Sunday, November 11, 2012

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.


  1. Thanks for your comprehensive and interesting post. What solutions would you suggest to help improve the tension-filled relationship you describe? Do you think addressing this tension is the responsibility of religious leaders, local governments, international organizations/NGOs, or other countries?

    1. Thanks for the great comment! As I mentioned, I am a member of the Jewish faith. My religious convictions strongly inform the answer that I propose to your question. In short, we cannot stand idly by the blood of our neighbors, who are embroiled in a bitter conflict that has often escalated to cold-blooded murder. We as fellow human beings have a moral obligation to help, in any way we can, in order to stop the bloodshed, and end this religious war once and for all. Because while scientific and technological advancements are fine, we cannot truly be proud of our achievements, and take pride in the society we've worked so hard to create, if we allow this to continue in the 21st century.

      However, there is only a limited amount of things that we can do. In an earlier post, I discussed the unfortunate situation of the untouchables in India. In that case, I wrote about it is incredibly hard for us as outsiders to enact change. Real, lasting change must come from within.

      Therefore, although idealistically I wish we as Americans could do something, the pragmatic answer is that we can't. Like all religious problems, it must be addressed by religious leaders. Hindu priests and Muslim imams have to start preaching tolerance and acceptance from the pulpits of their mosques and temples. Only in this way, will devoutly religious people change their behavior. Forget the U.N., NGOs, or other outside aid. It's got to spout from the places where religious people gather together to become closer to themselves, and their God. In this way, and only this way, can we forge ahead, and create a brighter, more peaceful, and more tolerant future for ourselves, and our children.

    2. I think you make a strong point regarding the necessity of religious leaders taking action to help solve these issues. However, I'm not so sure that the responsibility of the religious leaders should preclude others - secular/government leadership, NGOs, other countries, etc - from providing assistance as well. Perhaps such groups could provide support, resources, and advice based on their own experiences?

    3. Good point. However, I am unsure if it would be valuable for other, non-Indian, non-Hindu/Muslim organizations to step in. We have seen from history that when we as outsiders try to involve ourselves in conflicts, it only exacerbates the situation, per Iraq, Israel-Palestinian conflict, Bosnia, Afghanistan in the '80s, the Contra Affair, and a whole host of foreign policy missteps that end up muddying, and not clearing, the waters. As for international leadership, I am unsure.

      With all of their committees, resolutions, and aid, how much does the U.N. really accomplish? More than 30,000 people are being slaughtered in Syria, and the U.N. has taken no effective action, other than sending in 'peace keeping' troops, who are not even allowed to use their weapons!!

      While I am against isolationism, and very pro -not standing idly by your neighbor's blood ism-, I don't think we can do much to help. As I have said, real, lasting change must come from within.

      Finally, you talk about other groups providing advice based on their own experiences. That could potentially be very helpful, especially if this free advice came from nations where people of different faiths coexist in peace. I am not sure how that could practically work, but it is a great idea.

    4. Michael and Isaac,

      Do you think it would take an outside entity or organization to get these two sides to the negotiating table or do you foresee them getting there on their own? Phillip- what are your thoughts?

    5. Personally, I think history shows us that it is incredibly hard for outside governments to solve other countries' conflicts. America has been unable to pressure Israel and Palestinians to have real negotiations. The only real time when there was a possibility for peace in that scenario was when Yitzchak Rabin z"l, an Israeli, made peace a priority. In a bitter twist of fate, he was murdered by one of his own.

      Ditto for the Hinduism vs. Muslim conflict. These people have free will. When we try to force them to make decisions they don't want to make, that just makes us into the bad guys.

      When both sides come to an agreement by themselves that is mutually beneficient, it will enact real change. Agreements made by pressure from outside forces cannot actually be viewed as sincere.

      I'd love to hear from Philip on this issue, as he is the only one that agrees with me here!

