The common bases for Hindu-Muslim dialogue

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

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The first step in the quest for inter-community dialogue is the search for common ground. Religious and cultural differences divide Hindus and Muslims from each other. This diversity need not necessarily be seen as intimidating, however. In fact, the Quran explains that diversity is natural. The Quran instructs us thus: ‘If God so willed, He could make you all one people’ (16:93).

Commenting on the above-quoted Quranic verse, the noted Islamic scholar Imam Razi writes in his Tafsir-e Kabir that this refers to the fact of diversity of religions and customs among human beings.

Nature desires diversity, not uniformity. That is why we should aim not at eliminating these differences but, rather, to tolerate them in accordance with the demands of Nature.

Man is a social animal. It is ingrained in his nature to seek to live in peace with others. That is why there are no two communities in the entire world that have nothing in common between them. It was for the common purpose of protection, peace and justice that the Prophet entered into a treaty or pact with the Jews of Medina. This is an instance of practical inter-community dialogue based on common values and concerns.

The basic task before is to seek to develop and promote that spirit among both Hindus and Muslims that would urge them to ignore their differences and, instead, focus on what they have in common or on issues of common concern that can bring them closer to each other. We must not let what sets us apart overwhelm what we have in common. A key aspect that we Indian Hindus and Muslims have in common is our Indianness, the fact of belonging to the same land. Another key issue and concern that can bring us together is a common quest for preventing moral decline in our societies, which both Hindus and Muslims are faced with. Anti-religious forms of secularism and liberalism invented in the West that claim to have ‘liberated’ human beings from God have led to horrendous anarchy throughout the world, including in our own country. This calls for Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths, who take their religions seriously, to work together to combat such dangerous tendencies. This is a duty we all owe to God and to humanity, which we must undertake in cooperation with each other.

Hindu-Muslim dialogue involves efforts at both the intellectual as well as practical levels. But, all these efforts can make no headway without sincerity of purpose. If these efforts are made simply for political gain or fame they can produce no positive results. Parties to the dialogue must be conscious of the fact that they need each other. They must realize that they can and, indeed, must, learn from each other. They must know that the progress of our common homeland, and, therefore, of each and every community that inhabits it, is impossible without Hindu-Muslim cooperation. For meaningful dialogue between Muslims and Hindus, both must consider themselves not as opponents but as friends, or at least as potential friends.

Hindu-Muslim dialogue, or inter-community dialogue more generally, must focus, among other issues, on addressing and removing mutual misunderstandings, which are often rooted in deeply-held but misleading negative stereotypical images of the ‘other’. Some of these misunderstandings are rooted in our traditional ways of thinking about the ‘other’. One such contentious issue is the way Muslims understand the status of the Hindus and their religion in terms of the shariah. While many ulemasee nothing of worth in the Hindu religion and consider all the Hindus to be polytheists, some of them are of the view that the basic principles of monotheism and prophethood can be discerned in the religious traditions of the Hindus. The founder of the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband, Maulana Qasim Nanotavi, was of the opinion that Ram and Krishna might possibly have been prophets of God and that is why Muslims must not say anything bad about them. Some scholars, including a leading Sanskrit scholar Pandit Ved Prakash Upadhyaya, claim that the Kalki Avatar or Antim Rishi mentioned in some Hindu scriptures actually refers to the Prophet Muhammad. If this is true, then obviously these scriptures cannot be said not to have been of divine origin.

Another issue that continues to be discussed in ulemacircles is the status of Hindus in terms of the shariah. This question needs to be resolved in the interest of Hindu-Muslim dialogue. If, as the ulema claim, the Hindus, or many of them, are polytheists (mushriks), are they to be considered mushriks in the same sense as Muslims understood the pagan Arabs at the time of the Prophet? I personally believe that a distinction should be made between the two. Even the classical jurists and Quranic commentators differentiated between the Arab pagans, who virulently opposed the Prophet, and other pagan so that the commandment for jihad vis-à-vis the former did not apply in the same way to the latter. It is critical to distinguish the Hindus from the Arab pagans because of the tendency of many ulema to relate and apply Quranic verses about the pagan Arabs to the Hindus of today, as, for instance, the verse which says, ‘Strongest among men in enmity to the believers will you find the Jews and pagans’ (5:82). Clearly, this is unacceptable.

Yet another issue that must be clarified if Hindu-Muslim dialogue is to proceed is the distinction between Islam and Muslim history. We must not, as we often do, adopt a defensive attitude towards the latter by seeking to justify the misdeeds of Muslim rulers or argue, through erroneous interpretation of Islamic sources, that all the actions of the Sultans and Muslim religious figures were actually in accordance with the teachings of Islam. If the policies of many Muslim rulers of the early Islamic period, which many Muslims regard as a ‘Golden Age’, were not just un-Islamic but even anti-Islamic, how can we expect Muslim rulers of the later period, which Muslims consider to have been characterized by widespread deviation from Islam, to have been models of Islamic virtue?

