Islam in India

The Muslims first arrived as traders in the coasts of South India in the ninth century. Since then, Islam has manifested itself in many forms and places across the Indian countryside. It is popular, nowadays, to view Orthodox Islam as the only Islam, and confine the diversity of Muslim traditions within the contours of a single, unchanging, a-historical community. In actuality, there are a “bewildering diversity of Muslim communities,” which differ widely in their social practices, regions, histories, and adaptations to modernity[i]. For the past thousand years, India had been populated by both Muslim and Hindu religions, Hindu and Muslim kings. Despite Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s endorsement of the Two Nation Theory—which argued for Partition along the lines that Hindus and Muslims’ civilizations were incompatible—and discrimination against Muslims today, it is impossible to separate the complexities of Islam from India’s social fabric without rupturing deeply intertwined threads of historical synthesis and interaction. Here in India, we have visited many monuments demonstrating Islam’s imprint on Indian history, and witnessed many ways in which Islam struggles to maintain its place in Indian’s national identity.

India’s capital city of Delhi is really divided between two cities: Old Delhi and New Delhi. Old Delhi was the capital of the Mughal Empire—the Empire of Akbar, a tolerant, sixteenth century ruler who did much to assimilate Hindu administrative structures and accommodate indigenous religions. Though Akbar was a Muslim ruler, his sovereignty extended over a predominantly Hindu citizenry. He knew that, in order to ensure a long lasting empire, he would have to make it a distinctively Indian one—neither Muslim nor Hindu. To this end, he created his own religion—Din-i—llahi—, which combined the beliefs of Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. He believed that through mutual conversation and debate, ignorance on the universe could be dispelled. He founded the ibadat khana, a building in which Muslim mullahs, Hindu pandits, Zoroastrian priests, and even Portuguese Jesuits met to share their culture’s perspectives on God.

It is to the remnants of this empire that we visited in Old Delhi. We toured the Jamma Masjid and the Red Fort. Though the red walls of the mosque and the fort were hundreds of years old, they were more than relics of an ancient past. Rather, they were the sites of a vibrant and thronging Muslim community. In front of the Jamma Masjid, a marketplace bustled with activity. Children played cricket in a nearby field. Tourists, like us, flocked in and out of the mosque gates, and climbed to the top of the minaret, where we watched, down below, the vast, crowded expanse of Delhi below, populated by Hindu and Muslim crowds. Earlier in our program, we visited Akshardam, a temple of modern popular Hinduism. Now, not too far from the Hindu complex, were ushered out of the mosque as Muslims began their calls for prayer. Long, sonorous tones of “Allah, Allah!” chased us down the mosque steps. In the capital city of India, Muslims and Hindus worship side by side.

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Old Delhi, formal capital of the Mughal Empire, and the Jamma Masjid, the largest mosque in South Asia

However, the pluralistic India of Akbar, the great emperor of the Mughal Empire; Gandhi, the “Great Soul”; and Nehru, India’s first prime minister, who ensured India’s future as a secular, democratic nation; is not an Indian identity championed by all. While it is true that temples like Akshardam and mosques like the Jamma Masjid coexist within a shared public space, they also represent a distinct, more disturbing tension between Islam and Hinduism in India today. The Jamma Masjid and the Taj Mahal are ancient wonders that attest to the important legacy of Islam in India. Akshardam, on the other hand, advocates a different type of modern Indian identity—a Hindu national identity.

On Wednesday, January 5th, we visited an NGO established with the intent of combating Hindu Nationalism and their “ideology of sectarianism and hate.” While we sat in lawn chairs, and were treated to cups of chai tea, a woman, who we will call Bharti, the leader of the organization, educated us in a powerpoint presentation on the atrocities committed at the Babri Masjid and Gujarat. Ms. Bharti explained her NGO’s mission to promote the pluralistic Indian identity of religious harmony. The state government of Gujarat, she said, stood idly by while thousands of Muslims were raped and slaughtered. It was a pogrom, and police officers, rather than protect their Muslim citizens, even participated in the killing[ii]

Luce says that in Gujarat today, Muslims and Hindus no longer celebrate one another’s festivals. Indeed, because Muslims feel so isolated because of the violence and suspicion that has been perpetrated against them, they increasingly wear Islamic garb, which only segregates the Islamic community further.[iii] The attack on Muslims at Gujarat wasn’t just an attack on Islam. It was an attack on India’s very identity of plurality, assaulted by an ideology that claims, unequivocally, that India equals Hindu and Hindu equals India.[iv]

Even Mr. Veda, an educated man I respect for his philanthropy, nevertheless ascribed to this cultural vision of Indian identity. He stated that India’s pluralism and tolerance stems, not from its history of religious synthesis and coexistence, but from a Vedantic view life—a philosophy and deeply ingrained behavior shared, he claims, even amongst the minority Muslim population.

When we were speaking with the workers of the NGO, I asked a girl from Kashmir, a Ms. Rashid, if she ascribed to Mr. Veda’s philosophy of India. She responded by calling Mr. Veda a Hindu Nationalist.

