Hinduism and Islam

Hindu relations with Islam and Christianity are in some ways quite different from the ties and tensions that bind together religions of Indian origin. Hindus live with a legacy of domination by Muslim and Christian rulers that stretches back many centuries—in northern India, to the Delhi sultanate established at the beginning of the 13th century. The patterns of relationship between Hindus and Muslims have been different between north and south India. While there is a history of conquest and domination in the north, Hindu-Muslim relations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been peaceful. Islam came to south India very early, possibly about the 7th century, through traders and sea routes. There is a vast body of literature on Islam in Tamil composed over almost a thousand years. The early 19th-century Sira Puranam, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad, is an excellent example. There are also hundreds of shared ritual spaces, called dargahs (literally, “doorway” or “threshold”), for Hindus and Muslims. These mark shrines for revered Muslim (frequently Sufi) leaders and are visited by both Muslims and Hindus. Moreover, close proximity and daily interaction throughout the centuries has led to efforts to accommodate the existence of the two religions. One manifestation of such coexistence occurred among some devotional groups who believed that one God, or the “universal principle,” was the same regardless of whether it was called Allāh or brahman. Various syntheses between the two religions that emphasize nonsectarianism have arisen in northern India.

Yet there were periods when the political ambitions of Islamic rulers took strength from iconoclastic aspects of Muslim teaching and led to the devastation of many major Hindu temple complexes, from Mathura and Varanasi (Banaras) in the north to Chidambaram, Sriringam, and Madurai in the far south; other temples were converted to mosques. Episodically, since the 14th century this history has provided rhetorical fuel for Hindu anger against Muslim rulers. The bloody partition of the South Asian subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947 added a new dimension. Mobilizing Hindu sensibilities about the sacredness of the land as a whole, Hindus have sometimes depicted the creation of Pakistan as a dismemberment of the body of India, in the process demonizing Muslims who have remained within India’s political boundaries.

These strands converged at the end of the 20th century in a campaign to destroy the mosque built in 1528 by a lieutenant of the Mughal emperor Bābur in Ayodhya, a city that has traditionally been identified as the place where Rama was born and ruled. In 1992 militant Hindu nationalists from throughout India, who had been organized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP; “World Hindu Council”), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS; “National Volunteer Alliance”), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; “Indian People’s Party”), destroyed the mosque in an effort to “liberate” Rama and establish a huge “Rama’s Birthplace Temple” on the spot. The continuing tensions in the Kashmir region have also spawned outbursts of sectarian violence on both sides, including the destruction of some Hindu temples there by militant Muslims. Yet, although the relationship between Hindus and Muslims within India remains complicated and there are occasional eruptions of tension and violence, in many areas they have been able to coexist peacefully.

 

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