College of Arts & Sciences


Book Reviews

Highlights of new books by Arts & Sciences faculty

Identity Crisis

In 2008, Teena Purohit, assistant professor of religion, traveled to the village of Pirana, India, to visit the shrine of Pir Imam Shah, who taught a Sufi-inspired blend of Islam and Hinduism in the fifteenth century. Purohit was stunned to find that the shrine had been converted to a Hindu temple: the Pir’s tomb had been redecorated with glossy pictures of Hindu gods. As Purohit writes in the introduction of her book The Aga Khan Case: Religion and Identity in Colonial India (Harvard University Press, 2012), “The shrine, in short, had not always been a place of worship that presupposed the fixed and immutable nature of Hindu and Muslim identities. To the contrary, recent events had conspired to constitute identity in this way and to project this relatively new or modern form as an eternal fact.”

The conversion of the Pir’s shrine inspired Purohit to investigate the consequences of “diverse practices [giving] way to modern notions of religious identity—a process which only began to take shape and acquire meaning in the nineteenth century” with the Aga Khan Case. Prior to this seminal court case, members of the Isma’ili community in Bombay defined themselves by their caste as Khojas and practiced the Satpanth tradition, which defied identification as either Hindu or Muslim. In 1866, the Persian nobleman Aga Khan claimed to be the Khojas’ religious leader and the rightful owner of their land. The Khojas denied the Aga Khan’s claim and filed a lawsuit against him.

“What started out as a property dispute turned into a dispute about religious identity,” Purohit says. “The judge’s main interest was determining the Khojas’ religious identity. We think identities are natural, but they are also given to people and created for political reasons.” In The Aga Khan Case, Purohit takes a close look at the Khojas’ religious practices as outlined in the gināns, medieval poetry that integrates various religious traditions, with the goal of rediscovering “an earlier moment in the life of this community that incorporates, rather than denies, heterogeneity.”

— Lara Ehrlich

The United Empire of America

Despite its revolution’s ideals, the young United States soon became what it scorned: imperial. In the provocative Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Associate Professor of Sociology Julian Go finds much in common between the United States and the global power it had overthrown. As soon as those original 13 colonies borrowed “the same imperial tactics that the British had handed down” to expand across the continent, the path to an American empire seemed set. “The United States,” writes Go, “did not so much break with its English imperial past as it did pick up the mantle.”

Reviewers have credited Go with dispelling the idea of U.S. exceptionalism—the long-held notion that America is different. The book ends with a warning. “If the story in this book tells us something, it is that empires that insist on their exceptionality do not behave well. And self-fashioned exceptional empires that are falling behave worse still. In this sense, our affair in Iraq and Afghanistan may just be a portent. Something more is coming.”

— Andrew Thurston