India is a land of pluralism, where Hussaini Brahmins participate in Muharram processions, where many Hindus reverentially visit Sufi shrines, where Dara Shikoh, a Muslim prince, wrote a thesis praising the Upanishads and where Mirza Ghalib, in his correspondence with Karl Marx, asked the latter to study Vedanta. Outside India, the Indian civilization is identified with yoga, the Taj Mahal and Mahatma Gandhi [whose methods were emulated in the black civil rights movement in the United States led by Martin Luther King (Jr.)], and among Buddhists the world over, of course, Gautam Buddha too, and for students of geopolitics, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for his pivotal role in creating the NAM. And yes, not to forget, Bollywood is very popular, even among those who are not ethnically Indian, across South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and East Europe. And no, contrary to what many of us, Indians, keep saying, Bollywood (which, through its content and by way of its actors, script-writers, producers and directors, beautifully demonstrates India’s unity in diversity), as a whole, is really not all that trashy.
As India is asserting itself on the global stage, the prime minister’s initiative to have an official International Yoga Day sanctioned by the United Nations is praiseworthy. While many (not all) adherents of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) do have reservations over the supposedly spiritual side of yoga, which they would not personally believe in and would consider taking up the same as violating the tenets of their own faith, yoga offers a lot in terms of physical health and well-being, and some practising Christians have come up with what they call “Christian yoga”, supposedly without any Hindu religious dimensions. A Russian friend of my mother’s, who wore spectacles, was able to rectify her myopia through yoga and removed her spectacles for good!
Prime Minister Narendra Modi could have very well been the man who initiated this idea, given that he has been performing yogic exercises since his childhood and attributes his robust health to the same. While in New York in September this year, Modi kept a Navratri fast, subsisting only on a liquid diet, mostly lemon juice, for those nine days, but he showed no sign of fatigue during his 30-minute speech that was delivered in a strong voice, without once pausing to even sip water.
Modi raised the demand for an International Yoga Day (21st June) in the United Nations then, and now, a staggering number of more than 130 countries, including Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, Nigeria and Argentina, have supported the proposal, which is heartening.
In terms of expanding our soft power, I feel that one more area that needs focus is the significant headway made by ancient Indian scientists in spheres like astronomy (like Arya Bhatt discovering the earth’s revolving around the sun in the Gupta period, much before Copernicus), mathematics (the Baudhayana Sulvasutra, an ancient Indian text, mentioned the so-called Pythagoras Theorem much before Pythagoras, and India gave the world the positional scheme of numeration that was transmitted to Europe through the Arabs, replacing the Roman system of numeration, making it much easier to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and American-Indian Manjul Bhargava, who has won the Field Medal, regarded as an equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the discipline of mathematics, proved a mathematical law by referring to Sanskrit manuscripts citing ancient Indian mathematician Brahmagupta’s work, and the Rubik’s cube*), metallurgy (the Iron Pillar in Delhi that hasn’t rusted till date bears testimony to this) and medicine (Charak and Sushrut performed surgeries early in history). Take, for instance, the much acclaimed Hollywood film The Life of Pi, in which Pi's father, an atheist, is introduced as being a man who didn't believe in religion owing to prayers to the Almighty failing to cure his disease, but “Western science” came to his rescue, as though medical science has been alien to Indian culture!
No, while referring to the achievements of ancient Indian scientists, I am not talking about religious lore, much of which, with all due respect to everyone’s religious sentiments, can be relegated to the sphere of fiction for all religions. Going by the Jewish texts, even Solomon had a flying vehicle, and many science-fiction stories by writers like Joules Verne have mentioned things really invented later, but that does not mean those stories were true when they were written, nor does referring to real places like Delhi or Mumbai or Hastinapur or Kurukshetra in a fiction story make that story true, and as Karan Thapar, whether you love him or hate him, logically points out – “how do you account for the fact the scientific knowledge and achievements you are boasting of have been lost, if not also long forgotten, and there is no trace of any records to substantiate they ever occurred?”. Even from a religious point of view, I would say that it was silly on Modi’s part to ascribe the supposed divine power of Surya in the context of Karna’s birth in the Mahabharat or Lord Shiv’s power that led to Lord Ganesh having an elephant-head (the lore of other civilizations include creatures like centaurs and griffin, and Islamic lore refers to a seven-winged horse on which Prophet Muhammad flew to heaven and came back) to Indian mortals’ scientific genius, especially when there are undisputed scientific achievements of ancient Indians that need to be popularized. Indeed, among all the major religious groupings globally, there are people making audacious claims about modern science in their religious texts, or making bizarre linkages between science and their religion, which are not taken seriously by scientists (it’s another thing that many scientists feel inspired by religious texts to ponder over scientific mysteries, and feel that religious texts can serve as guide-books on how to lead one’s life, and both the Indian scientist Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and the late Pakistani scientist Dr. Abdus Salam have claimed that the Quran played this role for them**). You can watch this video of a leading Pakistani scientist, Parvez Hoodbhoy, rebutting such claims with respect to Islam (and this video debunking Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik’s critique of the theory of evolution also makes a nice watch, and Zakir has otherwise also been somewhat intolerant and insensitive***), and read this article by a Hindu, in fact, a moderate Hindu rightist apparently supporting the BJP, rebutting such claims about Hinduism, and this exists with respect to Christianity too. In any case, if we were to, even for the sake of argument, accept that the scientific achievements in the ancient Indian epics were real, how does that make us any superior today? There was a time in history when people from outside India came to study in the then great Nalanda University (of which Arya Bhatt was a product), and if, today, the West is ahead of us, we ought to learn from them, and it would be interesting to note that some of the heroes of the saffron brigade, like Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and the very controversial Savarkar, pursued their education overseas, and so did many of our secular nationalist leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Rammanohar Lohia (this article by me discusses how some in the saffron brigade have sought to wrongly appropriate the legacy of Sardar Bhagat Singh and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose). And yes, if we need to build our hope and confidence for the future taking inspiration from the past, we have several undisputed scientific achievements of ancient and even modern times, given that we’ve produced great scientists in modern times like SN Bose (in September 2012, the then director general of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, said that SN Bose deserved the Nobel Prize), CV Raman (who did win the Nobel Prize), MS Swaminathan (who has been hailed by the United Nations Environment Programme as the father of economic ecology globally), MN Saha, JC Bose, Salim Ali, Vikram Sarabhai, APJ Abdul Kalam and the likes.
