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Islam and Pluralism ( 19 May 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Importance of Hindu-Muslim Dialogue

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand/Noor Mohammad Sikand) 

Hindus and Muslims have been living together in India for over a thousand years. Yet, they are still plagued by misunderstandings about each other and mutual hatred. A principal reason for this is that they have not sought to understand each other sincerely. Undoubtedly, there have been individuals among them who were deeply conscious of, and strongly opposed to, the enormous gulf that divides them, and they tried, in their own ways, to transform this hatred into dialogue and reconciliation. However, in the face of stiff opposition, their efforts did not yield much fruit.

The most salient factor for hatred and conflict between Hindus and Muslims is historical memory—of the former being dominated by the latter for centuries. The earliest Muslims came to India as traders and enjoyed peaceful relations with the local Hindus, and, as in Kerala, spread Islam using peaceful means. However, their place was rapidly taken over by invading armies so that the relationship between Muslims and Hindus was rapidly transformed into that of conquerors and the conquered. Obviously, the Hindus did not take kindly to this. This is why they considered Muslims to be foreigners and their inveterate foes.

This gulf between Hindus and Muslims was further promoted by the biased and hardly impartial rule of Muslim Sultans, for which they sought religious legitimacy. A striking instance of this was the imposition by many Muslim rulers of jizyah on their Hindu subjects. No matter what justification they sought for this, it was obvious that for the Hindus this caused much opposition and ill-feeling.

It must be noted that, despite the claims of the Delhi Sultans, and, after them, the Mughal Emperors, their rule was not, strictly speaking, Islamic or in accordance with Islamic commandments and principles. The political and social rules of Islam were applied, if at all, only in name. Yet, in order to fill the royal coffers the Sultans imposedjizyah on the Hindus in the name of Islam. They could have, had they wanted to, followed the practice of the third Caliph, Umar, who levied a general tax instead of jizyah on the Banu Taghlib, a Christian tribe who felt that the jizyah was a sign of subjugation and degradation. However, a complete lack of proper insight, a rigid adherence to the prescriptions of the books of classical fiqh, and a distressing dependence on the court ulemaand their fatwas prevented the Sultans from following a more enlightened policy in this regard.

The Mughal period, particularly the reign of Akbar (1556-1605), was perhaps a more enlightened one in terms of state policies vis-à-vis the Hindus. This period saw increasing interaction between Hindus and Muslims at various levels. Following in the footsteps of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamoon (786-833), Akbar arranged for the translation of numerous books on the religion, culture and history of the Hindus. This proved to be a major milestone in promoting a more objective understanding of the Hindus among Muslims, and a significant step in facilitating dialogue between the two.

The Revolt of 1857 that marked the formal end of the Mughal Empire witnessed impressive efforts to unite Hindus and Muslims to combat the encroaching British. Were it not for the tragic Partition of India, it is possible that major progress could have been made to improve Hindu-Muslim relations through dialogue. It should have been among the topmost priorities of our leaders after Independence to bring Hindus and Muslims closer together, but this did not happen. On the contrary, the gulf between them only further widened and the conflicts between them are becoming ever more deadly.

The Relevance of Dialogue

Recent and ongoing political developments at the regional and global level, particularly conflicts between Muslims and others and the heinous actions of some radical groups in the name of Islam, have had a major and enormously debilitating impact on Hindu-Muslim relations in India. These developments have further emboldened anti-Muslim Hindutva forces in India, which have enabled them to make even further inroads among those Hindus who otherwise have nothing against Muslims. On the other hand, the existence of extremist elements among the Indian Muslims cannot be denied. They cannot be excused, legitimised or sought to be explained away as a reaction to virulently anti-Muslim forces. One wrong action cannot legitimize another as a reaction to it. But, at the same time, it must be admitted that such extremist elements are only a very small, fringe minority among the Indian Muslims, an isolated exception.

A major problem afflicting Muslims, particularly in north India, where the bulk of the community is concentrated, is the miniscule Muslim middle-class, which could have, if it were more numerically strong and confident, played a key role in promoting Hindu-Muslim dialogue. The existing Muslim middle-class is simply too cut off from the masses and immersed in mindless pursuit of consumerist luxury to take the issue of Hindu-Muslim dialogue and reconciliation seriously. On the other hand, the ulema, who enjoy strong organic links with the Muslim masses, lack sufficient foresight and an understanding of the complexity of many contemporary issues, which are essential for serious and meaningful inter-religious and inter-community dialogue. Despite this, it is crucial that the ulema, especially those who work in the leading madrasas, play a leading role in promoting inter-communal dialogue. These ulema have a large network of supporters throughout the country, and if they get involved in serious dialogue with Hindus, it can have a powerful multiplier effect that can reverberate across the rest of India. Because the ulema enjoy the support and respect of a large section of Muslims, if they were to take an active role in inter-community dialogue, it can have a very positive impact on the Muslim masses as well.

