Islam in South Asia: Interview with Joe Elder

This is a guest post by Michael Kruse, a staff member of Center for South Asia at UW-Madison.

Since the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, the American public has learned much about the division between Sunni and Shia Muslims. In the context of South Asia, however, the situation is much more complicated than one might expect. Just ask Joseph Elder, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prof. Elder has studied South Asian society and religion for over 50 years, and has produced a series of almost 40 documentary films on all aspects of South Asia.

As you can see in Part 1 of the interview, he discusses his earlier experience growing up in the Shia majority country of Iran, where Muharram is celebrated by almost everyone. Later, he witnessed tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims around the time of Muharram while living in a small Indian village. In 2004 he was involved in making a film called “Banaras Muharram and the Coals of Karbala,” which explores the Shia festival of Muharram as it is celebrated in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. Expecting to see many of the same tensions between Muslims as he saw before, not to mention between Muslims and Hindus, he was instead surprised to learn that the Muharram story is interpreted by all these communities in slightly different ways, but all emphasize the tragedy of unnecessary suffering.

Interview with Prof.  Elder, part 1

Prof. Elder is also an active member of the Quakers, having served as a conflict mediator in the Sri Lankan Civil War, as well as other places. In Part 2 of our interview, he discusses the three times he has visited Afghanistan: once before the Soviet invasion, once shortly after the Soviet invasion, and once after the Soviets had left. He also compares these earlier experiences with the current situation and the possible role, if any, that the United States can play in that country.

Interview with Prof. Elder, part 2

In the third part of our interview, Prof. Elder discusses the foundations of Islamic Law or Sharia: the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the Hadith. As he explains, the practical application of these three traditions can vary widely depending on which Islamic scholar is doing the interpretation.
Interview with Joseph Elder, part 3

What other traditions or practices can you think of that vary based on context in this way? Knowing that Islamic law is different in different places, does it even make sense to talk about it as one phenomenon? What other ways can we think about it? We welcome your comments.

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