‘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.

A Shared World of Seeing? Concepts of Visuality in Textual Culture

Let us consider the lines quoted at the beginning of this paper:

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”.3

Figure  01

This is the refrain of a devotional song sung by Nagoor E.M. Hanifa, probably Tamil Nadu’s best known performer of Islamic devotional music. Hanifa’s songs and albums circulate widely in the Tamil-speaking world, and are enjoyed by a diverse audience crossing religious boundaries. Not all songs sung by Hanifa are religious, and not all were written by Muslim songwriters. But already the cover-designs of his albums, with their images of mosques, Muslim holy sites, and camel-riders, make clear that they are largely aimed at the Muslim devotional market [Figure 01]. The same is true with regard to the contents of the songs. Most of them are praises of God and the Prophet Muhammad, as well as Muslim saints, the holy cities of Islam, and Muslim holidays. In this regard, the above quoted song is a rather ordinary specimen.
Yet what is important for our purposes is the request articulated by the song, and the vocabulary through which it expresses that request. The song appeals to the Prophet to come and grant a vision of himself to the singer and the devotees listening to the song. Similar appeals to the Prophet are a common element of Hanifa’s songs:

oru nāḷ ākilum, oru poḻut’ ākilum,
uṅkaḷai-k kāṇa vēṇṭum, napi yā mustapā!
oru nāḷ ākilum, oru poḻut’ ākilum.

“Even if it is [just] one day, even if it is [just] one time,
I need/want to see you, Prophet, o Mustafa!
Even if it is [just] one day, even if it is [just] one time”.4

matiṉā nakarukku-p pōka vēṇṭum,
eṅkaḷ maṉṉar mukammatai-k kāṇa vēṇṭum.

“[We] have to go to the city of Medina,
[We] have to see our king Muhammad”.5

aṇṇal napi nāyakamē vara vēṇṭum!
uṅkaḷ aṉpu mukam nāṉ kāṇa allāviṉ aruḷ vēṇṭum!

“Exalted Lord Prophet, you have to come!
God’s grace is needed, that I may see your dear face!”.6

All these songs have in common that they call for an immediate, visual encounter with the Prophet, mostly expressed through the verb kāṇ-, ‘to see’. This encounter is not the hope for encountering the Prophet at the end of times, when he leads his community into paradise, but an encounter in the here and now, sometimes depicted as the Prophet coming to reveal himself to the devotees, sometimes as the result of the devotees’ journey to a sacred place such as Medina. The most striking aspect is that this visual encounter can be signified by the term taricaṉam, a term of great importance in Hindu traditions. Derived from the Sanskrit darśana, it signifies the ““seeing” of the divine image, and it is the single most common and significant element of Hindu worship” (Eck 1998: 1; cf. also Babb 1981). As such, the use in a Muslim devotional song might appear as a good example for the supposedly ‘shared’ conceptual world of Tamil-speaking Hindus and Muslims.

The Prophet is not the only Muslim religious figure whose ‘vision’ is sought after by devotees. The vocabulary of a visual encounter may also be utilized in the case of Muslim saints. Thus, a booklet available at a shrine in Parangipettai (Porto Novo), where a companion of the Prophet is supposed to be buried, is actually entitled “Come to see a companion of the Holy Prophet” (tirunapi tōḻarai-k kāṇa varīr) (Nūrmuhammatu Kātiri no date). Another booklet on shrines in and around Thanjavur reports about a shrine of two saints on the grounds of the local hospital that “many of those who come to the hospital to obtain treatment have the habit of coming to this place, seeing the saints [makāṉkaḷai taricittu], and leaving [again]” (Saiyat Mupārak et al. 2001: 20; cf. also ibid.: 27, 52, 54).7  Such references to ‘seeing’ saints are also not uncommon in nineteenth century poetry. An example would be the following refrain of a song composed in honor of Salikandu Sahib Wali of Parangipettai and published in Singapore in 1896:

taricaṉam nīrē tantīr cālikkaṇṭu
cākip oliyullā vantīr
taricaṉam iravilē tamiyaṉ kaṉaviṉilē
tantīr ēḻai paṅkāḷā...

“You gave [your] vision, Salikandu
Sahib Waliullah, you came.
You gave [your] vision in the night, in the dream of a destitute person,
Partner of the poor...” (Mukammatu Aptulkātiṟu 1896: 36).

