Formations of Tamil Islam: Negotiations and Contestations in Contemporary South India

Harini Kumar, Anthropology

My dissertation examines the practices through which Muslims in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu cultivate and sustain attachments to multiple traditions, histories, and places. Continued attempts by the Indian state to regulate Muslim religiosity has obscured the everyday ways in which Tamil Muslims constitute Muslim subjectivity and modalities of belonging that exceed the essentializing categories of nationalist discourse. Based on 18 months of ethnographic research among mosques, shrines, pilgrimage centers and Islamic organizations in Tamil Nadu, I argue that “Tamil Islam” is at once deeply embedded in the cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu and mediated by histories and geographies that extend beyond the region. I pay particular attention to the contestations among Tamil Muslims about ‘correct’ Islamic practice vis-à-vis long-standing forms of religiosity that are coded as both Islamic and Tamil. I suggest that an understanding of “Tamil Islam” depends not only on the explicit arguments—active debates, public speeches, and religious discourses—that seek to define it, but also on heterogeneous, everyday embodied practices of devotion and care. Ultimately my research throws into relief different ethical possibilities of imagining Muslim religiosity and belonging that are not limited by either political discourse or the geographical boundaries of Tamil Nadu and the Indian nation-state.

 

Odakarai Palli, a 17th century Mosque in Kilakarai, Tamil Nadu

Female supplicants gather for the annual Kandoori festival at Syedappa Dargah in Kilakarai, Tamil Nadu

Female supplicants gather for the annual Kandoori festival at Syedappa Dargah in Kilakarai, Tamil Nadu

 

Decorated chariot doing the rounds at Pallapatti's Kandoori festival, Tamil Nadu
Decorated chariot doing the rounds at Pallapatti's Kandoori festival, Tamil Nadu

 


Harini Kumar is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Her dissertation focuses on Tamil Islamic traditions and practices, specifically how the complex relation between a religious and ethno-linguistic identity is articulated in the contemporary moment. She previously earned an MA in the Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a MA in Communication from the University of Hyderabad, India.