A basic cause for mutual misunderstandings between Hindus and Muslims is lack of proper knowledge and awareness of each other. They have made no serious attempts to understand the religious traditions and beliefs of each other from their original sources, in an objective manner. Muslims have viewed Hinduism in a polemical fashion, not as the Hindus themselves understand it, and not using the same framework as the Hindus use to relate to their faith tradition. And vice versa. This explains the virtual absence of any literature that can enable Hindus and Muslims to understand each other seriously, in a balanced way. Not a single book of this sort on the religious traditions of the Hindus has been written by Muslims ever since Al-Biruni wrote his famed Kitab al-Hind more than a thousand years ago. Barring a few exceptions, our madrasas do not teach about other religions. That is why their students, our would-be ulema, have only a very superficial and partial understanding of Hinduism and other religions. This urgently needs to change.

A key form of Hindu-Muslim dialogue is for Hindus and Muslims to work together for common social purposes on a wide range of issues. The opportunities for this, however, are becoming alarmingly restricted today as, especially in urban areas in northern India, Muslims are becoming increasingly ghettoized, for various reasons. In recent years, especially in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the ensuing wave of anti-Muslim violence that culminated in the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat, there has been a perceptible trend of Muslims seeking to shift from mixed localities to almost wholly Muslim ghettos. Numerous leading ulema and other Muslim leaders have openly supported this trend, claiming that there are numerous Hadith reports wherein the Prophet had advised Muslims to do so. This, to my mind, is a wholly incorrect deduction from Hadith reports wherein the Prophet is said to have advised Muslims not to stay in the same localities as polytheists, because these reports actually relate to those Muslims who had stayed behind in pagan-dominated Mecca even after the Prophet had migrated to Mecca. Heavily outnumbered by their pagan opponents, their lives and properties were gravely threatened. This is the particular historical context for these Hadith reports. To argue, as some of our ulema do, that the same rule applies for Muslims in India, even in places where Muslims do not face any such threat, is incorrect. If Muslims were to restrict themselves to Muslim ghettos and thereby cut themselves off from people of other faiths, they would be unable to relate to, and interact with, others in the social, economic and political spheres, and would also have no opportunity to engage in the task of da‘wah or communicating the true message of Islam to them. Hence, this ghettoisation process must be reversed, for it is harmful particularly to the Muslims themselves.

In fact, Muslims must make all efforts to promote closer interaction at all planes with Hindus, rather than isolate themselves in a corner. In this regard, we would need to exercise a certain degree of flexibility in the matter of some fiqh rules about relations between Muslims and others that were developed in the period of Muslim domination and which may not be relevant in today’s context. In the light of these medieval fiqh prescriptions, many Muslims have grave reservations on a host of issues with regard to people of other faiths, such as participating in their functions, greeting them on their festivals, wishing them, exchanging gifts with them, and sharing in their joys and sorrows. In the face of this, it is imperative that we develop a contextually-relevant ‘fiqh for Muslim minorities’ (fiqh ul-aqalliyat) through which we can review and rethink these fiqh rules so as to enable us to adopt a more expansive and open stance on these matters.

Similarly, in line with medieval fiqh formulations, many Muslims take a very extreme position with regard to the prohibition of imitating or following the ways and customs of non-Muslims. Traditional understandings of this question also need to be reviewed if we are to establish closer links with Hindus and people of other faiths. On this issue, the influential medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Taimiyah, who is known for having adopted a rather extreme position in this regard, made a clear distinction between Muslims in a state of cultural domination and those in a condition where they are culturally dominated by others. In the latter case, he opined, for Muslims to adopt some of the external practices of non-Muslims might actually be desirable from the point of view of the Islamic cause. Indeed, he went on, it might even become necessary for this purpose. As he explained in his bookIqtiza us-Sirat ul-Mustaqim:

‘Saving oneself from imitating non-Muslims and distinguishing oneself from them applies only in the context of [Muslim] dominance. When in the early period [of Islam] Muslims were weak, this commandment was not given. This commandment was given only later, when Islam became dominant and acquired power. Likewise, today, Muslims living in non-Muslim lands are not obliged to distinguish themselves externally from non-Muslims, because this might cause them harm. Indeed, under some circumstances, it is appropriate or even necessary for Muslims to share [some of] the external practices of non-Muslims if this is in the larger interests of Islam or for a noble purpose.’


The time for Hindu-Muslim dialogue is now. It cannot be put off until later.

(Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted [email protected]

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.)