Islam plants seeds of new coexistence

Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in India. Islam was brought to India by Sufis as early as the eighth century.

Mac Kenney

Jama Masjid is the largest mosque in India. Islam was brought to India by Sufis as early as the eighth century.

Islam came to India after Hinduism and radically transformed the religious landscape.

At first, Islam arrived as a trickle of ideas that came with a few mystical and powerful men known as Sufis. Later, invaders and empire builders followed these spiritual men.

As early as the eighth century, the Arab conquest of Sind (modern-day south Pakistan) was complete. After a time of sporadic invasions, the Delhi Sultanate was established in 1192. The Sultanate, which lasted until the 16th century, marks a time of transition to Islam for many lower-caste Hindus, and a time of coexistence between Muslim rulers and their mostly Hindu constituency. Ainslie Embree suggested that as “they (cultures and religions) coexisted for more than 600 years when the rulers were Muslims says much about the nature of Islam in India, as well as of Hinduism.”

With the disintegration of the Delhi Sultanate by 1525, the first of what would become a unifying lineage of Mogul rulers assumed power in Delhi. The most important and without a doubt the most popular of the Moguls was Akbar. His reign from 1556-1605 saw the unification of the northern Indian sub-continent and was notable for its receptivity to other religious traditions. Akbar’s three wives were Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The designs that decorate Akbar’s tomb synthesize Islamic, Hindu and Christian symbology; indeed, a careful effort was made to give each the same surface area. The same gestures toward religious tolerance and synthesis can be seen throughout Fathepur Sikri, Akbar’s now “ghost town” capital, testifying to his attempt to create a single, unified Indian religion.

Akbar was relentless in his pursuit to unify the religions of India. He identified himself with the land and people over which he ruled and wanted to create a religious tradition that synthesized all those under his rule. He tried, unsuccessfully, to create this religion by inviting followers of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Jainism to Fathepur Sikri.

Like Hinduism, the past and present of Islam in India constitute a vast collection of diverse practices. The Turks who controlled north India at times established the Sunni tradition, the majority of the world’s Islamic traditions. In addition, rulers with Iranian connections patronized Shia scholars, a minority, but significant Islamic tradition.

“The result was that all the many divergent schools of Islam flourished in India,” Embree said.

As said before, there is also a long tradition of Sufis in India, whose introspective spirituality has generally placed them outside institutionalized religion.

There are many stories in Islam. The most important story is of the Prophet Muhammad. Here, the focus is on those stories that come from India and create the religious meanings of Islam in India. The Muslim patron saint of Mumbai is, for instance, Maxdum Faqi Ali Paru.

Dr. Hugh Van Skyhawk related Maxdum’s story as follows:

Maxdum was a religious-minded boy and a devoted son to his pious mother. One evening, as Maxdum’s mother was about to fall asleep, she asked her son to fetch a glass of water. When Maxdum returned, he found his mother had fallen asleep. Thinking that his mother might awaken and suffer thirst, he stood silently at her bedside holding the glass of water in his hand until morning. When his mother woke up and realized what had happened, she wept and prayed to Allah to bless her son. From that time on, Maxdum, who was about 10 years old, had a strong desire for spiritual knowledge. Then one night in his dreams, he beheld Xwaja Xizr standing on a rock in the ocean. Xizr bade Maxdum to come to him in the ocean after his dawn prayers. He did so and Xwaja Xizr began teaching him the inner meanings of the Holy Quran, (these inner meanings were considered secret teachings that Maxdum could not tell others about). After some days, Maxdum’s mother noticed her son’s repeated absence in the early morning and asked him where he went. Remembering Xwaja Xizr’s stipulation, he hesitated at first, but finally revealed his secret to her. On the following morning, Maxdum did not find Xwaja Xizr and returned home weeping. When his mother asked the reason for this, Maxdum told her about Xwaja Xizr’s stipulation. With tears filling her eyes, she prayed to Allah to forgive her son. The next morning Maxdum found Xwaja Xizr again waiting for him on a rock in the ocean. The Green Prophet (Xwaja Xizr) then told Maxdum that Allah had answered his mother’s prayers and began teaching him again.

Through stories like this, Indian Muslims learn the values and meanings of Islam. Across India there are darghas (tombs of Sufi saints and Muslim holy men) where people pray and leave offerings.

Sufi Saints, Muslim holy men whose intense spirituality places them outside institutional religion, have played a major role in the development of Islam in India and in shaping contemporary Islam in India. One cannot visit Hyderabad without noticing the abundant images of a contemporary living deity: Shirdi Sai Baba. Sai Baba was a Sufi who lived until 1918. Around this man a powerful narrative has taken shape. With his name, we can immediately see the inter-faith meaning that characterizes many Sufi Saints. “Sai” is the Urdu (the language spoken by most Muslims in India) word for saint, while “Baba” is the Hindi word for father. Images of Sai Baba are everywhere in Hyderabad, notably in the icons of home shrines and on taxi driver’s dashboards. There is also a Sai Baba shrine at the Birla Temple, a central place of Hindu worship. Sai Baba is popular with people of all religious backgrounds. His stories set examples of religious acceptance and understanding that play an important role in fostering religious coexistence.

The daily practice of Islam consists mostly in prayer and behavioral guidelines. The five pillars of Islam are:

1. Acknowledge Allah as the only God

2. Pray five times a day in the direction of Mecca

3. Practice charity

4. Fast during the Holy month of Ramadan

5. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

Like Hinduism, Islam places certain restrictions on its followers: Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. Alcohol is also taboo in Islam, as it prohibits reason and diminishes intelligence, logical prowess and spiritual sensitivity.

Islam is a part of India’s rich religious past and plays an important role in contemporary India. Akbar set important precedents in both India and Islam for the possibilities of religious coexistence. The invaders and empire builders that brought Islam to India did not set lasting precedents of religious intolerance (although some did try). Rather, the precedents that have lasted are those of inter-religious understanding and goodwill.