Karen Ruffle


Unlike virtually any other city in the Shiʿi world, Hyderabad, the capital of the erstwhile Qutb Shahi dynasty (1518 – 1687 c.e.) is a city of relics (ʿAzmi 2000); the bodies of the Shiʿi Imams and Ahl-e Bait permeate the landscape in the form of foot- and handprints, shrines, tomb replicas, and metal standards (ʿalam) representing them. These religious objects have social lives that can be biographically narrated (Davis 1997), telling a story that seeks to complicate the history of the Qutb Shahi dynasty (Eaton and Wagoner 2014) and its relationship to Safavid Iran (1502 – 1736 c.e.) and the hegemonic historical narrative of Shiʿi origins in the Deccan (Mitchell 2004, Naqvi 2003 and 1994, Rizvi 1986). The assumption long has been that the Shiʿism practiced in the Deccan was imported from Iran, and underwent a simple process of vernacularization (Ruffle 2011, Pinault 2001 and 1998, Naqvi 1999). I counter that the vernacularization of Shiʿism in its Deccani idiom was far more complex than the received historical narrative presents, and the Iranian role in this process was considerably more marginal. The history of Deccani Shiʿism has assumed its development as a subsidiary of a fully developed, mature, and authentic Persian tradition, which reflects contemporary Iranian religio-political aspirations to authenticate Shiʿism (Ruffle 2011, Deeb 2006), but more tellingly it draws attention to the types of elite textual sources that are privileged in the writing of religious history in the field of Islamic studies.

In this presentation, I ask why the Deccan was so receptive to Shiʿism in the sixteenth century, particularly to the bodily orientation of its material practices. This project seeks to look beyond the archive to the material record, where we can tell a different story about the form and development of Shiʿism in the Deccan in the sixteenth century. The Qutb Shahi kings deployed their own proto-anthropology (Zore 1941), sending out government officials to the villages to learn the “context-specific rules” (Ramanujan 1989) of ritual and material religious practice of their Vaisnava and Lingayat Saiva polity (Rizvi 1986, Zore 1941). The Qutb Shahi formation of somatic Shiʿism with its material culture, sacroscape, literature, and ritual practices, sought to understand this Deccani religious grammar of the body and integrate its metaphors, metonymies, and scripts (Lakoff and Johnson 2003). The images, objects, physical and sensory practices of somatic Shiʿism were absorbed into the Deccan’s composite culture of religious conviviality, in which material culture and ritual systems were shared and made variously meaningful by different religious communities. This was a distinctly local project drawing on indigenous grammars of religious tradition, a deep engagement with Indic and Shiʿi sensoria, ultimately creating a form of what I call “somatic Shiʿism” that was distinctive to the Deccan-focused Qutb Shahi dynasty.


Karen Ruffle is Assistant Professor in the Department of Historical Studies and the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. She is a scholar of Indo-Persian Shiʿism, focusing on devotional texts, ritual practice, and material practices in South Asia. She obtained her B.A. in Religion from Middlebury College and her M.A. and PhD in Religious Studies with a specialization in Islamic studies from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her first book Gender, Sainthood, and Everyday Practice in South Asian Shi’ism was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2011. Her most current research and publications focus on issues of Shiʿi material practices and the ritual performance of self-flagellation (matam). In 2015-2015, she will be convening a John C. Sawyer Seminar on the theme, “Religious Materiality in the Indian Ocean World, 1300-1800,” funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

%d bloggers like this: