Sara Kuehn

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.24848/islmlg.11.1.04

Full Text:



Providing spiritual ‘safe spaces’, the Sufi shrine-world throughout the Indian Subcontinent is generally open to those who do not identify with conventional gender categories. Ajmer Sharif Shrine (dargāh) in the northern Indian town of Ajmer in Rajasthan is renowned for being particularly ‘inclusive’. It accepts all pilgrims without discrimination, including the so-called ‘third gender’, often referred to as hijras or kinnars, terms that transgress the socially-defined binary gender divide. Marginalized, and often socially stigmatized, these groups are naturally drawn towards liminal spaces such as Sufi dargāhs which encourage the transcendence of socio-religious boundaries. This paper explores certain typological aspects of traditional Sufi ritual and belief that make it particularly receptive to hijras, and the way in which hijras in turn appropriate and reconfigure Sufi religious belief to negotiate the tension between the liminality of their lived experience and the exclusive duality of the society around them. As well as utilizing fieldwork undertaken at the 808th


Hijras; Kinnars; Transgender; Sufism; Ajmer Dargāh Sharif; 'urs festival; South Asia; Mona Ahmed; Arundhati Roy


Ackermann, A. (2012). Cultural Hybridity: Between Metaphor and Empiricism. In Ph. W. Stockhammer (ed.), Conceptualizing Cultural Hybridization: A Transdisciplinary Approach (pp. 5–25). Heidelberg; New York: Springer.

Albera, D. and Couroucli, M. (2012). Sharing Sacred Spaces in the Mediterranean: Christians, Muslims, and Jews at Shrines and Sanctuaries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Anjum, T. (2015). The Perpetually Wedded Wife of God: A Study of Shaykh Musa Sadā Suhāg as the Founder of Sada Suhagiyya Silsilah. Journal of Religious History, 39(3), 420–430.

Bashir, S. (2007). Islamic Tradition and Celibacy. In C. Olson (ed.), Celibacy and Religious Traditions (pp. 133–150). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bashir, S. (2011). Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia University Press.

Behl, A. (2012). Love’s Subtle Magic: An Indian Islamic Literary Tradition, 1379–1545. Doniger, W. (Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Basu, H. (1994). Habshi Sklaven, Sidi-Fakire: Muslimische Heiligenverehrung im westlichen Indien. Berlin: Das Arabische Buch.

Bhabha, H. K. (1994). Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority

Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817. In The Location of Culture (pp. 102–122). London: Routledge.

Bigelow, A. (2010). Sharing the Sacred: Practicing Pluralism in Muslim North India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Boisvert, M. (2020). Cultivating a Female Body: Appropriation of Female Rituality (Saṃskāra) within the Hijra Community. In D. Dimitrova (ed.), Rethinking the Body in South Asian Traditions (pp. 92–115). New York, NY: Routledge.

Bullhe Shah (2015). Sufi Lyrics. English and Punjabi version Ch. Shackle (ed. and trans.). New York, NY: Harvard University Press.

Burke, P. (2009). Cultural Hybridity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Butalia, U. (2011). Mona’s Story, Granta, May 9. Accessed September 30, 2021. https://granta.com/monas-story/

Butler, J. (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Cohen, L. (1995). The Pleasures of Castration: The Postoperative Status of Hijras, Jankhas

and Academics. In P. R. Abramson and S. D. Pinkerton (eds.), Sexual Nature/Sexual Culture (pp. 276–304). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dalrymple, W. (2005). What Goes Round … The Guardian, November 5. Accessed August 15, 2021. www.theguardian.com/books/2005/nov/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview26

Das, V. (1977). Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Digby, S. (1984). Qalandars and Related Groups: Elements of Social Deviance in the Religious Life of the Delhi Sultanate of the XIIIth and XIVth Centuries. In Y. Friedmann (ed.), Islam in Asia, Vol. 1, South Asia (pp. 60–108). Boulder: Magnes Press.

Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ernst, C. (2006). On Losing One’s Head: Hallajian Motifs and Authorial Identity in Poems Ascribed to Attar. In L. Lewisohn and C. Shackle (eds.), Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition: The Art of Spiritual Flight (pp. 328–341). London: I.B. Tauris.

