Masjid, literally the place where one prostrates, is commonly described as a house of God, a notion of place, fixed and definite — fixed in function and definite in its orientation. Dargah, or what is insufficiently translated as shrine, on the other hand, is a threshold in literal terms. Imagined as a crossing over of space and time, it is at once a place and space, marked respectively by a presence and an access. My own work suggests that in accessing the divine, women as well as men at the dargah experience a presence that exceeds the ordinary. In a study on Egyptian shrines, anthropologist Amira Mittermaier has convincingly argued that the notion of space at shrines extends beyond the physical notion of space into the realm of dream. In the South Asian milieu, however, the mosque has restricted itself to a disproportionately male collective experience. The dargah has long remained the locus of those at the fringes, especially of female religious practices and piety. My reason to call up the distinction is this: more often than not, the dargah is pitted against the mosque as being emblematic of social, cultural and religious harmony and, more recently, as a representative of ‘soft’ Islam. Repeatedly, I have come across simplistic claims, devoid of nuances, including a speaker at an international conference who gloriously glossed over lines of distinction and division at sites of shared pilgrimage, where I believe, despite a pan-religious appeal, crevices of social and religious discord can be found. The fault lines, not least of orthodoxies, I argue, are made visible only if one is to venture beyond the obvious, and beneath the surface.
The mosque in principle is open to all, but its alignment with a particular sect or religious denomination is seen as a restricting factor. Alignment is achieved only in relation to other specified positions. Shrines are also aligned, producing thereby a significantly selective relation across different ritual points in space. It is possible to read these lines of relation in pilgrims’ ritual itineraries, in legends, miracles and hagiographies, and more importantly in pilgrims’ accounts of their experiences, dreams and visions. Such accounts explain how some individuals associate with certain religious figures more than others and how individuals with very different lines of relation to sites and saints tend to cross each other’s paths at certain major nodes. It is convenient to read such crossings as spaces where religious difference is washed away in the collective experience that the site of pilgrimage offers. A closer look at pilgrims’ practices would reveal how people maintain distinctions despite sharing a ritual field, based along sectarian lines, ethnic backgrounds as well as piri-muridi (master-discipleship) configurations.
Sehwan, as a town of major pilgrimage, is one example. A contest among rival sayyids who claim to be the spiritual heirs to the saint has led to distinct configurations of ritual sites. And although Sunni and Shia pilgrims come together at the dargah on a daily basis, vignettes of distinction and of difference can be heard in equal measure: ordinary visitors compete to voice their affiliations in the form of loud versus louder chants; the fakirs, in personal accounts, distinguish themselves from other fakirs on the basis of their allegiance to ‘Ali. It is true that both Hindus and Muslims come to the dargah of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, and although Hindu visits are sometimes distinguishable by the cracking open of coconuts, it is far from obvious if outwardly similar prostrations and the lighting of the traditional five lamps is directed to the same historical figure.
Udero Lal, in Sindh is another such site, where despite claims of shared visits, Hindus and Muslims rarely share rituals. The ideal of inter-cultural harmony, nonetheless, is backed by legends of Hindu-Muslim unity with regard to saintly figures. Narratives like that of a Hindu fakir’s ultimate devotion for Lal Shahbaz Qalandar explain an ongoing process of cultural exchange made easy by the Ghaznavid invasion of India since the turn of the first millennium. However, in appreciating the richness of this exchange, one must not overlook the imbalance inherent in the motif. Notions of tolerance and love must come with an invading force, which conquers what is local in a way that the Hindu is left reformed, subservient to the Muslim master, garbed in this case as the Sufi saint.
There is little doubt that the dargah is inclusive in ways that the mosque is not. Neither is the comparison a defence of one and a critique of the other. However, in an increasingly polarised environment, the dargah is sometimes positioned relative to the Islam of the mosques in a way that it is rid of its inherent orthodoxies and is not what it is sometimes portrayed to be. While it may be argued that shrines allow access to women in ways mosques have historically failed to do, a large number of shrines do not allow women.
In the absence of critical insight, the dargah and all that it represents has been reduced to an image, black and white — on the one hand, a target for its many critics and on the other, an antidote to orthodox religion. This stark and seemingly unquestionable divide that refuses to appreciate the complexities of lived reality is both problematic and misconceived.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 16th, 2011.