Category Archives: Objectives and originality of the project

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.