In the Hindu Nationalist mythology, tolerant Muslim rulers like Akbar have been banished from history. Muslims become an alien and foreign people who enter India through bloodshed, temple desecration, and forcible conversion—an image of the violent Muslim not too distant from portals of Islam in Western media today[v]. They are not to be trusted, so Hindu nationalists believe, because their allegiance lies not with India, but Mecca or Pakistan. (These arguments hauntingly revoke similar claims the Ku klux klan once made in America about Catholics, and the debate surrounding John F Kennedy’s election. There used to be concern about whether his allegiance to the Vatican would undermine his allegiance to the United States).

According to Ms. Bharti, this malevolent portrayal of the Muslim community, and the specter of a Hindu Nationalist state, hovers, like the Akshardam temple, over modern India.

“Akshardam!” Ms. Bharti exclaimed in surprise, when I finished explaining our itinerary. “Who told you to go there?”

I explained that we were using it as a case study of popular Hinduism. “It’s just part of our schedule,” I said.

“Akshardam temples are all over Gujarat,” Bharti said heatedly. “It was in the Akshardam temple that the tridents and swords were stocked to kill Muslims.” She continued to explain that the Akshardam temple was sold to the Swami’s followers, with the help of Delhi politicians for a scandalously low price. Slums were removed for its construction.

I reflected on the “Hindu” philosophy disseminated on the placards across Akshardam. On the website for Akshardam, it defines the mandir (temple) as the epitome of 10,000 years of Indian culture. The entire time I walked around the complex, I saw no exhibits dedicated to India’s minorities. Indeed, even Akshardam’s presentation of Hinduism seemed artificial in its vagueness. The Swami’s religious principles espoused on the wall placards—ahimsa (non-violence), endeavor, prayer, morality, vegetarianism, family, harmony—felt to me like watered down platitudes, unhinged as they were from any specific ritual, community, or sect. Rather, such values appealed to the broadest of Hindu vote banks.

As I walked through the halls, I found it eerily reminiscent of Mr. Veda’s claim that “There is no such thing as a Hindu.” The Hindu nationalists, rather than strictly hold to caste or custom, believe, like Mr. Veda, that caste discrimination never actually existed in the Vedas, and that minorities, like Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs, are actually Hindu. They attempt to ignore the various distinctions within Hinduism, both its caste hierarchies and divergent religious movements, and recreate Hinduism, like Akshardam, as an umbrella for all of Indian culture.

Hindu nationalists claim that Hindu society began with the Indus River Valley Civilization 8,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that the Vedas, the oral legends preceding Hinduism, were brought by the Aryans from outside India sometime between 1700 and 1300 B.C.E. Other historians and scholars speculate that the earliest Hindus, the Aryans, dislodged communities from their native lands, the inhabitants of the Harappa and Mohenjo Daro civilizations, and enslaved them. The social exile the indigenous communities faced by the new settlers transformed them into avarnas (literally, those not of the same “color,” or, those who exist outside of the four folds of the caste system.) They are also known as the untouchables, and today called Dalits.

If you take Akshardam’s boast of 10,000 years of Indian culture, and deduct it by 2011, you get roughly 8000 B.C.E, the same period Hindu nationalists claim North Indian Vedic civilization flourished. Hindu nationalists believe major revolutions in art, science, math, and engineering derived from the Vedas. From the Vedas, civilization disseminated to other parts of the world through trade, giving birth to other ancient world cultures, like in Mesopotamia.

I didn’t spend enough time in the temple to be able to make a certain conclusion. We were only there for a couple hours. And Mr. Veda, while certainly sharing Hindu nationalist tendencies concerning culture, avoided answering questions about the Hindu Nationalist political party, the BJP. Mr. Veda said they “just played politics,” and denounced one of their main platforms—the institution of a uniform civil code. India is unique in its practice of law. Unlike in other countries, like the United States, where all laws apply to citizens equally, India’s communal diversities have necessitated separate civil codes for separate religions, as a way of respecting these religions’ divergent traditions, beliefs, and customs. A uniform secular code, by contrast, would relegate the practice of law to India’s majority population—the Hindus—who constitute 80.5% of the total population.

Still, whether Mr. Veda is a Hindu Nationalist or not, his comments testify to the contemporary popularity of Hindu Nationalist ideology. What I learned from my time in India is that modern popular Hinduism, such as the type practiced in urban areas and at temples like Akshardam, can’t be studied as a phenomena isolated from society. It must be applied in the context of how Hindu nationalist ideology has penetrated common-sense assumptions about the foundation of Indian national identity, and is working toward the isolation, persecution, and revision of India’s pluralistic, multicultural, and Islamic identity.

(This essay was written in New Delhi in 2011)


[i] Hasan 6, 7

[ii] Luce 159, 160

[iii] Ibid 256

[iv] Ibid 152

[v] Hasan 5

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