Similar passages can apparently be found in pilgrimage songs composed in the genre of vaḻinaṭaiccintu.8  It should be noted, though, that the case here is slightly different from the two contemporary examples noted above. Here, the saint himself comes to the devotee and grants his vision, not during any sort of devotional act, but in a dream. This example has clear parallels with the modern song by Hanifa quoted at the beginning of the paper, where it is the Prophet who is requested to grant the devotee a vision of himself. On the contrary, the other examples speak about ‘seeing’ the saint in the context of devotees coming to his shrine, which bears far more resemblance to the Hindu act of ‘seeing’ a deity in worship. The same might be said about those songs which call devotees to Medina to ‘see’ the Prophet, one of which has been quoted above.

Closely connected to these latter cases are those in which devotees are not depicted as seeing a holy person, but an important site connected with such a person. The same booklet which was quoted above regarding devotees ‘seeing’ two saints on the compound of the Thanjavur hospital has many more passages speaking about devotees actually coming to see the dargah or shrine of a saint (cf. e.g. Saiyat Mupārak et al. 2001: 3, 10). The refrain of a song sung by A.R. Sheik Mohammed similarly proclaims: “We come seeing the dargahs of the Tamil country” (tamiḻakattu tarkākkaḷai-p pārttu varuvōm).9

Connected to the idea of ‘seeing’ a saint at his shrine is the image of the devotees having come to the shrine after searching for the saint, something commonly proclaimed in songs addressed to Shahul Hamid of Nagore. “Daily, we came searching for your grace” (aṉutiṉam umat’ aruḷ nāṭi vantōm).10  Another example is a song entitled ‘The Saint’, produced by Chennai-based record label EarthSync India and performed by musicians of the Nagore Dargah: “O lord living in Nagore...we came searching [for] you” (nākūr vāḻum kōmāṉē...umai nāṭi vantōm).11  Such imagery is often connected, as in the last example, with the claim that the saint ‘lives’ in a certain place, using the habitual present tense, an expression of the belief that saints are not dead but alive in their tombs (cf. Smith & Haddad 2002: 183), a belief which is sometimes backed up by referring to the Qur’anic quote that ‘those who are martyred in the way of Allah are not dead but alive’ (Surah Al-Imraan, verse 170).12  There are some similarities in expression here to the canonic corpora of Tamil Bhakti poetry composed in the late first millennium CE, especially the Vaishnavite corpus. Thus, in the hymn Periya Tirumoḻi 6.8.5., Tirumaṅkai Āḻvār expresses in seven out of ten stanzas that “searching [for God], I saw [him] in Naṟaiyūr” (...nāṭi naṟaiyūril kaṇṭēṉē).13

It can hardly be denied that the way Muslim devotional texts in Tamil speak about the act of seeing the Prophet or a saint has parallels in phrasing and connected imagery to non-Muslim textual culture and its attendant practices. Not only is it common to express the wish for a visual encounter between devotee and Prophet or saint, but both the vocabulary employed and the context seem to evoke the important Hindu practice of darśana, of ‘seeing’ and experiencing a deity and by extension also its temple and temple-town (cf. Eck 1998: 73-5) as a fundamental part of practices of worship. This is expressed in an idiom that not only seems to evoke darśana, but that has clear links to non-Muslim devotional literature. Looked at from this vantage point, Muslims and non-Muslims seem to share a common conceptual culture of visuality, in which ‘seeing’ a venerated being seems to take a much more central role than one would expect in a Muslim context. Yet up to this point, our analysis has focused solely on texts, on talking and singing about ‘seeing’, but not on practicing it. It is therefore necessary that we consider the material side of devotional ‘visuality’, the material objects meant for ‘seeing’ as a part of devotional practice.

Tombs and Shrines: Seeing Saints in Popular Art
So how does this emphasis on seeing a holy person translate into practices of seeing, or does it actually translate at all? In a very general sense, devotees coming to a Muslim shrine in South India, or even the holy places of Islam in Mecca and Medina, are of course treated to a variety of ‘sensuous’ impressions, including decorations and ornaments which are primarily meant for ‘seeing’ (cf. Eck 1998: 13-4). But very little suggests any sharing in practice with darśana as an act of worship. In dargahs, devotees will usually ‘see’ the tomb, but other devotional activities usually overshadow the act of ‘seeing’. For many Muslim devotees, getting into physical contact with the tomb and thus the saint’s baraka or ‘blessing’ seems more important than ‘seeing’ the tomb. This may be slightly different for women, who are in South India often barred from entering the room containing the actual grave and thus often have no other means to get into contact with it than by ‘seeing’, but I would maintain that ‘touching’, even if indirect – such as through touching items which had been in contact with the tomb – is more important than ‘seeing’ for most Muslim devotees.

