Jinnealogy (Anand Vivek Taneja, 2017)

Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi

Taneja’s plaiting of themes in contemporary Indian politics and vestiges of unsanctioned Islamic practice reveal the multi-layered undercurrents of Islamic sovereignty that shape the present. Her insights into secularism, political ecology, ethics, and religiosity afford us a deeper look of Islamic ethics and its possible evolution for other socio-political contexts. He sums up the the practices, exemplified by the petitioning of Jinns outside the Firoz Shah Kotla in the term Jinnealogy, which he pits against the legalese of the modern nation-state and the dogmatism of Muslim religious scholars particularly the imam at the mosque at Firoz Shah Kotla (dismissing them as superstitions). Taneja’s ethnographic engagement is the kind of scholarship worth emulating in the way it illuminates on the mentalité of the seemingly poor and ignorant. Taneja argues that Jinnealogy does not run contrary to Islamic theology and history but actually complements it by engendering a more inclusive faith practice, nor is it separate from Indic culture as the state would like to believe but totally embedded in it.

I found Taneja’s web of theoretical bases very fascinating and the way he puts them into action. On page 84-85 he recounts a scene where a Coolie’s change of clothes from one he wears to work to the garb of Sufi emphasizes the symbiosis between the landscapes of Bombay cinema and the sanctified ruins of Delhi. This is exemplar of his methodology which brings together cinema, physical landscapes, and dreamscapes, that are inspired by the “texture of conversations and experiences” from his field work and by “Walter Benjamin’s gnomic thoughts on dreams, history, and architecture in The Arcades Project (1999).” Fusing them together he asks why “the collective dream-life” of North India is so suffused with Islam, and so I ask what other possible “collective dream-life” do we have of our own or other societies that is syncretized by Jinnealogies.

I recently watched an in-flight fantasy film titled Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022) directed by George Miller based on a short story by A.S. Byatt. The film stars Idris Elba as a jinn who is unleashed from a bottle by a professor played by Tilda Swinton. The film progresses through vignettes of the professor’s life stories which she projects on the parallel elements of the Jinn’s thousands of years of existence. I thought the film neatly translates Taneja’s deployment of Benjamin’s optical unconscious to intervene on the pockets of Islamic culture in modern, officially non-Islamic, authoritarian and racist contexts.