Another possible, though unintended, damage caused by Modi’s statement going against a scientific temperament, and that too in the context of medical science, is the legitimization of the religious quacks.
And no, when I talk of the achievements of ancient India, this is obviously not to suggest that creativity, scientific or artistic, was the sole reserve of Indians. Even in ancient times, there were other great civilizations like the Chinese, Persian, Egyptian and Greco Roman civilizations, and in medieval times, the Arab civilization and the Central Asian civilization. India gained culturally (including in the sphere of science) from contact with them, just as they gained from contact with us. If we want the world to acknowledge the achievements of our civilization, we also ought to acknowledge those of others, without any mental reservations, in the spirit of vasudhaiv kutumbakam (an idea echoed in verse 49:13 of the Quran****), and trying to prove that everything good and great emerged only in the ancient Indian civilization and the achievements of all other civilizations are worthless or largely plagiarized from India, as some Hindu rightists do, is very counterproductive in that regard. I strongly disagree with those trying to suggest that ancient India was perfect in every sense (no society ever can be), and something we must return to, for the world has come a long way since then, with conceptions like democracy with universal adult franchise with complete civil liberties based on human egalitarianism (that would reject caste or racial discrimination), and international law based on state sovereignty (despite its weak enforcement, direct colonial rule is something we no longer see, and that’s no small feat, and in olden days, Indian rulers like Kanishk and Samudragupt did invade foreign territories, as was the norm then, Akhenaton in Egypt and later, Ashok in India being among the few prominent exceptions who consciously came to oppose conquest). In the sphere of science too, many advances have been made that have helped us unravel the mysteries of nature and make life convenient by way of technology. Yes, even in ancient and medieval times, in different parts of the world, including India, there were thinkers and philosophers who, from time to time, advanced contentions that somewhat resemble modern human rights ideas, which is laudable, but trying to recreate the past is no solution. Yes, we can and should learn from the past, including the recent and not-so-recent past, in India and elsewhere, to succeed in today’s day and age, but that is a different matter altogether from seeking to live in it. Those critical of modern technology for ecological and other reasons should practise what they preach by boycotting all those things they deem as harmful; a more rational approach would be to use science to come up with ecofriendly alternatives.
On a different note, I do identify with and appreciate the Ramayan and Mahabharat as great works of literature, comprising diverse plots and sub-plots, covering nearly every facet of human life and giving valuable lessons, upholding morality, and that too being written in poetic form! If taken as fiction, these do point to the depth of the imagination of our forefathers, and are an integral part of our composite Indian cultural heritage, with many Muslims and Christians across South Asia (not just India), including even some I know personally, identify with and appreciate.***** Like any work of literature (and in this, I include the texts of all religions******), it is legitimate to subject these to any kind of logical critique or deconstruction (though I am not a leftist, I really liked Mani Ratnam’s film Raavan for its brilliant Marxist deconstruction of the Ramayan and subtly linking the same to contemporary Naxalism) and one can debate whether one agrees or disagrees with the messages (even what the messages are can be debatable), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they are, in their own right, fantastic pieces of literature.
