‘You Have to Grant Your Vision’:
Ideas and Practices of Visuality in Popular Muslim Art in Tamil Nadu

Torsten Tschacher

vara vēṇṭum napiyē taruṇam, taruṇam,
tara vēṇṭum taṅkaḷiṉ taricaṉam

“You have to come, o Prophet, it is the right time, the right time,
You have to grant your vision”.1


What role does seeing play in popular Muslim devotion? What can and should be seen, and how? How is the act of seeing translated into different media, and how do these media relate to each other? What kinds of images result from this process, and how do these in turn contribute to notions and practices of visuality in Muslim societies? This paper seeks to explore some of these questions with reference to Muslim devotional traditions from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and related material from Tamil-speaking Muslim societies in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Singapore. Specifically, the paper will probe the relationship between textual evocations of devotional visuality and devotional images in visual media such as paintings, poster art and devotional videos. As the paper will argue, the investigation of this material allows us to gain a better understanding of how Muslim visual culture in South India both engages with but also deliberately departs from non-Muslim practices of seeing, producing a complex web of interactions whose study throws light on the transcultural entanglements of Muslim devotional visualities not only in South India, but also elsewhere.

Older scholarship on religious practice in South Asia has tended to draw a stark contrast between a supposedly image-friendly Hinduism and an aggressively iconoclastic Islam (cf. e.g. Aziz 1964: 73-4; Wink 1997: 301-29). Apart from its impact on popular (mis)conceptions regarding the historical result of the encounter between Hindu and Islamic traditions, this characterization has had important consequences on the ways in which scholars have engaged with Islamic visual cultures in South Asia. Scholars like Barbara Metcalf and more recently Finbarr Flood have drawn attention to the distortions effected when preconceived sectarian taxonomies are projected upon artifacts and practices (Metcalf 1995: 959-60; Flood 2009: 12). The result has been either to ignore those elements which do not seem to fit the taxonomies, or to interpret them through the problematic category of ‘syncretism’, an idea which assumes that different religious traditions form unchangeable and clearly demarcatable entities which can be ‘mixed’ and ‘blended’. Quite apart from the ahistoric assumptions, exaggerated sense of boundaries and taxonomies, and often negative evaluations which accompany the use of the term ‘syncretism’, an additional problem is that syncretism more often than not is ascribed, that is, scholars call a practice ‘syncretic’ which is not perceived to be ‘syncretic’ by its practitioners. Any analysis of Muslim devotional visuality in South Asia has to engage with the question of how to understand Muslim visual practices within a wider context of diverse religious visualities without reading them through the frame of primordial attitudes intrinsically connected with specific religious genealogies.

This problem is of particular importance in the context of Islamic traditions of South India. While most scholars in the last two decades have stayed clear of the controversial term of ‘syncretism’, they have generally tended to emphasize the ‘local’ character of Tamil Islamic traditions and the supposedly ‘shared’ quality of concepts and practices across religious boundaries (cf. e.g. Bayly 1989; Narayanan 2000; Saheb 1998). This tendency has been aided by a number of factors. An important factor has been the idea of a ‘South Asian’ or ‘Indo-Islam’. The problem with this frame has been that it has tended to construct a unified ‘South Asian Islam’ on the basis of a particular historical and regional experience, that of the Punjab and the western Gangetic plains.2  Viewed through this frame, Islamic traditions in the Tamil-speaking parts of South India and Sri Lanka indeed appear marginal and divergent, which has encouraged scholars to stress the supposed ‘localism’ of Tamil Muslim cultures, rather than to question the usefulness of a concept which measures expressions of Islamic piety by privileging a specific regional experience.

Another factor, not unknown to other parts of South Asia as well, has been the often relatively superficial engagement with Tamil Islamic traditions, which has readily seized upon what appear on the surface to be similarities between Muslim and non-Muslim expressions of piety without a detailed study of the pragmatics of the elements in question. Thus, the use of the same vocabulary in Muslim and non-Muslim contexts is far too facilely assumed to signal conceptual identity or sharing (cf. e.g. Bayly 1989: 133-50; Narayanan 2000: 90-2). Rather than making such assumptions, apparently parallel vocabularies and practices need to be placed in a close analysis which considers both the semantics and the pragmatics of the term in question.

The aim of this paper is precisely to problematize the relationship between concepts and practice of ‘seeing’ in Tamil Muslim devotional traditions. For this purpose, it will focus on one particular aspect, namely the visual culture surrounding Muslim prophets and saints. While textual material in the form of songs and pamphlets seem to suggest the ‘sharing’ of a conceptual world regarding vision and devotion among Muslims and non-Muslims, an analysis of the imagery and visual practices associated with Muslim devotional traditions in the region reveal interesting tensions with the textual record. As I will argue, it is this tension rather than the simple ‘sharing’ of concepts that allows for the communication of religious cultures in South India. Or to phrase it a bit differently, the transcultural engagements of devotional visuality among Tamil Muslims involve not simply flows of practices across religious boundaries. Rather, also the deliberate rejection or transformation of such flows is part of the transcultural reality of Muslim visual culture, as it gains its meaning only in conjuncture with non-Muslim devotional visualities.

1 All translations in this paper are my own.
2 A recent example can be found in Petievich 2007: 2-3; none of the ‘typical‘ features of ‘Indo-Islam’ mentioned there – the importance of Persian cultural traditions, migration from Central Asia, or a marginalization of the Indian aspects of local Muslim culture – seems to be easily applicable to Tamil Nadu.

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