The Dilemmas of the Pious Biographer: Writing the Life of a Muslim Missionary
Lecture by Nile Green, University of Manchester, Great Britain
Friday, November 02, 2007
12:00 PM - 2:00 PM
10383 Bunche Hall
As Islam was transformed into a missionary religion in the modern sense around the turn of the twentieth century, three questions were faced by almost all of the writers called on to publicise the deeds of the new breed of mobile Muslim pietists. How can a biographer turn the often tedious chores of the missionary into exciting reading? How can the humdrum tasks of founding mosques and schools be turned into the narrative trappings of a Muslim hero? And how can a ‘Protestant’ Muslim be portrayed as a saint without the idolatrous kufr of stories of miracles?
The lecture addresses these questions through an examination of an Urdu biography written to publicise the deeds of Ghulam Muhammad ‘Soofie Saheb’, an Indian Muslim missionary to South Africa who died in Durban in 1911 after establishing mosques, madrasas and festivals for the indentured Indian labourers of Natal. Despite the ‘modern’ character of Soofie Saheb’s activities - employing English lawyers and shrewdly investing in under-valued real estate - his followers felt the need for the imprint of old-style personality on the institutions he founded. And so, among the Indians of Natal, as among the scores of other Muslim missionary organisations emerging elsewhere, biography and story-telling were summoned to the service of the mission. In view of the recent revival of historians’ interest in biography, through inspecting the self-understanding of one such missionary organisation of the life of its own founder the lecture explores the necessary compromises involved in writing a life at any given moment in history.
Nile Green is Lecturer in South Asian Studies at the University of Manchester, Great Britain. He studied at the universities of London and Cambridge, and was Milburn Research Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, between 2002 and 2006. His research focuses on the history of Islam in South Asia, particularly on the social and political history of Indian Sufism. However, he has also written on Indo-Islamic reform, the history of objects, Indo-Muslim travellers, oral and subaltern histories, the ethnogenesis of the Afghans, the history of dreaming, and the politics of meditation in colonial South Asia. In addition to over thirty-five articles and book chapters, his publications also include Indian Sufism since the Seventeenth Century: Saints, Books and Empires in the Muslim Deccan (London & New York: Routledge, 2006). He is presently completing a historical monograph on customary Islam and religious reform in colonial India and editing a collection of essays entitled Religion, Language and Power. He has travelled widely in Pakistan, India and Iran and throughout the Arab Middle East.
For more information please contact
Sponsor(s): Center for India and South Asia