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Cambridge Interfaith Programme

Illustrating the Sufi concept of 'other world': A human-headed sphinxlike creature and other persons cluster to the right. Fork-like implements appear centre. A hand descends, touched by another, a third reaching downward toward porticoes.

The Cambridge Interfaith Programme is pleased to promote this online colloquium convened by Dr Ankur Barua (Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies, Cambridge), Hina Khalid (PhD student, Cambridge) and Pranav Prakash (Junior Research Fellow, Christ Church College, University of Oxford.

Scheduled in 90-minute bursts across six dates, the convenors seek to explore how interreligious interactions are analysed and theorised in diverse disciplines today, and in what ways historical sources and ethnographic data from South Asia elaborate such interactions.

The convenors explain:

‘In attempting to understand the past, and the multiple inheritances of the past in the present, we seem to be caught in a conceptual double bind. On the one hand, present-day or presentist categories cannot be readily projected onto the past which remains something of a strange land in its temporal alterity. On the other hand, since we have to start from where we are already – namely, the present – we cannot dispense completely with the categories we have received. However, precisely this intuitive familiarity may blind us to the ways in which we have become accustomed to employing them in an unreflective manner.  

‘In this online series of table talks, we seek to bring together scholars from a wide spectrum of perspectives to inquire into the kinds of critical tools that are currently deployed to probe interreligious interactions in South Asia over the last eight hundred years or so. Through various historical processes—such as the interactions between Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic traditions, particularly after the spread of Islam in South Asia; the rise of paper as the primary mode of textual production; the emergence of Persian traditions; and so on—South Asian communities underwent deep-seated transformations, which ramify throughout various contemporary contexts.  

‘A wide variety of terminologies, such as “encounter”, “syncretism”, “third space”, “hybridity”, and “aporia”, have been employed in scholarly spaces to grapple with these patterns of plurality and processes of historical change. This forum will encourage critical interrogations of these idioms, whilst also cultivating an active attunement to, and immersive engagement with, a diversity of epistemic vantage-points, which are embedded in distinctive experiential terrains and perspectival horizons.’

Practical information

Sessions will begin at 15:00 BST (10:00 EDT, 19:30 IST).* The abstracts below have been shortened for this event entry. Download the programme for further details. (The PDF programme also includes information required to join each session on Zoom.)

Each presenter has provided reading matter for pre-circulation, to assist others in following their paper and engaging in discussion. To obtain a copy of these materials (optional), please contact the convenors at the email address provided below. 

Speakers and papers (by date)

Monday 3 April: Samia Khatun (SOAS, University of London) 

Title: Nur, Darshan & Enlightenment: Three Approaches to Connecting Texts and Textiles in 18th century Bengal 

Nur, Darshan and Enlightenment comprise distinct yet overlapping paradigms of light that profoundly shaped 18th century histories of Bengal and economies of cotton production. With cotton often described as the ‘fabric that made the modern world’, a focus on cotton runs through key works of various strands of modern history. These are often accounts powerfully shaped by the question: What is Enlightenment? In examining Nur, Darshan and Enlightenment as contemporaneous modes of illumination that were operating in the late 18th century, this paper considers the economic colonisation of cotton industries alongside the subjugation of intellectual histories of the Bengal delta. 

Samia Khatun is a feminist historian of race, difference and empire in the History Department at SOAS, University of London. 

Tuesday 4 April: Sohini Sarah Pillai (Kalamazoo College)

Title: A Bhakti Mahabharata for Aurangzeb? Sabalsingh Chauhan’s Bhasha Retelling of the Epic

Between the late 16th century and the early 18th century, several South Asian poets composed Persian retellings of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana epic narratives that were either commissioned by or dedicated to one of the rulers of the Mughal Empire. These retellings include the Razmnamah, Fayzi’s Naldaman, the Akbari Ramayan, Masih Panipati’s Masnavi-yi Ram va Sita, Giridhardas’s Ramnamah, Candraman Bedil’s Nargisistan, and Amar Singh’s Amar Prakash. Yet in this ocean of Ramayanas and Mahabharatas, only one is composed in Bhasha (Old Hindi): Sabalsingh Chauhan’s seventeenth-century Mahabharat. 11 of the 18 books of this poem begin with prologues and these prologues have caught the interest of multiple Hindi scholars. In this table talk, I will provide close readings of the different prologues and demonstrate how religious concerns and political concerns are deeply intertwined in this poem.

Sohini Sarah Pillai is Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of Film and Media Studies at Kalamazoo College. 

Wednesday 5 April: Kashhaf Ghani (Nalanda University)

Title: Seeking Allah and Krishna: Sufism and Religious Interactions from South Asia

In the region of South Asia, Indo-Islamic traditions have a rich history of co-existence and interaction stretching back to several centuries. This stimulated and resulted in a range of cultural achievements that survives in the form of tangible and intangible heritage of the region. This paper will undertake a study of the unevenly charted domain of spiritual contact and exchange that took place between Sufis and Indic communities. Both groups represented an elite approach to their individual traditions – Islam, Hinduism, bhakti, yoga, tantra etc. However, they were also successful in reaching down to the level of popular understanding from where they could tap a larger audience for their preaching and practice, as well a diverse readership for works that came to be produced through multiple mediums – classical and vernacular.