    6. I am STRONGLY AGAINST outside entities telling other countries how to deal with their problems, no matter whether or not they were in "similar situations" because there is simply no such thing. I especially don't think the U.N. has to get involved as the U.N. is POINTLESS. Resolution must and can only come from within!

      P.S. This is a very intellectual topic and discussion....let's keep it going!

    7. What about distinguishing between "telling other countries how to deal with their problems" and providing advice/guidance/support? In other words, perhaps there is a difference between unwanted interference and helpful support?

    8. Based on historical precedent that I cited, I don't think the U.S. is capable making this distinction.

    9. Isaac-
      When you say "helpful support" what are you referring to: Verbal support or support in the way of aid, military action etc.

    10. That's an excellent question, and perhaps the answer is really tethered to determining what qualifies as "unwanted interference" and what could be labeled "helpful support." Further, what may be helpful in one situation might in fact be considered interference in another.

      I know this doesn't directly answer the question, but I think appreciating that different circumstances call for different responses (or, as some would argue, for no response at all!), and that the real challenge is in assessing the facts presented to reach an informed conclusion whether financial support, military aid, hosting negotiations, brokering deals, or any other support role is appropriate.

      That being said, Phillip- are organizations such as the UN "pointless"? Might there be scenarios or situations where such a body would be helpful? What about current services for refugees, various International Criminal Tribunals/Courts, and food and health programs? Also, Michael, I wonder if perhaps past precedent is not necessarily indicative of future realities - while change does not necessarily come easily, perhaps past experiences and/or future unforeseen realities might provide the opportunity to make such a distinction?

    11. Not only pointless, but destructive. Everyone can see that the Palestinians are terrorists as well as Hezbollah, yet, the United Nations proclaims: " Today, the United Nations views Palestinians as freedom fighters, struggling against the unlawful occupation of their land by Israel, and engaged in a long-established legitimate resistance, yet Israel regards them as terrorists. Israel also brands the Hizbullah of Lebanon as a terrorist group, whereas most of the international community regards it as a legitimate resistance group, fighting Israel's occupation of Southern Lebanon. In fact, the successful ousting of Israeli forces from most of the South by the Hizbollah in 2000 made Lebanon the only Arab country to actually defeat the Israeli army. The repercussion of the current preponderance of the political over the legal value of terrorism is costly, leaving the war against terrorism selective, incomplete and ineffective."

      How can an entity that proclaims Israel the bad guy even attempt to do good?

    12. To Isaac, for the good of the world, I hope you are right that precedent is not indicative of future results, although that is a slightly surprising statement coming from an aspiring lawyer! In all seriousness, Phillip, you have to understand that the Palestinian people have their own collective cultural, and historical narrative that powerfully resonates within them, just like your religious beliefs do to you.

      We cannot just rule the millions of Palestinians as 'destructive,' and it is not fruitful to say the U.N. is pointless because of their views on Israel. I do agree however, that the U.N. is infamously inactive, and their peace-keeping forces rarely ever stop wars, especially now in Syria, in Bosnia in the '90s, and many other times.

      Thus, we have to be pragmatic and understand that as outsiders, we can only do so much. Financial aid, and encouragement to negotiate only goes so far.

      On a side point, can unwanted, helpful 'interference' exist? Is it possible for one country to try to mediate between two warring parties, and help them reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial, and will end the disagreement? Is it possible to get everyone on both sides happy, or can you only please one side? I'm not sure, but the way we answer these questions will determine how we evaluate the usefulness of the U.N., and how much power it has.

    13. Wait Michael are you saying that their beliefs of killing innocent people is okay because it "resonates within them"?

    14. First of all, there is a very big nafka minah (important distinction) between Hamas, a group that is labeled a terrorist group by the state dep, and the 'Palestinian people.' I was saying that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Palestinians who are not terrorists, and who became refugees after the war of 1948. They live in refugee camps now, because no country wanted to take them in. Does this sound like a familiar story to you?

      It happened to us!! We are not as different as the Palestinians as you might think. The Muslims among them also believe that Jerusalem is holy, and want to live there just as much as we do.

