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Interfaith Dialogue ( 23 Oct 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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How Muslims Viewed Hindus in the Past and View Them in the Present


By Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer

December 2004

Muslims came to India both from Southern coast and from North. From South the Muslim Arabs came as traders via Malabar Coast while from North they came as invaders and conquerors. The Arab traders were carrying on trade with the Malabar Coast much before Islam and after their conversion to Islam these Arab continued their trade as before. Some of them settled down on Kerala Coast, married local women and assimilated local language and culture.1 There was no conflict with local population. On the contrary they received cooperation from local rulers as they brought trade and prosperity.

However, the case of entry of Muslims was different from north. Muslims began to enter north with the invasion of Muhammad bin Quasim, a young Arab general who attacked Sindh basically to punish Raja Dahir of Sindh for not taking action against the pirates who had looted some Arab dhows. Raja Dahir was defeated and punished the local rulers and left. However, it is important to note that he, after consultation with the Umayyad Caliph and the 'Ulama in Damascus treated Hindus as Ahl al-kitaab i.e. people of the book, negotiated Jizyah (a tax ordained by the Qur'an to be imposed on those who have a revealed book like the Torah, Bible etc.) and entered into a peace treaty.

The fact that Muhammad bin Quasim treated Hindus as Ahl al-Kitab was a measure of good will towards Hindus. He did not treat them as kafirs. Ahl al-Kitaab are those who possess truth from Allah whereas kafirs are those who refuse to accept any form of truth. Once Islam was established in India a large number of 'Ulama (Muslim theologians) and Sufi saints streamed into this country. By 12th Century Muslim rule was established in north India. And various attitudes were developing towards local populace.

Some 'Ulama treated Hindus as kafirs but certainly not all. Similarly the Sufis, particularly, of the Chishtiya order, were very open and liberal towards other faiths and they had established good rapport with their Hindu counterparts. They even believed in assimilating local customs and traditions. Khwaja Hasan Nizami who was Sajjada Nashin(successor) of the great Sufi saint Nizamuddin Awliya, has written an interesting book Fatimi Da'wat-e-Islam (Delhi, n.d.) which is a rich resource for how Chishtiya Sufis assimilated some of the local Hindu customs and traditions and gave them Islamic form.

Nizami describes in detail how the Chishti saints used the Hindu temple's annual day rituals like taking out sandal procession and washing the idols with that sandal. The idol was of course replaced by the grave of the Sufi saint. Many similar Hindu rituals were adopted by the Sufis.2 This could be termed as 'dialogue of life' between Hindus and Muslims in India.

Also, there were many Muslim scholars who were deeply interested in studying Hindu scriptures. Al-Beruni, for example, who came with Mahmud of Ghazna, stayed behind and studied Hindu scriptures like Ramayana and Mahabharata in original Sanskrit language and wrote a scholarly book Kitab al-Hind (The Book of India). Al-Beruni greatly appreciates the Hindu philosophical systems and writes his learned comments on Hindu philosophy.3

It should be noted that the problem of Muslim attitude towards Hindus in India was extremely complex one. Today the Hindu right in India oversimplifies it and propagates that the Muslims treated Hindus with contempt, condemned them as kafirs and converted them to Islam by sword. This is far from true. This, in fact, is a multi-layered problem and has to be treated with caution. In my opinion, it has to be treated on three levels:

1.       The treatment of Hindus by Muslim rulers;

2.       Their treatment by Muslim theologians (i.e. 'Ulama) and

3.       Finally treatment of Hindus by Sufis.

One should also take into account the people to people contacts i.e. contacts between common Hindus and common Muslims.

The rulers had their own logic. Their attitude was also not basically determined by their religious beliefs but either by their political needs or other complex considerations. They were at war with some Hindu rulers and had political alliances with some others. They also had many vassals and Hindu noblemen in their courts. They gave them Jagirs (i.e. landed estates) and allowed them to keep their own soldiers. These Muslim rulers also had Hindu (Rajput) soldiers in their armies. Hardly any Muslim ruler had fully Muslim army. Thus it was composite army, which fought all the wars and Hindu and Muslim soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder. Similarly the Hindu rulers too had composite armies employing Muslims along with Hindus.

The 'Ulama were basically guided by their theological considerations but many could compromise for their personal interests. Also, there was no unanimity among all theologians about treatment of non-Muslims. They had highly differing positions on this question. However, most of the 'Ulama agree that the Qur'an requires that apart from one’s own non-Muslim parents and other relatives a Muslim should behave cordially with non-Muslim orphans, poor and needy, neighbours and slaves and any misbehaviour with them has been condemned. The Quran also requires good behaviour with non-Muslim prisoners.4

Most of the eminent companions of the Prophet and theologians like Abdullah bin Abbas, Allama Abu Ubayd, Imam Qurtabi, Imam Tabari and Abu Bakr Jassas maintain that one should behave decently with non-Muslim prisoners and should not mistreat them.5 However, there were some instances in which the Muslim rulers killed their war prisoners or blinded them or in some cases even forced them to convert to Islam. But such behaviour was motivated by their political deeds and had nothing to do with religious injunctions.