Figure  02

Even more interesting in my opinion is what one may call the ‘visual’ equivalent of the textual images discussed above, i.e. visual images in popular poster art, book and cassette covers, and more recently videos. Such images are as ubiquitous in popular Muslim culture in South India as they are in other parts of the Muslim world. They adorn calendars distributed by Muslim shops and companies, are sold by shrines and frame makers (a trade which, in Tamil Nadu and in many of the places where Tamils settled, such as Singapore, is often performed by Muslims) [Figure 02], and provide visual frames for the texts we just discussed as book-, cassette- and CD-covers. In recent times, the internet provides ready access to many of these images, something which can be checked by searching for example for images of the Nagore Dargah. Especially pictures of the shrine as illuminated for the annual festival seem to be regularly copied from one website to the other.

Figure  03

The most apparent difference to the textual material is that, whereas the latter often focused on the direct visual experience of the holy person in question, material images exclusively focus on the site. What is depicted is the Kaaba in Mecca, the Prophet’s tomb in Medina, or one of the innumerable saints’ tombs in the Muslim world. The most popular of these images in the Tamil World, beyond the Kaaba and the Prophet’s tomb, is the shrine of Shahul Hamid at Nagore. While painted images are still being sold, the market nowadays is dominated by photographs. Such images are not limited to devotional posters, but also appear on other objects such as books and even items outside a narrowly ‘devotional’ sphere, such as phone cards [Figure 03]. But the Nagore Dargah is only the most ubiquitous image in a vast market of shrine pictures.

Figure 04

While no detailed analysis of the conventions employed in these images can be attempted here, attention should be drawn to several interesting conventions which are widely employed in devotional photographs of saints’ shrines. Let us compare two images, one a devotional poster of the Nagore Dargah intended for framing, the other the cover page of a book on the colonial North Indian Muslim reformer Ahmad Reza Khan Barelwi [Figures 04 and 05; Muhammat Jakkariyyā 2010]. In both pictures, the central image is a depiction of the shrine itself, i.e. the Nagore Dargah and the tomb of Ahmad Reza Khan, respectively. Both shrines are framed in the image by a beautiful landscape, an effect achieved in the picture of the Nagore Dargah simply through the angle from which the photograph was taken, which shows the Dargah surrounded by coconut palms, while in the case of the tomb of Ahmad Reza Khan, an image of a lake and a mountainous landscape (possibly Kashmir) has been edited into the background.

Figure 05

Even more important are two further elements. Firstly, both shrines are depicted along with other sacred places. In the case of the Nagore image, these are the Kaaba and the Prophet’s mosque and tomb in Medina, both set into medallions in the upper right and left hand corners of the image, respectively. In the case of Ahmad Reza Khan, these are the cupolas of three important mausoleums of the Muslim world, located in the upper half of the image along with the book title. The centre is taken again by the Prophet’s tomb, flanked to the right by the cupola of the Taj Mahal and to the left by the tomb of Ali at Najaf.14  This pairing of a shrine with other sacred sites serves to locate the shrine visually in a Muslim sacred geography, linking them to the Prophet and his family as well as, in the case of Ahmad Reza Khan’s shrine, in a North Indian context (achieved both by the Taj Mahal and the Kashmir-like landscape).

The other aspect is, in both cases, a photo of the actual grave or graves inside the shrine. In the case of the image of the Nagore Dargah, the graves shown are those of Shahul Hamid’s son Yusuf Sahib, of his daughter-in-law Sultan Bibi and of Shahul Hamid himself, arranged in the same order on a west-east axis as they appear to the devotees, who enter the chambers containing the graves from the south. They are placed in the centre of the image, above the actual photo of the shrine. In the case of Ahmad Reza Khan’s shrine, the image of his grave is set into the photo of the shrine’s facade, opening up that facade to reveal its contents. Photos which show only the grave of a shrine, without any representation of the shrine structure, are also available at a number of shrines [cf. figure 02].

These images of the actual graves are the closest one gets in Muslim images to ‘seeing’ the saint and to the concept of darśana. The grave somehow occupies a similar ‘slot’ in its relationship with the shrine-building as the specific image of a deity in a Hindu temple. There are indeed Hindu and Christian images which similarly juxtapose pictures of a temple or church with photos or drawings of the image venerated in that particular site. Yet at the same time, photos of graves seem to play a much less important role in Muslim devotional visual culture in Tamil Nadu than the more ubiquitous images of the shrine’s building(s), both as photos and as drawings or paintings. My own impression is that at least in the contexts that I am familiar with, Muslims seem to prefer images of the shrine-buildings rather than those of graves – I cannot remember having seen one such image in a Muslim home in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka or Southeast Asia. This may point to a difference in use of devotional poster art between Muslims and some non-Muslim groups. Yet admittedly, more research is required on the use of Muslim images by devotees and the audiences addressed through different types of images.

Figure 06

Figure 07

Many of the images utilized in devotional materials by Tamil Muslims have achieved a wide transnational spread both due to the historical migrations of Tamil Muslims beyond India and Sri Lanka and more recently the facile reproduction and transmission of both painted and photographic images through a variety of media, not least important the internet. Indeed, the architecture of the Nagore dargah with its distinctive minarets resembling Chinese pagodas was utilized by South Indian Muslims throughout Southeast Asia already in the early nineteenth century, and may have influenced Muslim architecture even in Yemen (cf. Alfieri 1997; Tschacher 2009a: 58; 2010: 195). Architectural reminiscences of the Nagore dargah are not only found with the replicas of the Nagore Dargah in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Singapore where Tamil Muslims commemorate the Nagore saint annually on his holiday [Figures 06, 07], but also in the architecture of local mosques and shrines [Figure 08]. The image Nagore Dargah with its distinctive architecture apparently serves the dual purpose of marking a specific locale (Nagore) and community (South Indian Muslims), but for that very reason also has come to be an important symbol of the participation of this region and its Muslims in larger Muslim networks, for example on websites devoted to Muslim shrines (cf. e.g. http://aulia-e-hind.com/DargahGallery.htm). In the international flow of images of Sufi shrines, pictures of the Nagore Dargah are not primarily indicators of regional distinctiveness, but of variation on a common theme.

Figure 08

The transnational spread of these images does not seem to diminish, but rather to enhance importance of the actual locality. There are indications that the Nagore Dargah replicas in Southeast Asia are losing support among local devotees as budget airlines and improved road transportation make the original shrine in Nagore more accessible (cf. Tschacher 2006: 231-4; 2009b: 67-8). Connected to this is the mutual constitution of pilgrimage networks and images of shrines. While I have not yet met anyone in Tamil Nadu who decided to make a pilgrimage to a certain shrine on the basis of having seen its image alone, the ubiquity of images of certain shrines enhance their importance for many devotees, who will embark on a pilgrimage with a clear image of what their destination looks like and may return from the site with yet another framed image of the shrine or grave.

Figure  09

Figure  11

Another significant aspect of devotional visualities among Tamil-speaking Muslims are the items and decorations used during the annual holidays at particular shrines. Most important among these are devices serving as receptacles for important objects used in the holiday, such as altar-like frames on which the pot with sandal-paste used to anoint the grave is kept [Figure 09]. The most impressive of these receptacles are chariots used in processions of the flag or flags to be hoisted on the first day of the festival. Some of these bear obvious resemblances to the chariots used in Hindu temple festivals, even though the latter are usually made of wood and covered with cloth, while the Muslim ones rely on more gaudy and flashy materials [Figures 10, 11].

Figure  10

At the Nagore Dargah, models of ships are a further notable element of annual processions. Devotees who have had a wish fulfilled bring small ships (and occasionally models of other means of transport) to the shrine in procession, while the most important chariot carrying the flag to be hoisted on the tallest minaret is also shaped like a ship [Figures 12, 13, 14] (cf. Saheb 1998 for a description of the Nagore holiday). On annual holidays, shrines are often brightly illuminated by blinking light-bulbs in many colors, and even the simplest shrine will maintain at least some sort of special illumination [Figure 15].

Figure  12

Figure  13

Figure  14

Figure  15

These annual holidays and the items used in their course are routinely likened in secondary literature to the proceedings during holidays at Hindu temples in the region. Yet caution has to be exercised in assuming such holidays to be simply an aspect of ‘shared’ religious culture. While the aesthetics of the decorations and practices like processions certainly appeal to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, one should also note differences both in the style of the decorations as well as in actual practice. An important difference from the point of view of visuality is that, in the procession at a Hindu temple, the deity him- or herself comes out of the temple in the form of the processional idol, giving an opportunity for the worshippers to see and be seen by the deity (cf. Babb 1981), Muslim processions, in contrast, serve to transport objects filled with baraka to the shrine, most commonly the flags to be hoisted, and to give devotees the opportunity to come into contact with them – not primarily by sight, but again by touch [Figures 16, 17].

