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Published in the 1-15 May 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Human Goal in Multi-Religious World

No Synthesis of faiths but mutual understanding and tolerance

By Syed Shahabuddin

The Milli Gazette Online

In his review of Yoginder Sikand’s book, "Sacred Spaces: Exploring Traditions of Shared Faith in India", the reviewer Mr. Mohammed Ayub Khan has highlighted the Hinduisation of Christianity in Kerala and Goa and the longstanding tradition of visit by the Hindus to the shrines of Muslim Sufi saints "to pray" to the saint for the fulfillment of their wishes. The doors of all dargahs are open to non-Muslims but nowhere do Muslim and non-Muslim ‘pray together’. The non-Muslims are not expected to participate in congregational prayers. Neither all Hindus join the services in the Christian churches which may have adopted some Hindu rituals and even invocations. The writer or the reviewer have not cited any examples of Muslims attending church services or participating in pujas in Hindu temples. 

No doubt, Hindus, Muslims and Christians do visit each other as a mark of fraternization during religious festivals. Such festivals invariably have a social aspect. The question arises whether social fraternization of Muslims and Christians and supplication at the dargahs by the Hindus amount to syncretism which is defined as the fusion of different forms of religious beliefs and practices. History provides us no doubt with the example of the Deen-e-Ilahi which Akbar propounded but which even some of his Nau-ratanas refused to embrace. Deen-e-Ilahi died a natural death with Akbar’s demise. But the cultural synthesis during the Muslim rule in the form of the Taj Mahal, the Urdu language, the Hindustani music and miniature paintings survives. This proves that cultural synthesis has a life of its own while religious syncretism has a very short life.

Christians have their own reasons for giving their Church ceremonies a local colour primarily for facilitating the propagation of their religion through a different cultural domain by attracting the people who are used to their own social norms and religious rites and rituals. This may be a successful strategy to attract polytheists but it would fail to make any dent in an environment where monotheism prevails. 

Unfortunately, the reviewer decries the move of the orthodox and the puritans to challenge shared local traditions which, as the book itself points out, are based on myths and legends without any historical authenticity and attribute miracles to the supernatural powers of the saints. Such supernatural powers are claimed also by many living evangelists and faith healers and even by those who, in the Islamic milieu, set up shops for selling holy waters and ‘taveez’, which are readily available in many dargahs. 

The point which must be emphasized is that even though a Muslim visitor shows respect to the saint and calls for his intercession, he does not attribute any divine status to the saint, just as Haj pilgrims may kiss the Black Stone during Tawaf of the Holy Kaaba but do not attribute any divinity to it. This is because the core of Islam is monotheism and no Muslim can attribute divinity to any person not even the Holy Prophet or any material. On the other hand polytheist see divinity in every visible object in the natural world, in persons living and dead and make supplications to them. Thus visiting dargahs and worshipping the saints comes naturally to the Hindus but Muslim cannot think of worshiping an idol installed in a temple. This phenomenon irks some well-meaning secularists who seek parity and symmetry between devotional practices of the Hindus and the Muslims. This is a false view of secularism. Secularism implies respect for the rights of the others to profess and practice their own religion, without any interference or sufferance. Secularism also implies that the State or its functionaries should not discriminate among the citizens in exercising any legal authority or administrative power that are vested in them or in providing any service on the basis of religion. They should refrain from participating in any public display of religious affiliation or devotion at public cost or when on official duty. 

What is important is to realize that since independence, over a period of time, many Muslim shrines have been taken over by the Hindus and converted into Hindu shrines by erasing Islamic symbols, by introducing Hindus rites, by inventing fables to give a Hindu persona to the Muslim saint even by installing Hindu idols. Such assimilation is taking place all over India before our very eyes and the local Muslim community feels helpless against a sustained majoritarian pressure. So, while Muslim shrines should remain open as they are to the Hindu devotees, the Muslim community must be vigilant against any move for participation in the management or the introduction of any Hindu rituals or objects. In absence of a vigil, it is likely to be gradually edged out and dispossessed of its rights.

There is another historic aspect. The advent of Islam in India gave rise to many para-Islamic groups because they were not fully educated or trained after their conversion to Islam. Today there are ‘Muslim’ sects which worship Hindu gods or perform Hindu rites at birth, marriage or death. Just like the new breed of modern or progressive or liberal Muslims, the members of these groups are Muslim only in name and only in terms of circumcision of the male child and burial rather than cremation. These groups do not illustrate syncretism which implies philosophical blending of different traditions, cultures or religions but only lack of religiosity, even of the basic faith which defines a Muslim and separates him from a non-Muslim. 

What mankind needs today through inter-faith dialogue, is not assimilation or fusion or the creation of synthetic religions but mutual tolerance as a way of life, based on the fact that humanity is multi-religious and that faith and coercion cannot go together. Mutual understanding and tolerance will serve to bring people of all religions together in peaceful coexistence for the good of the humanity because they all believe that their alternate quest is spiritual realization, omniscient consciousness of the omnipotent divine in human life, individual and collective. Such understanding cannot come from creating false religions or by distorting true religions or by artificial or superficial socialisation. At the same time, any sneering at the quest of every religious group to go back to its roots, to keep to its original form to regain its spirit and to clear the core of its religious practices from the accretions of the time and particularities of the place must be avoided.
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