For that matter some Muslim rulers demolished Hindu temples though the Qur'an does not permit such atrocious behaviour. The Qur'an clearly says, "Our Lord is Allah. And if Allah did not repel some people by others, cloisters, and churches, and synagogues, and mosques in which Allah's name is much remembered, would have been pulled down."6 Similarly there are other pronouncements in the Qur'an not to abuse others gods. They can abuse Allah. Thus the Qur'an says, "And abuse not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest, exceeding the limits, they abuse Allah through ignorance." Going further the Qur'an makes more important statement: "Thus to every people have We made their deeds fair-seeming."7

Even with people of the book the Qur'an advises Muslims to put their best foot forward. It says: "And argue not with the People of the Book except by what is best, save such of them as act unjustly. But say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him we submit."8 But the rulers and even the ulama had their own considerations and interests to behave otherwise. The Qur'an or Islam could not be blamed for what they did. They themselves should be accountable for what they did. No one else can be.

It is true that some invaders or rulers while attacking Hindu temples invoked Islam to justify their own politically motivated acts. However, such invocation should not mislead us. One has to closely study the whole situation and the ruler's motives. One good example is Mahmud of Ghazna attacking Somenath temple and plundering the wealth and historians of his court and other Persian chroniclers justifying this act in the name of Islam. But it is highly doubtful whether Mahmud was motivated by his devotion to Islam. This has been very well brought out by noted historian Romila Thapar in her excellent work Somanatha - The Many Voices of a History. She brings out effectively in this work through meticulous research how Mahmud legitimises his act committed for complex motives. It had nothing to do with religious hostility.9

Such examples can be multiplied. But today communal forces in India are using these political acts of Muslim rulers and invaders for hate politics against Muslims in contemporary India. In fact this question, as pointed out above, is too complex to be oversimplified. We have to examine the attitudes of various sections of Muslim society towards Hindus.

The Sufis, especially of Chishtiya School were very open and liberal towards Hindus. Baba Farid (1173-265), a Chishti saint who wrote in Punjabi language is till today highly respected by the Sikh Community. There is chair devoted to him in the Punjab University, Chandigarh where extensive research in Sufism is done. Shaikh Farid advised his disciples to develop large-heartedness and honesty in all human relationships. He believed in non-violence as the only method to solve differences in social life. Through his own behaviour he demonstrated that pacifism and non-violence in the cult of the strong and not the defence of the weak. The Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of Sikhs contains his saying:

Farid, return thou good for evil,

Bear no revenge in thy heart:

Thus will thy body be free of maladies,

And thy life blest.10


Baba Farid used to say "Having one heart is better than speaking one language." 11 Baba Farid was very popular saint among all irrespective of religion, caste and ethnic groups. All bowed before him with the same reverence. Similarly, another Chishtiya saint Hamiduddin Nagauri of Nagaur, Rajasthan, so much respected the sentiments of Hindus around him that he gave up eating flesh and became strict vegetarian and even instructed his disciples not to speak to him on the day they ate flesh. He also kept with him a cow as cow was highly venerated by the Hindus.

The Chishtiya Sufis were followers of the doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud (Unity of Being) first propounded by the great 11th century Sufi Ibn Al-Arabi. This is put in Persian language as hama u ast i.e. He is all. This doctrine implies that real being is God and all of us are His manifestation. This doctrine demolishes all walls of separation between people of one faith and the other. Ibn Arabi called his heart as Centre of Love and hence a church, a synagogue, a temple and a mosque. Thus the Chishtiya Sufis built bridge between Hindus and Muslims and helped evolve a composite culture.

Nizamuddin Awliya another great Sufi saint buried in Delhi was close to Baba Farid. He spent few years with him and then settled down near Delhi. He too was very open to other faiths, specially the Hindu faith. According to Kaliq Nizami the two principles guided the Nizamuddin Awliha's socio-religious approach. They are as under:

1.       The murids (disciples) were expected to seek the blessings of God through service of His creatures. Service of mankind was considered by the Sheikh as of greater spiritual significance than mere formal prayers and penitence's.

