Search for a Muslim Ideal in South Asia:  The Path to Inclusion

Search for a Muslim Ideal in South Asia:  The Path to Inclusion

Akbar S. Ahmed

Will there be a clash of civilizations or a dialogue of civilizations in the 21st century? What can the historical experience of South Asia bring to this debate?

Why is this discussion relevant or important in the 21st century? (There are good signs of [India-Pakistan] dialogue from South Asia in the news recently—although I will take the long term view based in history).

The discussion is relevant because we are talking of [South Asia] a region of the world which has a population of about one and a half billion people; one-fifth of humanity. And there have been three wars between India and Pakistan and both are now nuclear and there is always the danger that the confrontation could lead to a nuclear exchange which would affect millions and millions of people in a barbaric and mindless exchange of nuclear violence, more tragic at a time when millions live in dire poverty.

In exploring these questions, I will present two main ideas this afternoon and I hope we will be able to further explore them in the Q&A session. I will try to simplify my discussion so as to make sense of complicated historical sequences and different cultures.

1. First: Islam’s response to the South Asian context created a strong tradition of inclusivism in the [South Asian] subcontinent based in tolerant universalist mysticism—a development which has theological, political and cultural ramifications.

2. Secondly: Islam’s response to modernity created a viable democratic Muslim model of political leadership which involved women’s rights, minority rights and human rights.

Both ideas challenge some of the stereotypes in our post-9/11 world. In the media today, Islam is often reduced to terrorism or extremism. Indeed, when commentators ask are democracy and Islam compatible they dismiss the idea of a tolerant and democratic tradition within Islam. Obviously, they have little idea of South Asian Islam.

As to my first point: When Islam emerged from the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century and first engaged the peoples of what is now the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, it interacted with populations that were largely Jewish or Christian. In short, it was interacting with peoples who were still within the Abrahamic traditions—the idea of an invisible omnipotent God, of common prophets and of a list of commandments were familiar. Within this tradition, some figures were shared like Abraham who was considered as both patriarch and prophet. In spite of their differences, the Abrahamic faiths had remarkable similarities and points of contact.

But in South Asia, Islam met Hinduism, a completely different religious system. Not only was the notion of the divine very different and it took very different forms but here was a civilization which was both ancient and sophisticated. It was a civilization, which had already created great works of architecture, art and literature. Everything was inspired by religion and yet everything was cultural. Even the name, Hinduism, was not a religious name, but derived from the river Indus and the word itself goes back to the time when invaders who came to the subcontinent arrived at the river Indus—or Ind—and called the people “Hindi” or the people of the Indus.

Confronted with a religion and civilization that was not only older but had a greater population, the philosophers of both Muslims and Hindus began a process of mutual understanding. There were points of theological, cultural and intellectual contact, and even synthesis. Genuine learning from both while respecting each others’ integrity and identity was not only possible, but allowed the co-existence of communities. This was possible because within Islam there is a theological mechanism to allow Muslim societies to adjust to change. It is called ijtehad.

The Muslim response came in two different forms: inclusivist and exclusivist. This inner tension between exclusivists and inclusivists created a dynamic which has existed throughout Muslim history in South Asia. The greater the threat to Islam, the greater the falling back to exclusivist leaders. Among the inclusivists were figures like Amir Khusro, Moin-uddin Chisti, Dara Shikoh and other luminaries. Their philosophy rested in the famous Sufi saying, “sulh-i-kul” or “peace with all.”

Conversions to Islam took place because of these Muslim scholars and saints. With compassion went knowledge which is so highly valued in Islam. As an anthropologist, I always give the example of Al-Beruni who a thousand years ago came to India studied Sanskrit and Hindu society, and wrote his renowned book Kitab-al-Hind or the Book of India, which is still the standard source for that time of Indian history.

The Mughal emperor Akbar, who inspired my father to name me after him, provides us another remarkable example—remarkable because it would certainly challenge those today who think of Islam as fanatical and extremist. If you go to Fatehpur Sikri and I recommend you doing it when you are next in India, enter the grand Baland Darwaza and on the right hand side, you will see a quotation. There is a line which says: “This world is a bridge—build not your house upon it but pass lightly over it—thus sayeth our Lord Jesus, peace be upon him.”

