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South Asia: A Battleground Between Muslims and Hindus?

How can Muslims and Hindus in South Asia achieve a dependable peace?

February 12, 2004

How can Muslims and Hindus in South Asia achieve a dependable peace?

In the media today, Islam is often reduced to terrorism or extremism.

Indeed, when commentators ask if democracy and Islam are compatible, they dismiss the idea of a tolerant and democratic tradition within Islam. Obviously, they have little idea of South Asian Islam.

When Islam emerged from the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century — and first engaged the peoples of what is now the Middle East, North Africa and Spain — it interacted with populations that were largely Jewish or Christian.

In short, it was interacting with peoples who were still within the Abrahamic traditions and to whom the idea of an invisible omnipotent God, of common prophets and of a list of commandments were familiar.

But in South Asia, Islam met Hinduism, a completely different religious system. Not only was the notion of the divine very different. Here was also a civilization that was both ancient and sophisticated.

Confronted with a religion and civilization that was not only older but had a greater population, the philosophers of both Muslims and Hindus began a process of mutual understanding.

There were points of theological, cultural and intellectual contact and even synthesis.

Genuine learning from both — while respecting each others' integrity and identity — was not only possible, but allowed the co-existence of communities.

This was possible because within Islam, there is a theological mechanism to allow Muslim societies to adjust to change. It is called ijtehad.

The Muslim response came in two different forms: inclusivist and exclusivist. This inner tension between exclusivists and inclusivists created a dynamic that has existed throughout Muslim history in South Asia.

Among the inclusivists were figures like Amir Khusro, Moin-uddin Chisti, Dara Shikoh and other luminaries. Their philosophy rested in the famous Sufi saying "sulh-i-kul" — or "peace with all."

Conversions to Islam took place because of these Muslim scholars and saints. With compassion went knowledge, which is so highly valued in Islam.

In contrast were the exclusivists — and one of the earliest was Mahmud of Ghazni, who lived from 971 to 1030.

For him, the Hindu deities were to be smashed and their temples looted. Islam's exclusivist expression was tangled with rapacious generals with an eye on plunder.

The greater the threat to Islam, the greater the falling back to exclusivist leaders. Unfortunately, the image of Islam that dominates in the world media and discourse today is inspired by the exclusivists and has become the stereotype of Islam itself.

The tension between the two polar opposites is dramatically reflected in the 17th century — at the high noon of the Mughal Empire in India.

Two sons of the Emperor Shah Jehan presented us again with the two distinct models of South Asian Islam: Dara Shikoh was the inclusivist par excellence — while Aurangzeb was the exclusivist par excellence.

Dara Shikoh was a mystic who spent his time with Sufis and Yogis, who enjoyed devotional music — and who oversaw the translation of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads.

Always a good Muslim, he never wished to abandon Islam — but to expand its boundaries.

On the other hand, Aurangzeb drew the boundaries tightly around Islam. He stood for a formal literal and orthodox Islam — and he lived in austerity. He spent his spare time reading the Qur'an.

For all his piety, he was a shrewd and successful ruler. Under his leadership, the Mughal Empire expanded to its farthest boundaries, regardless of how weak it had become inside.

The inevitable clash between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb — and the total victory of Aurangzeb in 1658 — would cast shadows on Muslim society into the future.

The next centuries saw the depletion of compassion, vitality and learning in Muslim society. The middle of the 19th century and the advent of Western imperialism presented a major crisis for Muslim society.

In South Asia in 1857, uprisings against the British resulted in the last remnants of the Mughal Empire being terminated — and Muslim power ending both symbolically and substantially.

One important period of Muslim history in South Asia thus ended. Once again, Muslims in the region responded to the new realities in two characteristic ways: inclusivism and exclusivism. The inclusivist Muslim response created a remarkable Muslim renaissance through the late 19th and early 20th century in South Asia.

It fostered a modern, confident Islam with a capacity to respect women, minorities and uphold human rights within the tradition of Islam itself. The most significant figure of this renaissance was Jinnah, who in time inherited the Muslim leadership.

It is significant to note that while he was seen as Quaid-i-Azam — or the great leader to the inclusivists — Jinnah was the Kafir-i-Azam, or the great unbeliever, to the exclusivists.

As the Quaid, Jinnah — who eventually became the founder of modern Pakistan — presented a vision of a modern, democratic, Muslim nation based in human rights, women's rights and minority rights and respect for the law.

All of which explains why I find the relationship of Jinnah with another outstanding person who symbolizes inclusion — India's Mahatma Gandhi — such a fascinating one.

Both were about the same age and both died in the same year. Both came from similar backgrounds in Gujarat, both were educated in law colleges in London — and both were attacked by fanatics from their own community. Gandhi, in fact, lost his life to a Hindu fundamentalist who thought he was too soft on Muslims.

What is not well known is that both had a great deal of mutual respect for each other. They were extraordinary leaders of vision, integrity, intelligence and sharp humor.

Both Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi stand for the inclusivist traditions of South Asia.

Neither saw 1947 as the creation of two states that would remain in permanent confrontation and enmity.

Gandhi was on his way to Pakistan in friendship after the creation of Pakistan — no doubt to the relief of some Congress leaders who were finding his presence burdensome.

And Jinnah was prepared to welcome him there when Gandhi was assassinated.

In the light of the ideas of inclusivism I have discussed, we need to ask ourselves which is the way ahead in the 21st century.

I suggest three steps. First we need to read and learn much more about each other. I find that the tragedy of South Asia is that few in Pakistan appreciate Mahatma Gandhi's inclusiveness — and few in India appreciate Jinnah's inclusiveness.

In Pakistan, we need to know much more about figures like Mahatma Gandhi. In India, people need to read and learn more about Jinnah.

If they were looking down at South Asia, I am sure the current state of affairs — especially the sporadic outbursts of religious hatred and intolerance — would pain both Jinnah and the Mahatma.

Both would be broken-hearted at the endless cycle of violence in Kashmir. Both would wonder whether sulh-i-kul — peace with all — has now been replaced with jang-i-kul: war with all.

To get back onto the right track, I suggest that we think of the future in a positive and upbeat manner by taking inspiration from our common history.

And what a rich history it is — full of extraordinary world figures starting from Buddha, Asoka and continuing through history with Moin-uddin Chisti, Guru Nanak, Dara Shikoh, Allama Iqbal, Quaid-i-Azam and Mahatma Gandhi.

These are extraordinary world figures and they provide enough common ground for us to begin re-discovering our common roots.

And yet, sulh-i-kul will be under challenge in South Asia in the 21st century from the scourge of global violence, from poverty and injustice, from ethnic and religious prejudice and lack of education, from closed minds that exclude compassion — and forgiveness — and from the real threats to our global environment.

It will be a tall order to create a dependable peace — but it is achievable nevertheless.

Adapted from the Inaugural Address: Fellowship of Peace Annual Lecture Series on January 8, 2004 at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Center in Washington, D.C.