2.       Baba Farid's ideals of love and amity in society were to inspire the lives of all those associated with the Silsilah (the chain of Chishti saints). Attempts were to be made to unite people rather than to divide them. There was to be no discrimination between one human being and another. All were to be treated as children of God.12

Thus from the above two principles it would be seen how liberal and humane was the approach of these Chishti Sufi saints. In fact most of the low caste Hindus insulted and treated as untouchables by upper caste Hindus were attracted to these Sufi saints who treated them with equal honour and dignity and converted to Islam. No wonder than that a large number of Muslims in the South Asia are of low caste Hindu converts. Hence so much poverty and illiteracy among them. Though their religion changed but their economic status did not.

The Chishti saints kept away from the rulers whom they considered as tyrants and exploiters. Nizamuddin Auliya followed this meticulously and never paid court. He instructed his senior disciples:

"You will not go to the doors of kings and will not seek their rewards."13

Nizamuddin saw the times of several Sultans but never paid court to any. He had resolved early in his life to follow the path sown by his spiritual master. When Sultan Jalaluddin Khalji offered him some villages for the expenses of his Khanqah (hospice), Nizamuddin refused saying it did not behave a darwesh (mendicant) to have orchards and villages to look after. When Jalaluddin sought interview with the Sheikh, he politely declined. The Sultan then thought of visiting the khanqah without informing the Sheikh. "My house has two doors", remarked the Sheikh, "if the Sultan enters by one, I will make my exit by the other." 14 These Sufi masters never liked to be seen as courtiers of these rulers.

Amir Khusrau a great poet and musician, was Nizamuddin Auliya's closest disciple. He wrote several volumes of poetry. He too was very open and liberal towards other faiths. He was a popular poet too. He wrote not only in Persian but also in Brij Bhasha (a local dialect) and evolved a new genre of poetry composing one line of the verse in Persian and one line in Brij Bhasha. His couplets are very popular in North India even today. Khusru was very important representative of composite culture in India. Though he was the first generation Muslim in India he was very proud of being Indian and wrote an essay praising India and comparing it with all other countries and proved its superiority.

Though technically the Shari'ah law forbids music the Sufis were very fond of listening to devotional music called sama' and would go not ecstasy listening to such music. Khusrau composed qawwalis (kind of devotional poetry sung impromptu accompanied by music) which Nizamuddin used to listen. These qawwalis were based on Indian, and not Arabic or Persian music. India produced great Muslim musician throughout medieval ages and there are great musicians among Muslims even today.

One of the Sufi saints belonging to Qadiriyah Silsilah which is not as liberal as the Chishtya Mirza Mazhar Jan-Janan declared Hindus as Ahl al-kitaab. He maintained that Vedas possessed by the Hindus were divinely revealed books and he maintains that they should not be dubbed as kafirs (unbelievers). As Allah has promised in the Qur'an that He has sent His messengers to all nations, He has sent His messengers to India as well. He compares Hindu idol worship with Sufi masters and distinguishes it from pre-Islamic idol worship as the unbelievers of Arabs worshipped idols as god in themselves rather than a means to reach God.15

Thus throughout medieval ages the relations between Hindus and Muslims were quite cordial and Muslims treated Hindu religion with respect and even had dialogue with their religious leaders. The Moghul Emperor Akbar institutionalised this practice and used to gather scholars and theologians of different religions and listen to them with great interest. He even attempted to establish a syncretic religion Din-e-Ilahi but did not succeed. Dara Shikoh, a Moghul Prince who was appointed as his successor by Shah Jahan but his brother Aurangzeb seized the throne, was a great scholar both of Islam and Hinduism and wrote excellent works on both religions. His Majma'ul Bahrain (Co-mingling of two Oceans i.e. Hinduism and Islam)16 is considered a classic on the subject. Thus it is not correct to say that the two religions clashed in India and that there were no other trends.

II. Colonial and Contemporary India

However, situation began to change with establishment of colonial power towards the end of eighteenth century. Though relations between common people did not sour the elite of the two communities began to distance themselves from each other as conflict developed between the two on questions of sharing government jobs and political power. Though the conflict was not religious, but, as usual, religion was invoked to legitimise the conflict. Thus to many misunderstood this conflict as religious though essentially it was political.

Throughout medieval ages one does not find instances of communal violence with the exception of two riots in early eighteenth century in Ahmedabad. But communal riots became a regular feature of the British India since nineteenth century. A section of the Hindu elite thought the British rule to be liberation from 'slavery' of Hindus to Muslim rulers. The British, in their own interests, strongly encouraged this trend to consolidate their own rule in India. They commissioned two British officers to write Indian history so as to promote conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Thus Eliot and Dowson compiled history of the Muslim rule with an eye to promote conflict between the two communities.

The stories of attacking and breaking temples were not part of popular consciousness in medieval India. It was only when such stories were published in news papers during the British period in nineteenth century and subsequently taught in history text books in government schools established by the British rulers that they became part of the popular consciousness.

