Category Archives: Project detailed outline

Objectives and originality of the project

Despite the plethora of references, none of these studies have adopted a perspective comparing shared sacred sites in any of the countries under study or in South Asia at large. As already mentioned, comparative perspectives have focused on pluralism (the political management of religious plurality) or, in some cases, on sites only shared by Hindus and Muslims, or on theoretical views. I-SHARE aims to fill these gaps through fine-grained empirical studies that will offer a rich and easily comparable material on the interaction of a large range of religious communities. This, in turn, will allow us to refine the categories of analysis of religious plurality, and to decentralize religious identities while accounting for conflict in the study of coexistence.

·      Objective 1: To gather original and comparable ethnographic data

Field research lies at the heart of I-SHARE. Trained in different disciplines, experienced in doing fieldwork and skilled in local languages, each team member will carry out at least one case study, which will allow us to collect first hand ethnographic data on 17 shared sacred places (see table 1). Most of these sites have never been studied before. In places where research has already been conducted, new angles will be privileged. The majority of case studies will be carried out in several regions of India, but all major South Asian countries will also be covered, as well as the diaspora — both in urban and rural areas. This multiplicity of national contexts (varying demographic and political importance of religions as well as differences in the public management of religious pluralism) will enable us to conduct a rich comparative analysis.

The ethnography of shared sacred places will be of several types. Given the important place occupied by the interactions between Hindus and Muslims, many of the locations under study will be the tombs of Muslim saints (dargahs), as they are the main and most emblematic religious places shared by followers of these two religions. But some studies will also focus on less common phenomena such as graves of Hindu saints and other types of shared places, like pilgrimage sites and roadside altars, which will enable us to address the diversity of shared places without losing track of our common interrogations.

The places under study are primarily frequented by Hindus and Muslims (who represent the two main religious groups of South Asia – 63% and 32% across all countries). Although numerically less significant, situations  comprising  Buddhists,  Sikhs,  Christians,  Parsis  and  “tribal  religions”  (with  cases   primarily involving Muslims and Christians, Buddhists and animists) will also be taken into account and will offer a useful comparative perspective, while ensuring that almost all the religions of South Asia are represented.

·      Objective 2: To open up the study of shared sacred spaces to configurations other than the major Semitic monotheist religions

As mentioned above, most of the works studying interactions between members of different religious communities in the context of sacred sites have focused on the major Semitic monotheisms. The present proposal is intended to broaden the scope of analysis and to adopt a different viewpoint by paying attention to sacred sites visited by people whose religions are poles apart as far as their creeds, rituals, organization  and social structures are concerned.

The Semitic religions worshipping one God have little affinities with Hinduism as far as ritual forms are concerned. For example, the Hindu pujas addressed to a particular deity present in one particular place of worship (be it Vaishnavite, Shivaite or associated with some other sect) have little in common with the prayers observed in mosques or churches. Beyond the form of the rituals, the absence of a book comparable to the Bible, the Coran or the Torah among Hindus makes the diversity of practices, creeds and beliefs more likely. Similarly, Hinduism does not have in its midst clerics trained in specific institutions like the dini madaris (madrasas) and forming a pyramid (not even a network) like the Catholic Church. Thirdly, the caste system barred plebeian groups including Dalits from entering some places of worships – even, in some cases, during pilgrimages – whereas Semitic monotheisms are supposed to recognize the equality of men (at least before God). The present project, therefore, intends to complicate the traditional approach of shared sacred sites by including religions which are not expected to promote such a close interaction. By looking at non- Semitic religions as well, I-SHARE goes beyond the comfort zone of the institutionalized ecumenical discourse.