Ernst, C. and Lawrence, B. (2002). Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Esteves, L. (2014). ‘Sufiyana’ and Acceptance. Live Mint, December 5. Accessed September 25, 2021. https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/vEvG8na2RLOxuM1N74QEeM/Lesley-Esteves-Sufiyana-and-acceptance.html

Ewing, K. (1984). Malangs in the Punjab: Intoxication of Adab as Path of God? In B. D. Metcalf (ed.). Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam (pp. 357–371). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault, M. (1986). Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias. Diacritics, 16(1), 22–7.

Frembgen, J. W. (2011). The Third Gender in Pakistan: Dancers, Singers and Performers, Fikrun wa Fann, 58–62.

Frembgen, J. W. (2008). Journey to God. Sufis and Dervishes in Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glucklich, A. (2001). Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, K. (1995). Hijra/hijrin: Language and Gender Identity. PhD Dissertation, University of California Press.

Halperin, D. M. (1989). Is There a History of Sexuality? History and Theory, 28(3), 257–274.

Hamzić, V. (2016). Sexual and Gender Diversity in the Muslim World: History, Law and Vernacular Knowledge. London: I.B. Tauris.

Hanssen, K. (2018). Women, Religion and the Body in South Asia: Living with Bengali Bauls. New York: Routledge.

Haq Hussaini, S. (2012). Beyond Binary Barzakhs: Using the Theme of Liminality in Islamic Thought to Question the Gender Binary. MA Thesis, George Mason University.

Hinchy, J. (2017). Governing Gender and Sexuality in Colonial India: The Hijra, c.1850–1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hinchy, J. (2019). The Long History of Criminalising Hijras: The Persecution of Hijras in India Goes Beyond the Infamous Section 377. Himal Southasian, July 2. Accessed September 25, 2021. https://www.himalmag.com/long-history-criminalising-hijras-india-jessica-hinchy-2019/

Hirschkind, Ch. (2006). The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press.

Homerin, Th. E. (2001). From Arab Poet to Muslim Saint: Ibn al-Farid, His Verse, and His Shrine. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

Hossain, A. (2012). Beyond Emasculation: Being Muslim and Becoming a Hijra in South Asia. Asian Studies Review, 36(4), 495–513.

Jaffer, A. (2017). Spiritualising Marginality: Sufi Concepts and the Politics of Identity in Pakistan. Society and Culture in South Asia, 3(2), 175–197.

Jaffrey, Z. (1998). The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India. London: Phoenix.

Jayaschandran, V. S. (2017). Song of the Graveyard. The Week, June 11. Accessed 28, 2021.https://www.theweek.in/theweek/cover/arundhati-roy-returns-to-fiction-after-20-years.html

Karamustafa, A. T. (1994). God’s Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Middle Period (1200–1550). Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Knight, L. I. (2014). Contradictory Lives: Baul Women in India and Bangladesh. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Knipe, D. M. (1972). One Fire, Three Fires, Five Fires: Vedic Symbols in Transition. History of Religions, 12(1), 28–41.

Kugle, S. (2007). Sufis and Saints’ Bodies. Mysticism, Corporeality, and Sacred Power in

Islam. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Kugle, S. (2010). Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Kugle, S. (2020). The Chishtiyya. In L. Ridgeon (ed.), Routledge Handbook on Sufism (pp. 233–251). London: Routledge.

Mahmood, S. (2005). Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lalloo, A., Seeth, A. and Blignaut, Ch. (2018). We Should be Hysterical. City Press, August 28. Accessed September 28, 2021. https://www.news24.com/citypress/voices/we-should-be-hysterical-arundhati-roy-20180828

Malamud, M. (1996). Gender and Spiritual Self-fashioning: The Master-Disciple Relationship in Classical Sufism. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 64(1), 89–117.

Nanda, S. (1984). The Hijras of India. A Preliminary Report. Medicine and Law, 3, 59–75.

Nanda, S. (1990) Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India. Belmont: Wadsworth Publication.

Naqvi, N. and Mujtaba, H. (1997). Two Baluchi Buggas, a Sindhi Zenana, and the Status of Hijras in Contemporary Pakistan. In W. Roscoe, S. O. Murray (eds.), Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature (pp. 262–274). New York: New York University Press.

