Name of the Book: Sacred Spaces: Exploring Traditions of Shared Faith in
Author: Yoginder Sikand
Publisher: Penguin Books, New Delhi
Reviewed by Mohammed Ayub Khan
India has a long and rich tradition of syncretism or the fusion of different
forms of beliefs and practices. Religions liberally borrowed each others
rituals, customs and to some extent beliefs. Even Christianity and Islam
with their strict monotheism were not immune to this trend. Hence,
today we have Christian priests in the states of Kerala and Goa who practice
a Hinduised form of Christianity, complete with pujas, hawans and recitation
of Sanskrit shlokas. And there are the Muslim dargahs (shrines) of
Sufi saints where Hindus and Muslims pray together. These shared traditions
are now being challenged as believers move towards more orthodox and puritan
interpretations. Complicating the situation are the politicians and
communalists who use religion as a tool to further their political ends.
Dr.Yoginder Sikand in Sacred Spaces documents twenty five religious
places where a syncretic form of worship is practiced. With the notable
exception of Our Lady of Health of Vailankanni in Kerala the rest are
primarily Hindu, Muslim, shared or of late increasingly contested pilgrim
Sikand begins with his own experiences as a person with antinomian beliefs.
'Resisting the tyranny of labels is a constant battle. No sooner does a
child come into the world than it is branded, for no fault of his or hers,
with a label that generally stays until the grave, that boxes it into a
specific caste or religion."
He claims that, "For millions of others in India, religion is a
free-flowing river that meanders wherever it pleases, in search of peace and
solace, or, more often, in a desperate quest for divine intervention to
solve worldly woes.' It is with this mindset that he embarked on his
The syncretic spaces he visits are centered on myths and legends about the
supposed super-natural powers of their patron saints. The Shrine of Ayappa
in the Sabari Mala mountains of Kerala attracts thirty million devotees each
year. According to one popular legend he was the offspring of Vishnu
and Shiva. Another theory claims him to be a local prince. He
reportedly had a Muslim disciple called Wavar who led an army of warriors
and defeated Ayappa's enemies. There still exists a mosque called Wavar
Masjid at the foot of the hill where pilgrims seek the blessings from a "maulvi"
before embarking on the uphill trek. Citing various historical
narratives Sikand writes that Ayappa and Wavar seem to represent urban
'upper' caste Hindus and Muslims who joined forces to enslave the
forest-dwelling tribals and capture their land. Despite attempts to
completely Bramanize the Ayappan cult, the Muslim influences continue to
Arguably, the most popular cult in India is that of the Sai Baba of Shirdi.
His portraits and popular saying, Sab Ka Malik Aik (Everyone's lord is one),
are ubiquitous in India gracing everything from plush offices to
auto-rickshaws. Due to the efforts of his modern day namesake
Puttapurthi Sai Baba this cult is also popular in the West. Sai Baba's
origins are also shrouded in mystery. His clothing, actions and many popular
sayings and actions definitely point that he was a Muslim. He wore the dress
of Muslim fakir, held 'fatiha' ceremony every Thursday and lived and died in
a mosque in Shirdi.' According to Sikand, 'the Baba's understanding of
religion was expansive enough to recognize the presence of the light of God
in all beings irrespective of religion.' During his life he was simply known
as a Muslim fakir. As further proof Sikand cites the existence of an Urdu
manuscript consisting of the Baba's under his supervision by his disciple
The legacy of the Baba has not escaped the rising tide of right-wing
Hindutva resurgence. The priests who control his shrine have erased
all Islamic links and have converted him into a demi-god, one of the many in
the Hindu pantheon. Warren, an expert on Sai Baba's thought, points out:
"While Sai Baba was claimed by both Muslims and Hindus, his core approach to
God-Realization had a distinct Islamic stance, and he never taught
specifically Hindu doctrines and rituals .Sai Baba has, however, been almost
completely assimilated and reinterpreted by the Hindu community."
One of the most intriguing figures in the book is that of the Haji Baba
Ratan of Bhatinda in Punjab. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs all claim him to be
their own despite his strong Muslim connections. According to one legend he
was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and lived for over 700 years.
The first references to Haji Ratan in Islamic literature date back to
twelfth century. Several Hadith collectors travelled from as far as
Andalusia and Central Asia to collect the supposed traditions from him. Abu
Marwan Andalusi, a Spanish Muslim chronicler, visited Haji Ratan and penned
an interesting sketch of him. 'When he arrived at the Baba's monastery, he
was taken aback to see an ancient, wrinkled man, his cheeks covered with
hair 'as white as cotton'. The Baba addressed him in a language he could not
understand, claiming, as was later translated for him, that he was present
in Medina during the famed Battle of the Trench. At that time, he said, he
was just fourteen years old. When the Prophet saw him labouring at the
trenches, he blessed him with a long life.'
Obviously, most medieval scholars including Allama Shamsuddin declared Haji
Ratan to be a fraud and liar for making preposterous claims but his cult
continues to prosper with hundreds of devotees of all faiths beseeching him
The author should be commended for compiling historical information on
obscure cults surrounding the personalities of Baba Budha, Imam Mehdi of
Panna, Sarmad, Siddiq Deendar, and the Sufis of Jammu and Karnataka.
Notable absences are the more well known shrines of Sufis like Khwaja
Moinuddin Chishti (Ajmer), Nizamuddin Auliya (Delhi) and Haji Ali (Mumbai)
Also missing are non-Muslim and non-Hindu figures like the French soldier
Monsieur Raymond whose grave in Hyderabad has been turned into a shrine by
the local populace. The author seems to be unaware that the Dargahs
are not the only shared sacred spaces. Even today, with communalism on the
rise, Hindu ladies still line up at the doors of several Mosques in India
and ask the Muslim men leaving after the prayers to blow on their children.
Sikand laments the fact that the shared traditions are being rapidly eroded.
This does not necessarily mean the end of the road for inter-communal
harmony. There are various other alternatives where the communities
can come together like labour and other social justice platforms. It might
even be a good thing that people are turning away from these syncretic
shrines as many of them have become money making enterprises for godmen who
dupe the naïve devotees.