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Interfaith Dialogue ( 15 Feb 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Engaging with Hinduism: Medieval Muslim Views

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

15 February 2021

For the medieval Muslim mind, India has been the land of idolatry par excellence. This association of India with idolatry was so strong that only few Muslims ventured to understand its religio-philosophical system. According to Islamic tradition, India was the first country in which idolatry was practiced and it is from here that this form of religious system was carried all over the world. This tradition holds that Adam, post his expulsion from paradise, descended on an Indian mountain called Budh and that his sons started to worship his body after his death. Eventually the first idols were carved by the sons of Cain in this very land. The flood during the time of Noah carried these idols to Jeddah were people started to worship them, thus diffusing this practice to the Arabs. According to another tradition, the Brahmans of India used to travel to Mecca during pre-Islamic times to worship these idols and they considered the Kaaba as the most sacred place on earth.

Thus India was seen as the land of idolatry since the very beginning of Islam. Within its own context, Islam condemned, fought and eventually replaced polytheism. Islam reconciled with monotheistic religions like Judaism and Christianity, calling their followers people of the book. It simply could not do so with Hinduism because of its practice of idolatry. Indeed, this practice became the yardstick through which Muslims tried to understand the civilizational progress of any society. It is not without reason therefore that the Muslim historian Barani demanded that punitive measures be taken against the Hindus. He argued that Muslim Kings should not be content with just levying the jizya but should strive to ‘overthrow infidelity and slaughter its leaders who are the Brahmans’. The Muslim theologian Ahmad Sirhindi too wanted Muslim Kings to put in place strictures which would show Hindus their inferior place in society. He was extremely critical of Akbar’s Din e Ilahi which wanted to arrive at an ecumenical understanding of all religions. 

Such views are hardly surprising given the fact that Islam’s foundational moment has been against idol worship. However, despite such hostility, we find that there were other medieval Muslims who sought to understand Hinduism much more sympathetically, rather than just condemning them as idolatrous. Thus the famous historian al-Biruni would argue that idolatry should be understood as the practice of common people since they do not have the capacity of abstraction and need a concrete object to focus their devotion. Many other religious traditions like Christianity have included pictorial representations for the same purpose. Thus the Hindu idols have been erected only for the benefit of the uneducated. On the other hand, those Hindus who study philosophy and theology, are ‘desirous of the abstract truth’ and ‘would never dream of worshipping an image manufactured to represent him’. For Biruni then, there was little substantial difference between Hinduism and monotheism. The difference lay between elite and the common people, irrespective of their religious affiliations.

Mention also must be made of the Persian historian al-Gardizi, who tried to divide the ‘ninety nine communities of Hindus’ into four distinct groups. According to him, the first two of these four groups were clearly monotheists. According to him, the first group believed in the Creator and his prophets while the second group believed in hell and paradise. More importantly, Gardizi argues that Allah sent angels in human form to the ‘monotheistic Brahmans’. Transposing the name of Allah as the god of the Brahmans was certainly an attempt to make Hinduism more palatable to Muslims.

Similarly, Amir Khusro showers immense praise on the people of this land but is rather restrained when he writes about their religious beliefs. Yet, he argues that there are many communities in the world which have ‘worse’ beliefs than the Hindus. Thus according to him, Hindus believe that there is a Creator and Sustainer of the world and that He is beyond life and death. This belief is far superior to many ‘false’ beliefs like ascribing progeny to God (Christianity) or the belief in the eternity of the world (Dahariyya). The Brahman, according to him, worships the sun, stones and animals, not because they bear any likeness to the Creator but because they are part of His creation. They worship them because this is a tradition imparted to them by their ancestor and not because of any innate belief in such objects. The import of such an argument was clear: if Islam could interact with Christianity despite its flaws, then is must similarly engage with Hinduism.

Special mention must also be made of Dara Shikoh who made deep efforts to understand Hinduism in a non-polemical way. He took an abiding interest in the relationship between the holy books of the two traditions by translating Sanskrit texts like the Upanishad into Persian. Dara argued that the source of all religious books was the same and that they constituted commentaries on one another. Ideas expressed briefly or allegorically in one text is explained in another. According to Dara, most of the Quran is allegorical and its explanation can only be found in the Upanishads. Such appreciation of Hindu scriptures by a Muslim is perhaps unparalleled and points to a desire to bring both these religious traditions closer. Dara even ascribes a positive role to idolatry in the development of religious consciousness. He argues that idols are indispensable for those who do not understand the inner (batin) meaning of religion and therefore need a concrete manifestation of the sacred. As soon as they become aware of the true meaning of religion, they will have no need for such idols.       

Most of these pre-modern Muslims, who have shown appreciation of Hinduism, are historians or political figures. It is surprising that a similar effort was not made from amongst the theologians. The question is important because over such long years of living together, it is expected that Islamic theology should have engaged with Hinduism holistically. Why this did not happen remains an intriguing question.


Arshad Alam is a columnist with


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