A Tiger’s Leap into the Past: An Interview with Anand Vivek Taneja

Anand Vivek Taneja’s recently published book Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi speaks of lives in conversation with jinn-saints, themselves woven around the medieval ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla in the Indian city of Delhi. Taneja is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Atreyee Majumder conducted with Taneja about the book and his broader work.

Atreyee Majumder: Time appears in this book, it seems, as shadow. The people we meet seem to grasp at this big, dynamic, troubled city in time’s shadowy crevices. Do I read you right? How do the shadows of Delhi shape Firoz Shah Kotla and its frequent visitors?  

Anand Vivek Taneja: Let me extend your metaphor a bit. The postcolonial Indian state, with its fetishization of the modern, casts a bright flattening light on Delhi (often literally: bright lights that increasingly banish darkness from the experience of the city’s night). But without shadows you have no sense of depth, of texture; the city loses a dimension. The mast lights, the flyovers, the boxy architecture of modernism, the official forgetting of and apathy toward the city’s pre-1947 Muslim past: all of this attempts to banish time—not in the sense of clock-time, but in the Bergsonian sense of time as duration.

As I wrote in an essay for Indian Quarterly, “all time in Delhi becomes the endless present.” If it is shadows that give us a sense of the depth of time and the history that underlies and constitutes the present of the city, then yes, time is a shadow. And just as shadows lurk in the margins and corners of overlit rooms, so it is now with time in Delhi. The people who come to Firoz Shah Kotla are marginal; they largely belong to the Dalit and Muslim working classes of the city from Old Delhi and East Delhi. But in part because they have long belonged to the city—many of the people I spoke with at Firoz Shah Kotla can trace their roots in the city back four or five generations—they have a very different conception of the city and its temporalities than that of the city’s dominant narrative, which is about a post-1947 city of migrants. For them the shadows or layers of the city’s deep history are not shadowy at all, in the sense of illicit or insubstantial, but an essential and integral part of living in the city.

This is why they make themselves at home in a landscape that, from more modern perspectives, is uncanny, unheimlich, un-home-like. They venerate jinn, figures of deep time on a scale much longer than the lives of humans, in the subterranean ruins of a fourteenth-century palace. Not only do they see, in dreams and waking visions, the shades of Muslim holy men among the ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla, but also, to quote from the book’s introduction:

They write their petitions to the jinn-saints among these Tughlaq ruins in a form reminiscent of the shikwa, a Perso-Islamic legal form of directly addressing one’s plaints to the sovereign, prominent in the political theory of the Delhi Sultanate. In the dreams and visions that direct them to these ruins, they see Muslim saints wearing archaic robes, harking back to the medieval past. They make themselves at home in a monumental ruin-scape of vast, cool underground chambers and thick masonry walls, glimmering monolithic pillars and tall Islamicate arches. Architecture far removed experientially from the cramped, boxy, ill-lit, flimsy, and often airless dwellings in which the majority of Delhi’s population now lives.

AM: You push against an anthropological tendency to pick up on the world as represented in newspapers; our fieldsites are often organized around places and people who suffer disease, hazard, and conflict in a dramatic, crisis-ridden nowtime. So can you tell us a little about how this curious project emerged?  

AVT: First of all, Firoz Shah Kotla is a place where people come because they suffer from disease, hazard, and conflict—both domestic and political—and seek alleviation. Nor is dramatic political violence and its aftermath absent from the book. The crushing of the rebellion in Delhi in 1857, the violence of partition in 1947, and the Emergency of 1975–1977 are key moments to which the book often refers. But what might make the book seem different? Let me answer this question by trying to imagine another book I could have written. Or, let’s say, the book that I thought I was writing before I was immersed in fieldwork.

In that book, the links between the emergence of Firoz Shah Kotla as a popular dargah (Muslim saint shrine) in 1977 and the end of the Emergency earlier that year would have been the central fact. I would have worked more closely than I did with the personnel and the archives of the Archaeological Survey of India, and with Muslim political organizations who were advocating for the revival of prayer in historical Muslim buildings, many of them under the Survey’s jurisdiction. So the dominant theme of the book might well have been Muslim politics in postcolonial India. Such a book would not have been untrue, certainly not irrelevant, and it might even have posited some interesting linkages between the anthropology of the state and the anthropology of religion. But in such a book the jinn-saints of Firoz Shah Kotla would merely have been specters of politics, especially politics as understood through newspapers.