Figure  17

Figure  16

While the illuminations similarly resemble those at Hindu temple festivals, one should note that in the Muslim contexts, the light-bulbs usually form abstract patterns, not blinking images of the gods as in Hindu contexts. Indeed, scholars of South Indian and South Asian Islam in general should start noting that very similar practices, including illuminations and processions, are part of the holidays at saint shrines in many parts of the Muslim world, including Arab countries like Egypt. In Egypt, like in Nagore, boats do play a part in the processions, something which has been connected by scholars with Pharaonic practices, but which is much more likely to be due to the local importance of riverine shipping (Mayeur-Jaouen 1995: 71; cf. also De Jong 1976/77; for images of one Egyptian festival, see http://www.incendiaryimage.com/projects/tanta-mawlid). That such similarities in Muslim practice may serve as conduits for the flows of images and visual representations between different parts of the larger Muslim world merits further investigation. 

In any case, there is one clear absence in Muslim devotional images in the Tamil-speaking world – the saint him- or herself. Given the prohibitory attitude towards images that Islam is often accredited with, this would not seem to be surprising. But in fact, images of saints are far more common in the Muslim world than is often acknowledged. Perhaps the best known examples are Shiite depictions of the Imams, spread in a wide region from Anatolia to North India. Yet there are also traditions of depicting saints in Sunni Sufi contexts. The perhaps best documented of these is in popular poster art from Pakistan. Jürgen Wasim Frembgen has analyzed 191 such posters from the collection of the Museum of Ethnology, Munich. Of these 191 posters, 158 contained images of one or several saints, while only 33 were simply images of the shrine “as a kind of synecdoche for the saint” (Frembgen 2006: 129). While the dominance of posters showing actual portraits of saints may partly be due to the choices of the collectors, and Frembgen himself notes that “due to the iconoclastic tendencies of rigid scriptural Islam, portraits depicting Muslim saints are not as ubiquitous as the ‘god posters’ in contemporary Hindu India” (Frembgen 2006: 137), the number and variety of saints’ portraits in Pakistan is impressive nevertheless. Such portraits are not unknown in India either, for example in the Deccan, a region bordering the Tamil-speaking regions of South India (cf. e.g. Assayag 1995: plate 45).

Yet I have rarely encountered similar images, or even images imported from Pakistan, North India, or the Deccan, in the homes and shrines of Tamil-speaking Muslims in those regions of India I am familiar with. The main exception is an image depicting five important Chishti saints as well as ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, almost identical to the one reproduced as figure 11 in Frembgen 2006: 40, which I have occasionally seen in the homes of people in South India. Indeed, this particular image appears to have gained some popularity among Tamil-speaking Muslims recently. Dennis McGilvray collected a poster in Sri Lanka of the same picture, presumably printed in North India, (Dennis McGlivray, personal communication). Recently, I attended a function organized by a local Singaporean Qadiri Sufi group whose members have a South Indian background. The group claims to be in possession of two hairs of the Prophet and another one of al-Jilani, which they exhibit annually to devotees. In March 2011, the function took place in a religious school (madrasa) in eastern Singapore. In one room of the school, a tent was set up where the three hairs as well as that of another, more recent Sufi master, were exhibited – one of the few cases I am familiar with where seeing the sacred object took precedence over touching it or its containers, which was not permitted. The walls of the tent were decorated with the said image of al-Jilani and the Chishti saints, as well as numerous portraits of ‘Ali and Husayn in the style well-known from Shiite contexts. The crowd attending the function and queuing to see the hairs consisted of Indians from both North and South India as well as Malays. In such multi-ethnic contexts, images seem to have gained in popularity recently, and may in the future spread from here to more remote areas of Tamil Nadu where this as yet does not seem to be the case.

Figure 18

Depictions of saints also exist in other parts of the Muslim World. In Java, it is not uncommon to find poster art portraying the Wali Songo, the ‘Nine Saints’ who presumably converted the Javanese to Islam. While some images simply contain the portraits of the Wali Songo [Figure 18], I have seen other posters which combine the saints’ portraits with images of their tombs. There has even been a TV-serial about these saints. Another tradition of portraying saints, or rather one particular saint, are images of Amadu Bamba Mbacke (1853-1927), the founder of the Muridiyya brotherhood in Senegal (cf. Roberts and Roberts 2000; http://www.aodl.org/westafrica/passport.php). There is a close connection between these painted images and photography, as the depiction of Amadu Bamba is based on the only known photo of the saint (Roberts and Roberts 2000: 83).

