Being Ahl-e-Kitab is no guarantee of a better relationship with Muslims. Indeed, being Muslim itself does not proffer such a hope. So arguing that Hindus are Ahl-e-Kitab is unlikely to improve Hindu-Muslim ties. In fact, it may only make matters worse. If Muslims commonly start believing that Hindus are not ‘mushrikin’ and that they are Ahl-e-Kitab, they would also start expecting Hindus to stop praying in front of idols. They may even expect Hindus to eschew polytheism and start believing in the “one true God.” When this expectation is not met―and it won’t be, because Hindus themselves don’t care whether they are Ahl-e-Kitab or ‘mushrikin’ or not―it can lead to resentment, coercion and bloodshed.
By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
30 Dec. 2012
Aiman Reyaz has recently argued that Hindus, like Muslims, Christians and Jews, are also ‘Ahl-e-Kitab,’ or People of the Book―communities that have received the word of God. His commentary takes forward Muhammad Yunus’s contention, published a little over a year ago, that Hindus are not the ‘mushrikin’ (people who associate others with God) mentioned in the Quran. These and other such articles are intended to make Islam more inclusive and Muslims more tolerant of other faiths, Hindus in particular.
While I deeply appreciate these intentions, I also wonder if such arguments really serve the purpose they set out to achieve. Indeed, I fear they may have the very opposite effect.
Yunus sb. based his argument on two premises. He first quoted Hindu scriptures to show that monotheism was not alien to the religion, that “some ancient Hindu saints must have been inspired with the notion of one God – in other words, they received God’s revelation.” Two, he questioned equating today’s Hindus with the pagan Arabs from the days of revelation―for whom the term ‘mushrikin’ is actually used in the Quran―by showing that hypocritical Muslims are no different. As such Muslims are not considered ‘mushrikin,’ there is no basis for treating Hindus thus.
Reyaz sb. also makes two basic arguments to support his claim. One, although only a few prophets are mentioned by name in the Quran, it is clearly stated that messengers were sent to all peoples. Two, like Yunus sb., Reyaz sb. also draws a number of parallels between Muslim and Hindu scriptures. These similarities, he argues, show that Hindus, too, are Ahl-e-Kitab.
With my limited knowledge of Islam and even lesser understanding of Hinduism, I can neither support nor challenge these claims. But for a number of reasons, I doubt that they would serve the purpose of improving Hindu-Muslim relations.
One, Muslims have had far worse relations with the traditionally recognised People of the Book, viz. Jews and Christians. It is with these religious groups that Muslims have fought the bloodiest wars throughout their history―from the Crusades to the ongoing Israel-Palestine imbroglio. It is in societies dominated by other Ahl-e-Kitab that Muslims commit most of their terrorist acts. It is also at the hands of Christians and Jews that Muslims suffer the worst forms of Islamophobia. On the contrary, Islam has historically had its best relations with societies that are not conventionally considered People of the Book―such as Hindus and Buddhists. This remains the case today.
Their Own Worst Enemies
Two, Muslims most often are their own worst enemies. Sectarian violence has been a bigger bane of Muslim societies than even wars with Jews and Christians, and continues to be so. More Shias have been killed by Sunnis than by non-Muslims. Smaller sects, such as Ahmadiyas, suffer more at hands of other Muslim sects than on account of Islamophobia or any other kind of religious bigotry. Even relatively peaceful societies easily tumble into fits of sectarian bloodshed lasting years―as happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Pakistan, conceived as the perfect Islamic society, is now the perfect example of how deeply a Muslim can hate another Muslim. And we are only talking about religious differences here: things look much worse when we bring racist and ethnic differences among Muslims into the picture.
Being Ahl-e-Kitab, therefore, is no guarantee that a community will have a better relationship with Muslims. Indeed, being Muslim itself does not proffer such a hope. So arguing that Hindus, too, are Ahl-e-Kitab is highly unlikely to improve Hindu-Muslim ties. In fact, it may only make matters worse. If Muslims commonly start believing that Hindus are not ‘mushrikin’ and that they are Ahl-e-Kitab, they would also start expecting Hindus to stop praying in front of idols. They may even expect Hindus to eschew polytheism and start believing in the “one true God.”
The fact that extremist Muslims do not usually wage war against Hindus over Hindu beliefs and practices―even though they denounce and kill some Muslims, such as Barelvis, for having “Hindu” customs―is because Hindus are recognised as belonging to a completely different faith. Muslim violence in India, it ought to be remembered, is over real or perceived discrimination against Muslims, nothing else. However, once Muslims start accepting that Hindus are not ‘mushrikin’ and that they are Ahl-e-Kitab, we can easily imagine sections of the Muslim society telling Hindus how to practice their faith in line with Abrahamic beliefs. Their not doing so will only exacerbate matters and build needless animosity.
As I noted at the beginning, Reyaz and Yunus Saheban’s goal of making Muslims more tolerant of other faiths, and Hinduism in particular, is highly admirable. Drawing doctrinal and spiritual parallels between Islam and Hinduism is equally praiseworthy. But drawing ‘parallels’ and drawing ‘links’ are not the same thing. They have different meanings, and different consequences. One can create similarity, the other ‘sameness’―or at least the expectation of ‘sameness.’ When this expectation is not met―and it won’t be, because Hindus themselves don’t care whether they are Ahl-e-Kitab or ‘mushrikin’ or not―it can lead to resentment, coercion and bloodshed.
There is nothing wrong in Hindus not being Ahl-e-Kitab. And there is nothing wrong in Hindus being ‘mushrikin.’ What Hindus are, or are not, is for Hindus to ponder over―and them alone. Muslims like me have no say in that, and we shouldn’t make it our business either.
There is, however, something wrong in Muslims believing they have to kill all the ‘mushrikin,’ or all non-Ahl-e-Kitab, or all non-Muslims, or all Muslims who don’t belong to a particular sect―as some sort of religious duty. Muslims like me, and Yunus and Reyaz saheban, do have a say in that, and that is what we should continue making our business.
Saif Shahin, a regular columnist for New Age Islam, is a doctoral student of political communication at the University of Texas at Austin, US.