The confluence of Hinduism and Islam

Hindu and Muslim scholars the world over are appalled at the growing tension (in some parts of the world at least) between the members of the two religious factions, which has led time and again to violence and even death. Religious leaders are at pains to drive home the fact that religion should unite and not destroy people, should be a bridge of understanding and goodwill and not a platform for hostility and hatred.

If Diwali is a festival which is sacred to Hindus, so is the Holy Month of Ramadan for Muslims. By a happy coincidence, the two would fall close to each other this year (albeit the beginning of the Holy Month would depend on the sighting of the Moon)-while Diwali would denote the beginning of celebrations and a New Year (except for South Indians), the Holy Month would mark a period of abstinence, austerity and prayer for Muslims. There would no festivity, eating, drinking or smoking during daylight for the latter, while the former would rejoice the advent of a new era of prosperity. But the day signifies prayer and promotion of goodwill and friendship for both.

Common teaching

Thinkers and religious teachers have, for many years, strived hard to bring home the truth that all religions propagate the same faith-the goodness of human beings-similarities, rather than difference-are sought in detailing the tenets of Hinduism and Islam. Hindu preachers and Islamic imams have time and again stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence.

The oneness of God is stressed in Islam-Allah is The Almighty, The Most Compassionate and The Most Benevolent for Muslims, whereas Hindus worship different forms. Idol worship has been in vogue among Hindus for thousands of years but one ancient belief is often forgotten: That God is One, the Supreme Being and that all forms of worship, the various names given to male and female Gods are but the manifestation of One Great Power. A small Temple in the South Indian hamlet of ‘Chidambaram’ brings out this point. The sanctum sanctorum here, called, ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ is the focal point of this argument. Here God (by whatever name He may be referred) is worshipped in ‘formless form’ and devotees who enter the sacred place find no deities or idols.

The synergies

Similarities are drawn between the ‘Chidambara Rahasyam’ and the Khaba, the Holy congregation for Muslims in Mecca for every Islamic observance.

Hinduism is often stated as a way of life rather than a religion with God worshipped as a Supreme Formless and Universal Self and as individual gods and goddesses. Islam believes in one and only God who has 99 names but is most popularly referred by the name Allah. Islam is based on the sayings of the Almighty Allah conveyed through many Prophets, mainly Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him). Hinduism is based upon the teachings of God in the form of His incarnations and manifestations, the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. According to legends, sages such as Valmiki and Vyasa wrote respectively The Ramayana and The Mahabharata (Tamilians follow the Ramayana version written by poet Kamban).

Islam preaches tolerance, peace and harmony and so does Hinduism. While the latter does not speak of other faiths, Islam preaches that there is only one God, Allah and ordains all Muslims to observe the sacred five duties including faith in the oneness of God and the teaching of Prophet Mohammed, prayer (five times a day), fasting during the Holy Month of Ramadan, almsgiving or Zakat and pilgrimage to Mecca (Haj) at least once in a life time.

Some differences

According to one school of thought, Islam believes in rescuing people from eternal damnation through their conversion to Islam, where as Hinduism believes in letting individuals choose their path according to their inner convictions and scale of evolution. Some preachers say Hinduism is more a group of religions that share some common beliefs and traditions and is not in favour or against a particular belief or religion.

Hinduism is stated to be the world’s oldest religion (dating back to several thousand years) while Islam is the youngest (1434 years to date). It is debatable whether Islam would encourage pursuit of knowledge through scientific rationalism and free enquiry that would disturb or challenge the belief structure of an age old society. In Islam, free enquiry and scientific pursuit is possible, so long as they do not question the foundations of the religion or the way of life of the believers. Some scholars argue that Islam does not proscribe any such limits to progress and cite a number of Muslim scientists, medical practitioners and philosophers who have contributed to inventions, advancement in various fields and research.

Hinduism has no issues with scientific pursuit so long as it is in harmony with the spiritual aims of the world and the Creation.

Islam in India

From a historic retrospective, the advent of Islam into India marked a significant phase in the latter’s history. During the first century after the death of Prophet Mohammed, the Umayyad caliph in Damascus sent an expedition to Balochistan and Sindh (711) led by Muhammad bin Qasim (after whom Karachi’s second port is named). The expedition went as far north as Multan but was not successful in expanding Islamic rule to other parts of India. Coastal trade and the presence of a Muslim colony in Sindh however, permitted significant cultural exchanges and the introduction into the subcontinent of saintly teachers. Muslim influence grew with conversions.

Almost three centuries later, the Turks and the Afghans spearheaded Islamic conquest in India through the traditional invasion routes of the northwest. Mahmud Ghazni (979-1030) led a series of raids against Rajput kingdoms and rich Hindu temples and established a base in Punjab for future incursions. His tactics originated the legend of idol-smashing Muslims bent on plunder and forced conversions.

During the last quarter of the 12th century, Muhammad of Ghor invaded the Indo-Gangetic Plain, conquering in succession Ghazni, Multan, Sindh, Lahore and Delhi. His successors established the Mamluk (meaning slave) dynasty, the first in the Delhi Sultanate in 1211 (according to some, in 1206). The territory under the control of the Muslim rulers in Delhi expanded rapidly. By mid-century, Bengal and much of central India was under the Delhi Sultanate. Several Turko-Afghan dynasties ruled from Delhi and as Muslims extended their rule into southern India, only the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar remained immune, until it fell in 1565. Although some kingdoms remained independent of Delhi in the Deccan and in Gujarat, Malwa (central India) and Bengal, almost all other areas including the present day Pakistan came under Delhi.

The Sharia Law

The sultans of Delhi enjoyed cordial relations with Muslim rulers in the Near East but owed them no allegiance. The sultans based their laws on the Holy Quran and the Sharia and permitted non-Muslim subjects to practice their religion only if they paid Jizya or head tax. The sultans ruled from urban centers, while military camps and trading posts provided the nuclei for towns that sprang up in the countryside. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the sultanate was its temporary success in insulating the subcontinent from the potential devastation of the Mongol invasion from Central Asia in the 13th century. The sultanate ushered in a period of Indian cultural renaissance resulting from stimulation of Islam by Hinduism.

The ‘Indo-Muslim’ fusion left lasting monuments in architecture, music, literature and religion. The sultanate suffered from the sacking of Delhi in 1398 by Timur (Tamerlane) but revived briefly under the Lodhis before it was conquered by the Mughals.

Interfaith bond

It is a pity that despite a number of similarities and preaching of non-violence, Hindus and Muslims in some parts of India are at loggerheads today, instigated mainly by political rivalry and the race for domination. It is well known that although India and Pakistan have been fostering mutual hostility at the political level and fought three wars since both became free in 1947, there is a feeling of compassion and friendship at grassroots. There are still people from the same family on both sides of the political divide longing to live together. Efforts to promote trade and commerce have somewhat been successful, Indian films are popular in Pakistan and Hindi film and pop music are in demand along with the ancient fine arts including Ghazals and Qawali.

The place of medieval cannons is now taken over by laser guided nuclear missiles and people who are proud owners of these high-tech toys are well aware of their destructive nature. Ignorance rules their minds and hatred fills their hearts. Basic issues confronting both countries such as poverty and education remain unanswered.

But there is a lurking hope among the ordinary people of India and Pakistan-be they Muslims, Hindus, Christians or of any other faith that one day the two countries would forget their differences and live together as brothers and sisters.

May Eid Al Fitr ensuing the Holy Month of Ramadan light such hope.

The above article, which appeared in our Diwali Special October (II) 2003 issue has been reproduced here in view of the growing importance of strength of the topic.

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