·      Objective 3: To refine the categories of analysis of religious plurality

The variety of religions involved in shared sacred sites (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, tribal religions and so on) will also allow us to (re)interrogate categories used to distinguish, even to oppose, them — universalist vs local; monotheist vs polytheist, etc. It will also provide us with an opportunity to critically examine the theoretical apparatus mobilized by scholars to think through religious interactions, at the forefront of which are the concepts of syncretism (an often hasty qualification used to refer to all forms of religious interrelations or to all practices that are not easily attributable to a specific religion) and of tolerance (with the implicit assumption of its automatic correlation with shared sacred places). The relevance of these categories, which also include sharing, borrowing and so on, will be put to test through our different ethnographic data. The expected richness and complexity of this ethnographic material might lead us to refine these categories or to supplement them with new ones, such as reciprocal influence, co-construction, reinterpretation or adaptation and repositioning practices. This should allow us to enrich the analyses of religious interrelations and create new ground for the study of coexistence.

·      Objective 4: Decentralizing religious identities and accounting for conflict in the study of coexistence

Instead of pitting coexistence against conflict, I-SHARE puts forward a conception of the former that is not alien to frictions and occasional violent outbursts. Taking stock of the “peaceful tension” prevailing in many shared sacred sites and religiously mixed villages or urban settlements of contemporary South Asia (Gottschalk 2000), the contributors to this project aim to refute the fallacies of “sectarianism” or “communalism” while refusing to engage in a romance with “syncretism” and “tolerance.” As recently suggested by Shahid Amin in his study of the “afterlife” of warrior-saint Ghazi Miyan, “the focus on syncretism sans conflict amounts to taking only half a step” (Amin 2015: 8). In the same vein, the various case studies undertaken here will invite us to rethink South Asian engagements with diversity beyond the tropes of a gentle pluralism thriving on the peaceful accommodation of difference.

If simmering tensions and overt conflicts have been integral to the formation of South Asia’s plural societies, one should avoid fetishizing religious difference in these tumultuous histories of sharing. Not only is it necessary to “decentralize” religious identities by documenting the way these identifications have been intersecting, in specific historical contexts, with other interests and fault lines (Gottschalk 2000: 4). In order to avoid anachronistic comparisons between past and present experiments with plurality, one should also remember that religion has not always been the primary external boundary marker between the groups currently labeled as “religious communities.” Thus, in the first centuries of the Muslim Conquest of India, Sanskrit inscriptions identified Indo-Muslim invaders through their linguistic affiliation (turushka, lit. “Turk”) rather than through their religion, effectively construing Muslims as “but one ethnic community in India amidst many others” (Eaton 2002: 270). Each in its own right, historical and contemporary ethnographic evidence invite us to move beyond the obsession – shared by nationalists of all hues but also by many scholars of South Asia – for bounded ethnic and religious categories. I-SHARE participants will thus work at constituting a toolkit for pluralizing the ways such categories operate in varying social contexts, an epistemological reshuffling without which secular-minded scholars – like nationalist leaders before them – will end up fighting communalism on its own turf and in its own terms, thus resigning themselves to be its hostage (Chandra 1984: 12). This collective endeavor will be facilitated by the density of existing collaborations amongst research participants, which is reflected in the preliminary results of the project.

State of the art

The construction of our project around one object (shared sacred sites) and two intertwined issues (the labors of coexistence and the politics of belonging) will require the participants to explore the literature devoted to three themes: shared sacred sites in South Asia and elsewhere; key-concepts for the study of religious plurality; practices of coexistence in South Asia.

·         Shared sacred sites in South Asia and elsewhere.

Most of the studies dealing with shared sacred sites have so far focused on the interactions between three Semitic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. As a result, these studies have mainly focused on Mediterranean countries. The comparative research of Dionigi Albera, Maria Couroucli and Manoël Pénicaud across the region is a case in point (Dionigi 2011, Dionigi and Couroucli 2012), and so is the volume edited by Karen Barkey and Elazar Barkan (Barkan and Barkey 2014). Karen Barkey and Dimitris Papadopoulos have also compared the interactions of these three religions, but by focusing on only two

countries, Turkey and Greece. The anthropological work of Benoît Fliche is also devoted to specific sites, such as the Saint Anthony Church in Istanbul (Fliche 2014). Whether the approach is monographic or comparative in scope, these works analyze the degree of convergence of members belonging to different religious communities, and the forms of their coexistence and interaction (if any) in some sacred sites. Pilgrimages or more individualistic practices are the framework of these studies.