Hindu-Muslim dialogue is really the need of the hour. Two leading Indian Muslim organizations, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Jamiat ul-Ulema-i Hind, attempted some years ago to undertake dialogue initiatives with Hindus, but, unfortunately, this was looked upon with suspicion by many Muslims and so nothing came of it. Perhaps another reason for the failure of this effort was that these organizations were seen as becoming too politically involved.

Muslim groups need to reach out to, and dialogue with, not just secular-minded Hindus, who are already convinced of the need for inter-communal harmony, but also with other Hindu groups as well. They need to address the concerns and misunderstandings of the latter, too. It is erroneous, as some Muslims contend, that for Muslims to seek to dialogue with extremist Hindu groups is tantamount to surrendering to them. It is with such groups, too, that we need to dialogue. After all, the real need for dialogue is with such groups, not with groups who are already convinced of the need for peaceful inter-communal relations.

At the global level, most Muslim-sponsored dialogue initiatives have sought to promote links with Christians and Jews, or what are referred to as ‘People of the Book’, or adherents of what are called the ‘Semitic religions’. Not much effort has been spent on dialoguing with people of other faiths, including Buddhists and Hindus, who form a major proportion of the world’s population. This lacuna urgently needs to be addressed.

Hurdles in Dialogue

Some of the major hurdles in the path of dialogue between Hindus and Muslims relate to our traditional thought and practice. Till these hurdles are addressed and overcome, a conducive environment for dialogue cannot be created.

The biggest intellectual challenge facing dialogue between Hindus and Muslims is the belief that the two are wholly different, indeed contradictory, in terms of religion and culture. Obviously, as long as this belief persists serious dialogue between them, based on their commonalities, is impossible. Islam is based on pure monotheism, while most Muslims think that Hinduism is based on undistilled polytheism. While Muslims think that Islam is the only true religion, many Hindus believe that there exist different, equally legitimate, paths to the Truth, all of which are worthy of respect. Hindus thus believe that the Muslims’ understanding of divine truth is narrow and confined. Muslims consider Hindus to be wallowing in polytheism and to follow absurd superstitions and inhuman caste rules in the name of their religion. On the other hand, Hindus think of Muslims as violent iconoclasts, as obsessed with sex, and as intolerant fanatics. In short, they regard each other as sub-humans.

These generalizations can be very misleading. The fact of the matter is that not all Hindus are idol-worshippers and nor do all Muslims consider breaking idols an integral part of their faith. Social hierarchy, caste and superstitious beliefs and practices in the name of religion are to be found among both Hindus and Muslims.

It is striking to note that these issues that set Muslims and Hindus apart from each other and lead to such misunderstanding have less to do with religion as such and much more to do with social practice and historical events. As I mentioned earlier, anti-Muslim prejudices among Hindus have much to do with the history of Muslim rulers in India and the tragic Partition of the country. Likewise, anti-Hindu sentiments among many Indian Muslims have much to do with the continuing anti-Muslim violence in India and the virulent anti-Muslim propaganda of Hindutva forces. In reaction to Hindutva aggression, extremist tendencies took root among a fringe section of the Indian Muslims, and they began dreaming of establishing what they called the ‘Islamic system’. They began to denounce secularism and democracy as allegedly against Islam, and, using fiery and emotionally-driven slogans, sought to exploit the simple-minded religiosity of the Muslim masses. Clearly, this is unacceptable and must be denounced.

It is true that many Hindus and Muslims, including some of their religious and political leaders, consider inter-religious or inter-communal dialogue as meaningless and useless. They are bound to stridently oppose such initiatives. While we must be constantly aware of this possibility, it must be borne in mind that the number of Hindus and Muslims who would support such efforts would greatly outnumber their opponents. We must also remember that, despite their claims, rabble-rousing Hindutva ideologues are not the accepted leaders of all, or even most, Hindus, and nor are rabid Muslim characters the leaders of the majority of Muslims. Hindu-Muslim dialogue must be promoted no matter what the opposition such efforts meet from such elements. 

Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on 

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.