The absence of such images in the Tamil-speaking parts of Asia can therefore not facilely be connected to supposed Islamic ‘iconoclasm’. Indeed, it needs to be mentioned that very rarely, images of saints actually were produced locally, although I have never seen one of these images. Asiff Hussein reports that the shrine of Talayan Bawa in Ratmalana, Sri Lanka, in the past issued such pictures for devotees (Hussein 2007: 375).15  Yet even if the large scale absence of saints’ portraits in the region may not be fully explicable by reference to ‘iconoclasm’, this does not mean that the idea that Islam prohibits the portrayal of saints and the dissemination of such images has no impact on the perception of devotees regarding Muslim popular art. Whenever I enquired about saints’ portraits with Tamil Muslims, respondents made it clear that they were highly uncomfortable with the idea. There were few who directly denounced the portrayal of saints as ‘un-Islamic’, but most tried to avoid talking about the issue. Shopkeepers selling devotional images usually responded by only telling me that such images were unavailable in South India, even when they knew that they existed in other parts of the Muslim World. Some even denied that this was the case, and when they were told by other customers as well that saints’ portraits did after all exist, they strongly emphasized that such things were not available anywhere in Tamil Nadu.

The question why such portraits are not available in Tamil Nadu when they are available, for instance, in neighboring Karnataka, was generally evaded. It appeared to me that respondents avoided answering the question since they did not want to accuse Muslims of other regions to indulge in prohibited actions, especially since they themselves were only too aware of the aggressive charges against saint veneration voiced by sections of Tamil Muslim society. At the same time, it seemed that the very uneasiness with the matter resulted from a desire to prove the ‘Islamic’ character of their own practices (and, in the case of shopkeepers, their livelihood). As I have discussed elsewhere (Tschacher 2009b: 65-70), ‘anti-syncretism’, that is the rejection of what is perceived to be an illegitimate ‘mixing’ of religious traditions, is a conspicuous feature not only of opposing, but also of defending saint veneration in South India. The idea of saints’ portraits was obviously challenging the carefully maintained distinctions between ‘Muslim’ and ‘non-Muslim’ practice as understood by my respondents.

There was one curious exception to the rejection of direct, personal portraits of saints, one that initially also escaped my notice. When asking a vendor of devotional images and literature at the Nagore Dargah about the reason for the absence of saints’ pictures in Tamil Nadu, the vendor had first answered that this was due to the fact that the local saints had lived long ago, while there were many saints in northern India even in recent times. As a consequence, one could take the photos of these saints, while the South Indian saints such as Shahul Hamid had lived before the invention of photography and therefore, no photos of them were available. The reaction of the vendor was due to the multiple meanings of the Tamil word paṭam, which, like the English ‘picture’ or the Urdu tasvīr, can refer to both painted and photographic images. When I clarified that I meant painted images, the vendor appeared highly alarmed and denied the existence of such images, because, as I assume, such images would appear to lend support to critics and opponents of saint veneration and shrine culture among Muslims. When another customer confirmed that such painted portraits of saints indeed existed, the vendor evaded the issue by simply emphasizing that they were not available at Nagore.

What is interesting about the reaction of the vendor is the distinction made between painted and photographic images. Photographs of Sufi masters both living and dead are commonly published in books and journals. The main trustee of an important shrine in Tamil Nadu once handed over his new name card to me by pointing out that this name card was better than an earlier one he had given to me since it carried his ‘spiritual image’, as he explained in English, i.e. his photo. While these photographs are usually not for sale, but circulate within networks of devotion to the respective Sufi, the question remains why it is considered proper to take photos of holy men but not to paint them? I can only speculate about the answer to that question, but it appears to me that what is at issue here is a question of authenticity. A photo appears to simply reproduce the actual appearance of the person in question, while a painting of a long-dead saint contains an element of ‘innovation’, for the saint’s appearance is after all unknown nowadays and would spring from the imagination of the painter.16  It is perhaps not without importance that the traditions of saints’ portraits in Pakistan and the Deccan flourish in a region with a long tradition of portraying saints in painting (cf. Eaton 1978: plates 2, 3 & 9; Frembgen 2006: 128-9). There is in contrast no comparable tradition in Tamil-speaking South India and Sri Lanka.