But coming back to the point, I guess that our prime minister has realized, owing to the controversy generated by his statements about Lord Ganesh’s plastic surgery and the likes, the faux pas he committed while making that speech in the hospital, which he will not commit again, even if he doesn’t retract that statement. There was a time when he, as the chief minister of Gujarat, made statements that were offensive to our Indian Muslim and Christian brethren, and at least on one occasion, he was accosted for the same by the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as also senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi, and he has come a long way since then, engaging in a sadbhavana fast for communal harmony, his declaring in an election rally in Patna that Hindus and Muslims ought to fight poverty together rather than fight each other, expressing pride in the fact that very many Muslims from Gujarat have managed to avail of the Haj subsidy, asserting that secularism is an article of faith for him, asserting that his “idea of India” entails “Ahinsa Parmo Dharma” (non-violence is the highest virtue) and “Sarva Dharma Sambhava” (coexistence of all religions) and clearly stating in an interview that he does not want to talk in terms of Hindus or Muslims but only wishes to talk in terms of Indians, other than reaching out to the Christian minority during the election campaign, and now, as the prime minister, condemning the killing of an innocent Muslim boy in the city of Pune (on the other hand, I didn’t like the weak stand the BJP took on the issue of the Kashmiri Hindus’ Kosur Nag pilgrimage), highlighting the need for communal harmony while addressing the nation on Independence Day this year and articulating his apparent faith in Indian Muslims’ loyalty to the country in the context of Al Qaeda trying to step up operations in India (whether or not he has undergone a genuine transformation is not the point, the point being that his politics has become more secular). His electoral victory had to do with the very legitimate disenchantment with UPA rule, his good track record at economic growth in Gujarat (his development model in Gujarat certainly had its flaws, but even the UPA couldn’t protect the poor from food inflation) and his charismatic appeal that led people to think he could deliver, coupled with his demonstrating commitment to religious pluralism, as indicated in the previous sentence, which led many people to believe that his agenda would be economic development coupled with an assertive foreign policy, rather than belligerence to any religious grouping. After all, a Hindu rightist image had cost the BJP dear in the elections in 2004, and more importantly, in the aftermath of a series of terrorist attacks by the Indian Mujahidin and even the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, even the elections in 2009, and even in the by-elections in 2014, the electorate rejected hate-mongers like ‘Yogi’ Adityanath. In any case, the vote-share of the BJP and its allies in the main elections (not the by-elections) was only 38.5%, which shows that the votes in very many constituencies got divided in favour of political parties in opposition to the BJP – to explain this in simplified terms, imagine a hypothetical scenario with only ten voters in which three votes go to one candidate and the seven others go to seven different candidates, leading the candidate with just three out of ten votes to win, which implies that while the majority of the Indian electorate did not vote for Modi, there was hardly any consensus on an alternative, and many Muslims too had voted for his party, sensing better economic prospects. Secularism and democracy are a part of the basic structure of our constitution, and are not disappearing any time soon, and yes, Muslims in India who, under Modi, continue to go to educational institutions, workplaces (Muslims who have remained prominent public figures in different walks of life indeed remain so), restaurants and movie theatres alongside their Hindu peers, enjoy better civil liberties and security of life and property than Muslims in Pakistan and several other Muslim-majority countries, not to speak of the non-Muslim minorities in those countries, though this is not, in the least, to suggest that we, as Indians, shouldn’t do more to check identity-based or other ideologically motivated violence against innocent civilians in our country or even globally.
Now that Modi is the prime minister of India, it is in the interest of all Indians, cutting across lines of religion and political opinion, to be impartial in their approach and support him in all those ventures of his which are oriented in the direction of India’s economic development and enhancement of India’s prestige on the global stage, which would benefit all Indians. Also, Hinduism is an integral and very important part of Indian culture (and no, I am referring to ‘culture’ in a positive sense in terms of what has helped us define our identity, not as a static dogmatic social structure that can be used to subvert what are, as per a modern understanding, human rights), and in fact, I would dare to say that it is the base of Indian culture, and what has been known as India, from Kashmir (with its rich history of Shaivism that even influenced the local Sufism) to Kerala and from Gujarat to Arunachal Pradesh*******, as a cultural construct, even by foreigners before it became a modern nation-state in 1947, primarily has only a Hindu heritage as its common strand. Expressing pride in anything related to Hinduism doesn’t necessarily amount to an attitude of hostility to the religious minorities or not appreciating the beauty of Indian pluralism (you can have a look at this Facebook thread in which a Hindu rather strangely suggests that teaching Vedic mathematics undermines Indian pluralism, whose arguments I rebut, and later, I asked a Muslim friend what she thought of the debate, and she was rather surprised and said that she loves the techniques of Vedic mathematics and uses them in her calculations to make them faster, and it may be noted that Vedic mathematics refers to the mathematical achievements of Indians in the Vedic Age, but is not found in the Vedas!), and just as most Indian Hindus take greater pride in and are more aware of the Taj Mahal and other Mughal architecture than Hindu temples in Southeast Asia, equally, Indian Muslims should also identify with India’s pre-Islamic heritage, as surely, very many of them do, and there are practising Muslims who are scholars of Sanskrit (I know one personally, and his name interestingly reads as Mohammad Haneef Shastri!), though indeed, puritan Hindu narratives of Indian history and culture, with an antagonistic or chauvinistic approach to Muslims and Christians in general should be challenged and condemned, just as chauvinistic narratives of Indian history and culture from Muslim rightists (especially in Pakistan but even in India, and this is not to say that Muslim rightists in India identify or, in all matters, concur with their Pakistani counterparts) and Christian rightists ought to be.
I am not advocating blind hero-worship of Modi (which very many, though not all, supporters of his are engaging in, and that is certainly not a healthy trend, especially in a democracy) and indeed, as citizens of a free country, we must raise our voices against divisive religion-based politics of any nature (whether it amounts to appeasing the majority or any minority) as also any other initiatives of the government in any sphere, which we may deem worthy of criticism. I, for one, am not very enthused by Modi’s cleanliness drive, which, as I see it, has only boiled down to tokenism but not made our cities any cleaner in real terms, nor am I impressed with what I see as the duplicity of his government on the issue of black money (getting the names is of no use if not revealed) or how we, as a nation, continue to have legislators and ministers with criminal allegations, nor the U-turn of the government over the Henderson Brooks Report over the Sino-Indian War in 1962, nor the decision to discontinue the teaching of the German language in government schools. Though I appreciate Modi’s passion for promoting yoga and ayurveda in India and abroad, I am not sure if his decision to set up an entire ministry for the same for domestic purposes is a good one, and whether setting up an entire bureaucratic structure for this is appropriate, in a nation like ours with scarce economic resources at the disposal of the state, is questionable, and those of Modi’s supporters who support the idea of a minimal government should especially ponder over this. But we must not just drag our dislike for any political leader (or his/her party) to not extend our support to even those steps he/she takes, which we would have impartially not criticized, and this applies to Modi’s supporters too in terms of their attitude to politicians in other parties. Some of the proposals of the Modi government like social auditing of urban schemes, setting up a regulatory body to look at coastal security and another one at nuclear safety, transforming employment exchanges into career centres, revamping the NREGA, identifying non-cultivable land and utilizing it strategically for farmers’ benefit, reducing formalities like attestation by gazetted officers and allowing self-attestation instead, and encouraging citizens to interact with the government, are good, and undoubtedly, such a list can be prepared even for the UPA, like the NREGA, the Right to Education Act (notwithstanding the flaws in these legislations, they have been great milestones), reduction of maternal mortality, providing drinking water in all government schools, managing the economy well in the face of a global economic meltdown in their first tenure and improving coordination between intelligence agencies, which led to several terrorist attacks being averted and catching Abu Jundal and Yasin Bhatkal, and our analysis of politics should be based on concrete facts like these, rather than blindly supporting any political party, only going by misplaced binaries of religion-based politics (using hyperbolic terms like “fascist” or “anti-majority” depending on your leanings) or judging politicians only by their oratory.
