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WAJAHAT HABIBULLAH | 5 JUNE, 2016

An Indians' Thoughts on Islam, Compassion and ISIS


There has been much debate in the last decade the world over on the nature of the religion of Islam. I am no cleric, nor indeed an authority, but I have been an avid reader of the Quran, belief in the truth of which is the pivot of the religion. As in the debate, so there have been quotations from the Quran spouted out of context to prove that it is a faith that encourages violence and hence a danger both to modern civilisation and to the exercise of democracy.

Islam has no Church, no Papacy, and no head cleric. The Quran is the ultimate authority on the religion. It is through the verses of this book that a Muslim is expected to establish his or her communion with God, belief in whom is central to this faith-La illaha Illallah (there is no God but God). The opening lines of the opening Chapter of the Qur’an ‘Surat al Fatihah’, described by Maulana Azad as the essence of the Quran is definitive:

“Praise be to God, Master of all creation, the Compassionate, the Merciful, the Ruler of the Day of Judgement”

God is therefore universal and just, and the embodiment of compassion. Every action initiated by a Muslim is expected to begin with the prayer “Bismillah ir Rehman irraheem” (In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful), as indeed is every chapter of the Qur’an. And this Surat al Fatihah’ is expected to be repeated several times in each of the daily five time prayer enjoined upon a Muslim. Besides, the ritual of prayer concludes with the turn of the head first right and then left, with the recitation “As salaam Alaikum wa Rehmatullah”, thus wishing upon one’s neighbourhood peace and the benefit of Allah’s compassion. This is also the wording of a Muslim’s greetings, As salaam Alaikum

The concept of Allah in Islam is then ultimate compassion. Although Buddhism, as explained by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, believes in no God, the fountainhead of the faith is comprised in the Four Noble Truths, which begin with dukkha or suffering, dukkha being a concept springing from the Sanskrit karuna. This constituted the dharma chakra pravartana sutra, the first sermon of the Buddha after he attained nirvana or enlightenment. The Surat al Fatihah referred to, prays for guidance to the Right Path (sirat ul mustqeem). And the Qur’an, in the opening verses of its second Chapter, describes to the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) what the Qur’an means:

“2. This Book there is no doubt in it, is a guide to those who keep their duty

3. Who believe in the Unseen and keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them

4. And who believe in that which has been revealed to thee and that which was revealed before thee, and of the Hereafter they are sure”

Placed in this context, it is easy to see how the phases which I will describe led to the spread of the faith. It would to my mind also establish how Islam sought to build on religious tradition, not negate it. Indeed the remains of earlier tradition are recognisable in Muslim ritual to this day in India’s Muslim majority areas of Kashmir and Lakshadweep. Thus the Islamic belief that every community has been graced by a Prophet, that there is no compulsion in religion and that Allah has innumerable names but is formless, falls into place. Like the Buddhist concept of cause and effect being the basis of human impulse, Islam itself is the consequence of evolution of faith through the ages in which karuna to rahami has been mainstay.

Bharat Ratna Maulana Azad, Congress President in the 1940 Ramgarh Session of the party, described the role of India’s Muslims in the making of India:

“I am a Muslim and profoundly conscious of the fact that I have inherited Islam’s glorious traditions of the last thirteen hundred years...I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian, an essential part of the indivisible unity of Indian nationhood, a vital factor in its total makeup, without which this noble edifice will remain incomplete...This thousand years of our joint life has moulded us into a common nationality. This cannot be done artificially. Nature does her fashioning through her hidden processes in the course of centuries. The cast has now been moulded and destiny has set her seal upon it.”