The participants of I-SHARE are already engaged in a dialogue with the authors mentioned above. The team of researchers behind this proposal has interacted with them during two workshops, one in Paris in 2015 and one in New York in 2016. These exchanges have enabled us to further elaborate our initial hypothesis. While in the Mediterranean context, Muslims may go to churches and Christians to mosques, in South Asia, Hindus may go to this “ambiguously Islamic place” that is the dargah (to quote from Carla Bellamy) (Bellamy 2011). Compared to the Mediterranean contexts studied by the authors mentioned above, however, pilgrimages do not seem to be such a key moment for South Asian inter-communal encounters. Moreover, the contrast between Semitic “monotheisms” on the one hand (such as Islam and Christianity, with their own differences) and Hinduism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism on the other hand may be of particular heuristic value (see below).

Within South Asia itself, dargahs and other shared shrines have been the subject of several important and useful studies but most of these works tend to be isolated case-studies (Assayag 2004, Bastin 2002, Bellamy 2011, Bigelow 2010, Boivin 2012, Buffetrille 1994, Henn 2008, Pfaffenberger 1979, Sila-Khan 2004). Scholars who have engaged in a comparative perspective have generally done so within a single country (Sikand 2003, Troll 1989) or from a quite different angle than the one privileged here (Basu and Werbner 1998, Boivin and Delage 2016, Kent and Kassam 2013). I-SHARE will help to fill these gaps by extending the spectrum of comparison not only to a wide range of religions but also to various locations across South Asia.

·         Key concepts for the study of religious plurality

There is a certain amount of research on the interactions between religions in South Asia and elsewhere. This topic has been much debated among theologians, who have produced insightful analyses, including on South Asia (Premawardhana 2011). Among social scientists, some authors have addressed the issue by adopting a state-centric approach and by focusing on public policies towards the management of religious diversity. These studies have often mobilized the notions of pluralism (Knitter 2005, Eck 2007, Pinault 2008, Srinivas 2010) and secularism (Bhargava 1998, Gilmartin and Iqtidar 2011, Jaffrelot and Mohammad-Arif 2012). While these studies are useful for understanding the judicial and political systems of the countries under study, the public management of religious diversity is not addressed as such in this project, which instead focuses on social practices. Plurality rather than pluralism will thus be at the heart of our proposal. However, this does not mean that the state and its regulating power will be neglected.

The conceptual vocabulary used for approaching religious interaction is fairly developed, but there is no consensus on which notions should be mobilized for describing phenomena that are sometimes similar. Clearly, because of an implicit hierarchical organization between these religions, the vocabulary is not the same when used to describe the interactions between “great” religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) or between “great” and “little” ones (tribal and popular religions), to paraphrase Robert Redfield (1956). As far as Buddhism is concerned, since it tends to oversee local cults instead of transforming them, relationships between Buddhism and “little” religions tend to be viewed in terms of dialogue and interaction (Mumford 1990). While these terms are less unidirectional, they are not, however, specific to religion. By contrast, interactions between Hinduism and “little” religions are more often  analyzed in terms of Sanskritization (Srinivas 1952, Jones 1976). This notion, like that of Islamization or Christianization suggest a one-way process of gradual imposition of one religion – but also of one culture and/or civilization – upon another. It is related to the concept of acculturation, which was coined by Herkovitz (1958) and then used by several scholars of South Asia (Assayag and Tarabout 1997) to describe the way a culture is partly or totally transformed into another. When describing such processes, religion and identity are thought together, and several authors approach seemingly blurred religious practices through identity (Gilmartin and Lawrence 2000, Mayaram 2004, Sila Khan 2004, Gottschalk 2001).