The riots in 2002 (in which an overwhelming majority of the victims were indeed Muslims, but in which hundreds of Hindus also did lose their lives and were rendered homeless by Muslim rioters, as has been pointed out by Human Rights Watch and respectable media publications in India like The Hindu, which is a favourite of left-liberals, the Times of India and India Today, and the riots started with the burning of a railway coach by Muslim extremists; by mentioning these facts, I am not, in the least, seeking to undermine the harsh reality of the pain of the Muslim victims, some of whom I had a chance to interact and even develop close personal relations with in my five-year-long stay in Gujarat as a university student, and fortunately, hundreds of Hindu rioters and Muslim rioters have been convicted, including Maya Kodnani, a former minister), like the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 (for which, again, hundreds have been convicted, though the conviction of some high-profile political leaders among the accused is pending) and anti-Christian riots in the Kandhamal district of Odisha in 2008 (for which again convictions have taken place, including of political leaders), attacks on innocent civilians by Khalistani terrorists, the Indian Mujahidin and terrorists invoking Christianity in India’s northeast, the killings and forced displacement of Kashmiri Hindus from their homeland (for which none of the perpetrators have been convicted till date, and indeed, there is as much rationale to hold Yasin Malik, a popular separatist leader in Kashmir, guilty, at least by association, of the Kashmiri Hindus’ killings and forced displacement in 1989-90 or even Jinnah for the Direct Action Day riots in 1946********, as there is to hold Modi guilty of the carnage in 2002, but there is a deafening silence against Malik in left-liberal circles) and sporadic human rights violations by rogue elements in the Indian security forces in Kashmir and India’s northeast (for which again, it is not as though there have been no convictions, and only recently, we’ve had the verdict in the Machil fake encounter case, though a lot more does need to be done in this sphere, but unfortunately, in Pakistan, no one has been convicted for the gross human rights violations in Balochistan and the erstwhile East Pakistan*********), remain a matter of shame for our nation (though friction between communities, even of a violent nature, is not unique to India, nor are human rights violations by some rogue security personnel stationed in regions with violent secessionist movements), and we must strive for justice for the victims********** and to ensure that such things don’t happen again (an attempt in this direction by me is a book I’ve written aimed at addressing anti-Muslim prejudices in the Indian context, and an article on this very portal on how to tackle Muslim extremism, as also one on human rights violations by rogue elements in our security forces), and no, I do not buy the bizarre implicit line of reasoning advanced by some Hindu rightists to the effect that the crimes of some people of their ilk drawing more attention than the mass murders of the Kashmiri Hindus or the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 in which Congress members were involved or the appeasement of Muslims and Christians by several ‘secular’ political parties, somehow implies that the crimes by Hindu rightists can be condoned or justified, as though a more highlighted wrongdoing is any less of a wrongdoing than a less highlighted one, only by virtue of it being supposedly disproportionately highlighted comparatively! But as I, someone who also comes from a family affected by the partition riots in 1947, from the maternal and paternal sides, have already said in this article, we must learn from the past, commemorate whatever is seemingly of significance in it, but certainly not seek to live in it, preventing one from impartially analyzing the present.
*A rather interesting piece of trivia is that Bhargava is an accomplished tabla player, having taken lessons from the maestro Zakir Hussain!
**Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, in his acclaimed book My Journey – Transforming Dreams into Actions, has written about his father, his mother, his sister, his friend and brother-in-law Jalalluddin, whom he has described as his “first mentor” and his cousin Samsuddin. About his father, he says-
“My father was the imam of the Rameswaram mosque. He was a deeply devout man with complete and utter faith in the Koran. He inculcated all the habits of a good Muslim in his children and indeed in his entire family.”
“Without doubt, he was a deeply spiritual man with some kind of connection with God. I believe his spirituality came from being a learned man. He knew the scriptures and could bring out their essential truth to even the youngest enquiring mind. When I asked him questions, he would always reply and attempt to explain in simple, straightforward Tamil.”
“…my father would take me to the Arabic School nearby, where I learnt the Koran Sharif.”
“Science sought to provide answers to all natural phenomena, and spirituality helped us understand our place in the entire scheme of the universe. While one looked at it through the solid certainties of mathematics and formulae, spirituality did so by opening up the mind and heart to experiences and by going deeper within one’s self. Hazily, it started getting apparent to me that the connections between what was becoming my world and the one my father inhabited were not that far removed from one another.”
He has written that the Koran “holds deep philosophical insights” and has helped him “resolve many dilemmas at different times” in his life.
“…while I was at the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) working on India’s indigenous missile programme, I worked with many brilliant engineers and leaders. The words from the Holy Koran ring in my ears when I think of them: ‘Light upon light. Allah guides His light to whom he will’.”
