Scientific program and project structuring

The study of religious interactions in shared sacred spaces allows us to both question the forms of coexistence between different religious communities in specific socio-political contexts and to reassess the religious practices and conceptions of these communities. In other words, I-SHARE explores the themes of boundaries (between communities and between religions) and of belonging (congruity between community and religious affiliation), and their effects on the modes of living together.

·         From co-presence to coexistence: what the sharing of sacred sites tells us about the fabric of plural societies

The sharing of sacred sites implies a co-presence of followers of different religious traditions. The modalities of this co-presence can be at great variance from one site to another, however, which raises a number of questions on the stakes and the processes of sharing: what is being shared around these sites and how? Are multi-religious cults primarily pragmatic (do they involve a convergence of practices in the expectation of certain tangible or intangible benefits?) or are they supplemented by feelings and beliefs challenging denominational divides? Also, how much work does sharing a particular site require, on the part of public authorities, religious specialists, and devotees? While some authors have insisted upon the adjustment of one’s gestures and movements to the exigencies of these particular sites (what Anna Bigelow refers to as “microstrategies of attunement” in the spatial realm [Bigelow 2010]), what about the efforts to accommodate the feelings of religious others (what we could refer to as practices of emotional attunement)? We also aim to question the exceptionality of these sites: to what extent are these practices of adjustment indebted to a larger regime of coexistence? In other words, are these sites regulated by behavioral norms or do they evade them by virtue of their exceptionality? This raises an important question for the study of intercommunal relations: to what extent does co-presence in such shared sacred sites interrelate with ideas, norms and practices of coexistence in the larger society?

Sharing is as much about preserving a common world as it is about splitting and contesting one’s respective place shared in a given context. In the case of shared sites, this requires one to pay attention to the overall socio-political configuration of the place (hospitable, disputed, polysemic) and to its internal organization (which sections of the site are shared, which ones are not), while situating these socio-spatial arrangements within a historical perspective. Such an approach requires a focus on the frictions generated by the interactions that are “typical” of religiously mixed sites, but also on conflicts around holy sites (Ayodhya is an emblematic example, but not the only one).

Such conflicts do not necessarily imply a breakdown of the interactional order governing these sites. Neither do they signify the “indivisibility” of these sites, which according to some authors simply “cannot be shared” (Hassner 2009: 3). Evidence from South Asia suggests that plural societies have mechanisms for the containment of such tensions, be they institutional (offers of mediation by civic associations, legal adjudication…) or symbolic (through public performances of intercommunal amity visualizing an ethos of coexistence). These institutional and ritualized peace systems (Varshney 2001; Bigelow 2010) can contribute to prevent violent escalation even if these interventions are never sufficient and remain conditional, for their outcomes, to the “underlying quality of collective life” (Bigelow 2010: 198). In some cases, conflict itself is institutionalized through a partitioning of these sites on a religious basis, which severely constrains interactions across denominational divides – such cases are exemplified by the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron or the Temple Mount in Jerusalem but they remain extremely rare in South Asia (with the Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Masjid of Ayodhya being a notable exception). Conflict is not necessarily about the construction or reproduction of religious boundaries, however – it can also derive from the social and cognitive proximity between believers of different faiths: for instance, the latter can be fighting over the sharing of the benefits procured by a saint’s or a divinity’s thaumaturgic powers. Spoilers of intercommunal peace act very differently in each case: in the first case, they take the shape of a border police committed to safeguard ethnic/religious boundaries – often redefining them in the process, while in the latter case intimate adversaries contest each other’s holy figures and the symbolic or material resources generated by their cult without necessarily attempting to restore or harden denominational divides.

Even in less contested sites, the irritability of the parties involved and the ever-present threat of dissonance must be factored in. But doesn’t this threat also energize these sites, infusing them with a particularly “edgy” atmosphere while endowing everyday labors of peace with a peculiar urgency? Through this comparative project, we will try to answer this question while putting to the test a conception of co- presence and more largely of coexistence as a tensile equilibrium: a state of balance both jeopardized and invigorated by the looming threat of discordance.

Such inquiry will require a detailed sociology of the actors involved (patrons, devotees, political and religious authorities, etc.) as well as an ethnography of the rituals (devotional and votive practices, healing rituals) and of the interactions unfolding in these sites, which should not be oblivious to the frequency of visits (routine ones vs exceptional ones). This ethnography will help us document the “choreography” of intercommunal relations around these shared sacred sites (Barkan and Barkey 2014). In the process, we expect to unearth various modes of religious interactions, ranging from indifference to interpenetration. Furthermore, this study will offer a heuristic entry point for the study of the very experience of otherness, both in the sense of familiarizing oneself with groups different from one’s own and of self-experimentation. The scope of these encounters with the “Other” is not limited to face-to-face interactions and to the cognitive realm (through the familiarization with different doctrines, texts, ethics, narratives, etc.). In the context of shared sacred sites, it extends into the material and the sensible realm, into a world of devotional objects, sartorial styles, smells and sensations. It is also through these non-verbal exchanges that alterity is being experienced and imagined, within these sites themselves and beyond. Particular attention will be given to the somatic dimension of these experiences and thus to the material culture of these sites. What role do images and objects of worship, in particular, play in these encounters and in their extension beyond shared sacred sites themselves (what kind of objects do devotees bring to these sites and what do they take away from them?).