Interactions between “great” religions that do not lead to a change of religious affiliation (such as in cases of conversions) but to a combination within a single religion of elements borrowed from other religions are usually described as syncretic. This term has been used for describing interactions such as those between Buddhism and Hinduism (Gellner 1997), as well as between Hinduism and Islam (Roy 1983). This concept of syncretism has been discussed thoroughly. In France, this issue has been addressed – sometimes in very critical terms – by historians (Motte and Pirenne-Delforge 1994) as well as anthropologists (Mary 1999, 2001). Elsewhere, the concept also gave rise to several debates (Shaw and Stewart 1994) over a number of issues: over the internal coherence of the “new” religion born out of the “blending”, over the origins of the labeling of a religion as syncretic (emic or etic); whether syncretism describes a process or an outcome; whether it qualifies only a part of or an entire religion, etc. Alternative but related notions have been suggested, such as hybridity, créolité, and métissage (Benoist 1998).

In order to go beyond the questionable notion of syncretism, researchers on South Asia have put forward other concepts that are more adapted to the situations they describe. Gombrich (1971) talks of accretism to describe the way mundane religions and soteriological religions (Buddhism, in Gombrich’s case) can combine in order to satisfy both mundane as well as supra-mundane objectives. Hacker (1957), followed by Halbfass (1988), proposes the concept, borrowed from theological vocabulary, of inclusivism, to characterize the way a religious tradition (here Hinduism) can incorporate aspects of other religions that it comes in contact with. This concept provides an alternative to the more morally loaded concept of tolerance, which has also been mobilized to qualify the Indian situation of religious plurality. Tolerance has mainly been addressed in two ways: an implicit one, with a positive value attached to it, in which situations of religious plurality are associated with peaceful coexistence (Ahmad 1981); a critical one, which deconstructs any automatic link between religious plurality – as observed in shared sacred sites for instance – and tolerance (Van der Veer 1994, Hayden 2002). Carrithers (2000), for his part, has coined the concept of polytropy to qualify the eclecticism and fluidity of South Asian religious life, which make people turn toward several sources for their spiritual sustenance. To date, this original concept has only been used by a few researchers but it has inspired studies on particular deities that cannot fit into specific religions (Tuladhar- Douglas 2005).

In sum, while this literature will be useful to analyze the kind of religious interactions that take place in shared sacred places, we should be careful when employing notions that carry an implicit moral value, such as syncretism or tolerance. From our point of view, none of the terms listed above are fully satisfactory and each of them needs to be precisely defined and contextualized. The ethnographic data that we will collect in the course of this project should help us to re-evaluate the concepts mentioned above, and hopefully to shed new light on them.

·         The practice of coexistence: evidence from South Asia

Although studies of religious violence, sometimes labeled as “communal” (in India) or “sectarian” (in Pakistan), have long overshadowed South Asian practices of coexistence, this field of research has produced major historical, sociological and anthropological works over the years. Prominent historians of South Asian Islam, in particular, have documented the fruitful encounters between “Hindus” and “Muslims” over the centuries, while questioning the significations of these labels and their variations across time and space (Alam 1996; Eaton 2002). Meanwhile, historians of medieval India have shown that even those rulers remembered as proponents of Hindu revivalism – such as the kings of Vijayanagara in the fourteenth and fifteenth century – heavily borrowed from Islamic material culture and repertoires of legitimation (Wagoner 1996). Even incidents of violence and profanation – such as the desecration of Hindu temples and the capture of their idols by Muslim sovereigns – could provide the ground for a rapprochement across denominational divides, as exemplified by the Tulukka Nacciyar’s story – the story of a romance between the daughter of the Delhi Sultan and a statue of Vishnu looted by her father, which circulated in the late medieval period in the present state of Tamil Nadu, and contributed to create a space for Muslims within local Hindu temples (Davis 2004).