In the absence of and indeed the aversion to portraits of saints, the shrine serves, as Frembgen has stated with regard to similar images in Pakistan (Frembgen 2006: 129), as a synecdoche for the saint. This is true even in recent video art. Take the video of the song ‘The Saint’ performed by musicians of the Nagore Dargah as an example [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXfPFxfy7ZM]. The presence of the saint is continuously invoked by images of the Nagore Dargah in the background, even as the camera dwells on the faces of the singers. This privileging of the shrine over the person in Tamil Muslim devotional visual culture marks this culture as perceptibly different from Tamil Hindu traditions, where usually the deity or saint is the centre of visual attention even as the temple may be depicted in the background. If the language of ‘seeing’ in Tamil Muslim devotional culture, as expressed through the poems discussed in this paper, seems to point to a conceptual world of visuality shared among different religious traditions in the Tamil country, the actual practices associated with ‘seeing’ in a Muslim devotional context, which employ iconographic and ritual conventions different from those of Hindu or Christian devotees, do seem to indicate distinct understandings of the practice of ‘seeing’.


How then to connect the conceptual and the practical aspects of Tamil Muslim devotional visuality, how to reconcile those aspects that appear to be shared across religious traditions with those that seem to be distinct? Why has a terminology reminiscent of the practice of having darśana been adopted in devotional texts, while visual practices prefer to offer devotees the shrine as synecdoche rather than granting them the ‘vision’ of the Prophet or saint invoked in textual sources? As mentioned, it does not suffice to refer to the supposedly primordial abhorrence of human images in Islamic traditions, as there are enough examples of Islamic traditions which have developed visual representations of saints. Admittedly, given the attacks on saint veneration by ‘reformist’ groups and individuals in South India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, it would have been difficult to develop a tradition of portraying saints where none had existed before. Poster art depicting saints produced in other parts of the Muslim world may at some point also become popular in this region. This process already seems underway in more cosmopolitan settings, as the spread of a particular image from Pakistan of ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and some Chishti saints noted above seems to indicate.17  But whether this will then lead to the production of images of local saints remains doubtful. ‘Reformist’ criticism has not stopped devotees from employing a language which shares conceptual space with non-Muslim traditions, and after all, portrayals of saints are present in the Deccani Muslim tradition which closely intersects with Tamil traditions in South India.

What appears to be of importance to me for understanding the disjunction between shared vocabularies and divergent practices is that it is precisely this tension that enables Tamil-speaking Muslims to engage in a wider religious world. My argument here diverges from the line of enquiry according to which Tamil Muslim traditions became rooted in South India through ‘shared’ concepts, as argued most forcefully by Vasudha Narayanan. Narayanan argues that “conventions and vocabulary...rooted devotion to the Prophet in a Tamil conceptual world – a world shared by both Hindus and Muslims. It was generic conventions that helped to construct a framework for identity that was simultaneously Muslim and Tamil” (Narayanan 2000: 92; emphasis in original). In contrast, my claim is that it is not so much the supposedly ‘shared’ elements, but rather the tensions that result from diverging from the ‘shared’ matrix which permit the ‘rooting’ of Muslim concepts and practices locally. It is in the divergence of their visual practices that Muslims can claim a space for Islamic traditions in the visual worlds of South India and Sri Lanka and enable the spread of Muslim images across religious and cultural faultlines.

Figure 19

This becomes most apparent when we consider contexts where Islam needs to be invoked visually along with non-Muslim traditions. Consider the following image painted on a street corner in Chennai [Figure 19]. Depicted are the Kaaba and the Prophet’s tomb, Ganesh, and Jesus. The direct aim of the picture is actually to keep people from relieving themselves on that street corner, hoping that piety and decorum will prevent people from passing urine onto images of the divine. While for Hindus and Christians, the divine is made ‘directly’ visible through the images of Ganesh and Jesus, Allah and the Prophet are presented by synecdoche through the sacred sites of the Kaaba and Medina. While this particular image serves a rather profane end, similar pictures can be purchased as poster art locally. Islam is in these images invariably indexed through sacred sites, while Hinduism and Christianity are more commonly represented by deities and Jesus or Mary, respectively.