And I often think to myself that here was this mighty Muslim emperor one of the most powerful in the world ruling an empire that took in what is today India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh and when he built his new city—which was doomed to failure due to the shortage of water but that is another story—he quoted in the main entrance in the place of honor, not [Muhammad] the Prophet of [Allah (God)] but Jesus. And he not only quoted Jesus, but selected a quotation which reflects on the ephemeral nature of life and therefore points us towards compassion and humility and understanding. Akbar asked his governors to spend their free time reading the great Muslim mystic Maulana Rumi—the quintessential poet of peace and love.

In contrast were the exclusivists and one of the earliest was Mahmud of Ghazni. For him the Hindu deities were to be smashed and their temples looted. Islam’s exclusivist expression was tangled with rapacious generals with an eye on plunder. Unfortunately, the image of Islam that dominates in the world [Zionist-NeoCon-Hindu-Fundamentalist] media and discourse is inspired by the exclusivists and has become the stereotype of Islam itself.

The tension between the two is dramatically reflected in the 17th century at the high noon of the Mughal Empire. Two sons of the Emperor Shah Jehan presented us again the two distinct models of South Asian Islam: Dara Shikoh, the inclusivist par excellence, and Aurangzeb, the exclusivist par excellence. Dara Shikoh was a mystic who spent his time with Sufis and Yogis, who enjoyed devotional music and who oversaw the translation of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. He wore a ring that was inscribed with Allah on one side and Prabhu on the other. Always a good Muslim, he never wished to abandon Islam but to expand its boundaries. Aurangzeb on the other hand drew the boundaries tightly around Islam. His was a formal literal and orthodox Islam and he lived in austerity. He spent his spare time reading the Quran. For all his piety he was a shrewd and successful ruler, and the Mughal empire expanded to its furtherest boundaries however weak it had become inside.

The clash between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb, and the total victory of Aurangzeb, would cast shadows on Muslim society into the future. The next centuries saw the depletion of compassion, vitality and learning in Muslim society.

The middle of the 19th century and the advent of Western imperialism presented a major crisis for Muslim society. In 1857, uprisings against the British resulted in the last remnants of the Mughal Empire being terminated and Muslim power being both symbolically and substantially finished. One important part of Muslim history in South Asia was over.

Muslims responded to the new realities in two characteristic ways: inclusivism and exclusivism. The two famous educational institutions that were created at Aligarh and Deoband represent the two responses.

Aligarh University founded by Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan was based on Cambridge University and its students wore blazers, ties, played cricket, but also wore the Fez and said their Muslim prayers. Sir Sayyed was recognized by the British and given a knighthood for his services. Deoband drew boundaries around Islam perceiving Islam under threat. Its founders fought the British in a jehad.

The inclusivist Muslim response created a remarkable Muslim renaissance through the late 19th and early 20th century: Allama Iqbal, Hali, Amir Ali and Mohammad Ali Jinnah—these were extraordinary figures who represented a modern, confident Islam with a capacity to respect women, minorities and uphold human rights within the tradition of Islam itself. Jinnah in time inherited the Muslim leadership and it is significant that while he was Quaid-i-Azam or the great leader [of Pakistan] to the inclusivists, he was the Kafir-i-Azam, the great unbeliever, to the exclusivists. But what the Quaid presented was vision of a modern, democratic, Muslim nation based in human rights, women’s rights and minority rights, and respect for the law.

It is in this context that I find the relationship of Quaid-i-Azam and the person who symbolizes inclusion, [Indian] Mahatma [Mohandas Karamchand] Gandhi, a fascinating one. Both about the same age and both dying in the same year, both from similar backgrounds in Gujarat, both educated in law colleges in London, both attacked by fanatics from their own community—Gandhi in fact losing his life to a Hindu fundamentalist who thought he was too soft on Muslims—and what is not well known, both had a great deal of mutual respect for each other. They were extra-ordinary leaders of vision, integrity and intelligence, and sharp humor. Recall their meeting when Gandhi said to Jinnah: “You have mesmerized the Muslims.”

Quick as a flash, Jinnah replied, “And you have hypnotized the Hindus.” There is something charmingly boyish in this bantering alliteration.

