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This article in the Economist takes an interesting and detailed look at the religious practices of South Asia’s Sufi muslims. There is a large amount of syncretism between Hinduism and Islam in the region, as there is between Islam and and Christianity in the Balkans and between Islam and Confucian thought in western China. What is notable about South Asian Sufism however is the explosion in art and architecture that it has spurred, particularly in teh building of large tombs for venerated saints.

As the article points out, the practice of building these tombs is at odds with conservative orthdoxy (notably salafist doctrines like Wahhabism). Muslims of that persuasion have characterized these tombs as expressions in shirk (idolatry), and that is the same general argument used by the Saudi religious authorities to justify their systematic obliteration of Mecca’s historical legacy.

In other words, the argument is that those muslims who build these tombs are replacing Allah with the people buried within. They are, in the view of salafists in general and Wahhbis in particular, rejecting the basic oath of a muslim (there is no God but God) and praying to these mortal men instead for intercession. What they do not see is that the act of building a tomb is an expression of love, not for the deceased to replace God but to thak them for helping the muslim strengthen their faith. These people to whom tombs are built range from minor saints like Hafiz Iqbal to great martyrs of the faith like Imam Husain AS. Without exception, these great people showed muslims the true path towards the light of Islam, not away from it.

Personally, I find it deeply offensive to reductively characterize the beliefs of a third of the world’s muslims as shirk simply because they build tombs. To argue that the simple expression of love in building a tomb and engaging in ziyarat (remembrance) is necessarily equivalent to the blasphemy of the Khawarij is to infantilize muslims rather than treat them as brothers in faith. This is a condescending argument, in many ways analogous to the colonial attitude that justified so much misery and outright destruction of heritage and culture, for “their own sake”.

That condescension is not limited to, nor even a necessary feature of, Wahabism. Rather it is a general human tendency, to rationalize our own actions by declaring the actions of others inferior, thereby to avoid the hardest thing of all, to engage in critical self-examination .I don’t think any of us is truly capable of engaging ourselves critically, which is why it is important that we maintain diversity within Islam, so that we may provide a healthy check and balance to each other, and thus keep us all moving forward. But if we were all to be the same, then we would be all the more easily led astray.

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