Collective identities underwent significant transformations under the influence of the socio-religious movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which redefined the significations of religious identity and hardened the boundaries between denominational groups. However, mutual exchanges and

other non-violent interactions between these groups have endured. Devotional and healing practices (e.g. Assayag 1995; Flueckiger 2009), as well as aesthetic networks (e.g. Hyder 2006; Bhaskar and Allen 2009), continued to provide terrains of rapprochement between South Asians of various castes and creeds. And while Indian cases tend to be over-represented in this literature, there is no dearth of evidence to suggest that non-violent intercommunal relations and polytropy are also a fact of life in other countries of the region, from Nepal (Gellner 2005; Tuladhar-Douglas 2005) to Sri Lanka (Bastin 2002).

In recent years, scholars of South Asia have shown a renewed interest for past and present instances of coexistence across the region – a development which reflects the concerns of these scholars about the rising tide of religious intolerance in the region (and beyond) but which also attests to the widespread and enduring character of these interactions across denominational divides. This new momentum was reflected in a series of monographs (Gottschalk 2000; Bigelow 2010; Bellamy 2011; Taneja 2013; Williams 2015; Amin 2015) and edited volumes (Gilmartin and Lawrence 2000; Hasan and Roy 2005; Kent and Kassam 2013; Dalmia and Faruqi 2015), which significantly expanded the scope of enquiry of this literature. So much so that South Asia has become one of the major sites of enquiry – both empirically and theoretically – for the study of the labors of coexistence, in their everyday forms as well as in their more institutional dimensions. To date, however, this South Asia-centric literature remains largely unknown to specialists of other regions. As reflected in our research objectives, I-SHARE aims to break down these barriers while broadening the scope of comparison between shared sacred sites, our ultimate goal being to sharpen the analysis of religious plurality.

Context of the proposal

In these times of cultural and ideological tensions across the world, the coexistence between followers of different faiths is a burning issue. I-SHARE aims to explore these religious interactions by studying sites that offer a privileged entry point into the politics of coexistence: shared sacred sites. By “sacred sites”, we mean any place where rituals and other religious acts are performed: saints’ tombs, temples, churches, street shrines as well as natural or topographical features serving as places of worship.

Three important edited books have so far addressed the issue of shared sacred sites (Albera & Couroucli 2012, Barkan & Barkey 2014, Bowman 2012). However, they mainly concentrate on the Mediterranean region, the Balkans and the Middle-East. I-SHARE intends to focus instead on South Asia (or the Indian Subcontinent) for several reasons. First of all, this region is home to communities that belong to very different religious traditions, whether in terms of beliefs or practices. While so-called  Semitic “monotheisms” (including a non-Western Christianity and a non-Middle-Eastern Islam) are well represented, the region also offers a wide array of “non-monotheistic” religions (be they “theisms”, “enotheisms”, “polytheisms” – such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism – or “tribal” and “animist” religions). Second, the relation of the majority vs minorities varies across countries, regions and even cities: Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are each the majority religion in at least one country, and the minority in others, a situation that offers interesting mirror effects. Third, historically, South Asia has been a region of intense cultural interactions, where different religions and civilizations have coexisted. The most well-known examples include a dialogic venture between Indic and Islamicate cultures epitomized by various figures: Sufis and Sadhus, whose encounters engendered a spirituality that could not be associated with either Islam or Hinduism (Digby 1970); saints-cum-poets, like Kabir (1440-1518), who could not be identified with any religion; emperors such as Akbar (1542-1605), whose Din-i-Ilahi was a “syncretic” attempt at merging the different religions of his Empire, primarily Islam and Hinduism, but also Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. Similarly, Hindu rulers would patronize Muslim sacred sites, while Muslim rulers would reciprocate the gesture in the territories they controlled. These intersections cutting across religious identities have continued to this day, particularly in the domains of art and popular culture (Bollywood is a good case in point). Such types of encounters are not limited to (un)partitioned India but largely extend to other regions of South Asia. In Nepal, for example, the Newars of the Katmandu Valley epitomize the interpenetration between Hindus and Buddhists. In Sri Lanka, during the pre-colonial period, both royal courts and popular classes would practice Buddhism along with Hindu cults.

