Islam’s Religious Policy
No Easy Solution
Indian Express, June 18, 1989
The article “Hideaway Communalism” (Indian Express, February 5, 1989), is unusual. It discusses a question which has been a taboo and speaks on it with a frankness rare among Indian intellectuals.
Similarly, in his articles “The Tip of An Iceberg” and “In the Name of Religion” (February 9, May 21) Sita Ram Goel brings to the subject unequalled research and discusses it in a larger historical perspective.
In the history of Islam, iconoclasm and razing other peoples’ temples are not aberrations - stray acts of zealous but misguided rulers - but are central to the faith. They derive their justification and validity from the Quranic Revelation and the Prophet’s Sunna or practice. It is another matter though that these could not always be implemented in their full theological rigour due to many unfavourable circumstances - an exigency for which Islamic theology makes ample provisions.
Shrines and idols of the unbelievers began to be destroyed during the Prophet’s own time and, indeed, at his own behest. Sirat-un-Nabi, the first pious biography of the Prophet, tells us how during the earliest days of Islam, young men at Medina influenced by Islamic teachings repeatedly crept into a house every night and carried its idol and threw “it on its face into a cesspit.”
However, desecration and destruction began in earnest when Mecca was conquered. Ali was chosen to destroy the idols at Ka‘ba which, we are told, he did mounting on the shoulders of the Prophet. Umar was chosen for destroying the pictures on the walls of the shrine. After this, as Tarikh-i-Tabari tells us, raiding parties were sent in all directions to destroy the images of deities held in special veneration by different tribes including the images of al-Manat, al-Lat and al-Uzza, intercessories of the Satanic Verses. Sa’d was sent to destroy the shrine of al-Manat, the deity of the tribes of Aus and Khazraj. When the shrine of al-Lat was invaded, its devotees resisted. But finding themselves overpowered, they surrendered and became Muslims. The women-worshippers wept to see how their deity was
“Deserted by Her servants,
Who did not show enough manliness in defending Her.”
Similarly, Walid was sent by the prophet to destroy the idol of al-Uzza at Nakhla, venerated by the tribes of Kinan and Nadar. Overawed, the guardians left the deity to defend herself. They called out:
O Uzza! make an annihilating attack on Khalid,
O Uzza! if you do not kill the man Khalid
Then bear a swift punishment or become a Christian.
Why Christian? The word should have been Muslim. It seems the tradition belongs to the very early period of Islam when at least, on the popular level, Christians and Muslims were mistaken for each other. For, both shared a common outlook, both indulged in forced conversions and both destroyed shrines belonging to others.
The fact is that the Revelation of the Prophet of Islam does not stand alone. It is rooted in the older Judaic Revelation from which Christianity also derives. The two Revelations differ in some particulars but they have important similarities. The God of both is exclusive and brooks no rivals, no partner. He demands exclusive loyalty and commands that his followers would “worship no other God.” But though so demanding in their worship, he does not make himself known to them directly. On the other hand, he communicates his will to them indirectly through a favourite messenger or prophet, or a special incarnation.
This God is so different from God in other religious traditions. For example, in Hindu tradition, a God is not exclusive. He lives in friendliness with other Gods. In fact, “other” Gods are His own manifestations. In this tradition, He also has no rigid form and is conceived in widely different ways: plurally, singly, monistically. He also recognises no single favourite intermediary but reveals Himself to all who approach Him with devotion and in wisdom. No Semitic protocol here. The Hindu tradition also accords fullest freedom of worship. Not only every one has a right to worship his God in his own way but every God is also entitled to the worship of His own devotees. Freedom indeed, both for men as well as for Gods. It was on this principle that early Christians enjoyed their freedom of worship.
The other side of the coin of a “Jealous God” is the concept of a “Chosen People” or a Church or Ummah. The chosen God has a chosen people (and even his chosen enemies). Both assist each other. While their God helps the believers in fighting their neighbours, the believers help their God in fighting his rival-Gods.
It is common for men and women everywhere to invoke the help of their Gods in their various undertakings, big or small. But the God of the believers also calls upon them to fight for his greater glory, to fight his enemies and to extend his dominion on the earth. In short, they are to become his swordsmen and salesmen, his “witnesses”, his martyrs and Ghazis. They must fight not only their unbelieving neighbours but also, even more specifically, their (neighbours’) Gods. For these Gods are not only the Gods of their enemies, but they are also the enemies of their God, which is even worse.
The believers have taken this god-given mission seriously. The Hedaya (Guidance), the Muslim Law Book par excellence, quotes the Prophet and lays down: “We are directed to make war upon men until such time as they shall confess. There is no God but Allah.”
However, it is not all God and his glory all the time. The undertaking has its practical side too. The crusaders are not without their earthly rewards. They work to extend the sovereignty of their God and, in the process, their own too. A pious tradition proclaims that the earth belongs to Allah and his Prophet. Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that the infidels are merely squatters, and they should be dispossessed and the land returned to its rightful owners, the believers.
Today, the intellectual fashion is to emphasize the political and economic aims of imperialism and to neglect its theological component. But history shows that the most durable imperialisms have been those which had the support of a continuing theological motive. Such imperialisms dominated without a conscience - or, rather, whatever conscience they had supported their domination. The power of faith killed all possible doubts and self-criticism.
“Hideaway Communalism” quotes extensively from the Foreword of Maulana Abul-Hasan Ali Nadwi which he contributed to the book, Hindustan under Islamic Rule. These quotes show that in its self-estimation and self-righteousness, the white-man’s burden of civilising the world is a poor match to Islam’s responsibility of bringing the earth under Allah and his Prophet.
