By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
Islam and Hinduism both representing two great traditions, have coexisted for more than one thousand years. It is very important to understand the relationship between these two religions. There are two divergent views on the subject of this relationship. One view is that both traditions are very similar to each other. I once happened to meet a Hindu scholar who with great enthusiasm said, “I don’t find any difference between the two religions. When I read the Quran, I feel that I am reading the Gita and when I read the Gita, I feel I am reading the Quran.” This is, however, an oversimplification of this issue. I don’t think that this notion will pass academic scrutiny.
The second view is that Islam and Hinduism are both very different from each other and that their only meeting point is (heated) debates. This view was particularly widespread during the British rule in India and reached its zenith at that time.
It would be more intellectually and academically productive to assess the merits of the two religions in the context of intellectual development. Such development can come about only as a result of social interaction and intellectual exchange. To illustrate this point, let me cite some historical examples. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his famous work, The Discovery of India observed that when the Arabs came to India, they brought with them a brilliant culture. History testifies to this statement.
The Arabs came to India in the 7th and 8th centuries. At that time India was dominated by superstition. Most Indians worshipped nature. It was their belief that everything, from stars to planets, rivers and trees, was divine in nature. According to Islamic belief, God is the creator and the whole of nature is His creation. This ideology was revolutionary at the time. It brought about a change in the Indian mind-set, introducing scientific thinking into Indian society. After the introduction of this ideology, the Indian people tried to explore nature, instead of worshipping it and treating it as divine.
The second impact of the advent of Islam in India was to introduce the concept of universal brotherhood. At the time, Indian society was dominated by the caste system. The Islamic concept of equality changed this system to a great extent. A more detailed understanding of this Islamic contribution can be gotten from Dr. Tara Chand’s 1946 book, "The Influence of Islam on Indian Culture”.
We can see from these examples the positive influence and the healthy effect of Islam on Indian society. Now let us take an example of the contribution of Hinduism to the Muslims of India. Not allowing oneself to be provoked in spite of provocation is a forgotten teaching of Islam. I have found a beautiful illustration of this teaching in the life of Swami Vivekananda, a great soul of India.
One of his friends wanted to put him to the test. So he invited the Swamiji to his home. When the Swamiji reached there he was asked to sit in a room, beside a table on which the sacred books of different religions had been placed, one on top of the other. The Bhagavad Gita, the sacred book of Hinduism, was placed at the bottom. Other religious books were placed above it. The Swamiji’s friend asked him what he had to say about it.
This was obviously meant to be humiliating for the Swamiji but instead of being provoked, he simply smiled and said, “The foundation is really good.” This incident is a beautiful illustration of the fact that if an individual simply refuses to be provoked, he becomes so strong that he can turn any negative situation into a positive one. Then there is a hadith in Al-Bukhari that tells us the general policy of the Prophet of Islam. Aisha, the Prophet’s wife says, “Whenever the Prophet faced any such situation and he had to choose between two courses of action, he always opted for the easier course, rather than the harder one.”
A successful example of adherence to this principle can be seen in the life of Mahatma Gandhi. In the pre-1947 period, India was struggling for her freedom from British rule. At the time, there were two options available to Indian leaders—violent activism and peaceful protest. Gandhi avoided violent confrontation with the British regime and opted to protest peacefully. He was able to achieve great success without any bloodshed.
This example set by Mahatma Gandhi is a very good illustration of Islamic principles. In my experience, differences in religion are not an evil but a blessing. We require only an acceptance of these differences with a positive mind, so that we can learn from each other and live as partners, rather than as rivals. Life is all about cooperation and coexistence, and the relationship between different religions must be based on the acceptance of this principle.