      So, I was saying that for these kinds of Palestinians, we should understand their beliefs and yearnings because they are deeply held religious and cultural values that really mirror our own. That being said, terrorism is always wrong, and if the Palestinians ever want a state, in my opinion, Hamas must be disbanded, and the Gaza Strip has to be controlled by moderates, before anything else.

    15. I have to responses to this comment. 1- Michael, were you for a two state solution and 2- What about what my comment that quoted the UN. What do you say about what they say about Hezbollah?

    16. Way to sidestep responding to my points! Haha, in answer to your question, I believe in peace, and it seems like realistically, the only way to achieve that will be through a two-state solution, with peaceful dialogue and trade between both nations. Obviously, as I said, terrorist groups would have to be broken up, and new Palestinian leaders would need to be installed.

      To your second question, I thought I made it very clear that the U.N. messes up sometimes. On Israel, I believe that they are inexcusably biased, and slanderous of Israel. This is one of their major flaws, per the Goldstone Report, the Durban conferences on ending racism, which turned into Israel hate-fests, etc.

    17. In response to your previous comment, the difference between us and the Palestinians is the difference between night and day. When was the last time you heard of a terrorist act done by Israelis? Think about that for a while....

      I believe a two state solution can't work. As soon as you give them just a part of what they want, they'll start asking for more and more until one of two things happen. They completely take over or an all out war begins and we're back to square one.

      Lastly, how can you say that that was a mess up? Not only are they "inexcusably biased" but they are racist which completely destroys the whole point of the UN.

    18. As I showed, we are actually incredibly similar to Palestinians. Re-read what I wrote, and then respond directly to my examples, because I thought I was clear that we actually share the same traits, and situationally were in their rough position years ago.

      You say 'As soon as you give them just a part of what they want, they'll start asking for more and more.' I disagree. I think many Palestinians simply want a home, and don't want to face discrimination from Israelis that think they are terrorists. Is that too much to ask for?

      I say it's a mess-up by the U.N. because other than that, they have a decent track record. They generally act quickly, but not wisely. They have provided developing countries with staggering amounts of aid, and food, which greatly help them. However, much of that food never reaches hungry people. It's seized by corrupt government officials spanning the African continent, and sold for weapons. So, the U.N. has great intentions, but are not good at executing.

    19. Michael and Phillip-

      This is a very interesting discussion. Phillip- it is important not to generalize about whole groups of people- I do not think that it is fair to say that every Palestinian is a terrorist. Michael- what do you think it will take for the Israelis and Palestinians to make peace? Is this something that they should do on their own (like you mentioned as per Hindus and Muslims) or should the UN, the US and/or other countries be involved?

    20. I think the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is too fragile, especially now and in the coming weeks, months, and years, to expect that the two nations will be able to reach any kind of agreement. The United States as Michael stated, is definitely not good at making this distinction, (between a more peaceful diplomatic approach and a military offensive.) However, I think that Israel and the Palestinian people will not be able reach a real conclusion to the peace they both say they want.

    21. I agree that peace will definitely be hard to achieve. However, do you really think they 'cannot reach a real conclusion to peace?' If so, that would be incredibly sad.

    22. Though I would like to believe in the Utopian ideal of everyone coming together, having peace, and living together, I simply believe that is unattainable in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. Do you think that Muslim-Hindu peace and Israel-Palestine peace are both equally attainable?

  2. Michael-

    You said " Like all religious problems, it must be addressed by religious leaders."- does this mean that you think that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be solved through the intervention of religious leaders?

    1. Ms. Keller-

      Why would the conflict be solved through the intervention of religious leaders and not political leaders?

    2. Ms. Keller- you ask a great question, but it is rooted in the assumption that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is religious in nature. I was writing about Hinduism and Islam, and since those are two religions who, as I showed, are theologically and religiously on opposite ends of the spectrum, it makes at least some sense why they have a chilly relationship.