The reasons I ended up writing not that book, but this one instead, were twofold. One, I had to be intellectually honest about both the absences and presences I was encountering during fieldwork. No one inside Firoz Shah Kotla talked about the Emergency at all. However, they did tell stories about jinn that were about deep time (long-lived jinn serving as the links connecting humans who lived millennia apart); about desire and its transformative and transgressive powers; about the reshaping of families and selves. My fieldwork was pointing me toward an entirely different set of concepts than the ones I had brought with me. It was pointing me toward engaging with the duration of time as embodied in the long lives of the jinn, which is a different orientation than the necessarily contemporary nature of much anthropology.

Here, I think training and sensibility matter, which was the second factor in writing this book the way I did. My undergraduate degree is in history, and that formative orientation pushed me to look for a genealogy to what I was encountering. And my association with Sarai—a research and practice space in Delhi, which was and is interested in offering an alternate history of the present through a deep engagement with the everyday—primed me to look for these precedents in places that would not usually be considered valid archives, as they lie beyond the state and its imperatives. In my case, these archives included Bombay cinema and Urdu literature, particularly the genre of premodern poetry known as Rekhti, which is full of invocations of jinn and fairies and of their entanglements in everyday life.

AM: You highlight a tension within the scholarship on Islam between the doctrinaire and the popular. Can you reiterate it briefly here, so readers who be less familiar with this scholarship can have a sense of the stakes of the debate? More broadly, what can anthropological scholarship, which often zooms in on the everyday and the popular, offer to scholars of religious texts?

AVT: I have had a series of discomforts with the way that Islam in South Asia has been talked about, which connects to a larger discomfort with the anthropology of Islam, particularly the ways in which Talal Asad’s idea of the discursive tradition has been deployed. Let me start with an example: one of the best recent books on shrine-based healing in India is Carla Bellamy’s (2011) The Powerful Ephemeral, which is about the dargah of Husain Tekri sharif in Jaora. Bellamy’s book is ethnographically rich and analytically solid: there are some truly insightful ideas about the logics and outcomes of shrine-based healing that have been influential for me in thinking about Firoz Shah Kotla. However, despite Husain Tekri being a Muslim saint shine, Belllamy reads it as an “ambiguously Islamic” place. Why ambiguous?

One of the reasons she gives is that in telling stories about the Prophet Muhammad, people seem unconcerned with their veracity, as established through chains (isnad) of authoritative transmission. This emphasis on authority in the constitution of the Islamic discursive tradition is something that the field has inherited from the work of Asad. But the emphasis on authority in the constitution of the Islamic tradition has largely meant emphasizing prescriptive authority—following the traditions of the Prophet and the first generations of Muslims as authenticated through hadith with proper pedigrees of transmission—and largely ignoring or marginalizing all of the other discourses and practices that Muslims have historically engaged in and continue to engage in as Muslims. This is a point that Shahab Ahmed (2015), in his wonderful What is Islam?, makes much more eloquently than I do.

What this has meant for the field of Islamic studies, in which I include the anthropology of Islam, is that a certain model of textual transmission (hadith passed down and interpreted mainly through chains of male scholars) and a certain model of pious imitation as a practice of ethical self-fashioning through paying close attention to these modes of textual tradition (see Mahmood 2004) have been privileged as and have become our de facto model for what the Islamic tradition looks like. Poetry, shrine visitations, rituals related to jinn, and predominantly female discourses and practices have been marginalized or studied as folklore. What I want to show through my work is that the divide between the doctrinaire and the popular is really not that helpful, because the popular is as deeply connected to the sources of the Islamic tradition—though often through very different routes—as what is usually understood as the doctrinaire. And I hope that Jinnealogy, which takes its names from the stories I heard in which it is jinn rather than humans who are the links in the chain authenticating tradition—can help us think differently about both authority and transmission in the constitution of tradition.

