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On the Historical Study of South Asia and Sufism: An Interview with Nile Green

[Nile Green. Image from] [Nile Green. Image from]

In the following conversation with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Ziad Abu-Rish, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Professor of History Nile Green discusses some of the issues arising from the study of “Muslims of South Asia and the wider Persianate world.” The bulk of the interview addresses issues related to the study of the history of South Asia, Sufism, and Islam. It concludes with some advice for graduate students struggling to define their research agendas. The interview was originally conducted in the spring of 2009.

Ziad Abu-Rish (ZA): Your bio on the UCLA Department of History website lists your field as South Asia. How would you describe your academic interests?

Nile Green (NG): I would describe myself as a historian of Muslims of South Asia and the wider Persianate world. I am interested in social and cultural history, but also in religious history. In fact, much of my work has to do with how we, as historians, deal with religion in the pre-modern period.

ZA: What are some of the major issues facing research in your field? Are there any areas of research that you think are missing?

NG: One of the perennial problems that are inherent to the field of South Asian history is the dominance of the Indian nation-state in framing the questions asked and sources used. South Asia becomes a problematic field when so many linguistic domains and social groups are excluded because they do not fit the dominant narrative of the formation of the Indian nation-state. I often find myself in conversation with people whose research field is the Middle East. Most scholars on India have done very little work on Islam and almost no research in Arabic and Persian. One manifestation of this is that categories for dealing with what some term “Indian religions” leave little room for Muslims and Islam. Many academic departments focusing on South Asia are premised on the idea of “Indian religion,” meaning Hinduism and Buddhism, as the originator of South Asian culture. This is quite problematic when one considers the impact of Islam, the presence of Muslims, and the historical legacy of the Mogul Empire. These exclusions have become inherent to the twentieth-century historiography of India. A particular example of this came to light during some time I spent in the archives of the East India College. As I was browsing the examination papers of the 1830s and 1840s, I was struck by what the exams revealed about how the British conceptualized Indian history at the time. The papers were entirely about Islam and the Mogul Empire. This is a stark contrast with today’s dominant conceptualization of Indian history in which Islam has been made peripheral and in some cases completely absent. I would very much like to encourage more research that crosses current geographical fields of study. There is a vast amount of sources in Indo-Arabic and Indo-Persian that is simply not touched. We need to expand our inquiries and break through the limits imposed by nation-state-centric fields.

ZA: How would you suggest addressing this problem?

NG: Historians of South Asia need to rest Islam from the exclusive domain of Middle East historians. I encourage work that locates pre-colonial India, if not early colonial India as well, as the British understood it: as part of the Islamic domain. We need to look beyond the history of the nation and colonialism and locate South Asia within a pre-modern Islamicate world system. I find myself doing more of this type of work such as when I examined particular networks that cut across the borders of present-day Iran and India. Research fields defined by linguistic areas might be one of way of advancing such an agenda. They would have far less of the trappings found in historical fields defined by geographic areas. I believe one should follow the areas one can read in. We need to encourage modern scholars to do this. For example, Arabic-reading scholars should follow the language to Gujarat or Hyderabad or wherever it might take them. Linguistic areas are very much discursive areas. Consequently, the issue is not simply identifying locations we can work in. The question is much more about identifying zones, which predate and cut across the boundaries of modern nations and states.

ZA: Much of your work has been on Sufism and you recently offered a research seminar on the subject. Could you tell us about your thoughts on the study of Sufism?

NG: One of my broader aims as a teacher and scholar is to get rid of the category itself. We need to recognize that the set of things that get categorized by observers as Sufism (customary Islam) are part and parcel of normative Islam during the [pre-modern] period. This has consequences for what it means to be a Muslim in the pre-modern period and pre-reformation Islam. Saints, shrines, and miracles, as well as holy men and embodied authorities, are what constituted normative Islam during that period. We need to challenge the dominance of categories that are produced by the ongoing Islamic reformation that began in the nineteenth century. Far too often, we see the history of Islam through these later categories and inaccurately believe that Sufism is detachable. This is problematic because pre-reformation Islam is literally the Islam of saints, shrines, and miracles. This is something I want to push through in my teaching. The alternative is to be left with dead-end questions about “Sufis versus Ulema” or dichotomies that fail to grasp the dynamics that were in play. Unfortunately, this is the case with the current study of Islam and South Asia.

ZA: Your comments lend themselves to a critique not only of the South Asian field, but also of Islam as a field of inquiry. Could you elaborate more on this?

NG: Historians need to tackle religion. For the most part, historians do not tackle religion and this is a result of developments in the study of history as a discipline. Social historians ignore religion by emphasizing material productivity. Cultural historians either leave out religion or subsume it within the category of culture. In terms of Islam, this means that the study of Islam has been left to the Islamic Studies paradigm when, in fact, historians have a role to play. The absence of Islam or religion as a historical category has undermined the legitimacy of the role historians can and should play in the study of Islam. I believe we need to bring the study of religion into the respectably of history, both social and cultural. One way of doing this is by bringing in the discussion of Sufism, for example, out of the Islamic Studies methodology and into the center of the historical method. We need to tackle the fact that these mystics are the major power brokers in the pre-modern period.

ZA: Finally, and on a slightly different note, what advice would you give graduate students as they struggle to define their research agenda?

NG: This question is very much related to the organization of scholarship itself. An issue to consider is the focus on geographical fields. On the one hand, such a beginning to graduate studies makes one aware of the literature of the field. On the other hand, there is the danger of enclosing oneself within a hermeneutical loop. It is crucial to step out of that hermeneutic circle by traveling, browsing archives, and seeking out private archives. To speak from my own experience might clarify what I mean. During my travels, I happened upon a set of private archives in an Indian city that had once been the capital of an empire. The significance of what I had come across would not have immediately occurred to me, as there was very little on this city in the literature. My main advice is that graduate students need to be bold and independently minded. In my case, I am very much interested in what I would call the “miraculous literature.” These are writings that have to do with dream literature. This topic, of course, is based on such different epistemologies to the way history traditionally works. It is as if we are trapped in a post-David Hume-centered world of history. In such a world, if we are to do “real” history, we are not going to talk about dream literature. I think it is important that we are bold and independently minded in our academic pursuits so as to break through such epistemological and hermeneutical enclosures.

3 comments for "On the Historical Study of South Asia and Sufism: An Interview with Nile Green"


One is, of course, very grateful for Prof Nile Green's extraordinary, and in some respects, path-breaking scholarship. There is, however, an unfortunate nationalism of his own here in his take on the question of periodization in Indian history. Prof Green must surely be aware that the particular periodization of Indian history that he identifies in Indian nationalism - against the British periodization that he valorizes - is a direct inheritance of colonial rule. It is the British who first identified "the Muslims of India," to use the invidious British expression, as outsiders, and Hinduism as the "native" religion of India. (Even Peter Hardy recognized the former.) On this was discursively pasted the British periodization of Indian history into "Hindu," "Muslim" and "British/Modern" periods. The consequences of this are, as they say, history - or shall we say, the catastrophe that is our history in postcolonial South Asia.

Nauman Naqvi wrote on July 29, 2011 at 11:39 AM

I don't think it's fair to claim that Green "valorizes" a British periodization. It seems more that he mentions the British archival record to point to one of many histories that are subsumed within or obliterated by a telos of the Indian nation-state. That seems to me to be a very different, and in fact quite critical, intervention that makes Nauman Naqvi's charge of "nationalism of his own" quite unfair and really not based in anything Green says in the interview.

Akshay wrote on July 29, 2011 at 12:10 PM

Prof. Green's interview is a necessary intervention in the field of South Asian Studies. As a student of Religion in the region, I particularly appreciate his remarks about the necessity of bringing the disciplines of History and Religion into closer conversation with each other. Indeed, scholars from both sides of the disciplinary fence have much to learn from each other. In that context, it is surprising to find implicit in his statements a commendation of British historiography, especially as it was practiced by the colonial state and its pedagogic apparatus. No doubt, nationalist historiography from India has unjustly excluded the region's Islamic roots as the influence of "outsiders." But isn't that an extension of colonial modes of thinking about Indian history that so effectively divided the past into a Hindu "Golden" age, a Muslim "Dark" age, and the British as the agents of an age of modern enlightenment?

Varuni Bhatia wrote on July 29, 2011 at 10:02 PM

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