Both Quaid-i-Azam and the Mahatma reflect the inclusivist traditions of South Asia and neither saw 1947 as the creation of two states which would remain in permanent confrontation and enmity. [Pakistan’s founder] Quaid-i-Azam [Mohammad Ali Jinnah] after all was given the title of ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. His first and perhaps most important speech in Pakistan on August 11,1947, to the [first] Constituent Assembly clearly outlines his modern, democratic, open-minded and humanist vision for Pakistan in which he exhorted Hindus to worship in their temples and Muslims in their mosques with freedom. Recall his story in Karachi about wanting to be the “Protector-General” of Hindus when he was the “Governor-General” of Pakistan. As for the Mahatma, we know that he began his prayer meetings by reading the Quran and the Bible. We know that he fasted when there were riots against Muslims in order to prevent them. And we know he was on his way to Pakistan in friendship after the creation of Pakistan—no doubt to the relief of some [Indian] Congress leaders who were finding his presence burdensome—and Quaid-i-Azam was prepared to welcome him there when he was assassinated.

In the light of the ideas of inclusivism we have discussed, we need to ask ourselves which is the way ahead in the 21st century. I suggest three steps. First, we need to read and learn about each other. I find that the tragedy of South Asia is that few in Pakistan appreciate Mahatma Gandhi’s inclusiveness and few in India appreciate Quaid-i-Azam’s inclusiveness. In Pakistan, we need to know much more about figures like Mahatma Gandhi. In India, people need to read and know more about Quaid-i-Azam. When I began to do my project on Quaid-i-Azam, which is called the Jinnah Quartet (a feature film “Jinnah,” a documentary, a book and a graphic novel), I began to read on and discover Quaid-i-Azam but also Mahatma Gandhi. I consciously maintained Gandhi’s position with dignity and honor—I did not respond (as many people wanted me to) to Attenborough’s film “Gandhi” in which he had made Quaid-i-Azam into a caricature. I ignored the calls to take “revenge.” Yet the passions and prejudices are so strong that even before the filming of “Jinnah” I was attacked in India because commentators thought I would project Jinnah too favorably and Gandhi not favorably enough. I was also attacked in Pakistan because some thought Jinnah was not being projected favorably enough and Gandhi too favorably, which leads me to a connected point. We need to understand the importance of honor or izzat in South Asia to our societies. My new book is titled, “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World.” As an anthropologist, I underline the importance of honor in our part of the world. We need to appreciate that if we can treat each other with honor and respect we will be able to solve problems where politicians have failed. This is true even of Kashmir.

Indeed, if they were looking down at South Asia I am sure things would pain both the Quaid and the Mahatma. The Quaid would be dismayed among other things to learn churches have been bombed and a Bishop shot himself in despair in Pakistan; that a young American [Israeli] journalist had his throat slit and was forced to say: “I am a Jew.” But not only non-Muslims are targets of hate: 60 Muslims were killed in a mosque in Pakistan. The Mahatma would be broken hearted to confront the rape and murder and arson of Muslims in Gujarat [India], his own home state. Both would be broken hearted at the endless cycle of violence in Kashmir. Both would wonder whether “sulh-i-kul,” peace with all, has now been replaced with “jang-i-kul,” war with all.

Finally, I would suggest that we think of the future in a positive and upbeat manner by taking inspiration from our common history—and what a rich history it is. Just take some examples of the inclusivists—starting from Buddha, Asoka and going through history Moin-uddin Chisti, Hujwiri, Guru Nanak, Dara Shikoh, Allama Iqbal, Quaid-i-Azam, Mahatma Gandhi—these are extraordinary world figures and they provide enough common ground for us to begin rediscovering our common roots. For anyone who doubts the existence of the inclusivist model—and there are challenges to it regularly—I would suggest a visit to Ajmer Sharif in Rajastan [India]. Every time I have been there; I have been struck by the sense of inclusiveness. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs all come to pay homage to the philosophy of “sulh-i-kul” or peace with all; or visit Datta Sahib in Lahore to see “sulh-i-kul” in Pakistan. And if you think that international borders can block the message of “sulh-i-kul,” then let me remind you that the great mystic poet Bulleh Shah is revered in India among Sikhs and the great Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is popular among Hindus. That I believe is the great contribution of Islam in South Asia.

But “sulh-i-kul” [peace with all] in South Asia will be under challenge in the 21st century from the scourge of global violence or terrorism; from poverty and injustice; from ethnic and religious prejudice and lack of education; from closed minds that exclude compassion and forgiveness; and from the real threats to our global environment.

Originally published on Zaman Online at and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.