AM: Jinnealogy also offers an implicit critique, it seems, of anthropology that tries to grasp at the nature of the world through the emergent rather than the residual. Would you agree?  

AVT: Perhaps. But I don’t see the emergent and the residual as necessarily opposed. At Firoz Shah Kotla we see theological newness emerging—the veneration of jinn as public saints with their own dargah—but we can’t understand this emergence without taking into account the much older, if more private, traditions of intimacy with jinn that have long been observed in Delhi, even though they had been dismissed by reformist Islamist trends beginning in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps we could think of these as residual.  

Regardless, the residual and emergent are always in a complex dynamic, whether it is in art, or fashion (which Walter Benjamin [1968, 261] called a “tiger’s leap into the past”), or religion and theology. I also think that the past and potentiality are not necessarily opposed. Naveeda Khan (2012) makes a similar argument, drawing on the connections between Iqbal and Bergson, to understand the ways in which Iqbal draws on the Islamic past as source of revitalization. I think that in the rituals and stories and dreams and visions at Firoz Shah Kotla, there is a very deliberate invocation of the past not as dead, but as full of potential for life, for the present and the future. The past itself as a field of potential: not what was, but what could have been and could be again.   

AM: Finally, what does Jinnealogy tell us about the urban condition?  

AVT: When we think of cities in Asia, we think of the skyscraper and the slum. One, as the location of an elite workforce connected to globalized networks of capital through startups and call centers; the other, as the informal, chaotic, and often violent world of those left out of global flows of wealth and information, wanting desperately to break in. In either case, the time of the city is oriented toward velocity, toward promises of the future and getting there faster. But there are other temporalities of city life and other aesthetics of city form. In Delhi, it is the ruins of the precolonial past that anchor other relations to temporality and other visions of urban life.   

What does it mean to live in a city of jinns, as one popular description of Delhi goes? The jinn serve as witness of times long gone, a figure of authority whose shrine blesses remembered forms of urban religious life that have been forgotten by the amnesia of the postcolonial state and rendered “un-Islamic” by the amnesia of revivalist traditions. The jinn remind us of an Islamic city—to revive that old Orientalist trope—made up not just of bazaar, mosque, and hammam, but also of the antinomian potentials that have long been part of the Islamic tradition. In popular memory, the revival of religious practices at Firoz Shah Kotla is linked to the figure of Laddu Shah, once known as Naim, a figure deeply identified with the working-class precariat of Old Delhi. At different points in his life he was a musician, a black-market seller of cinema tickets, and finally, a healer. The story of his healing powers is linked to Firoz Shah Kotla. People remember him sitting on an elevated spot among the ruins and playing music, which so charmed the jinn that they gave him the gift of healing. It was this gift, some say, that first brought people to Firoz Shah Kotla.   

Jinn have long been tied to the difference and danger of socially marginal Muslims, as Emilio Spadola (2014) has noted in Morocco, and also to memories of ethnic and cultural difference that have been submerged in the constitution of normative national selves. In Morocco, Aisha Qandisha is tied to the memory of black Africans and their migrations north; in the Sudan, the jinn who manifest themselves in the Zar trance rituals sometimes speak as colonial officials. To live in a city of jinn is to be acutely aware of subjectivity as it is shaped and undone by histories and affects far wider than the individual and his or her lifetime. Every city is a city of jinn; only some of them are aware of this.


Ahmed, Shahab. 2015. What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.   

Bellamy, Carla. 2011. The Powerful Ephemeral: Everyday Healing in an Ambiguously Islamic Place. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Benjamin, Walter. 1968. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt and translated by Harry Zohn, 253–64. Originally published in 1942.  

Khan, Naveeda. 2012. Muslim Becoming: Aspiration and Skepticism in Pakistan. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.    

Mahmood, Saba. 2004. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.   

Spadola, Emilio. 2014. The Calls of Islam: Sufis, Islamists, and Mass Mediation in Morocco. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.