“When I lost my parents within the span of a year, I remember praying at the mosque in Rameswaram, overcome with grief and regret for not having met my mother more often before she passed away. But after some time a line from the Koran came to me. It told me that the passing away of souls is inevitable and the only constant is God.”
Undoubtedly, Dr. Kalam has also expressed his admiration for the Gita and the Bible, and how they have also helped him at different points of time in his life, as also his affection for many of his non-Muslim teachers and colleagues, but none of this takes away from the fact that Islam was an important part of his upbringing in his Muslim locality in Rameshwaram, and helped him shape his life. Freedom fighters like Maulana Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (both of whom strongly opposed the partition of India) and Ashfaqullah Khan (who was hanged till death much before the demand for partitioning India surfaced, but who refused to be taken in by a Muslim police officer’s instigation to not fight for the freedom of a Hindu-majority India) were practising Muslims.
Overlooking the well-articulated, systematic condemnations of terrorism sponsored by certain elements in the government of Pakistan or assertions of the necessity of being loyal citizens of India by contemporary Indian Muslims (the video of Maulana Madani, an Indian Muslim, terribly embarrassing Musharraf is a must-watch; also, essays by Hamid Dalwai, which can be found in Ramachandra Guha’s book Makers of Modern India, examining the rise and growth of Muslim communalism, are very interesting) or the fact that many Muslims in the Indian armed forces and police have died martyrs for India fighting Pakistani armed forces personnel and militants (many Indian Muslims have won gallantry awards, including Abdul Hamid who was given the Param Vir Chakra posthumously, or Brigadier Mohammad Usman who chose to remain in India, in spite of being offered the post of chief of army staff out of turn in Pakistan by Jinnah, and who died a martyr in the first war over Kashmir in 1947-48, having liberated the region of Jhangar from Pakistani control) or that today’s Indian Muslims include those who had fought for the cause of the independence of a united India as opposed to a partitioned one and their descendants proud of such ancestry, the communal Hindus, without any empirical basis, would like to label all or most Indian Muslims as Pakistanis at heart (they often cite Indian Muslims loyal to the country as being exceptions to the general norm, but without any concrete evidence whatsoever).
Speaking of the army, a friend of mine whose father is an Indian Army officer once told me that he loves the Muslim community, for once, his father was fired at by militants in Kashmir and his father’s driver, a Muslim, rushed to bear the bullet to save his father’s life! He also narrated another anecdote of how a Muslim once donated blood to save his father’s life and he asserted that he was not in the least ashamed of the fact that “Muslim blood” runs through his veins!
***Zakir Naik has, on other occasions, taken irrational stands on many occasions like justifying Saudi Arabia not permitting the construction of places of worship of non-Muslims (though it must be noted that Saudi Arabia is one of the few Muslim-majority countries where this is the case) and promoting ludicrous conspiracy theories that pin the blame of wrongs by Muslim extremists on others.
The concept of being the only valid religion in the eyes of the Almighty and even encouraging proselytization does indeed exist in Islam (going by the conventional interpretation) and in Christianity as well (again, going by the conventional interpretation). However, to draw an analogy, if a certain coaching centre (analogous to Islam or Christianity, going by the mainstream interpretation) claims it is the only one that can get students admitted into say, IIT (analogous to heaven), and even encourages its students to get students of other coaching centres and those not taking any coaching to join that particular coaching centre, it cannot be equated with forcing others to join their institute or killing those not willing to do so. In fact, there is nothing in the Quran or Hadiths of undisputed authenticity asking Muslims to restrict non-Muslims’ practice of religion, and there is, in fact, much evidence of conferring full religious freedom, contrary to the stand taken by Zakir Naik, and there are Biblical verses advocating religious tolerance too, like Rom. 12:18 and 1 Tim 2:2. Indeed, there are Muslims who follow their scriptures taking them literally and are very tolerant and peace-loving (their version of tolerance is of the ‘live and let live’ variety but not of embracing beliefs and practices of others; in other words, they may not accept prasad from a Hindu temple or fold their hands there but won’t support killing innocent people of other faiths and would have no problem in befriending non-Muslims either), considering the same to be an integral part of being a true Muslim, and the same is true for mainstream Christians and mainstream Jews in their attitude towards other religions and their adherents. And it is not as though there are no conversions to Hinduism by Christians or even Muslims.
Zakir Naik has also made some very offensive remarks about other religions, and if a non-Muslim would have passed such remarks about Islam in Pakistan, he could be booked for blasphemy!
Indeed, it is a welcome sign that Zakir Naik has been strongly criticized by rational Muslims (as you can see here, here and here), including the very eminent cleric Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who wrote this very balanced piece on the controversy in Ayodhya, and who has been hailed as a liberal cleric even by critics of Islam like Arun Shourie. It must, however, be noted that all adherents of puritan versions of Sunni Islam, like Wahabism, should not be branded as intolerant or fanatical, and Sufi Islam did not originate in India but in the Middle East, Mansoor and Rumi being among the famous non-Indian Sufi saints, and Sufism is also prevalent in China and Central Asia.