However, the influence of fundamentalisms of all kinds, often accompanied by violence, has been undermining this “composite culture” (to borrow from a terminology of the Indian State after Independence) over the past few decades, with the effect of largely polarizing the various communities. India, in particular, has witnessed the rise of Hindu nationalism, which goes hand in hand with the political use of religion (Jaffrelot and Mohammad-Arif 2012). Since 2014, Hindu nationalist organizations have been galvanized by the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in national elections, leading to a spectacular rise of hate speech and crimes against religious minorities and intellectuals. In Pakistan, where Islamic revivalism has been meeting with increasing success, religious minorities (Hindus and Christians in particular) are being targeted by both Islamists (through terrorist attacks) and the state (through anti-blasphemy laws). In Bangladesh, which has also witnessed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Hindus are now in a precarious situation, forcing them to migrate to neighboring India. In Nepal, the 1990 revolution led to a strong rejection of the Hinduism of “Aryan invaders” by the ethnic population of Nepal (30% of the population) and the development or reinvention of tribal religions, a development which was in turn challenged by the growth of evangelical Christianity and reformed Buddhism. As for Sri Lanka, the “Buddhicization” of the political discourse and public institutions has taken place in a context of turmoil and violence, which has weakened the social fabric of the country.

These developments have made the issue of religious interaction particularly sensitive. This also implies that the heuristic value of studying South Asia’s sacred places not only lies in its great internal diversity, but also in a history marked by the ambivalent combination of “composite culture”, on the one hand, and conflicts in the name of religion, on the other. As such, it offers rich perspectives of comparison both within the region itself and beyond, which could contribute to a more general understanding of the phenomenon.

In such a context, shared sacred sites – which carry all the multivalence of the notion of sharing (ranging in significance from indifferent co-presence to deeper interpenetration, not to mention the notion of division the term also includes) – provide rich insights into the analysis of religious interaction. Particularly representative of such holy places in South Asia, in both numbers and fame, are the dargahs. These shrines dedicated to Muslim saints are traditionally visited by followers of different religions – mainly Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs but also Christians and Parsis (or Zoroastrians). Our study will not be limited to dargahs, but will also include places dedicated to holy figures from other religions. Besides, shared sacred sites may not necessarily be shrines: there are indeed places which by their natural environment (caves, rivers, mountains, lakes or other natural features) or their association with a particular mythical event (birthplace or place of residence of a deity) are deemed to be imbued with power. Other sacred sites can also comprise places of ordinary worship (churches, temples, mosques, small altars, trees, roadside shrines, even houses), which further widens the spectrum. Bearing this diversity in mind, shared sacred places will thus be at the heart of our field research. How does the sharing of these sites between different religions occur in practice? Who owns these sites? How are they managed? However, this study will not be restricted to observations within sacred sites. Indeed, a major originality of I-SHARE lies in its ambition to broaden the scope of analysis beyond these sites so as to gauge the extent to which interaction in these sites is reflective of coexistence in society at large. In order to study these sacred sites, both in their inward and outward dimensions, investigation will be constructed around two series of questions:

  1. What does the possibility of sharing sites of worship reveal? Is the very notion of “sharing” in these sites endowed with one particular meaning over the other? Do these sites promote a different perception, a better knowledge of the “Other”? Do they participate in the development of mutual tolerance? Are they epiphenomena or do they reflect wider trends in the larger society?
  2. What do they reveal about devotees’ perceptions of their own religion and of religion in general – since this conception may differ from the discourses of some proponents of the so-called orthodoxy, who denounces these mixed cults as sources of confusion? Do the members of different religions who coexist in a shared sacred space necessarily represent their communities? In which occasions do people define themselves according to their religious affiliations and when do other affiliations tend to prevail?

To answer these questions, our project – which is resolutely multidisciplinary as it will involve anthropologists, political scientists and geographers – will revolve around two main inter-related themes: 1) the dynamics and limits of coexistence; 2) the variable geometry of belonging.