How then did Islam spread to its present proportions particularly in South Asia, where the largest section of the world’s Muslims abide? There are several explanations, each of which are examined exhaustively, centred on the example of Bengal in Richard M Eaton’s “The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204-1760” :

  • The Religion of the Sword-The role of military force. But how ‘force’ was exercised and ‘conversion’ affected has never been defined. Persian works talk of the submission to Islam of the defeated State, but this is a reference to their military submission to the Indo-Muslim state, not to the faith.
  • Religion of Patronage-Conversion to receive favours from the State. But why was the concentration of Muslims in the Muslim Indian empires most wide in its furthest reaches, where the hold of the empire was at its most tenuous? Why did the first realisation that Bengal had a Muslim majority concentrated in East Bengal, wherein Chittagong became part of the empire and so of India, only when seized by the Emperor Aurangzeb from the Arakanese in 1660, come only with the census of 1892?
  • The Hindu caste system and the social liberation theory is the most widely accepted explanation. No conclusive evidence has been produced in support of this and presupposes that what are described as the lower castes had already some aspirations of equality and hence resentment against the Brahmanic order. And this theory fails to explain the fact that Islam’s most dramatic expansion in Bengal was not within a stratified social hierarchy reeking with injustice, but in the densely afforested areas of the east where the influence of the Brahmanic order was minimal and the population largely animist.


Besides, Islam has no concept of ‘conversion’. To be a Muslim, you need simply accept Islam as comprised in what is called the Kalama: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.” The question that naturally follows is what becomes of existing religious beliefs for one who has accepted Islam? The answer to that is simple: Islam does not renounce other faiths, but if one is a Muslim one is enjoined to follow the interpretation given by the Quran. Again with reference to Eaton’s book on Islam in Bengal it is easy to trace the means of the spread of Islam in relatively recent times. This passed through four phases:

Inclusion, during which Islam and Islamic figures are included among traditional deities; a pronounced example of this is found in Kashmir’s Sheikh Nooruddin Noorani (1377-1438), popularly known as Alamdar-e-Kashmir known to Hindu followers as Nund Rishi. Sheikh Nooruddin was spiritual heir to the Saivite Yogini Lal Ded (known as Lal Ishwari among Hindus and Lal Arifa among Muslims).

Identification in which the Muslim cosmology is identified with the Hindu. An example is the bilingual Arabic and Sanskrit inscription in a thirteenth century mosque in Veraval, Gujarat. In the Arabic version the deity of the mosque is described as Allah, whereas the Sanskrit text describes Him as Visvanath (Lord of the Universe) Sunyarupa (in the form of emptiness) and Visvarupa (a form that is universal)

Displacement. This would mean the supplanting of Hindu entities from religious cosmology with Islamic ones. This was a consequence of Islamic reform movements led by the clerics in the 19th and 20th centuries

Conforming to the Monotheistic ideal In this final phase Muslims would be encouraged to identify themselves as a distinct community. Whereas the first two phases owed much to India’s Sufis the next two saw the rising precedence of the clerics. But it must be remembered that the two have always been dialectic.

This is not to deny each of the explanations described earlier. But this thread springs directly from the example of the Prophet, who Sufis elevate to the level of deification. This is explicit in the worship at the Hazratbal shrine in Kashmir, which houses the moh-i-muqaddas-hair of the Prophet-installed there by the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1699. This is resonant of the Buddhist worship at a stupa, also home to relics of the Buddha; Buddhism was the faith that preceded Islam in Kashmir.

To understand this phenomenon one needs to understand the meaning of ‘Hindu’ The word Hindu is often misunderstood and misused. The fact is that the both the words "Hindu" and "India" are of foreign origin. The Persians are said to have referred to the Indus River as Sindhu. However, the Persians could not pronounce the letter "S" in their native tongue and mispronounced it as "H." The ancient Persian cuneiform inscriptions and the Zend Avesta refer to the word "Hindu" as a geographic name rather than a religious name. The ancient Greeks and Armenians followed the same pronunciation, and thus, gradually the name stuck.

The ancient Greeks mispronounced the river Sindhu as Indos. When Alexander invaded India, the Macedonian army referred to the river as Indus and the land east of the river as India. Greek writers who wrote of Alexander took to that name. For the Arabs the land became Al-Hind. Thus, if we go by the original definition of the word Hindu, any person living in the land beyond the river Indus is a Hindu; the word denoting any religion or religions practiced by the people living in the Indian subcontinent. Yet Hinduism today has evolved into a faith that includes those who are comfortable with being labelled as Hindu. But because the Hindu faith springs from no single revelation or dogma, in contrast to the Judeo Christian tradition, remaining always in a state of dynamism, it has been both absorptive and contributory.