****It may be pointed out that terrorism, even in the name of religion, is certainly no Muslim monopoly, as one can see from the Irish Republicans in Northern Ireland and fanatics in the United States bombing abortion clinics and the 1996 Olympic Games in the name of Catholicism, the Ku Klux Klan and other white racist groups giving their racist ideas a Biblical basis, Zionist terror outfits like the Haganah that had no qualms in killing those of their co-religionists who condemned them like journalist Jacob Israel de Haan, and the Jewish Defense League that targeted Soviets in the United States, as also secessionist insurgents in India’s northeast raising religious slogans and targeting innocent Hindu civilians and the Lord’s Resistance Army in the name of other sects of Christianity, the Khalistanis targeting innocent Hindus, Nirankari Sikhs and even pro-India Khalsa Sikhs in the name of Sikhism and the Ranvir Sena, Sunlight Sena and other such anti-Dalit terrorist organizations acting in the name of Hinduism (the Ranvir Sena justifies killing innocent Dalit women and children, citing the example of Hanuman burning Lanka in the Ramayan). Barring these, secessionist terrorists, such as Assamese Hindu insurgents, who killed innocent Bihari immigrants, and leftist radicals, like Maoists in India (and there are counterparts across the globe) who bomb election booths, killing innocent voters, may be cited.
It would indeed also be very interesting to note in this context that a report by Europol, the criminal intelligence agency of the Council of Europe, pointed out that only 3 of the 249 terrorist attacks (less than 2%) that took place in Europe in 2010 were carried out by jihadists (jihadism is not to be equated with the true concept of jihad in the Muslim scriptures, which is about internal self-cleansing or even under certain circumstances like forced displacements or violation of religious freedom as mentioned in verse 60:8 of the Quran, fighting a defensive war, that too following norms that interestingly, to a great extent, actually match those in modern international humanitarian law). Even in India, while terrorism in the name of Islam attracts the most attention for it often hits major cities like Delhi and Mumbai, more lives have been lost to acts of terrorism by non-Muslims, as has been pointed out in this article and this one.
It also must be noted that the victims of terrorism in the name of Islam have often been Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, and this is not just a recent phenomenon in the light of what we have seen in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Libya, but also, earlier, much before Osama came to target the US regime, he bombed Muslim civilians in Arab countries (as has been shown in the excellent Discovery Channel documentary 'Jihad - The Men & Ideas Behind Al Qaeda').Not too long ago, American Muslim pilgrims were targeted by terrorists in Saudi Arabia (of course, for the terrorists, any Muslim paying taxes to a government which such people see as “an enemy of Islam” is a crime, unless you are there to bomb Time Square or those participating in a race in Boston!), and a study in 2009 showed that Al Qaeda had killed eight times more Muslims than non-Muslims!
Indeed, there has been no dearth of statements by practising Muslims across the globe, including religious decrees from clerics, condemning terrorism as being totally antithetical to the teachings of Islam in letter and spirit. Recently, Muslims in Norway carried out a mass demonstration against the ISIS, and Indian Muslims have also carried out such demonstrations against terrorism in the past, other than Indian Muslim intellectuals specifically having issued statements condemning the ISIS. In fact, it must be noted that even within Iraq, there are Muslims bravely condemning the maltreatment of the non-Muslim minorities like Christians and Yazidis by the ISIS (one such Muslim professor in the Middle East raising his voice for Christians was killed), and many Yazidis have been protected from the ISIS by Kurdish Muslims (mostly Sunnis).
Sure, there are verses in the Quran that may seem contrary to our modern understanding of human rights (just as the Purusha Sukta in the Rigveda, according to some, advocates caste discrimination, though I don’t agree with that interpretation), and there are such verses in the Bible too (for example, Deuteronomy 13:12-15, 1 Samuel 15:3 and Matthew 10:34 are Biblical verses seemingly advocating violence), but liberal and progressive adherents of Islam and Judaism/Christianity would contend that these verses are meant in a certain specific context, and would produce many other verses from the same books (such as verses 5:8, 5:32, 6:108 and 109:6 of the Quran, other than verses 49:13 and 60:8 mentioned earlier, that do speak of peace, religious tolerance and human brotherhood, as does the letter from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks of St. Catherine’s monastery) that would broadly be in agreement with our understanding, and this is true for other religions as well. And those suggesting that peaceful verses in the Quran are superseded by violent verses would do well to note that verse 109:6 appears towards the end of the book. This article mentioning an anecdote from the British parliament does make an interesting read in this context.
There is also a fairly well-known website run by an apostate and basher of Islam who has offered a cash prize to anyone who can disprove his allegations against Prophet Muhammad (but there are books by apostates of other religions criticizing their former religions too, the most famous one being Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, and there’s also Why I am Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah, indeed leveling very strong allegations), but practically, he is the judge of the debate, or to go by what he is saying, the “readership” of the website, a rather non-defined entity. In fact, he has acknowledged that he came across a Muslim who “intelligently argued his case and never descended to logical fallacies or insults” and while that Islam-basher “did not manage to convince him to leave Islam”, that Muslim earned his “utmost respect”, which implies that practically, the Islam-basher is the judge of the debate. Likewise, that Islam-basher has mentioned with reference to a scholar of Islam he debated with, that the latter was “a learned man, a moderate Muslim and a good human being” and someone he (the Islam-basher) has “utmost respect for”. So, that Islam-basher’s critique of Islam, whether valid or invalid, has no relevance in terms of making blanket stereotypes about the people we know as Muslims, or even practising Muslims. By the way, that Islam-basher bashes Judaism too.
And it is worth mentioning that I have encountered several practising Muslims on discussion groups on the social media, who have, in a very calm and composed fashion, logically refuted the allegations against Islam on such websites.
