How Puritanical Islam Faced Backlash in India

By Devdutt

Published on 15th January, 2022, in Times of India.

People who follow secularism have been accused of an asymmetrical relationship with Islam and other faiths. Make fun of the Islamic practices, and the secular scholar is upset. Make fun of Hindu practices, and the secular scholar provides rational explanations. Atrocities against Muslims by Muslims in Muslim countries are judged differently from atrocities against Muslims by non-Muslim groups in non-Muslim countries. This asymmetry contributes to the rise of Islamophobia around the world.

Islam rose in the seventh century, from Arabia, and in a very short time became a superpower. Eastwards, it overpowered the Zoroastrian Sassanians and established the Islamic caliphate in Persia (modern Iraq and Iran). Westwards, it overshadowed the Byzantine Christian Empire in Anatolia (modern Turkey). By the eighth century, Islam was the dominant force from Spain to Sindh. How did this rapid movement take place? Historians explain this using political and economic reasons. Rarely, do they attribute it to the ‘jihadi’ urge. They try to shy away from the religious zeal of the spread. Instead, they insist that the people who spread Islam were affiliated more to their tribes and ethnic identities than their religion. This comes across as disingenuous.

Across the world, Islam faced much resistance. Each group that resisted Islam had its own arguments. In the Western world, the Christians opposed Islam. While there may have been a lot of political and economic issues underlying the confrontation, one cannot deny a religious angle. Both claimed the Holy Land of Jerusalem. This was the land of Jesus, for the Christians. The Muslims claimed it as the place from where the Prophet Muhammad traveled to Heaven, in a single night. During the Crusades, the Christians saw Muslims as heretics, although they believed in the same God, and had many common prophets. Christians found the Muslims comfort with sex and sensuality problematic.

Christianity largely valued the path of the hermit. Christian priests took the vow of celibacy. By contrast, in Islam, marriage was celebrated. Prophet Muhammad had many wives. The idea of heaven and Jannat was seen as a place of material indulgences. Heaven was full of gardens, fountains and beautiful ‘hoors’ or fairies. The earliest instances of Islamophobia can be found in Crusades, where the Muslims are accused of sensuality and homosexuality. At the eastern end, as Islam arrived in India, the Vijayanagar kings coined the phrase Hindu Dharma. This was to differentiate themselves from Turuka Dharma. They realised that the mosque-based practices of the new invaders were very different from their temple-based practices.

Historians go out of their way to say that the tension between the two groups was not religious at all. Like Muslims kings, Hindu kings also raided and looted Hindu temples. They do not clarify that idol-breaking, and the rejection of false gods, was an integral part of the Islamic faith, while Hindu kings plundering temples for treasures never saw the presiding deity as false.

Islam in India gradually integrated itself with the local Hindu practices. Most local and poor Muslims worship holy men or pirs in their dargas, and did not read Arabic, and so were unfamiliar with the Quran and Hadith. Dargas were like the Buddhist Stupas or the Hindu Mathas of yore, where holy men were venerated.

But in the 19th century, Islamic reformers tried to purify local Islam by insisting that Islam does not include the worship of pirs. They insisted that the focus should be on Allah, Prophet Muhammad and the Quran. These reform movements looked down upon the worship of pirs and the visit to Dargas. This puritanical Islam, with its focus on Mecca rather than the local holy men, created a backlash in Hindu groups.

They surmised that the Muslims did not consider India as a holy land.

Hence, the idea of Hindutva emerged, arguing that only those who consider India as the Holy Land should stay in India. Those, who consider Jerusalem or Mecca or other foreign lands as holy, lose allegiance to India and must leave. This thinking marks the origin of Islamophobia that fuels Hindutva today.

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