Semitic “My-Godism” described as Monotheism has another dimension: Iconoclasm. In fact, the two are two sides of the same coin. When worshippers of the Semitic God came into Contact with their neighbours, it was not clear what they abhorred more, their Gods or their idols. In point of fact, they made no such fine distinction. Trained as they were, they made war on both indiscriminately.
The Judaic God commands his worshippers that when they enter the land of their enemies, they will “destroy their altars, and break their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graves images with fire” (Bible, Deut. 7.5). Perhaps the Judaic Revelation was meant to apply only to the territory of the Promised Land; but when Christianity and, in due course, Islam became its proud inheritors and adopted the Biblical God, its operation became university. Wherever the two creeds went, temple-razing followed. Today, Christianity seems to present a different face but during the better part of its career it was stoutly iconoclastic In the Mediterranean countries, in Northern Europe, in Asia and the two Americas, it destroyed shrines of the pagans with unparalleled thoroughness and perfect self-satisfaction. When America was discovered, the Benedictine monks who came in the train of Columbus boasted of having destroyed single-handed 170,000 images in Haiti alone. Juan de Zummarage, the first Bishop of Mexico, writing as early as 1531, claimed that he destroyed 500 temples and 20,000 idols of the heathens. In our own country, in Goa, Jesuit fathers destroyed many Hindu temples.
Islam did the same. Wherever it went, it carried fire and sword and destroyed the temples of the conquered people. Goel has documented some of the cases but as he himself says they represent merely the tip of an iceberg.
Islam’s Religious Policy
Like its monotheism, Semitic iconoclasm too was essentially a hegemonistic idea. No imperialism is secure unless it destroys the pride, culture and valour of a conquered people. People who retain their religions, their Gods and their priests make poor subjects and remain potential rebels.
Islam knew this and it developed a full-fledged theory of Religious domination. Temples were destroyed not for their “hoarded wealth” as Marxist historians propagate - who ever heard of Hindus being specially in the habit of hoarding their wealth in their temples? - nor were they destroyed by invaders in the first flush of their victory. On the other hand, these formed part of a larger policy of religious persecution which was followed in peace-time too when the Muslim rule was established. The policy of persecution had a purpose-it was meant to keep down the people and to disarm them culturally and spiritually, to destroy their pride and self-respect, and to remind them that they were Zimmis, an inferior breed.
According to this policy, Zimmis were allowed to exercise their religion in low key so long as they accepted civic and political disabilities and paid Jizya “in abasement”. There were many restrictions, particularly in cities. The Muslim Law (Hedaya) lays down that “as the tokens of Islam (such as public prayers, festivals, and so forth) appear in the cities, Zimmis should not be permitted to celebrate the tokens of infidelity there.” Some of these restrictions placed on Hindu processions and celebrations still continue. This is a legacy of the Muslim period.
The same law laid down that the infidels could not build new temples though they could repair old ones. Probably this explains why there is no record of a worthwhile Hindu temple built since 1192 in Delhi. The first such temple Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, came up in 1938, after a lapse of more than seven hundred years.
No Easy Solution
The foregoing discussion shows that the problem is not that of the Rama Janmabhumi Temple of Ayodhya, or the Krishna Temple of Mathura or the Visveshvara Temple of Varanasi. In its deeper aspect, the problem relates to an aggressive theology and political ideology which created an aggressive tradition of history. Needless to say that the problem in all its huge dimensions admits of no easy solution. In an ordinary situation, one could appeal from Philip drunk to Philip sober, from a man’s passion to his reason and conscience. But in the present case when Islamic theology is on the side of its historical practice and its more aggressive aims, this option is hardly available. But even then while showing, by exercising firmness, that aggression will not pay, we must yet be patient and understanding. We must realize that the problem is not Muslims but Islam or Islamic theology. Therefore, this theology needs a more critical examination than has been hitherto done. We must properly study Revelatory religions, their Gods and their prophets, their theories of special covenants and favoured ummahs, their doctrine of one God and two humanities, their categories of believers and infidels or pagans, their theory of Prophetism, their divinely ordained mission to convert and crusade.
It is a task which needs the creative labour of all seekers and articulators of truth. Closed creeds are a threat both to deeper spirituality and to deeper humanity, and they badly need some sort of glasnost, openness and freedom. A wider discussion will help them to open up.
In this task, Muslim intellectuals can play an important role. In fact, it is expected of them. It may start a new process of rethinking among the Muslims on their fundamentals - a different and truer sort of fundamentalism than they have hitherto known.
It is also a task which imposes an inescapable duty on Hindu-Buddhist thinkers with their inheritance of Yoga. In fact, India’s Yoga has a lot to contribute to the discussion. We are told that Revelations come from Gods. But from another angle, Revelations and Gods themselves come from man and his psyche, as Yoga teaches us. This psyche in turn has its various levels of purity and inwardness and every level projects its own God, Revelation and Theology. Therefore, not all Gods and Revelations have the same purity. In fact, some of them are not worthy enough and they support an equally questionable politics.
Such a conclusion may disappoint many Hindu wise men who fondly cling to the belief that all religions are the same and all prophets preach and say the same things. But they must learn not to evade issues and even while seeking unities, they must yet learn to recognise differences where they exist.
At the end, we again return to “Hideaway Communalism” which tells us of “evasion and concealment” and the need to “face the truth.” However, the sorry fact is that in order to avoid facing truth we have built up an elaborate system of evasion and concealment which protects not merely “hideaway communalism”, but also shields and even fosters more sinister forces of a “hideaway Imperialism” and a “hideaway theology” which distorts relations between man and Gods and between man and man. The need is to become aware of the problem at a deeper level and in its larger antecedents and consequences.
Indian Express, June 18, 1989