Also, another allegation often leveled against Islam and Muslim societies is sexism. it also be noted that Prophet Muhammad’s wife Khadijah was a successful businesswoman, and the world’s oldest existing university, which is in Morocco and dates back to 859 AD, was set up by Fatima al Fihri, a well-educated Muslim woman. Prophet Muhammad is even believed to have mandated education for all, irrespective of gender, as you can see here and here, and in fact, the education cutting across gender lines even includes physical education, for Prophet Muhammad had reportedly said that children (he did not specify only boys) must be taught archery, horse-riding and swimming, and going by Islamic lore, Nusaybah bint Ka’ab fought in Prophet Muhammad’s army, and Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Aisha too later participated in war, and recently, there was news of an Iraqi Kurdish woman, Rehana, killing over a hundred ISIS terrorists. Major Mariam Al Mansouri, a female fighter pilot from the UAE, has also been involved in anti-ISIS operations. While I would not assert that Islam or any other major global religion (and in this, I include the oriental religions as much as the Abrahamic faiths) is completely free from patriarchy (with all due respect to everyone’s religious sentiments), the idea of prohibiting girls’ education has no basis in Islamic theology.
Also, in our Indian context, as for those Hindus criticizing Islam for legitimizing polygamy, it must be noted that Islam prescribes a limit of four wives but upholds monogamy to be better. In fact, polygamy is not prohibited by Hinduism as a faith (and, in fact, it was outlawed for Hindus only after independence, and Nehru faced stern opposition for the same from orthodox Hindus, and he wanted to reform Muslim personal law too, but passed away before that). The Puranic lore is full of multiple marriages by a single man – to quote some prominent examples, Krishna had thousands of wives, prominent among whom were Rukmini, Satyabhama and Jambvati; his father Vasudev had two wives, Devki (Krishna’s mother) and Rohini (Balram’s mother) and Ram’s father Dashrath had three wives, besides even Bheem having a wife other than Draupadi (Ghatodkach’s mother) and Arjun too had several, including Krishna’s sister Subhadra. Also, while Muslim personal law indeed suffers from various flaws when it comes to gender equality, so do Hindu personal law and Parsi personal law (the former, in Goa, still allows polygamy). I personally support the idea of a uniform civil code if it gives equal rights to men and women, and some Muslims do support it too, including actor Saif Ali Khan, and those opposing it include sections of Parsis and Christians as well.
Some Hindus criticize Muslims for having many children because they practise polygamy as permitted by their faith (though census reports have established that Hindus are more polygamous than Muslims, even though it is illegal for the former, and I myself know a Hindu electrician in Delhi who has engaged in bigamy), even though that actually doesn’t make a difference to the number of children as long as the number of reproductive women remains the same. Four women would respectively give birth to the number of children they would, irrespective of whether they are married to one man or four different men! And as has already been mentioned, not as many Muslim men in India actually engage in polygamy.
And there are indeed many Hindus too, particularly in rural areas and in several cases, even among the urban educated class, who have several children even if they are monogamous. As Khushwant Singh has pointed out in his famous autobiography, many educated Hindus who have been public figures, like former president V.V. Giri, former prime minister Narasimha Rao and our very own Lalu Prasad Yadav have all had many children, and even Narendra Modi is the third of his parents’ six children.
No Muslim-majority country (but for parts of them ruled by militias like the Taliban and ISIS), not even Saudi Arabia, has legally imposed wearing burqas (though only Iran has imposed headscarves; however, as regards wearing burqas, it must be noted that the Quran does not ordain it, nor do Hadiths of undisputed authenticity), or prohibited women from driving (though only Saudi Arabia, other than militia-ruled regions, has imposed a ban on women driving, but a Saudi cleric also declared that there was nothing in the Islamic texts that prohibits women from driving). In Dubai, there are women-run family taxis, and Laleh Seddigh, an Iranian woman, is one of the best car-racers globally, even outperforming men.
My mentioning these facts, however, doesn’t, in the least, imply that I do not feel strongly about the issue of Muslim extremism globally and the danger it poses, and I’ve written this article on how to tackle it.
*****Very many Egyptian, Iranian and Indonesian Muslims identify with and appreciate their Pharonoic, Zoroashtrian and Hindu heritage respectively. While there is indeed no dearth of Indian Muslims who are staunch Indian nationalists, there is certainly a section that tends to identify with a global pan-Muslim fraternity more than India (like there are some Indian Tamils who identify more with Sri Lankan Tamils than with India, and there are some Indian Jews identifying more with Israel than with India, joining the Israeli army rather than its Indian counterpart, though there are very many Indian Tamils and Indian Jews who are staunch Indian nationalists) and do not identify with India’s composite culture, instead portraying the arrival of Islam in India as the onset of civilization in India. In doing so, they are being as biased as the extreme Hindu rightist historiographers who try to portray India’s “Hindu past” as civilized and Muslims as barbaric foreigners, and neither narrative should be acceptable in a country that claims to reject Jinnah’s two-nation theory (interestingly, Muslim rightist historical narratives of the subcontinent and even Jinnah’s two-nation theory have been questioned and rebutted even by liberal Pakistani Muslim intellectuals). The fact is that the one who manned Shivaji’s artillery was a Muslim; Ibrahim Khan Gardi from the Maratha camp fought Ahmad Shah Abdali, and Man Singh and Jai Singh, at the behest of the Mughals, respectively fought Rana Pratap and Chatrapati Shivaji, other than Jahangir and Shah Jahan having Hindu mothers. The global pan-Muslim line of thinking is anachronistic, and I can prove my case on this point, even employing Islamic theology as a valid touchstone, as I have done in this article.
