Sacred sites and places of worship have recently dominated news cycles in both India and Pakistan. On November 9, the Kartarpur corridor between India and Pakistan was inaugurated just in time for Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. On the same day, the Indian Supreme Court finally issued a verdict on the decades-long dispute over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi site in Ayodhya.
In a 2010 judgment, the Allahabad High Court called for the site to be equally apportioned between Hindus and Muslims, in recognition that members of both communities held the site to be sacred. The opening section of the Supreme Court’s 2019 judgment also mentioned that historically, both Hindus and Muslims offered prayers at the site. However, the judgement concluded by calling for the disputed site to be given to Hindus for the construction of a temple and a separate plot of land to be given to Muslims for a mosque to be built.
Clearly, the Ayodhya site’s shared history was not enough to convince India’s Supreme Court to propose a shared solution to the dispute. However, the mention of this history does raise an important question: is there room for shared sacred spaces in today’s India?
Although the idea of Hindus and Muslims praying at a shared sacred site may seem like a fantasy from the distant past, scenes like that are commonplace at the thousands of dargahs scattered across India. For centuries, Hindus, Muslims, and those of other faiths have worshiped at dargahs, shrines which contain the tombs of Sufi saints and are seen as sites of healing and grace.
Grace under pressure
Dargahs range in size from small roadside tombs to massive shrines like the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Rajasthan, which receives thousands of visitors daily. They are prominent in Indian cultural and political life – before elections or the release of a major film, politicians and Bollywood actors often make public visits to certain dargahs.
Despite their cultural and political prominence, the future of dargahs in today’s India might seem uncertain. Dargahs sit at the intersection of social, political, and religious pressures that are reshaping Indian society. On one hand, rising Hindu nationalism has emboldened anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric. At the same time, dargahs are becoming increasingly controversial among Muslim communities themselves.
India’s Sufi shrines are undoubtedly being affected by these pressures, in both obvious and subtle ways. Despite this, many dargahs continue to function as uniquely accessible public spaces for people of all backgrounds, particularly the most marginalised groups in society. In an increasingly polarised society, particularly following the Ayodhya verdict, these shared sacred spaces are becoming more important than ever.
“Sufi shrine spaces always gave a possibility of fluid forms of sacred practice, and that fluidity is always a threat to the dominant forms of religious identities,” said Yogesh Snehi, professor at Ambedkar University in New Delhi and author of Spatialising Popular Sufi Shrines in Punjab: Dreams,Memories and Territoriality. “Therefore, [shrines] have always been targeted.” For example, Snehi notes that during the Khalistan movement of the 1980s, Sufi shrines across Punjab were attacked by Sikh militants, who did not approve of Sikhs revering Muslim saints.
For Hindu nationalists, who believe that India should be a country for Hindus and Hindus alone, the fact that many Hindus visit dargahs and venerate Sufi saints is a cause for deep resentment. This has occasionally been expressed through physical attacks on dargahs. At the time of Partition, dargahs across Delhi were attacked and demolished by mobs, as described by Anand Vivek Taneja, professor at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University in his book Jinnealogy: Time, Islam, and Ecological Thought in the Medieval Ruins of Delhi. Similarly, during the 2002 Gujarat riots, hundreds of mosques and dargahs were destroyed by Hindutva mobs, most notably the dargah of the 17th-century poet Wali Gujarati, which was bulldozed overnight.
Arguably the most notorious example of dargahs being targeted by Hindu nationalists was when the Ajmer Sharif dargah, the most-visited Sufi shrine in the Indian subcontinent, was bombed during Ramzan in 2007, killing three people and injuring 15 more. The courts initially convicted a group of Hindutva supporters, many of whom were members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Three people were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for “conspiracy, planting bombs and inciting religious sentiments”, while others were controversially acquitted of the charges. Before being acquitted, one of the key suspects, Swami Aseemanand, stated that one of the motivations for the bombing was to deter Hindus from visiting the dargah.
Despite this, Snehi also notes that in some parts there of India there has actually been a resurgence of dargahs and veneration of Sufi saints. For example, in Punjab – a region from which a large number of Muslims migrated to Pakistan during Partition – beginning in the early 2000s, new Sufi shrines were constructed across Punjab, mainly by Hindus and Sikhs.
‘Akin to Jews worshiping the Nazis’
In more recent times, violent attacks have largely given way to more subtle efforts to dissuade Hindus from visiting dargahs, namely through social media. Social media is increasingly playing an important role in fueling the polarisation of Indian society that has resulted in a rise in hate crimes and mob lynchings against minorities, particularly Muslims. According to one qualitative study of 140 pro-BJP WhatsApp groups, approximately one-quarter of the 60,000 messages sent were anti-Muslim in nature.
As an extension of this strategy, Hindutva groups have also been increasingly been using social media to target dargahs and dissuade Hindus from visiting them.
Last year, a Hindutva Twitter account with over 50,000 followers tweeted that Hindus visiting Sufi shrines “is akin to Jews worshipping the Nazis”. Some of these appeals are cloaked in the language of history, arguing that dargahs are built over the ruins of Hindu temples. Other appeals target the saints themselves. Historian Rana Safvi recalls receiving forwarded WhatsApp messages about Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the saint buried at the Ajmer Sharif dargah, that said, “He was very cruel to Hindus, he forcibly converted them, he raped women, he killed so many people.”
The effects of this social media messaging are beginning to be felt in different ways across India. In areas such as Bengal, fewer Hindus are visiting dargahs, says PK Yasser Arafath, a history professor at Delhi University who focuses on communal violence.