There are admittedly instances when Hindus and Christians are similarly indexed through buildings, especially in the often state-sponsored iconography of religious harmony, which is meant not to address the devotional feelings of the individual but to make tangible the harmonious participation of a religious particularity in a national whole. One such example would be the anthem composed by Oscar-recipient A.R. Rahman on the occasion of the World Classical Tamil Conference, held in June 2010 in Coimbatore. In a sequence of the video for the anthem, the religions unified by the Tamil language are indexed by images of the  Shaivite temple at Madurai, the church of Our Lady of Ransom at Kanyakumari, the Nagore Dargah and the (Vaishnavite) Srirangam temple (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRITPjraXgA; sequence between min. 3:57-4:10).18  But this does not change the fact that only Islam is persistently connected visually in the Tamil-speaking world with images of structures rather than people. A sense of Islamic ‘visual otherness’ seems to have existed already in earlier times. At the important Vaishnavite temple of Srirangam, a Muslim goddess known as Tulukka Nacciyar, the ‘Turkish Lady’, believed to have been a daughter of ‘Alauddin Khilji, is venerated as a consort of Vishnu. In contrast to other consorts of the main deity in the Srirangam temple, she is not represented by a statue, but by a painting, which may be interpreted as a visual domestication of Muslim iconophobia, much as the sweetened rotis she receives as offerings are the closest a strictly vegetarian temple can get to Muslim food (cf. Davis 2004: 139; Harirao 1967: 104).

Muslim devotional visuality in the Tamil-speaking world thus engages that world precisely through the creative tensions which emerge from the ‘deviation’ from shared concepts and practices, rather than through the sharing as such. While remaining ‘decodable’ across religious traditions in the Tamil-speaking world, Muslim visual practices nevertheless create a distinct visuality which distinguishes it from other forms of devotional visuality in South India based on the tension between shared and discrete characteristics.

List of songs quoted

Abdul Ghani, Ajah Maideen & Saburmaideen Babha Sabeer, ‘The Saint’, Nagore Sessions.
Haṉipā, Nākūr E.M.: ‘Aṇṇal napi nāyakamē’, Makkattu maṉṉar.
------‘Oru nāḷ ākilum’, Vāṉmatiyē yārasūlullā.
------‘Ṣāhē mīṟā’, Vāṉmaṟai cōlaiyil.
------‘Ulaka muslim’, Iṟaivaṉiṭam kaiyēntuṅkaḷ.
------‘Vara vēṇṭum napiyē’, Yā napi.
Sheik Mohammed, A.R.: ‘Tamiḻakattu’, Tamiḻakattu tarkākkaḷ – Vol. 1.


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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.

3  Hanifa, Nagoor E.M.: ‘Varavendum Nabiyea’, Yaa Naabi. Songs and albums of Islamic devotional music in Tamil get republished frequently, with or without copyright, and titles are subject to spelling variations. Therefore, songs will only be referred to by singer, title, and album, with the spelling most commonly adopted on the internet. The list of songs quoted at the end of the paper gives the names of singers, songs and albums in proper transliteration.

5  Hanifa, Nagoor E.M.: ‘Ulaga Muslim’, Iraivanidam Kaiyendungal. The song is alternatively known as ‘Madina Nagarukku’.

7  The verb tarici-, ‘to see, behold’, which is used in this quote, is derived from the same Sanskrit root as the noun taricaṉam.

9  Sheik Mohammed, A.R.: ‘Thamizhagathu’, Tamizhagathu Daruhakkal – Vol. 1.

11  Abdul Ghani, Ajah Maideen & Saburmaideen Babha Sabeer, ‘The Saint’, Nagore Sessions.

13  This particular image of searching for and then finding God in a particular town or temple seems to be rarer in Shaivite poetry, though similar imagery may be found occasionally, as in a hymn by Appar, Tēvāram 4.75.3.

14  I have to thank Dr Jan-Peter Hartung, Senior Lecturer, School for Oriental and African Studies, London, for help in identifying the dome of Najaf.

15  I have to thank Mr Asiff Hussein for bringing this to my notice.
16  A similar explanation was put forward by Dr M.S.M. Anes, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka, with whom I discussed this topic. Similarly, Dennis McGilvray, University of Colorado, Boulder (personal communication), has told me that a preacher opposed to Sufi shrines in the town of Akkaraipattu in eastern Sri Lanka argued similarly that photos were different from paintings since they were more like a mirror reflection and not a human creation; I have to thank Dennis McGilvray for sharing this information with me.

17  As Yousuf Saeed informs me, Pakistani saint posters have begun to be become popular in North India, and this may well at some point lead to the introduction of such posters also to Tamil Nadu.

18  The inclusivism expressed by the song also extended to the performers: the Nagore musicians Abdul Ghani, Ajah Maideen, and Saburmaideen Babha Sabeer, can be seen performing shortly after this sequence.