Kashshaf Ghani teaches in the School of Historical Studies, Nalanda University, Bihar.

Thursday 6 April: SherAli Tareen (Franklin and Marshall College)

Title: Contests over the Boundaries of Hindu-Muslim Friendship

Drawing from the forthcoming book Perilous Intimacies: Debating Hindu-Muslim Friendship after Empire (Columbia University Press, 2023), this paper discusses some critical conceptual problems and questions connected to the study of interreligious encounters in early modern and modern South Asia. Primarily, I will be interested in the following question: what conceptual dividends might we gain by shifting the camera of analysis from the colonial transformation and reconfiguration of religion in South Asia to traditions of intra-Muslim contest over the boundaries of Hindu-Muslim friendship? 

SherAli Tareen is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College.

Friday 7 April: Jyoti Gulati Balachandran (Penn State University)

Title: Socio-Political Dimensions of Spiritual Practice in Gujarat: Notes from Two 15th century Sufi silsilahs 

Taking the diversity of Islamic spiritual practice in 15th-century Gujarat as its vantage point, this presentation seeks to extend the conversation on inter-religious interactions in South Asia to include intra-religious interactions as well. A greater engagement with the multiplicity of beliefs and practice within Islam has significant implications for how we set the terms for understanding interactions between two or more religious traditions in South Asia. For one, it compels us to be more attentive to the specific ways in which historical figures identified themselves and others in their texts, an aspect that often gets obscured in our usage of broader religious categories. Furthermore, identifying aspects of ‘conflict’, ‘competition’, and ‘accommodation’ among varied Sufistic communities reminds us that religious engagements had very concrete material underpinnings, embedded as they were within the larger socio-economic and political contexts. Instead of focusing on purely theological and philosophical aspects of interreligious interactions, this presentation hopes to encourage conversations on the social and political dimensions of religious practice in South Asia.

Jyoti Gulati Balachandran is Edward J. and Eleanor Black Nichols University Endowed Fellow in History and Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University.

Wednesday 12 April: Shankar Ayillath Nair  

Title: Rāma and Sītā as Adam and Eve: The Rāmāyaṇa through the Prism of the Persian Romance

Although the Rāmāyaṇa’s vibrant life beyond Hindu communities has been oft-observed (e.g., in Buddhist and Jain contexts), Muslim retellings of this enduring Indic tale have received scant attention. In this vein, this talk examines one episode from the Rāmāyaṇa epic – the mutilation of the villainous “ogress” Śūrpaṇakhā – in the Muslim poet Masīḥ Pānīpatī’s Persian rendition of the tale, Masnavī-yi Rām o Sītā (1624). In Pānīpatī’s Persian iteration, the protagonists’ familiar exploits are refracted through the prism of Persia’s own corresponding “national epic,” the Shāhnāmah; Pānīpatī furthermore recasts Rāma and Sītā’s love within the genre of the Persian narrative romance (masnavī), alongside a robust set of other Persian literary topoi.  For Pānīpatī, I argue, the ogress comes to embody the full range of possibilities of the human condition – both sublime and ruinous – while Rāma and Sītā, in contrast, stand in for the prophetic exemplars of Adam and Eve. In making this case, I aim to move beyond a consideration of only the “content” of the rendition and the doctrinal tenets deployed therein, seeking additionally to explore analytical avenues for appreciating the aesthetics of the translation process. 

Shankar Ayillath Nair's general field of interest is the religious and intellectual history of the Indian subcontinent, particularly as it relates to broader traditions of Sufism and Islamic philosophy, Qur'anic exegesis, and Hindu philosophy and theology (especially Advaita Vedanta and other forms of Hindu non-dualism).

About the convenors

Ankur Barua is Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. His primary research interests are Vedantic Hindu philosophical theology and Indo-Islamic styles of sociality. He researches the conceptual constellations and the social structures of the Hindu traditions, both in premodern contexts in South Asia and in colonial milieus where multiple ideas of Hindu identity were configured along transnational circuits between India, Britain, Europe, and America.

Hina Khalid is a PhD student at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. She is working on a comparative study of the theology and poetry of Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) and Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). She is particularly interested in the possibilities of comparative theology across Islamic and Indic traditions, and in the ways that shared devotional idioms have formed in and across the Indian subcontinent. 
Pranav Prakash is a Junior Research Fellow and Associate Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages at Christ Church, University of Oxford. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Andrew Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography, Rare Book School, University of Virginia, US. He specializes in the comparative study of religious traditions, literary cultures and book arts in South Asian and Persian societies. 


(Featured image: Jahān-i-Dīgar, ink on paper, artwork by Pranav Prakash, copyright (c) 2021. Used with permission.)

*An error was made calculating times for the first round of publicity. 10:00EDT is 15:00BST and 19:30IST during these April dates. 

Monday, 3 April, 2023 - 15:00 to Wednesday, 12 April, 2023 - 16:30
Contact name: 
IISA convenors
Contact email: 
Event location: 
Online (Zoom) - times specified are for Cambridge, UK

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