The nationalist leaders heading the freedom movement were confronted with the communal problem but found it extremely challenging to resolve. Various communal organisations encouraged directly or indirectly by the British rulers, came into existence further exacerbating the problem. But the confrontation was political, not religious. There were no theological disputes involved. All disputes were invariably political in nature.

This confrontation, not surprisingly, was led on both sides of the divide, by modernists and not theologians. The theories of Hindu Rashtra (national) and Islamic nation were propounded by modernists like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and M. A. Jinnah. Both were modernists and quite indifferent to religion. In fact both worked for modern reforms. Thus the Hindu Rashtra movement has never been led by Shankracharya, the highest religious authority among Hindus or by the Ulama in the case of Muslims.

It is interesting to note that in nineteenth century when Indian National Congress was formed a modernist among Muslims like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan were opposing Muslims participating in it while an eminent theologian like Maulana Qasim Ahmad Nanotvi was urging upon Muslims to join Indian National Congress and fight the Britishers. He issues fatwa (religious opinion) to this effect and compiled many such fatwas in a book called Nusrat al-Ahrar (For the Help of Freedom Fighters).18

The partition movement in early forties of twentieth century was also opposed by all Muslim theologians. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, an eminent 'alim and Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, renowned theologian and then president of Jami'at al-'Ulama-i-Hind (Organisation of the Islamic Theologians of India) both opposed partition movement on religious ground. Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani even wrote a well argued book against two nation theory.19

The Maulana argued in his book that separate religion does not mean separate nationality. Nationality is co-terminus with territory and both believers and non-believers in Islam can share the same territory and hence same nationality. He quoted the Qur'anic verses to show that the prophets and their followers shared the same territory and nationality with those who refused to believe in them. The Qur'an is full of such verses. Hussain Ahmad quotes several such verses in his book. Thus partition had no religious justification. It was a political demand and causes of partition were purely political.

III. Contemporary India and Hindu-Muslim Relations

The contemporary India too has no theological debates between Hindus and Muslims though communal problem very much persists. The communalists keep on raking up religious controversies too though without the involvement of religious authorities. One troubling problem is of the concept of kafir. Most of the Hindus take it as a contemptuous term for Hindus as idol worshipers. It is true that many ordinary Muslims, without any deeper knowledge of Islamic theology, use the word against Hindus.

However, the Qur'an has not used this word for Hindus at all but for those Arabs who refused to accept the message of Allah sent through His Messenger. Even Prophet's own uncle - Abu Lahab - has been denounced as Kafir by the Qur'an.20 It is highly controversial matter among Muslims as to who is Kafir and who is not. Muslims often denounce other Muslims as kafirs if they mutually disagree on theological matters.

We have shown above that Muhammad bin Qasim did not treat Hindus of Sindh as kafirs but as Ahl al-kitaab (people of the Book) and many Sufi saints too treated Hindus as possessing revealed truth in the form of Vedas and other Shastras. However this unfortunately is not common knowledge. Moreover, it is also exploited by communal forces to create anti-Muslim feelings. Among Muslims there is no unanimity as to who can be called Kafir. There are several schools of thought.

Another troubling concept is that of Dar al-Harb i.e. India being an abode of war. There is no authentic religious opinion available to this question. Also, this is not a Qur'anic concept. Some Islamic jurists had developed categories like Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam). Those countries where Islam was religion of majority and Islamic rule was in vogue were called Dar al-Islam and those where Muslims were in minority and not at peace with majority were categorised as Dar al-Harb. But Muslim 'Ulama never dubbed India as Dar al-Harb except for a brief period under the British rule.

In fact the Hanafi jurists (majority of Muslims in India follow Hanafi school of law) categorised India as Dar al-Aman i.e. an abode of peace.

Common Muslims have always co-existed with Hindus in peace and harmony. It is only political interests who rake up communal controversies to politically polarise Hindus and Muslims to serve their own interests. Recently, a political party of the Hindu Right raked up temple-mosque controversy to create strong hostility among Hindus and Muslims to win elections with the help of Hindu votes. The carnage in Gujarat in 2002 was also result of such politics of communal confrontation.

Mahatma Gandhi had always emphasised tolerance and mutual respect and he was great symbol of communal harmony and peaceful co-existence between various religious communities in India. He was born and brought up in Gujarat and unfortunately this state in Western India has become bastion of communal and hate politics today. Gujarat produced in the medieval ages many syncretic communities and it was land of tolerance. Modern democratic politics is being misused for promoting religious hatred to win elections.

India is and will hopefully remain a secular country despite machinations of the communal forces. The people of India are politically quite mature and once again have defeated forces of hatred in last general elections. All those who believe in inter-religious harmony are doing their best to keep India a land of religious tolerance.

Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.



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