Society for the Anthropology of Religion
Oral Presentation Session
In the Hunza Valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Northern Pakistan, much of people’s explicit ethical work is aimed at cultivating moral qualities within collective life. A variety of substances, both material and metaphorical, mediate relations between individuals and collectivities, and simultaneously index the moral state of the community. Among these, light is particularly compelling for the way it flows between the material and immaterial. Light occupies a privileged place in Isma'ili Islamic theology: it represents knowledge or spiritual discernment; the genealogically- derived authority of the Imam, or spiritual leader; the individual human soul; and the connectedness of all creation to God, the source of divine light emanating outward into the universe. For Isma‘ilis of Northern Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, light plays a key role in local ritual practices that set them apart from the wider Ismaili jama‘at, and as such have been subject to the centralizing pressures of a new Ismaili orthodoxy. In everyday discourse in Hunza, light signifies the special qualities of a person that radiate out to influence others; such light is often recognized in the faces of bodies of young women, in contrast to the genealogical and patriarchal nature of male spiritual authority embodied in the Imamate. The paper explores a variety of contexts in which light is understood to radiate within and between material bodies, kindling individual and collective virtue while casting certain ethical-political disjunctures into relief.