Once, religion used to travel by foot. While I was in Islamabad on a Fulbright grant, someone told me that it was Sufis who brought Islam to Pakistan. There is a mythology of Sufi ascetics who would wander through the rolling hills of the countryside. They came from the west, from Iran and Afghanistan. They wandered and then settled in communities far away from their own, helping people and talking to strangers. The ascetics became saints. Wherever these ascetics - called pirs - died, the site became a dargah -- a sacred site.
People were so inspired by these saints that they converted to Islam. The Islam that they brought was persianized and influenced heavily by Sufism. The flexibility of Sufi Islam appealed to people of other religious faiths. In addition, the egalitarian nature of Islam allowed people to escape from the burdens of the caste system. In Islam, people pray together in one space---the mosque, on equal footing. When they enter the mosque, they cast away their worldly status.
This is one mythology that people believe about how Islam traveled and why people converted. The Dargahs, Sufi shrines that abound on the subcontinent, are testament to this story. They are in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. The dargahs are in cities and rural areas, on the sides of main roads, and tucked away in villages. As technological development created railway systems and highways, and urban planning took hold, the dargahs have often been deliberately preserved. In, Lucknow, there is a dargah inside the main train station. The Dargah sits between opposing railway tracks, and visitors have to climb down a ladder and over the tracks to reach the sacred shrine.
The most important dargahs in India are the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in New Delhi and the Dargah Sharif at Ajmer, Rajasthan. These both belong to the Chishti order of Sufism. The founder of the order, Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chishti, was born in present day Iran.
The history of Islam on the subcontinent began before borders were drawn to divide nations. Between 1200 and 1800 AD, people moved freely between West and Central Asia and South Asia, across the Grand Trunk Highway, which extended from Kabul to Kolkata.
The Sufis practiced "Sulh-e-Kul", or 'peace to all,' a formal policy of multiculturalism and inclusivity. Trade networks and the Mughal Empires brought influxes of people to India, and the Sufis went along to spread their message of love and mystical Islam. And from this movement of people, new cultural forms were birthed.
For example, the language Urdu is a "link" language, created by these trade networks. It is a combination of Hindi, Arabic, and Persian and is spoken widely in North India and Pakistan. Back then the lingua franca of Delhi was Persian. People of Turkic, Persian, and Indian backgrounds lived in the city.
Amir Khusro, a prominent Urdu poet and creator of Qawwali, sacred devotional music, was a product of the cosmopolitan nature of his times: he was born in the 13th century to a Turkish father and an Indian mother (cross-cultural marriages were common during this period.) Amir Khusro's work as a musician, poet, and Sufi disciple revolved around the space of the Dargah of Nizamuddin.
Even today, Indian Hindus often visit the Dargah. People visit the Shrine when they or a loved one are sick. They visit it to seek blessings and make wishes. Even though the Dargah is by origin a Muslim sacred space, Indians of all faiths feel culturally connected to the Sufi tradition and its history. Islam in India is today a living religion. People still pray in 13th century mosques.
I first started this project of photographing and interviewing Indian Muslims after ending up at the Dargah of Nizamuddin by accident. The place spoke to me, touched something deep within. I had previously spent five months living in Cairo in 2005.
I found Islam to be overwhelmingly peaceful. Despite many moments of religious violence between Hindus and Muslims in India, including the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, in which all my grandparents became refugees and left their homes to move to India, my interviews with Indians of all faiths often revealed a positive co-existence. India has the world's largest minority Muslim population; there are 200 million Muslims in India, both Sunni and Shi'a.
Islam in India is unique: I am fascinated by the way the religion, food, music, and tradition has blended into a heterogeneous Indian culture, the way words from Arabic and Persian had been integrated into the language. At a time, when religions seem discrete, and polarized, I wanted to look deeper at this example of syncretism and hybridity. I am not Muslim and am wary to generalize about the religion. There exists in Islam, like in Christianity or Judaism, a multitude of Islams.
As a Muslim, you belong to the greater umma, community of Muslims. This community exists irrespective or race or nation.
The Shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya is a meeting place of people who are part of the Muslim diaspora in South Asia. When I went to the Dargah of Nizamuddin on a Thursday night to hear Qawwali, I met a number of families with small children from Afghanistan, visiting India. Afghani refugees enter India on visas for medical tourism. The Dargah of Nizamuddin is one of the few familiar places for them. It is sad to meet people in person and understand that my government is in part responsible for their suffering. I also met people from Kashmir, all there to make the pilgrimage to this sacred site.
These are all broken lands, places that have been divided on the basis of religion by borders that were mostly drawn by the British. These borders are one of the sources of conflict and strife in this region ,which has such a rich history of harmony, diversity and cultural exchange .
We have to create new mythologies that give us a sense of hope and understanding.
When I was in Islamabad, a friend took us to caves in the hills near the city. In these caves at various times in history, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi ascetics have lived and meditated. The same caves absorbed all these different philosophies, the lives of all their inhabitants. They are relics of the pluralistic religious history of the subcontinent.