We shall also question whether one of the relevant issues is to “test” the figures of intercession and the forms of invocation which, by virtue of their otherness, may have particular efficacy. These experiments can be risky as, beyond shared referents, visits to the sacred sites of the “Other” involve a more or less conscious degree of transgression (Bellamy 2011). This also requires examining the devotional sequence in which the visits to the holy places of the “Other” take place. In other words, is this a last resort? And if the “strangeness” of these sites is an integral part of their appeal across denominational divides, what does this say about the possibilities and the sustainability of coexistence beyond these rather exceptional spaces?

We will thus look at the impact of the visits to these sites on society at large by attempting to grasp the extent to which these sites illustrate processes at work in other domains of social life (neighborly relations, circles of sociability, political sensitivities, caste logics, economic associations, and so on) as well as their transformative potential. Are instances of accommodation between different religious communities only an epiphenomenon? Do they act on or reflect wider interactions in everyday space? Is there continuity or discontinuity between religious practices on the one hand and social and political practices on the other? The configuration of these sites (how embedded are they – both spatially and socially – into the larger society) as well as the modalities of their investment by political organizations and state regulators could prove to be decisive in this regard. But our case-studies will probably bring to light other factors accounting for the exceptional or, on the contrary, for the paradigmatic status of these sites as far as larger processes of religious coexistence are concerned.

Such analyses will allow us to revisit two distinct but complementary questions: to what extent does the sharing of sacred spaces reduce the risks of conflicts between religious groups in the larger society; in the opposite direction, how do larger conflicts affect interactions in shared holy places? The specificities of South Asia in the long run (co-presence of religions with theological discourses that are seemingly incompatible) as well as more recent political and religious developments in the region (rise of nationalisms and fundamentalisms) should only make our case studies more relevant from a comparative perspective, helping us to bring these debates forward and gain further insights into the intricate politics of coexistence.

·         From coexistence to identification: what the sharing of sacred sites tells us about the politics of belonging

A second aspect of I-SHARE will focus on the interlinkage between religious interactions and the politics of belonging, as the existence of such shared spaces questions the boundaries between groups and between religions.

The notion of shared sacred sites implies the co-presence of members of at least two different communities, defined on a religious basis. But in fact such places may call into question the very notion of “religious community”, and its definition. Do the members of different religions who intermingle in a shared sacred space necessarily represent their communities? Such a statement is questionable since religious affiliation is not always clearly defined, nor is it necessarily the compulsory foundation for community formation. We may also wonder whether those who gather in sacred places form hic et nunc a new community, a communitas in Victor Turner’s (1969) terms. In any case, the notion of “community” needs to be specified. As for the notion of “religious affiliation”, it requires a contextualization: on which occasions do people define themselves according to their religious affiliations? And what are those religious affiliations, given the fact that beyond the broad identifications of “Hindu” or “Muslim”, there exist myriads of subdivisions: along the lines of sects, branches, movements and so on? When do other affiliations prevail? Answering these questions will involve engaging into a sociology of the groups concerned, which takes into account both the internal diversity of religious communities and other factors of identification that may prevail and be more pertinent (social background, caste, age, sex, language, territorial community – neighborhood, village, town/city, region, etc.).

Moreover, what falls within the fold of a particular religion may not be easy to identify, even less so in holy places characterized by a “religious fuzziness” (flou confessionnel, Albera 2011: 114). Indeed, in contrast with standard religious places (such as monasteries, mosques, temples, churches, etc.), the particularity of shared places often seems to be the presence of a specific and local “power” (such as the power of the place or the aura of the body of a saint). When the idea of such types of power prevails, religious affiliation may become secondary. More generally, what may be declared by some religious authorities (official or self-proclaimed) as non-canonical or outside the fold of “true” religion can be lived as fully coherent by devotees (the latter may also dramatically refuse the logics of affiliation). This seems to be particularly true when religious conceptions and practices are not community-based, but correspond, for example, to spatiality (linked to a neighborhood, a village, a territory or a specific place; see Berti and Tarabout 2009, Trouillet 2009, Claveyrolas and Delage 2016) or are based on a logic of efficacy (such as healing practices which can be borrowed from other groups if proven efficient; see Flueckiger 2009, Schlemmer 2010).

We shall also determine the logics behind going to a place which, at first glance, does not belong to one’s own religion — or a place revealing that boundaries between religions are not located where external observers would tend to believe. The possibility of performing religious practices outside the fold  of religious belonging has already been mentioned. But other hypotheses could also be put forward. Thus, while respective religious affiliations can be clearly marked, people can share common logics, practices and objectives. They can also borrow techniques, practices and places because of their very exteriority or because of a potentially superior power. Finally, there can also be cases of multi-affiliation – i.e. people following more than one religion (without seeing any contradiction). We shall thus try to identify the logics behind this multi-affiliation and the reasons why it can appear perfectly coherent for the actors concerned.

This religious “fuzziness” raises another set of questions regarding the religious conceptions of the actors: by using the concept of reflexivity, we shall thus examine whether the intermingling in these sites has any effect on the religious conceptions and practices of the individuals concerned, and on the conceptions  and practices of the “Other”. Do individuals re-interpret their own religious conceptions and practices through the lens of the “Other”? To what extent does the observation, or even discovery, of the practices of the “Other”, which may be both similar and different from one’s own, create a language of positioning and a discourse of comprehension of the “Other”? By attempting to answer these questions, we aim to shed light on the processes of fluidity and permeability between religious practices.


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