This Hindu nationalist rhetoric is affecting even India’s most famous dargahs. Syed Farid Nizami, a trustee at the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, says the situation has become significantly more polarised under the current political dispensation. He notes that “for the first time” even dargahs like Nizamuddin are being targeted by Hindtuva rhetoric, often as expressed in social media.
He described seeing a recent Facebook post which referred to Sufis as “secret jihadis” (gupt jihadis) and explicitly urged Hindus to stop visiting the Nizamuddin dargah. “This didn’t happen under previous governments, not even under the Vajpayee government,” said Nizami. “...Slowly, things are changing.”
‘Worshiping a dead man’
Dargahs have also become controversial among Muslim communities across South Asia. Since the mid-2000s, most major Sufi shrines in Pakistan have been bombed by extremist groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and affiliates of ISIS. Although Indian dargahs have not faced this particular threat, they are being affected in various ways by the rising influence of Salafi and Wahhabi Islam, which see dargahs and their rituals as un-Islamic and akin to shirk or idolatry.
According to Safvi, the Wahhabi viewpoint is that “going to a dargah means that you are worshiping a dead man. They don’t understand this concept of waseelah, that you accept the saint as a medium and that you are praying to God through the saint.” As a result, many younger Muslims, particularly in urban areas, are no longer visiting shrines, associating them with a more “superstitious” or “lower” form of Islam.
Reformist Muslim organisations across India argue that venerating saints and worshiping at dargahs is un-Islamic. This has affected the ways in which certain activities take place at some dargahs. For example, the headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim reformist organisation with members worldwide, is located just a few minutes’ walk away from the Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi. The Tablighi Jamaat is generally opposed to worship at dargahs, and according to anthropologist Sarover Zaidi, professor at Jindal School of Art and Architecture, its presence near the dargah has resulted in possible influences at the shrine.
For example, haziri is one of the rituals traditionally associated with dargahs. Scholar Carla Bellamy, in her book The Powerful Ephemeral: Everyday Healing in an Ambiguously Islamic Place, describes it as a practice of “bearing witness” that “shares some characteristics with spirit possession and exorcism”. Zaidi notes that haziri, which traditionally took place in the main courtyard of a dargah, has been restricted in Nizamuddin and other urban dargahs to private, closed-off areas, in order to present a more “respectable” image – not just for the Jamaat, but also for the increasing number of tourists visiting these shrines.
“Why are these women going into possession?” said Zaidi. “It doesn’t look good to the middle-class eye, while five guys singing qawwali looks good.” Again, though, this is largely an urban phenomenon. “You go to smaller shrines across India, they will have possession spaces which are open out there,” she noted.
Accessible public spaces
Despite these pressures, many of India’s dargahs are still being visited by people of all backgrounds. One important reason for this may be because dargahs represent an accessible, open space for India’s most marginalised populations: women, oppressed castes, religious minorities and the poor. While Hindu temples are often not accessible to Dalits and other oppressed castes, and mosques are not always open to women (though the Indian Supreme Court may change this in the future), dargahs are traditionally open to all, irrespective of gender, caste or religion.
For example, the practice of langar (offering free food to all visitors), which many associate with Sikh gurdwaras, can also be found in many dargahs – some believe that it was the twelfth-century Sufi saint Baba Farid of the Chishti order, not Guru Nanak, who started the practice of langar.
According to Nadeem Shah Suhrawardy, professor of history at Delhi University, “Even a chandala [Dalit] could sit right in front of a Sufi saint and dine together … common dining was very important. There’s a lot of politics around food in India, especially regarding caste, so many Chishti practices attracted those who would not be accepted anywhere else.”
Similarly, while men dominate nearly every public space in Indian cities and towns, dargahs have traditionally been places where women have had the freedom to simply loiter and “hang out”. Although there are limits to women’s access and worship at some dargahs, women across India are fighting for the right to equal access.
The accessibility of dargahs can perhaps explain their enduring attraction for worshipers of all backgrounds. Peerzada Altamash Nizami, a caretaker of Delhi’s Nizamuddin dargah, insists that “even today, at least half of the worshipers visiting the dargah are not Muslims” – a claim that was echoed by Haji Abdul Rasheed, caretaker of the dargah of Bibi Fatima bin Sam, also in Delhi. Similarly, Waseem Khan, an Urdu teacher in Ajmer whose family owns a store in the Ajmer dargah bazaar, argues that even after the 2007 bombing of the shrine, more people are coming than before.
At the same time, though, dargahs should not be overly romanticised as completely harmonious and apolitical spaces. They, too, can be sites of polarisation and communal politics. For example, Snehi notes that in the early twentieth century, the Muslim League and the Pakistan movement only gained traction among the Punjabi Muslim masses through the help of Sufi shrines.
In the present day, the official representatives of the Ajmer dargah have consistently lent public support to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government on a range of controversial issues ranging from banning beef to revoking the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir under the Indian Constitution.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that India’s dargahs represent a unique type of space, within which normally-rigid identities of religion, class, caste, and gender have the potential to become more fluid. Although these spaces are being increasingly targeted by Hindutva supporters and conservative Muslims, they have continued to persist, likely at partly because of their openness and accessibility. As Khan put it, “To provide a space without discrimination, where everyone can come: that is the role of a dargah.”
In these polarised times following the Ayodhya verdict, it is important to remember that ideas of tolerance and coexistence are not necessarily foreign concepts. The Indian subcontinent still contains myriad traditions and spaces that can potentially serve as a basis for these values, and as long as people of all backgrounds continue to visit their Sufi saints, dargahs will remain such a space – God willing.
This reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.