      However, while religion plays a big part in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it certainly isn't that simple. Yes, suicide bombers blowing up Israeli citizens invoke the name of Allah, and yes, religious zionists do use biblical texts to justify settlements in Judea and Samaria, but it is not that simple. At the root of this deep fight is a complex web of competing historical, religious, and political narratives.

      The problem of the Palestinian refugees is not a religious one in nature. And there are also many Palestinian secular nationalistic groups that seek territory and increased borders, rather than fighting for real religious principles.

      Thus, in conclusion, I do not think that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is similar to the Hindu- Muslim one. Therefore, it cannot be solved by just religious leaders, although that would help. Because of the many political issues involved, other measures need to be taken, like negotiations, education through tolerance, and the help of other nations to speed up the process to peace.

    3. Michael and Phillip-

      What are your thoughts about the current situation in Israel? What do you think needs to be done to resolve this conflict?

    4. It's funny you ask this question as I've been thinking about it since this whole thing began. While there is not much we can do, having the United States support Israel is a must and frankly, I'm not sure Israel has their support right now.

    5. Why not? Also:

    6. I'll turn the question to you Ms. Keller. Do you think by the White house saying that Israel "has the right to defend itself" is ample support?

    7. That's the greatest act of support Israel has ever gotten-- the right to make its own decisions as a free country, and not be under the thumb of the U.S., the Arab bloc, or the U.N. It's good enough for me, compared to the days of the 1950s when Eisenhower forced Israel to give back the Sinai after the Suez War of '56. I'd take Obama over that in a heartbeat.

      And remember, we have been increasing aid to Israel significantly over the past 4 years, and the Iron Dome system that Israel has been using to down Hamas rockets was funded by American money- nearly half a billion dollars of it! So I wouldn't be so quick to rule out America as a staunch ally.

  3. Phillip-

    I could ask you the same question about the Muslims (in Pakistan) and the Hindus (in India). Yes, they are two separate religions, but they both make up the majority of the population in their respective countries.

    Michael -
    You mentioned that "At the root of this deep fight is a complex web of competing historical, religious, and political narratives."- I am not arguing with this statement, rather pointing out that the Hindu-Muslim conflict also faces "historical, religious and political narratives."

    What are your thoughts on the Kashmir conflict?

  4. Ms. Keller- I understand where you're coming from, but I would argue that the Hindu-Muslim conflict is not really centered around competing 'historical or political narratives.' At the heart of the aforementioned conflict is religion. Since the '47 partition, there are no competing territorial claims (aside from Kashmir, which I will elaborate on later), or historical fights. It's about how one thousand years ago, Muslim conquerors tried to establish a worldwide caliphate. Hindus suffered because of it. Therefore, it boils down to religion, and religion only. Whatever has happened since then between India and Pakistan is really steeped in a religious war, rather than political battles.

    In regards to Kashmir, I think this is a petty land issue that is really representative of the broader religious conflict. It seems pretty clear that Pakistan plants terrorists and guerrila fighters in Kashmir to merely provoke the Indian government, and continue the conflict. There have been numerous claims of mass killing and torture of Indians by Pakistan in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir. Al Qaeda is known to operate out of bases within Kashmir, but Pakistan has not done anything to stop this.

    My overall point is that while India and Pakistan may have a small few choice political and territorial disagreements, these are merely offshoots of a much larger conflict- the clash between two diametrically opposed religions, and societies.

  5. Michael,
    I appreciate how much you put into this post. A few thoughts for you to consider:

    1. Many religion scholars describe Hinduism as monist (which takes it a bit out of the monotheistic/polytheistic paradigm). If you haven't read about monism already, I encourage you to look it up. Hinduism can be hard for western students of religion to grasp because, as you mention, it is so fundamentally different from the Christianity/Judiasm/Islam we are used to thinking about.

    2. I see the current South Asian Hindu-Muslim conflict (which goes on within India as well as between India and Pakistan) as more about nationalism than religion.

    3. Sad that it has to happen, but thank you for defending the humanity of Palestinians.