South Asia: A Battleground Between Muslims and Hindus?
The Globalist, USA
By Akbar Ahmed
Adapted from the Inaugural Address: Fellowship of Peace Annual Lecture
Series on January 8, 2004 at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Center in Washington,
Ever since their creation in 1947, Pakistan and India have been at odds — breeding territorial and ethnic disputes that have culminated in continued violence. The conflict between Muslims and Hindus has been stereotyped as historic and insurmountable. Akbar Ahmed argues that South Asians may find hope for reconciliation and friendship by looking to their shared histories.
In the media today, Islam is often reduced to terrorism or extremism.
A tradition of tolerance
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.
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.
Responding to change
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.
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.”
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 tension between the two polar opposites is dramatically reflected in the 17th century — at the high noon of the Mughal Empire in India.
Mysticism vs. Orthodoxy
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.
The shadow of disunion
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 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.
A Muslim renaissance
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.
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.
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.
Friendship across boundaries
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.
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.
A painful scene
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.
Peace under siege
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.
© 2003 SARID, 675 Mass Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA