India’s Muslims

DELHI, — India, with its burgeoning population of more than one billion, is home to the largest Muslim minority in the world.

Here, where Muslims number an impressive 135 million, they make up just over 13% of the country’s total population. Their history before and after the 1947 partition (into India, Pakistan with 160 million Muslims and Bangladesh with 140) makes a very interesting subject of study.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) rejected the necessity of partitioning the country, saying: "My experience of all of India tells me that Hindus and Muslims know how to live at peace among themselves."

And before Gandhi, Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) said: "The Muslim conquest of India came as a salvation to the downtrodden, to the poor. That is why one-fifth of our people have become Muslims." Further, he denied that "it was all the work of sword and fire," denouncing such a violent approach to history as "the height of madness."

Today, Indian Muslim author Dr. Rafiq Zakaria has even argued that "a full- blooded civil war in India would have been preferable to the 1947 partition."

But can Islam and Hinduism in fact peacefully coexist? The answer is yes — with the co-operative and enlightening support of leaders from both sides, coming together constructively to deal with matters of religion and, especially, of politics.

There is, of course, the widely held and simplistic view that Muslims hate idolaters and Hindus hate cattle-eaters and therefore never the twain shall meet. Yes, Islam is against idolatry as an act, but not against those who do it. The bad treatment of Hindus by some Indian Muslim rulers was on political, not religious grounds. Some even married Hindu princesses to create familial bonds and dynastic alliances between Muslims and Hindus. Thus, in today’s India it is by no means unusual for some Muslims to have Hindu aunts and uncles, and vice-versa.

Indian Muslims eat less meat than any other Muslims; and when they they do, many avoid meat from cattle so as not to offend their Hindu friends, while others make the same choice for health reasons.

The glorious Taj Mahal is universally hailed as an architectural wonder. Yet while it was created as a result of India’s Muslim heritage, it truly belongs to all Indians and to all the world.

Now India is building the Akshardham in Delhi (the complex was just inaugurated on November 6, 2005), which may well overshadow the Taj Mahal in scale and in beauty. But again, the world may well admire the structure itself ahead of its religious attachments.

The Indian Mughal Emperor Akbar (1526-1707) ordered Persian translations to be made of several classical Hindu texts. He was one of India’s greatest rulers; others include Baber, Humayun, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. (Mughal or Mogul is the same word as Mongol, but the latter now refers only to the followers of Genghis Khan, while Mughal is used in reference to the emperor Baber’s descendants.)

Shah Jahan is the ruler who oversaw the design and construction of the Taj Mahal itself, an extraordinary memorial to the woman he loved, his wife Mumtaz-Mahal (the name means Exalted of the Palace), who tragically died in childbirth.

Akbar (1556-1605) tried to create a new blended religion, called Din-ilahi (the Divine Faith) to show that there are common grounds between Muslims and Hindus.

But with the arrival of the colonizing Portuguese, Dutch and British, relations between Muslims and Hindus took a disastrous downturn. The Europeans played the sinister game of divide and rule, pitting one community against the other to suit their own imperial and commercial agendas.

In the 1970’s s, Nobel Laureate in Literature V. S. Naipaul helped fuel hatred between Hindus and Muslims in India by propagating "the convert’s alienation from the land of his birth," and held that "because the Prophet was an Arab, Islam makes its followers second-class Arabs."

This is an utterly false claim. Islam is second to none when it comes to rejecting caste, or social strata systems based on one’s place of birth, inherited superiority, or religious and economic exclusivity. Naipal never lived in India, nor did his parents; he was a born a Hindu in Trinidad, the West Indies, and lived in England.

But another Nobel Laureate, India’s Rabindranath Tagore, helped to rectify the ethical imbalance by commending the interaction between Islam and Hinduism in his well-loved and internationally popular literary works.

Earlier in the 20th century, Swami Vivekananda testified to the Islamic virtue of equality and how it is practiced in real life. Addressing an American audience in California he said, "as soon as a man becomes a Muslim the whole of Islam received him as a brother with open arms, without making any distinction, which no other religion does."

Moreover, Vivekananda had a special message for his Californian (and western world) audience which is still relevant today: "If one of your American Indians becomes a Muslim, the Sultan of Turkey would have no objection to dine with him. If he has brains, no position is barred to him."

Then the Swami recited this powerful passage from the Qur’an: "There is not a people but a warner has gone among them; and every nation had a Messenger, and certainly We [God] raised in every nation a Messenger, saying – ‘Serve God and shun the devil.’ To every nation We appointed acts of devotion which they observe. For every one of you did We appoint a Law and a Way." Swami Vivekananda’s ideas were shared by India’s Muslims, among them Muhammed Iqbal (1873 – 1938). The Swami and Iqbal believed that Hindu-Muslim differences have no basis in religion; they are only propagated by politics. Both shared the same wisdom; "Religion is an inward growth towards spiritual independence; if it used as a crutch, it is not religion at all."