Peaceful Coexistence or Heretical Practice?

Haji Ali Dargah, Mumbai, India

Manhattan’s Lincoln Center recently housed The Manganiyar Seduction, a musical  performance with multiple interfaith elements. Last week, 36 Sufi Muslim Musicians from the Indian state of Rajistan offered New York the traditional sounds of their Manganiyar culture. A formerly nomadic group that lives in both India and Pakistan, the Manganiyar’s folk music praises God. Performances often begin with the seeking of a blessing from the Hindu God Krishna. Many Manganiyar also celebrate aspects of Holi, a Hindu holiday observed by a number of faith traditions in India, including other Muslim groups.

Religious syncretism or the blending of belief systems, is a common theme in South Asia, site of the world’s largest concentration of different religious traditions. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism all originated in the subcontinent, with Sufi Islam’s most significant growth also occurring in the region. While some Arab traders settled in the subcontinent in the early 7th century, the influence of Islam and Sufism was most dramatic beginning in the late 13th century. Sufism’s focus on a believer’s personal relationship with The Source was accessible to non-Muslims as well as Muslims, and has been a significant philosophical and physical space for interfaith mingling for centuries.

But there are those within Islam who categorically oppose interfaith worship, cautioning against diluting the purity or clear rules delineated within the faith. Some Islamic scholars and Muslims regard aspects of Sufi practices to be haram (forbidden under Islamic law).

For centuries, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, and others have visited Sufi shrines across the subcontinent. Tens of thousands descend upon one of the most popular shrines in the world–Haji Ali Dargah in central Mumbai–every Thursday and Friday night to praise God and ask for wealth, health, children, and marriage. Draping a saint’s tomb with flowers, offering sweets, and burning incense are all common rituals seen at Haji Ali and almost every other South Asian temple of worship in all faiths. However, many academics agree that Sufi shrines are the most common interfaith spaces for worship in South Asia.

While most Islamic scholars agree that peaceful coexistence is important, there is skepticism about the validity of Islamic prayer within these interfaith contexts. Rituals praising saints and interfaith worship are looked down upon, and some Muslims believe Sufi shrines are much too close to the sin of idol worship.

Have you ever taken part in an interfaith worship or participated in a religious practice where two or more faith traditions were combined? How do South Asian religious contexts compare to other regions where large numbers of Muslims reside? Is it fair to accuse Muslims of heresy for worshiping at Sufi shrines?

3 thoughts on “Peaceful Coexistence or Heretical Practice?

  1. It’s important not to compromise too much of orthodox Islam in these sorts of settings since, that would eventually end up defeating the point and it wouldn’t be called Islam anymore- but Hinduism or Sikhism more appropriately. For Muslims, there is nothing wrong with having non-Muslims see and participate in Islamic worship. But, for Muslims, its important to be cautious…when Muslims participate in the worship of other religions, it may feel good or be seen as pluralistic and embracing, but in reality- its insincere and for show. Muslims know it, so do non-Muslims. And those aren’t principles worth defending. If there is on aspect of Islam- of Sufism even- that is essential, it is SINCERITY (IKHLAS)- that is the core of Sufism.

    A compromise on religious strictures can carry over to a compromise on values such as mercy and justice. But of course, Muslims can and should pray for non-Muslims, and respect them and their stories. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) stood up for the funeral service of a Jewish man who was passing him. In the Quran, it is mentioned, “We have ennobled the sons of Adam,” which means there is a general dignity for all human beings, by virtue of them being human beings.

    Muslim inter-faith worship would work with Jewish people, as Muslims visit and revere the tombs of the Jewish Prophets and even the Church of the Sepulchre. More Sikhs visit the grave of Nizammudin Awliya than Muslims. There are other instances where its more of necessity- like a funeral service for someone whose faith was uncertain but might have been a Muslim- in which case the serve may be shared with the rites of another religion. Its important to also have knowledge in the historical relationships of religions since this can open the door to inter-faith, for example: there is a grave attributed to Guru Nanak, not in India but in Iraq- as a 100% Muslim saint, but Sikhs may not believe that.

  2. To my knowledge, a saint is one who has been admitted to paradise. Therefore, no one can be considered a saint who lived after the time of rasool Allah sulallah whu allayhe wasallam. If we pray at a Christian church, some might see this as praying to Issa (a.s.) which is shirk and we should avoid it and also appearing to do it. The prophet (saws) told u’s to fast 2 days at ashura so as not to copy the Jews who only fasted one day, so I think it is important not to be seen as following another faith, and Judaism is closer to Islam then Hinduism. Also, the halal is clear and the haram is clear and that which is doubtful should be avoided.

  3. Your message in this article is an eye opener to a beginner and researcher. It has a demystifying effect to the uninformed. It is good article for the critics of interfaith whose lifestyle is marred by extremism. I call upon the proponents of interfaith peaceful coexistence to avoid any tendency to interfaith syncretism that may abuse this opportunity and aim at the integration of all faiths into one amalgam. The leading concept of interfaith relations is that we deliberately enter a relationship governed by the principles of mutual partnership. We coexist by observing: 1. Mutual Love; 2. Mutual Respect ;3. Mutual trust, and; 4. For mutual benefit of all parties within the framework of peace. -Elder David Wakumire