November 11th, 2012
Hinduism and Islam: A Fractured Relationship
Welcome back everyone, to another post! I would like to first say that on a personal note, I have been overwhelmed by the comments, and views that this blog has gotten. I am surprised, and humbled to know that several hundred people have visited this blog in the past week or so. I hope to continue to write, react, and question all that we know about history, and to be able to use this blog as a vehicle for my thoughts and feelings regarding all things historical in nature.
Today, I will be writing about the relationship between two important religions, Hinduism and Islam, and the dynamics of their relationship in India, and Pakistan. In this post, I will explore the underpinnings of this historic conflict, and try to show through history why India and Pakistan are the way they are today, and how this happened over time.
Before making conclusions about how to unite Hindus and Muslims, it is crucial to know what divides them. With that in mind, I will roughly summarize what Hindus and Muslims respectively believe.
Hinduism is a religion that was started in India thousands of years ago. Hindus do not believe that there was one founder, but rather, that their beliefs have evolved, and were shaped over time through the work of many priests, and contact with other religions. Because there is no overarching religious personality in Hinduism, religious practices, beliefs, and traditions often vary from village to village. Yes, all Hindus believe in, and study the Vedas (Hinduism's scriptures), but after that, it is up to individuals on how to live Hindu lives. Unlike Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, Hinduism does not have real religious structure. They do not pray in elaborate places of worship, or have complex religious hierarchies. In some ways, this makes religious life easier, but it also ends up dividing Hindus as well.
Theologically, it is hard to pin down exactly what Hindus believe about their God(s). They definitely worship many different deities, which often take the forms of people and animals. However, some Hindus will say that these different forms are all mere aspects and sides of the one great Deity Brahma, the creator of the world. Many Westerners view Hinduism as a polytheistic religion, and that is certainly not an outrageous claim.
One of the main tenants of the Hindu faith is belief in reincarnation, karma, and dharma. In brief, Hindus believe that after the body dies, the soul is judged, and it's then reincarnated into another body, or even animal. If it was good, it will be reincarnated as a priest, or warrior. If it was bad, it might become an untouchable. As a side point, this is the reason why the caste system was religiously sanctioned and validated in India for so long.
On the other hand, Islam is rather recent; having started in the 600s C.E. Muslims believe that one man, Mohammed, began to receive messages from the angel Gabriel, who transmitted them from the one God, Allah, who created the world. Mohammed wrote these messages down, and they became the foundation of the Koran, Islam's holy book. Muslims are monotheists in the true sense of the word. They firmly believe in the incorporealness of God, and in the strict oneness of God. To Muslims, all idol-worship is heresy, and must be destroyed. As the Koran says: Allah does not forgive idolatry,* but He forgives lesser offenses for whomever He wills. Anyone who sets up idols beside Allah, has forged a horrendous offense.(4:48). Muslims also believe that it is their religious duty to convert non-Muslims, so that these ‘infidels’ will be saved from eternal damnation.
When one understands the core beliefs behind Hinduism and Islam, it makes total sense why they are in bitter conflict up until the present day! Hindus believe in many Gods (or at least many forms of God), and are uninterested in converting others. The core belief of Islam, on the other hand, is the absolute oneness and superiority to Allah. The Islamic declaration of faith, known as the ‘shahadah,’ confirms this. Islam is so pro-monotheism to the exclusion of all else. The Koranic quote that I brought validates this. Idol worship is an unforgiveable sin!
Now for some history. For thousands of years, Hinduism flourished as the main religion of India. Hindus made important advances in art, medicine, and mathematics. Their temples, some of which survive today bear testament to their artistic creativity and religious convictions.
Around the year 1000 C.E., Islam began to make waves throughout much of the world. Mohammed’s followers were imbued with religious fervor, and set out on a mission to establish a world-wide Islamic caliphate. They pushed through all of the Arabian region, the Middle East, and into Spain. These fighters battled the Chrisian crusaders for hundreds of years, and ended up resoundingly defeating the ragtag, impoverished Christian armies.
Mahmud of Ghazni cunningly saw the opportunities of conquering India. He assembled a skilled army, and descended from Afghanistan into the Indus plains. They thoroughly routed the Hindus, ransacked their temples, and made off with expensive jewelry, money, and idols. After this easy victory, Mahmud decided to make a second entry into India. This second battle was also overwhelmingly won by the Muslims. According to rough figures, nearly 50,000 Hindus were massacred. After Mahmud, the bloodshed continued. For several hundred years, bands of Muslim soldiers would routinely enter Hindu territory, wreck havoc, humiliate their opponents in war, and then promptly leave. In 1398, Tamberlaine, a devout Muslim, led warring parties into north-west India,. His troops committed unthinkable crimes, and when the dust had settled, 5 million Indians were dead, in the space of 6 short months. Soon after, in 1526, the Mughal Empire was founded in Delhi. They were descendants of the earlier Muslim marauders and conquerors. Very quickly, native Hindus were subjected to heavy taxes and difficult working conditions. Overall, the situation of Hindus in India at this point was inexcusably challenging and painful. However, by the beginning of the 17th century, a new era had dawned. The so called, ‘golden age’ of India began, when Emperor Akbar breached protocol, and married a Hindu princess. Subsequently, many Hindus became appointed to important government positions, and gained considerable political power.
Ethnically, they became the same, because of hundreds of years of coexistence and intermarriage. Their languages, Urdu and Hindi were incredibly similar, they looked the same, and most of them were very poor. However, their theological and religious differences prevented them from becoming too friendly. After all, Muslims back then considered cow meat to be a delicious delicacy, while Hindus considered these animals holy, and abstained from eating them. And of course, idolatry, etc..
Since India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947, many wish to claim that the conflict is over. Secularists in both countries have worked to patch relations, and get beyond religion. This is easier said than done. There are many Hindus today that harbor bitter feelings of resentment and animosity towards Muslims, and specifically Pakistani Muslims. These Hindus believe that Islam’s intolerance, and history of violence, has destroyed the possibility of civility between the two religions.
From a historical perspective, Islam has to lot to apologize for. Murder, especially murder in the name of religious zealousness, cannot be tolerated in a moral society. It seems that at least historically, Muslims were in the wrong, and Hindus were in the right.
However, when we look at modern, post-1947 history, it is clear that both sides are equally culpable. There have been four major wars between India and Pakistan in this time, and numerous unofficial, smaller conflicts. For over 30 years, both countries actively pursued nuclear weapons, and finally attained them in the 1990s. Not ironically, the first Indian nuclear bomb was named after a Hindu deity, and the Pakistani bomb was named after a Muslim conqueror of India! It was not India vs. Pakistan anymore, but Islam vs. Hinduism!
As a Jew, I believe that achieving peace is a religious imperative. Jewish tradition famously teaches that the entire Torah, Jewish scripture, was written for the sake of peace in this world. Therefore, the Islam vs. Hinduism conflict is of utmost importance to me.
Because of this, I feel like as much as Hindus and Muslims have suffered at the hands of each others’ swords and guns, it is important for them to reconcile, in order to build a successful future.
It will not be easy to undo hundreds of years of ingrained hate on both sides, but it can be done. Ever since both sides acquired nuclear weapons, no real wars have broken out. Muslims and Hindus in each country live in relatively close proximity to one another, work together, and play together. The seeds of peace have already been sown. As the Psalmist writes, “the one who plants in tears will harvest in joy” (my translation). I hope this beautiful line will be representative of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims in the coming years.