Shall we dance with our Muslim friends?

Troy, MI (February 23, 2012) - The following article by HAF Executive Council member, Padma Kuppa, appeared on Please post your comments directly by clicking here.
Last year during the Hindu festival of Sivarathri, I explained here on Patheos how I find common ground with the Christian practice of Lent. This Sivarathri, I found myself searching for transformation not through religious practices, but through the South Asian culture which links Hindus and Muslims.
My daughter, a Bharata Natyam dancer, and her friend, a Kathak dancer, recently presented an item as part of the 13th Annual World Sabbath of Religious Reconciliation. It is an interfaith day of peace in our region, celebrated by prayer, song, and dance elements from many different parts of the world, with many faith communities represented, including the Muslim call to prayer. As part of the program, attendees make a pledge to create peace; many speak of being renewed by the 90-minute program and the after-glow. While the event had been hosted for the first ten years by an Episcopal church, it has since been held at a Catholic church, then a reform Jewish synagogue, and this year at a Baptist church in the heart of Detroit. Next year proposes new challenges and opportunities for understanding, since we will be at the Hindu temple where I am an active member. These two young Hindu dancers' interpretation of Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram, had me reflecting on something improbable in the current climate: that a mosque could someday host this event. For as long as I have been involved in interfaith events in the metro-Detroit region, an event with song or dance has not been held at a Muslim house of worship.
This idea was not solely due to the song, a favorite of Mahatma Gandhi, who strove for peace and understanding between Muslims and Hindus, or its lyrics, which include Allah and Ishwar (Arabic and Sanskrit words for God, respectively), in the same breath. The dance itself included elements from both Bharata Natyam and Kathak styles of dance—from southern and northern India—showcasing the possibilities of integration of two very different classical dance traditions.
Kathak started out as a means to narrate stories, evolving from the 13th to 16th centuries to present prem bhakti (devotion through love). But Kathak also has Islamic influences, blending the dramatic representation of themes from Persian and Urdu poetry alongside those of stories from the Hindu scriptures. The fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures that took place during the Mughal period in India allow Kathak dancers to express aesthetic principles of Islamic culture. Since Indian independence, Kathak dance has even found a place in Indian movies, as in the classic Mughal-E-Azam or the more recent Devadas.
This led me to think of how many Muslims play a significant role in Bollywood, the nickname for the Hindi film industry based in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). Musicals are the norm, and movies are made in the primary language of India, Hindustani (or Hindi), but one can also hear Urdu, the language of Indian Muslims. Delve into the "big names" in Bollywood, and you will find plenty who are Muslim. A. R. Rahman, a Sufi Muslim, Grammy winner, and musician dubbed by Time magazine as the "Mozart of Madras," is famous the world over due to "Jai Ho." I love his music from the Oscar-nominee Lagaan (meaning tax), which tells the story of Indian villagers of all faiths being unfairly taxed and coming together to oust the British rulers from their region. Its hero, played by Amir Khan, is one of three Khans who were the leading male actors for over a decade. Another Oscar nominee, Mother India, had as its heroine the Muslim actress Nargis, who is as much a household name in India as is Shabana Azmi, a modern-day actress and activist.
Curious about the disconnect—why a Muslim can participate in something that involves music and dance, yet a Muslim house of worship does not allow it—I decided to contact an interfaith connection to learn more: Saeed A. Khan, a professor of Classical & Modern Languages, Literature & Cultures at Wayne State University. He explained that "with the influence of Saudi Arabia in South Asia, a certain doubt has crept in to the consciousness of Muslims from that region as to the propriety of their own rich culture as being outside the purview of what Islam accepts." His reasoning ties in with my experience: there are programs galore, not in local mosques, but in local universities and other venues, of fine arts from the Islamic tradition. One Thanksgiving, Javed Akhtar of Bollywood fame gave a memorable program in Michigan. Madonna University in Southfield hosted an event entitled Ghazal ki ek Shaam-Mirza Ghalib ke Naam, with the immortal songs (ghazals) of Ghalib performed by musicians from Toronto. Renowned Pakistani singer and musician Rahat Fateh Ali Khan performed to a sold-out show with over 1000 attending. All this indicates that there is a desire to celebrate and enjoy the Muslim culture of South Asia.
The pluralism inherent in Hindu India gave rise to a rich fine arts tradition for Hindus and Muslims alike; perhaps pluralistic America can help reinstate the balance between religion and culture. Just as South Asian Hindu Americans like me search for an identity that includes their cultural and religious selves, I hope that there is a transformation someday for South Asian Muslim Americans. Maybe they will rediscover their rich cultural heritage and host an interfaith event like the World Sabbath, and we will all have something to dance about.