Dargah is what a mosque is not

Published: November 15, 2011
The writer is a doctoral candidate in social and cultural anthropology at Freie Universität in Berlin

The writer is a doctoral candidate in social and cultural anthropology at Freie Universität in Berlin

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.

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Reader Comments (27)

  • John B
    Nov 15, 2011 - 10:15PM

    Mosques have become regressive, and restrictive to male sex whereas Dargah has become inclusive to all.

    However neither the Mosque nor Dargah of modern times represent the Islamic principles of worshiping god. Yet, given a choice I would rather congregate on Dargah where all my fellow neighbors, male and female, come together for one principle or purpose however far removed that principle may be from worship of god. After all, today’s mosques are no different in principle, and have become dangerous to mind.

    “go into a room, close all the doors and windows and commune with god”


  • Sarah Elahi
    Nov 15, 2011 - 10:46PM

    it’s a relief to read an article which rejects the misunderstood, stereotypical representation of islamic mysticism in south asia. too often, people resort to value judgments and “soft vs hard islam” rhetoric and it’s nice to learn about the nuances involved. thanks.


  • Sarfi Star
    Nov 15, 2011 - 11:10PM

    Masjid is not house of God it is House of Allah… mind it


  • Homa
    Nov 15, 2011 - 11:44PM

    The dargah is often an alternative space to the mosque in many islamic geographies in so far as it serves as a space available to the socially marginalized subject to construct a less repressed subjectivity.

    You might find the book “twilight goddesses: spiritual feminism and feminine spirituality” by cleary and aziz helpful for your phd research. Good luck.


  • Homa
    Nov 15, 2011 - 11:45PM

    The dargah is often an alternative space to the mosque in many islamic geographies in so far as it serves as a space available to the socially marginalized subject to construct a less repressed subjectivity. You might find the book “twilight goddesses: spiritual feminism and feminine spirituality” by cleary and aziz helpful for your phd research. Good luck.


  • SJ
    Nov 16, 2011 - 5:47AM

    @Sarfi Star:


  • Shah
    Nov 16, 2011 - 7:28AM

    Excellent work. Let me do a little correction, when you include Asia in your study of Mosque, you are wrong to suggest that male alone are allowed there. As a matter of fact Mosques in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are open for women and a large number of women pray along side men, in space separated by curtains.


  • Spud
    Nov 16, 2011 - 7:43AM

    In the last few years the Taj Mahal has become a mosque and therefore is closed to tourists on Fridays. What a sham. The Indian Government has done this to please and placate Muslims.


  • Falcon
    Nov 16, 2011 - 7:44AM

    Brilliant piece. The reason a Dargah transcends the dimensions of space and time is because as Iqbal said love unites based on commonality…while knowledge divides based on distinction…Love is the meta-essence of everything in existence! We would love to hear more from you…


  • Truth Seeker
    Nov 16, 2011 - 7:47AM

    @Sarfi Star:
    If you’ve objection on use of ‘GOD’ for ALLAH; then how do you accept HOUSE of ALLAH because Allah does not need a house.


  • antanu
    Nov 16, 2011 - 9:02AM

    For your information Tajmahal is not closed on Fridays only for weekly maintenance. Namaz is offerred only in adjacent mosque which is going on since centuries.Recommend

  • Mirza
    Nov 16, 2011 - 9:13AM

    I am a secular Muslim but I have felt inspired and at home whenever I visited a shrine. A example is Ajmer where a majority of Hindus visit there and pay their respect along with Muslims and Christians. It is a great uniter and not a divider. Thanks for telling the truth.


  • Zak
    Nov 16, 2011 - 9:37AM

    If you really want to have spiritual experience, just clear your mind and visit any Mosque in an urge to communicate with Allah…forget about the sects and the people in the mosque…


  • fairhope
    Nov 16, 2011 - 9:38AM

    What did Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) do when he reched Medina? First thing he did was build a masjid. In Islam, Masjid is a place used to gain knowledge, meet people, develop international relations, and make future strategies. It was like WHITE HOUSE, PENTAGON and HARVERD University in one. Yes, One part of the Masjid was dedicated for prayers. In the days of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) women were allowed in Masjids. Ladies used to be on the back rows where as men in the front. Even in Middle Eastern Masajids today; there is a special prayer area for ladies.

    The religious scholars buried in the dargas have done a great service in spreading Islam. Without there efforts hundreds of years ago maybe we wouldn’t be Muslims today. There is one sad thing though; there were NO dargahs/shrines back in Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) time or even after him. It is just a cultural phenomenon that has gripped our society and spreading.

    The time before Islam were known as “AYAAM AL JAHELYA”. I can say that in current South Asia, this still prevails. Many people are ignorant about Islam’s basic principles.


  • wise counsel.
    Nov 16, 2011 - 10:12AM

    @Sarfi Star:
    if broken down Al=The,Lah = lord(wikipedia)!!Allah= The Lord;So the House of The Lord is appropriate!