******There are those who accuse only Muslims of making such a big fuss about denigrations of their religion, say the offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad made by a Danish cartoonist, the trailor of the film Innocence of Muslims mocking Islam or other denigrations of Islam. However, looking at the issue objectively, Catholics so strongly protesting against the Dan Brown novel The Da Vinci Code and the movie based on it (and the protests were not always free from vandalism), Hindus getting outraged at the Deepa Mehta film Water which only exposed the truth about the condition of widows in the 1920s and nowhere denigrated the Hindu religion per se, before its release, to the extent of not letting it be screened in India owing to threats of violence, Sikhs turning violent against the Dera Sacha Sauda because their leader Ram Rahim Singh dressed up like one of the Sikh gurus or Indian Jews protesting against Anupam Kher acting as Hitler in a Hollywood movie, are far more irrational and unfounded. A dialogue in the movie The Passion of the Christ was not subtitled for fear of Jewish extremists turning violent and the creator of an art display offensive to Christians (the display was called ‘Piss Christ’) faced death-threats, though the peaceful protests against the same were certainly justified. If there are threats to the Danish cartoonist’s life, there were also threats to the life of the Muslim painter MF Hussain for his portrayal of Hindu deities in a fashion that was perceived to be offensive by Hindu extremists, though it was actually not derogatory at all, considering the openness and liberalism of Hindu art over the centuries and the paintings were actually not even all that revealing. Moreover, in the context of the recent film offensive to Muslims, Innocence of Muslims (or rather its trailer), many prominent Muslim clerics, like the mufti of Egypt, had urged to maintain calm and many of the protests were indeed totally peaceful.
Also, speaking of the movie Vishwaroopam, the protests were peaceful, though certainly unwarranted, and the film had been cleared by the censor board but evoked protests before its release by those who had not even seen it, but then, sections of Dalits too had reacted in a similar manner when it came to the Tamil movie Ore Oru Gramathile or the Hindi movie Aarakshan, even though the latter was pro-reservation, and a section of Tamils had reacted in the same way against Madras Cafe!
It may also be added that freedom of speech and expression vis-à-vis criticizing religion is not something new to Islamic history. In the early centuries of the Islamic Caliphate, Islamic law allowed citizens to freely express their views, including criticism of Islam and religious authorities, without fear of persecution. As such, there have been several notable Muslim critics and skeptics of Islam that arose from within the Islamic world itself. In tenth and eleventh-century Syria there lived a blind poet called Al-Ma'arri. He became well known for a poetry that was affected by a “pervasive pessimism”. He labeled religions in general as “noxious weeds” and said that Islam does not have a monopoly on truth. He had particular contempt for the ulema, writing that-
“They recite their sacred books, although the fact informs me that these are fiction from first to last. O Reason, thou (alone) speakest the truth. Then perish the fools who forged the religious traditions or interpreted them!”
Another early critic was the Persian physician Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi in the 10th century. He criticized Islam and all revealed religions in general in several treatises. Despite his views, he remained a celebrated physician across the Islamic world.
*******While in places like Nagaland and Mizoram, prior to the advent of Christianity, non-Vedic aboriginal religions were practised, Hinduism was and still is practised there among sections of the local populace, and in Meghalaya, there are ethnically local people who observe Durga Puja. Manipur has a sizable ethnically local Hindu population, and even in Tripura, there are Hindus among the indigenous, non-Bengali people. Hojagiri is a traditional dance of Tripura dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi.
********Indeed, even the Pakistanis’ beloved “Qaid-e-Azam” (great leader), Jinnah, should, by the same token, be held guilty for the bloodshed in the Direct Action Day riots in 1946. Interestingly, after some Muslims bearing allegiance to Jinnah engaged in violence against innocent Hindus, some Hindus retaliated even against innocent Muslims, and then, as noted scholar of Islam, Rafiq Zakaria, points out in his acclaimed book The Man Who Divided India, Jinnah showed little interest in calming the fires even when his own co-religionists were killed. Mahatma Gandhi, risking his life, then went to Kolkata (then ‘Calcutta’), risking his life (and he was almost killed by a Muslim rioter, but Gandhi’s excellent rendition of Quranic verses in Arabic impressed that rioter, and he became Gandhi’s disciple), appealed to both Hindus and Muslims to abjure violence, for which he went on a fast unto death, and he was successful in bringing about communal harmony. And, as Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre point out in their classic book Freedom at Midnight, after Gandhi was martyred by a Hindu extremist for his efforts to protect Indian Muslims, Jinnah’s official condolence message described Gandhi only as a pillar of the Hindu community, and someone with whom he had differences but it wasn’t worth talking about them once the man was gone!
*********My reference to Pakistan is only to highlight a point to the Muslim rightists in India, Pakistan and elsewhere, not to suggest that India should measure its standards in this regard by comparing itself to Pakistan. And no, I am far from being someone who holds any prejudice against Pakistanis, as this article by me and this one demonstrate, and I have even written for the Pakistani media.
**********Speaking of Modi’s alleged complicity in the riots in 2002, it must be noted that he hasn’t got a clean chit from the Supreme Court, as many of his supporters are shouting from their rooftops, but from a district court, yes, based on a non-binding report of a Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT), and the report has received much criticism, including from former Supreme Court judge Justice PB Sawant, who had investigated the riots earlier. Even in the Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo cases, the accused had been acquitted by district courts but later convicted by higher courts, and even in Modi’s case, an appeal has been filed in the High Court. Furthermore, even Sajjan Kumar has been acquitted by a district court in Delhi in connection with the anti-Sikh riots in 1984; will the supporters of the BJP accept that he is innocent by that yardstick? We must all support bringing to book all those who are guilty, by means of fair trials of all the accused (and if our judicial system is rendered ineffective against very many politicians due to extraneous factors, then that’s something we need to work on), but that does not mean we write off anything good that Modi does as India’s prime minister.