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Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India

Kelly Pemberton

Publication Year: 2013

Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India combines historical data with years of ethnographic fieldwork to investigate women's participation in the culture of Sufi shrines in India and the manner in which this participation both complicates and sustains traditional conceptions of Islamic womanhood. Kelly Pemberton grounds her firsthand research into India's Sufi shrines and saints by setting her observations against the historical backdrop of colonial-era discourses by British civil servants, Orientalist scholars, and Muslim reformists and the assumptive portrayals of women's activities in the milieu of Sufi orders and shrines inherent in these accounts. These early narratives, Pemberton holds, are driven by social, economic, intellectual, and political undercurrents of self-interest that shaped Western understanding of Indian Muslims and, in particular, of women's participation in the institutions of Sufism. Pemberton's research offers a corrective by assessing the contemporary circumstances under which a woman may be recognized as a spiritual authority or guide—despite official denial of such status—and by examining the discrepancies between the commonly held belief that women cannot perform in the public setting of shrines and her own observations of women doing precisely that. She demonstrates that the existence of multiple models of master and disciple relationships have opened avenues for women to be recognized as spiritual authorities in their own right. Specifically Pemberton explores the work of performance, recitation, and ritual mediation carried out by women connected with Sufi orders through kinship and spiritual ties, and she maps shifting ideas about women's involvement in public ritual events in a variety of contexts, circumstances, and genres of performance. She also highlights the private petitioning of saints, the Prophet, and God performed by poor women of low social standing in Bihar Sharif. These women are often perceived as being exceptionally close to God yet are compelled to operate outside the public sphere of major shrines. Throughout this groundbreaking study, Pemberton sets observed practices of lived religious experiences against the boundaries established by prescriptive behavioral models of Islam to illustrate how the varied reasons given for why women cannot become spiritual masters conflict with the need in Sufi circles for them to do exactly that. Thus this work also invites further inquiry into the ambiguities to be found in Islam's foundational framework for belief and practice.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press

Series: Studies in Comparative Religion


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5

Dedication Page

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pp. 6-7

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-8

List of Illustrations

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pp. viii-9

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Series Editor’s Preface

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pp. ix-x

Sufism, the richly diverse mystical-devotional dimension of Islamic religion, is one of the most popular and appealing fields of discourse and practice in both global spirituality and the comparative study of religion. This new book in the Studies in Comparative Religion series is the eighth to address some significant topic pertaining to Sufism, ...

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pp. xi-xxvi

In the summer of 1994 I traveled to India for the first time as a graduate M.A. student at the University of Washington. The journey came at the end of three years of studying Hindi and Urdu and was intended to improve my Hindi and Urdu speaking skills. ...

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pp. xxvii-xxviii

Many people and organizations have helped me in this lengthy endeavor. Funding for the initial research was made possible by grants and fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the Charlotte Newcombe Foundation, and the University of California, Berkeley. ...

Note on Transliteration

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pp. xxix-xxx

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Introduction: Women’s Activities and Sufi Shrines–Some Perspectives

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pp. 1-29

A number of ethnographic studies conducted since the late 1970s1 have suggested that there is a substantial gap between discourses about women’s participation in ritual life and women’s lived experiences in the world of Sufi shrines. While this issue has produced several promising studies of the role women play in contemporary Sufi praxis, ...

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1. Perceptions of “Women’s Religion” in Colonial India

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pp. 30-66

The attitude with which the author of this gazetteer approaches the subject of saint veneration approximates the views of many of the servants of the British colonial Raj, Muslim religious reformers, and Orientalist thinkers in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India. ...

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2. Piri-Muridi

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pp. 67-104

Piri-muridi, which refers to the relationship between spiritual master (pir, shaikh)1 and disciple (murid), evokes a wider range of associations than most of the academic literature on Sufism would suggest. In fact the didactic and historical literature produced by Sufis and their observers since the eleventh century suggests that a variety of models of piri-muridi has long existed, ...

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3. Singing and Reciting

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pp. 105-127

In the late evening on this ninth of Rajab,3 a handful of close disciples from the Gudri Shah order are busy hanging richly decorated sheets from the courtyard walls of the khanaqah. A few men arrive bearing rolls of carpets—some of exquisite Persian design, others plainer, well-worn, and less conspicuous—and spread them on the dirt floor. ...

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4. The Work of Petitioning

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pp. 128-157

I first came to Bihar on July 4, 1996, determined to find out more about the existence of shrines erected solely for women in this state. With the help of a colleague, Dan Madigan, a young Jesuit priest working on his Ph.D. at Columbia University, I was able to get in touch with Father Paul Jackson, himself a Jesuit priest ...

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Conclusion: Reconsidering Women’s Experiences at the Intersection of Discourse and Practice

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pp. 158-178

The primary objective of this book, to investigate the discrepancies between prescriptions for and descriptions of women’s activities in the world of Sufi shrines, is not intended to convey a facile dichotomy of authority and challenge to that authority. Rather than assume a fundamental tension between two apparent opposites, discourse and practice, ...


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pp. 179-206


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pp. 207-212


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pp. 213-228


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pp. 229-233

E-ISBN-13: 9781611172324
Print-ISBN-13: 9781570039195

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Studies in Comparative Religion