  • T Khan
    Nov 16, 2011 - 10:15AM

    In my humble opinion, Islam does not condone grave worshiping…this is probably as close to shirk as one can probably get. The practices of ‘manat’ and ‘charhava’, common on these dargahs are biddats (distortions) in the religion.

    Praying for the deceased soul at the graveyard is one thing, but using the grave for these other purposes if it were OK would be happening all our Janat-ul-Baqi in SA.

    There is not and should not be any parallel drawn between a masjid and a shrine which is probably more like a mandir with a man made idol in it.


  • sars
    Nov 16, 2011 - 11:29AM

    @Sarfi Star:
    yes i think your type of thinking is what has led to the problem


  • Bangladeshi
    Nov 16, 2011 - 4:31PM

    Going to dargah is equal to committing shirk. The people buried there may have been pious muslims but going there & doing grave worshiping is equal to what pagans do & is an unforgivable sin. This Dargah thing is only found in S.Asia & traps many ignorant muslims in this dark unislamic practice. Imams & scholars should be mobilised by muslim states to end this Pagan practice.


  • junoon
    Nov 16, 2011 - 5:08PM

    Dargah is not an Islamic place of worship, but Mosque is. i m not a devoted Muslim but still worshiping at Dargah would be insult to my faith. i might go there just for cultural reasons or to watch people doing crazy stuff, but wont worship or ask my prayers at a dead man’s grave, which is not allowed even for Holy Prophet’s grave (try doing that in Masjid-e-Nabwi and the Saudis will drag you out of there). For a true Muslim only ALLAH is to be worshiped and asked for prayers, not anyone else. Damn!!! our such basic concepts abt islam are messed up. Recommend

  • Farid Ahmed
    Nov 16, 2011 - 5:47PM

    I think the writer hasn’t expatiated the subject of Mosque which could have touched the essence of it being not only a worship place. Please keep it in mind that when the first Mosque of Islam “Quba” or “Masjid-e-Nabwi” were built, there were absolutely no Dargahs at that time. Due to the lack of insightful understanding of prophetic hadith, some Muslim jurists differed regarding the role of Mosque in the society. However, Mosque was the central point of all religious and social activities within very sanctity of Islamic jurisprudence and even Holy Prophet himself never forbade women from entering Mosques. The original comprehension of Mosque is far superior then what has been explained here.


  • Ali
    Nov 16, 2011 - 6:46PM

    Why would you use Dargah to compare Mosque & not Masjid? Try to use the words in the same language. And when you will understand what Masjid is you won’t complain.


  • D.D
    Nov 16, 2011 - 9:57PM

    The blind leading the blind. When will these delusions end?


  • Hassan
    Nov 16, 2011 - 10:14PM

    There is no concept of dargah’s in Islam.This dargah thing is just a tradition of hindu culture which has made its way within certain muslim communities because of geographical affinity with the hindus.the only difference being that hindus build temples and worship idols and this dargah crowd build shrines and worship the graves.Recommend

  • Balma
    Nov 18, 2011 - 1:18AM

    Thanks God…someone clarified that Taj Mahal is not being used for namaz on Fridays. I almost had a heart attack.

    I am paranoid of the power of mullah-geeri and I belive anything is possible in Pakistan and India.

    If anything, Indian government should take over the dargah of Nizam-ud-din aulia in Dehli.
    It is unbelieveably dirty. You would say everything is dirty in India. Point well taken. But, take my word for it…it is dirtier and filthier than anything I have seen in India. Naked kids peeing inside it!

    Indian Government should take over it as historical Indian heritage site…use some mumbo jumbo law…and appoint a board…made up of majority muslims and manage the affairs.

    Similarly, Jama Masjid of Dehli should be cleaned up. There is no reason for it to become magnet for mavalis (beggars) from all over India. And, why is the imamat of Jama Masjid Dehli being passed from one generation to another. This point was actually bragged upon by the current Imam Bukhari who is the son of the famous imam bukhari of 1980s.
    Kyaa Musalmano’n kee masjdo’n kaa koee pursaan-e-haal nahi’n? How did Jama MAsjid, built by a ruler of India, hundreds of years ago, became a personal property of one dim-wit imam family?

    BTW, I am curious who appoints imams at LAhore’s baadshaahi masjid?


  • Balma
    Nov 18, 2011 - 1:24AM

    And those connecting desi dargahs with hindus or hindu influence….first of all, so what….our dulhans wear red…..arab dulhans wear white. Where is the red coming from? Of coruse old Indian culture.

    Secondly, does Turkey have a huge Hindu population? Ever Been to Sultan Ayup in Istambul? The grave of HAzrat Ayub Ansari (a sahabi).


  • Spud
    Nov 19, 2011 - 2:32PM

    @antanu: I was in Agra in 2008 with an Australian couple on a Friday and we were not allowed inside because it was being used as a mosque at least that was we were told. Why does it need to be cleaned up on Friday? Why not another day?


  • fairhope
    Nov 20, 2011 - 8:34AM


    Common …. I am sure, you should come up with better reasoning than this.


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