Kruijtzer on Taneja, 'Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi'

Anand Vivek Taneja
Gijs Kruijtzer

Anand Vivek Taneja. Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi. South Asia in Motion Series. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017. 336 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5036-0393-6; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-0179-6. 

Reviewed by Gijs Kruijtzer (University of Vienna) Published on H-Asia (November, 2020) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

Printable Version:

In and around the dark recesses of the ruins of a fourteenth-century palace in Delhi, Anand Vivek Taneja finds a counterculture to the demands of today’s India. In Taneja’s view, this world of jinn veneration is more inclusive and less judgmental than the outside world and hearkens back to a fast slipping past, with elements from before colonialism and modernity. Jinn veneration turns out to be a great lens through which to explore many aspects of North Indian society today, from the experience of love, legal consciousness, and the relationship between communities, to ecology, the role of history, and protection (or lack thereof) of monuments. The book is also a testament of hope. The author argues forcefully that we can take hope from precolonial India. But is the North Indian precolonial past as a whole indeed a good foundation for hope?

Over the years 2007 to 2014, Taneja spent time talking to people and immersing himself in what he calls the “ethics of nameless intimacy” at the Firuz Shah Kotla ruins (p. 91). He also photographed in situ some of the letters that people have addressed to the jinn-saints and have hung on the walls or inserted in the crevices in the alcoves where candles are lit for the various jinn-saints. In addition, he picked some of the letters from the trash—for workers of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) periodically sweep them into piles before burning them. All in all, his sample of letters numbers around two hundred. Taneja also received two weeks of access to the ASI record room, but due to its ill organization he can only describe his research there as “random access” (p. 31). This was enough to reveal, however, that contrary to the claims of some of his interlocutors, the veneration of saints at Firuz Shah Kotla does go back further than the 1970s. Taneja suggests that it reemerged then as a counter-memory to “the violence and illegibility of the postcolonial state” (p. 63). Throughout the book, Taneja attempts to map and trace back as far as possible all the implications of his interviews and the petitions, which leads him to a number of other sources, including Bollywood films and a selection of early modern texts.

The petitions turn out to be an entry point into the consciousness of their authors but are also interesting from a formal perspective. Taneja sees the act of petitioning the jinn-saints of Firuz Shah Kotla as a reimagining of their writers’ relation to the state that has become mediated by layers of bureaucracy, especially for the poor. The petitions imagine a relation to justice away from state and community. They present us with an ethics that looks different from following the rules of communal morality. The form of the petitions hearkens back to the way governors and monarchs would be petitioned during the period of Muslim rulers, and Taneja thinks it is no accident that they are presented in what was once a royal palace, the site of precolonial Islamic sovereignty. But the petitions are also often photocopied multiple times and “deposited in different niches and alcoves all over the ruins, as if addressed to the different departments of a modern bureaucracy” (p. 11). Taneja distinguishes five types of letters, but about half are of the type that express rebellion against the demands of family, and therefore a striving for individual freedom. On this basis, Taneja suggests that the role of the individual in South Asian society is less different from that in the West than is often suggested—for instance, in the influential work of Sudhir Kakar—or in any case, that this role is different in a different way than has been suggested. What takes place at the shrine is “rebellion without autonomy,” and the shrine becomes a substitute for the relinquished home (p. 114).

The interviews with the members of the small circles engaged in jinn veneration at Firuz Shah Kotla lead Taneja to “rethink what the Islamic tradition is, the ways in which it is transmitted and debated, and who its recipients are” (p. 86). The concept of the jinn (genie) comes out of the Islamic tradition and Firuz Shah Kotla was the palace of a Muslim ruler, but a large part of the worshippers who come to the site are low-caste Hindus, and, moreover, many Muslims, some also cited in the book, have frowned on jinn veneration. The question of what counts as Islamic has been posed before of course, and Taneja builds here on Shahab Ahmed’s influential What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic (2016). Taneja follows him and Leila Ahmed in concluding that saint shrines represent “the antipatriachal potential that is as much part of the Islamic tradition as patriarchal jurisprudential traditions” (p. 144).  