This is strikingly demonstrated in the history of Buddhism. Near to disappearance in the Indian heartland by the close of the 1st millennium when it reached its maximum spread across the world, the principles of Buddhism, including the elevation of the Lord Buddha to the level of a deity, were incorporated into the body of Hinduism by the teachings of eighth century sage Adi Shankaracharya. These principles have remained a constant in the evolution of the Hindu faith finding expression in Gandhi’s Ahimsa. The principles that bind the Sufi schools of thought are Sulh-i-kul (complete harmony) and wahdat-ul wajud (unity of existence)

This integration is best expressed in the words of 17th century Guru Gobind Singh in his classic Persian epic, the Zafarnama, Epistle of Victory addressed to the Mughal Emperor, but imbued with a deep philosophy resonant of his faith. In verse 2 he addresses God:

Ama-baksh bashindeh o dastgir

Raza bakshrazi deho dilpazar

(O merciful one
Who protects and guides,
O charming one
Who forgives and provides)


The meaning for India’s spiritual harmony should therefore be clear. Also clear is the universalism of India’s heritage in line with the Vedic concept of mankind. And so acceptance of Islam would mean for the adherent no repudiation of established belief, only adjustment to meet immediate needs physical and spiritual.

But in today’s environment, with the rise of ISIS in West Asia, the extremism sweeping across several Muslim countries, and conflicts even within our own country the question arises, is our society also riven by divisive impulse and can our country survive such internal infraction?

If convergence were indeed the theme of India’s religious history why indeed did a separate state of Pakistan based on what were perceived as exclusive national rights of a vital element of Indian society emerge as detritus of the British Indian Empire?

Questing for answers I have harked back to the origins of India’s spiritual tradition from the remote past. Religion gave hope. About 2600 years ago in India Buddhism and Jainism emerged, while in the Middle East arose Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the 5th century BC Zoroastrianism had risen in ancient Persia. All these religious traditions have flourished in India, proving that it is possible to achieve genuine religious harmony. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, true Indian in thought, has explained that, “Just as we need different medications to treat different ailments, we need different solutions to help us deal with our different disturbing emotions. Even when they take a different approach, all these religious traditions share a common message of love and compassion.”

Surely this is the basis of India’s unity, despite challenges, layered as it is into the pluralism secured by India’s Constitution.

So the activities of Islamic State (ISIS) are in contradiction to my understanding of Islam. But such extremism owes much to the blatant use of a radical interpretation of “jihad” by the US to defeat and finally destroy the Soviet Union after the USSR’s Afghanistan adventure. And the genesis lies in the contradictory political initiatives of Great Britain at the close of the Great War when it sought to unify Muslims across the world behind a Caliphate centred in the Hejaz in present Saudi Arabia, expected to remain forever beholden to Pax Brittanica, and to serve as bulwark against Communism, which by then covered most remaining Muslims outside Europe’s colonies. To these origins the history of the rise of Jihadi extremism can readily be ascribed.

ISIS then is a political cataclysm, brought on by European meddling in the Middle East, drawing from religion but in no way based on it. India, with its own history of colonial exploitation, could not remain immune. But the roots of our civilisation go much deeper. And in that civilisation, with all its contradictions, lies redemption.

(Edited by the author from his Madhu Limaye Memorial Lecture, Mumbai, 2016)


The Holy Quran translated by Maulana Muhammad Ali, Lahore 1917, Chapter 2,  Surat Al-Baqarah, ‘Ayat 2-4; p8 Emphasis mine

Quoted by Syeda Hameed “A harvest of horror and shame” The Hindu Saturday August 23, 2014 p 8 Editorial

Richard M Eaton The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204-1760  Oxford University Press, New Delhi 1994 p 113-119

Guru Gobind Singh “Zafarnama” (Translated by Navtej Sarna) Penguin Books, India 2011 p 2/3

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