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?