Pamment, C. (2019). Performing Piety in Pakistan’s Transgender Rights Movement. Transgender Studies Quarterly, 6(3), 297–314.

Pfeffer, G. (1995). Manliness in the Punjab: Male Sexuality and the Khusra. Sociologus,

(1), 26–39.

Press Statement (2014). Demanding Justice for a Kinnar Gang Raped in Custody by Ajmer Police. Hillele/The Feminist, September 11. Accessed September 28, 2021. https://hillele.org/2014/09/11/press-statement-demanding-justice-for-a-kinnar-gang-raped-in-custody-by-ajmer-police/

Preston, L. (1987). A Right to Exist: Eunuchs and the State in Nineteenth-Century India. Modern Asian Studies, 21(2), 371–387.

Reddy, G. (2005). With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roen, K. (2001). Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalisation. Journal of Gender Studies, 10(3), 253–263.

Roy, A. (2017). The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. London: Penguin Random House.

Roy, J. (2016). Translating Hijra into Transgender: Performance and Pehchān in India’s Trans-Hijra Communities. Transgender Studies Quarterly, 3(3–4), 412–432.

Rushdie, S. (2008). The Half-Woman God. In N. Akhavi (ed.), AIDS Sutra: Hidden Stories from India (pp. 109–117). Anchor: Random.

Saria, V. (2021). Hijras, Lovers, Brothers Surviving Sex and Poverty in Rural India. New York: Fordham University Press.

Safvi, R. (2014). Understanding Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb: How Diverse is the Indian Multiculturalism. DNA Webdesk, June 15. Accessed September 28, 2021. https://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-understanding-ganga-jamuni-tehzeeb-how-diverse-is-the-indian-multiculturalism-1995684

Schimmel, A. (1979). Eros – Heavenly and Not So Heavenly – in Sufi Literature and Life. In A. Lutfi al-Sayyid-Marsot (ed.), Society and the Sexes in Medieval Islam (pp. 119–141). Malibu: Undena Publications.

Seervai, S. (2015). Laxmi Narayan Tripathi: India’s Third Gender. Guernica, March 16. Accessed September 28, 2021. https://www.guernicamag.com/indias-third-gender/

Shaikh, S. (2012). Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabi, Gender and Sexuality. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Sheikh, S. (2010). The Lives of Bahuchara Mata. In E. Simpson and A. Kapadia (eds.), The Idea of Gujarat: History, Ethnography and Text (pp. 84–99). New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

Singh, D. (2001). Myself Mona Ahmed. Zurich: Scalo.

Singh, N. (2014). Transgender Raped by Police Seeks Justice, Community Upset with Modi Government. International Business Times, September 12. Accessed September 28, 2021. https://www.ibtimes.co.in/transgender-raped-by-police-seeks-justice-community-upset-modi-government-608896

Sinha, C. (2013). Indian Eunuchs Adopt to Fulfill Motherhood. AlJazeera, December 13. Accessed September 28, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2013/12/13/indian-eunuchs-adopt-to-fulfill-motherhood/

Sultan Bahu (1998). Death before Dying: The Sufi Poems of Sultan Bahu. J. J. Elias (trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sumbul, D. (2016). This is Not Just the Story of One Laxmi. Newsline, March. Accessed September 28, 2021. https://newslinemagazine.com/magazine/this-is-not-just-the-story-of-one-laxmi/

Thakur, A. K. and Khatoon, A. (2011–12). Main Mona Ahmed [Documentary Film]. AJK MCRC Development Communication Production.

Towle, E. B., and Morgan, L. M. (2006). Romancing the Transgender Native: Rethinking the Use of the Third Gender Concept. In S. Stryker and S. Whittle (eds.). The Transgender Studies Reader (pp. 666–684). London: Routledge.

Tripathi, L. (2015). Me Hijra, me Laxmi. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Turner, V. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction.

Van der Veer, P. (1994). Syncretism, Multiculturalism and the Discourse of Tolerance. In Ch. Stewart and R. Shaw (eds.). Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis (pp. 196–211). London: Routledge.

Wartmann, T. (2005). Between the Lines: India’s Third Gender [Documentary Film]. ARTE/Filmquadrat/Südwestrundfunk (SWR).

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.24848/islmlg.11.1.04