production, in particular inscriptions.

The establishment of the sultanate resulted in significant changes in migration, the Muslim community, and in literary production. Increasing migration brought about the creation of a distinct local community, which produced a wide variety of texts. Among the new loci of text production were Sufi places of congregation (khanqahs) and tomb shrine complexes (dargahs), where mystical texts (e.g. oral traditions, hagiographical narratives, and biographies) were composed. Following studies on other parts of the subcontinent, for example the works of Simon Digby, Bruce Lawrence, Richard Eaton, and Nile Green, Balachandran argues that those texts have been previously disregarded as a historical source. However, analysing their production, purpose, and circulation can be of much value for studying regional histories.

Against this background, the following two chapters focus on the process of migration and settlement. Chapter 2 discusses the migration of Shaykh Ahmad Khattu and Sayyid Burhan al-Din ‘Abdullah in the early fifteenth century. Balachandran describes the personal background of the two men, demonstrating the link between their hometowns in the North, trade networks, and migration. Looking at the political turmoil in late fourteenth century India, she suggests that their migration should be understood within an all-Indian context.

The chapter then moves to examine the circumstances around their successful settlement in Gujarat. The young sultanate, and in particular its founder, Muzaffar Shah, encouraged agricultural expansion, urban growth, and settlement; Sufis were part of this process. This is well reflected in the development of Sarkhej and Vatwa, both in the vicinity of Ahmadabad in the central plains, where Shaykh Ahmad Khattu and Sayyid Burhan al-Din had settled, respectively. The successful settlement of these two figures may be attributed to the continuous support of the sultans and their association therewith, even if the Sufis occasionally expressed their disdain of the temporal power associated with secular rule. The sultans, for their part, enjoyed the legitimation and blessing associated with the Sufis.

Chapter 3 focuses on the organisation of the society formed by the migrants as the backbone of the community. The migrants developed complex links amongst themselves, links that became an essential element in their communal identity. Balachandran identifies three types of networks: biological descent from a common ancestor (silsilat al-nasab); lineage of spiritual succession (silsilat al-khilafa); and extended social networks, combining horizontal and vertical lines, connected through families (qabila, lit. ‘tribe’). These networks played an increasingly important role in the identity of these communities, even more than markers such as ethnicity, hitherto considered a major factor in society.

Other types of connections too linked the Sufis and their families to the wider world. Matrimonial alliances tied extended families to each other but also to non-spiritual elites, including landlords, military elites, and even the royal family. Spiritual teachings played an important role in forming the community, as the spiritual authority of the Sufis attracted students and visitors of diverse statuses and origins, creating wide networks with the khanqahs at their centre. The most prominent Sufis themselves were linked in this manner: Sayyid Burhan al-Din ‘Abdullah studied under Shaykh Ahmad Khattu. These links and the memory thereof continued in later generations, giving temporal depth to the networks. Gradually, Sufis and their extended families were drawn ever closer to one another, to the region of Gujarat, and to the sultanate, creating a localised elite community, notwithstanding the persisting ties to the wider Indo-Persian literary community.

The power of the Sufis as the focus of social organisation did not wane after their death. The last two chapters discuss the memory of the Sufis and the role they continued to play in the social, religious, and political life of Gujarat posthumously. Chapter 4 examines the dargahs of Shaykh Ahmad Khattu, Sayyid Burhan al-Din ‘Abdullah, and Sayyid Siraj al-Din Muhammad, which developed in the location of their previous khanqahs. These complexes transformed physical spaces into holy sites, replacing the previous networks. The sites filled political and economic roles and became the centres of production and circulation of texts, thus perpetuating the memory of the Sufis. All complexes enjoyed royal support, yet they differed substantially. Shaykh Ahmad Khattu’s complex in Sarkhej enjoyed the most lavish royal support. Royal tombs in the complex indicate the shaykh’s position as the spiritual patron of the sultanate. This was most important in perpetuating the memory of the shaykh as he did not leave a successor. The tombs of Sayyid Burhan al-Din ‘Abdullah in Vatwa and Sayyid Siraj al-Din Muhammad in Rasulabad, on the other hand, enjoyed some royal support, but did not become sites of royal burial. The prestige of these sites relied on literary productions by their descendants aimed at maintaining and spreading their fame. Political histories of the sultanate suggest that additional actions of sultans contributed to the marking of dargahs as sites of importance, for example official visits. This reflects a connection between the memory of the Sufis, the legitimacy of the sultanate, and the creation of a sacred geography of Gujarat. This sacred geography continued to exist into the seventeenth century, long after the Mughals had taken over the region.

The last chapter examines the question of memory and the reconstruction of the image of ancestral legacy. Analysing seventeenth century texts (which are thoroughly discussed in the appendices), Balachandran argues that the memory of the migrants continued to be reshaped by the descendant of the Sufis with the purpose of improving their own standing. The chapter focuses on the relationship between Shaykh Ahmad Khattu and the Suhrawardi Sayyid Jalal al-Din Husayn Bukhari, great-grandfather of Sayyid Siraj al-Din Muhammad. Balachandran demonstrates that early traditions from Shaykh Ahmad Khattu’s circles stress his personal piety and disassociation from the Suhrawardis, criticising their materialism. By contrast, texts which were composed by the descendants of Sayyid Siraj al-Din Muhammad in the seventeenth century suggest a different view: the two Sufis were connected to one another, with Sayyid Jalal al-Din Husayn Bukhari proclaiming Shaykh Ahmad Khattu’s destiny to be in Gujarat and transforming him into an agent through whom the spiritual dominion of Gujarat is achieved within the context of the Suhrawardi silsila. In so doing, the Suhrawardis used the popularity of Shaykh Ahmad Khattu to increase the prestige of their own lineage, while recontextualising the story within both the Suhrawardi tradition and the spiritual dominion of Gujarat. This enabled the Suhrawardis to claim long-standing spiritual importance in the region, a crucial step towad receiving much more worldly support from the Mughals.

This deployment and meticulous reading of Sufi as well as courtly sources has produced a rich study which adds to our understanding of the development of Muslim communities in Gujarat and the crystallisation of Gujarat as a region. In her discussion, Balachandran widens the scope of our understanding of the formation of regional communities, showing that it was not limited only to the moment of migration, itself linked mainly to the political environment. Rather, the community continued to evolve while retelling its own past. This continuous reshaping of a community occurred in relation to changing circumstances, tying together political, social, religious, and economic processes. This notion, possibly applicable elsewhere in precolonial South Asia, opens the way (as suggested by Balachandran) to further inquiries regarding the formation of the communities of learned Muslims: the place of less central Sufis, the role of literary production in the vernaculars, and the growing link of the Muslim communities in Gujarat with the larger world of the Indian Ocean.

Roy S. Fischel
Department of History
SOAS, University of London

Primary Sources

Persian and Arabic court histories and Sufi texts in varied genres, in the original language and in Urdu and English translations.
Manuscripts in Cambridge University Library; B.J Institute of Research and Learning, Ahmedabad; Kitabkhana-i Khanwada-i ‘Aliya-i Chishtiya, Ahmedabad; Pir Mohammad Shah Dargah Library and Research Institute, Ahmedabad; Ahmad Khattu Roza Library, Sarkhej; Indian National Archives, New Delhi.
Published inscriptional materials in Persian and Arabic.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2012. 257pp. Primary Advisor: Sanjay Subrahmanyam.


Image: Mosque, Sarkhej Roja. Photograph by Nirmal4320 (7 September 2011). Wikimedia Commons.

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