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Cover Story: Disturbing religious boundaries

June 23, 2013

Reviewed by Nida Kirmani

The boundaries between religious groups in South Asia have been steadily hardening, particularly since the rise of various types of fundamentalisms over the past three decades. This is evidenced by the growth in the popularity of Hindu nationalism in India and various types of Islamism in Pakistan. Within this depressingly polarised context, Saba Naqvi’s In Good Faith, provides a small glimmer of hope. In this book, Naqvi embarks upon an ambitious journey across the Indian subcontinent in search of what may be a dying set of traditions. A journalist by training, Naqvi takes the reader across much of the country documenting a variety of syncretistic practices and traditions, effectively blurring the reader’s understanding of religious boundaries in the process.

The book reads like a travelogue, with each chapter providing a snapshot of a different religious tradition. in-good-faithNaqvi takes the reader through various states across India, providing insights into what she calls “little-known cultural pockets,” which cannot easily be categorised within the boundaries of one religious tradition. The scale of her task is too great to be completed within one book, and for this reason Naqvi is not able to cover every state, placing more emphasis on particular areas such as West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. That said, she does manage to provide insights into practices from across much of the country, which is no small feat considering the sheer size and diversity of India.

Largely focusing on the intertwined relations between Hinduism and Islam in particular, her purpose is to try and understand how these practices come into being and how they persist, evolve or die. A large part of her book highlights various Sufi and Bhakti traditions — that is, those which draw on Hindu and Muslim symbols and beliefs in order to emphasise the ideals of egalitarianism, peace and the importance of seeking a personal union with the divine. Both of these traditions, which have flourished in India for centuries, are slowly being chipped away across the subcontinent by the proponents of more puritanical and dogmatic approaches to religion.

Several chapters reveal traditions that are largely unknown outside of the area in which they are practiced and may come as a surprise to the reader, including the veneration of Thulukka Nachiyar in Tamil Nadu, a Muslim woman who purportedly fell in love with Lord Vishnu and continues to be honoured in one of the largest Hindu temples in the region. Naqvi also attempts to question and overturn many dominant narratives, which have been manipulated for political purposes. For example, she demonstrates how Shivaji, the 17th century Maratha chieftain so celebrated by the fascist-leaning Shiv Sena in Maharashtra for fighting Mughal rulers, actually had close links with various Sufi saints during his lifetime, thus questioning the supposed ancient animosity between Hindus and Muslims, which is the foundation of both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist ideology.

One might accuse Naqvi of over-emphasising syncretism in a country where such practices are indeed increasingly rare. I know from my own research in a Muslim locality in Delhi that the boundaries between Muslims and Hindus, particularly in urban contexts, are relatively clear. At the same time, her book is a reminder that there is much more to India than its cities. In fact, almost 70 percent of India’s population still lives in villages, where religious practices are often blurry and overlapping. Furthermore, her work does highlight urban examples of syncretism as well, such as the celebration of Muharram by Hindus in Hyderabad and the Nauchandi Mela in Meerut, which celebrates Navratri and the urs of the Sufi saint Balley Mian in the same festival.

At times it does seem that Naqvi leans towards romanticising at least certain forms of religious practice, particularly those related to Sufism. However, she is careful to also highlight the exploitation of religion by certain self-created ‘saints’ in order to capitalise on people’s vulnerabilities. For example, she points to the case of a vegetable vendor in Lucknow who claims that the plot he is occupying is the site of the grave of one Pir Baba, a saint of questionable origin who may have been created as a means of occupying a piece of land. As Naqvi points out early on in her book, “money is worshipped in the sacred landscape of India,” a point which is demonstrated not only in India, but by the exploiters of religion across the world.

As a social scientist, I found the main weakness of this collection to be the brevity of each chapter — many of which left me wanting much more in terms of detail and depth. With each chapter ranging from between three and ten pages, I was often left with a feeling of incompletion. At the same time, Naqvi does not claim to be a social scientist and clearly states this early on in her book. This weakness could also be viewed as a strength, allowing the reader to quickly move through a great deal of geographical and cultural space with relative ease. For the majority of readers, Naqvi’s book will provide an accessible window into a vast array of religious and cultural practices of which they may never have been aware otherwise.

Of course, those readers who are particularly curious about particular traditions can turn to more academic authors such as Shail Mayaram (who writes about the Meos in Rajasthan) and Jackie Assayag (who writes about Hindu-Muslim syncretism in South India) for in-depth studies of particular contexts. However, unfortunately much of the material discussed in the book has not yet been covered by social scientists, which draws attention to the fact that the area of religious syncretism is one that begs further academic enquiry. In this way, Naqvi’s text should serve as an invitation to study these traditions more before they disappear altogether.

As the histories and cultures of India and Pakistan are closely interrelated, In Good Faith also has wide relevance for Pakistani audiences. The process of religious polarisation that Naqvi’s project aims to derail has also been taking place in Pakistan over the past three decades. While we may not be as religiously diverse on this side of the border, we are far from homogeneous. We can also still find cases of syncretism persisting across Pakistan in places such as Sewan Sharif in Sindh, where Hindus and Muslims both pray at the shrine of Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. As well, Shias and Sunnis continue to jointly take part in Muharram processions across the country, despite the increasing violence directed at Shias over the past years. This is a reminder that, just as in India, the majority of people in Pakistan find ways of co-existing peacefully most of the time and have been doing so for centuries. Drawing attention to these positive examples of cooperation is an important antidote to the steady stream of depressing news headlines pointing to the contrary. While these instances of cooperation may not make it to the news, they are important examples of the continued blurring of boundaries that takes place on a daily basis across the subcontinent. This may be the most important contribution of Naqvi’s book, which stands as a reminder that the chances for peace may be better than those of impending doom; it is only a matter of where one chooses to look.

The reviewer teaches Sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

In Good Faith: A Journey in Search of an Unknown India


By Saba Naqvi

Rupa Publications, India

ISBN 8129120941