One aspect of the gap between the postcolonial state and its poorer citizens—on whom the focus of the book lies—is a divergent understanding of the meaning of monuments. The ASI comes in for much criticism for the role it plays in keeping people out of and away from monuments to protect them. One of Taneja’s interlocutors says: “There are two different things.... One is the history of buildings, how they are built and who built them, and the ASI deals with that from a conservation (sanrakshan) point of view. Then there is the other thing—people’s manyata, what they believe in, the things that happen in their own experience that they could write about, but then who would believe them?” (p. 71). Beside his sharp analysis of this gap, Taneja makes it no secret that his sympathy is with the latter view. He has two main points of criticism of the ASI: first, its approach is too rigid in not allowing the use of its monuments for either their original purpose or a new purpose as well as not allowing any new construction for up to three hundred meters around them, and second, it singles out Islamic and Islamicate monuments for this rigid approach, in particular in the Delhi area. The proscription of reuse by the ASI is indeed a great contrast to conservation policies elsewhere, for instance, in the former colonizing countries of Europe or in Isfahan, which Taneja cites as exemplary, and the fear of having a dead monument in the way of construction plans has led to many preemptive demolitions. The singling out of Muslim monuments Taneja explains from the colonial roots of the ASI as well as present-day Hindu majority politics. After Delhi was designated the capital of British India in 1911, the ASI would have been put to work to provide an appropriate backdrop of ruins left by its former Muslim rulers. After the Partition of British India in 1947 it would have been put to work to ensure that the Muslim heritage was turned into a national secular heritage, initially also as a way of protecting the monuments from Hindu violence.

Taneja sees the jinn veneration at Firuz Shah Kotla and the circles of people around it as a “remnant from an older world,” which was the enchanted world of pre-1800 North India (p. 173). In Taneja’s view, that period was characterized largely by harmony between Muslims and Hindus as well as between people and the environment. The enchanted worldview would have brought it all together. He writes, “Such an enchanted worldview was once common in Delhi, where one of the primary experiences of the sacred, for both Hindus and Muslims, was ecological: based on greenery, flowing water, the scent of flowers, and the potentialities of affective transformation and healing that result from opening our sensate selves to nature” (p. 182). If all this sounds too rosy, Taneja is explicit about wanting us to “imagine” a usable past (p. 263). He writes: “I realized that what I was searching for among the ruins of Delhi was not a knowledge of the past as past but the possibility that the past held open for my own life, for my present” (p. 260). This approach to history is problematic, because first of all it leads one to select whatever one wants to from the past, and second, people at the other end of the political spectrum from Taneja, in particular Hindu nationalists, are doing precisely the same—and their useble past is the opposite of that of Taneja. One need only watch the Bollywood film Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior that came out at the beginning of 2020. Indeed, the selection of sources that Taneja brings to bear on the entire period of the Delhi sultanate and the Mughal Empire in North India is necessarily small but unnecessarily partial. The book provides no explicit rationale for why the three texts from the precolonial period that it prioritizes should be seen as representative of that period. The three texts in question are Nizam al-Din Auliya’s discourses (fourteenth century), The Co-mingling of the Two Oceans by Dara Shukoh (seventeenth century), and a description of Delhi by Dargah Quli Khan (eighteenth century). Yet if one looks at more texts, even at some produced in exactly the same environments as these, one is bound to end up with quite another picture than the one Jinnealogy presents. The works of Zia al-Din Barani, who moved in the same circles as the recorder of Auliya’s discourses, for instance, shed a very different light, not to mention the letters of Dara Shukoh’s brother Aurangzeb, the emperor who is vilified in the film Tanhaji. As I have argued in my work, the many centuries-long period marked by Muslim rulers in North and Central India is not one with respect to harmony or discord between people with all sorts of diverging identities. For every tolerant voice there was an intolerant voice, and there were periods when the more tolerant had the upper hand and periods when the less tolerant had the upper hand. Also, it is one thing to share an enchanted worldview or “invisible religion” (a term Taneja borrows from Jan Assmann), it is and was quite another to live together in perfect harmony without the demands of identity getting in the way.

In another way, the book does give some reason for optimism, however. Taneja’s analysis of the petitions and interviews gives hope that individuals can find the strength to stand up and think for themselves, away from the demands of community and bureaucracy, even if they do not see themselves as autonomous. And it gives hope that there are places where those individuals can find each other. The careful exploration of the consciousness of the twenty-first-century people who come to Firuz Shah Kotla to petition, worship, and engage is where the strength of the book lies.

Citation: Gijs Kruijtzer. Review of Taneja, Anand Vivek, Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL:

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