RAZIUDDIN AQUIL | 11 DECEMBER, 2015
Miniature of Mughal artillerymen during Akbar’s reign
The possibility of thinking of essential unity of all beings with a plea for peace and justice possible from within the religious framework is a concern increasingly being shared by scholars, writers and activists, especially in the wake of recent spate in violence and terror in the name of religion.
At the height of their power through the major part of medieval centuries, Arab Muslims accorded a lot of respect for Christian and Jewish communities, regarding them as people of the book, ahl-i kitab. Though nominally a protected minority, zimmis, theoretically living against the payment of a somewhat insulting tax called jizya, they actually occupied key political positions and excelled as scholars and intellectuals. This status of ahl-i kitab was also given to Zoroastrians in Iran with an ancient tradition of being guided by a Book of their own.
Persian-speaking people embracing Islam flourished in all walks of life in the Abbasid Caliphate, mid-8th to mid-13th centuries, becoming more Islamic than what some chauvinist Arabs thought of themselves as against others as dumb people, ajamis. So, like Jews and Christians, Iranians (in this case converts to Islam) excelled in the Abbasid system, controlling not only administrative positions but also providing religious leadership. Meanwhile, Turkish warlords also joined in to provide military support with territorial ambitions of their own.
As Islam and Muslim political power spread to India, through a long and slow process over five or six centuries (Muhammad bin Qasim's conquest of Sindh in 711-12 and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1205-10 being major landmarks), majority non-Muslims were accorded the similar status as resembling people of the book, like Jews and Christians of the Arab world and Zoroastrians of Iran – ancient communities of people with scriptures of their own. Identified as Hindus of various hues, castes and colours, and in such vast numbers, they could have been a protected 'minority', zimmis paying jizya, only in the nominal sense, for under almost all the dynasties of Muslim rulers whether under Turks, Afghans or Mughals, non-Muslims served in the bureaucracy from the lowly revenue collector at the district level to very high level imperial positions.
In the Mughal regime for instance, they were perhaps more powerful under Aurangzeb than what they might have been under the more respectable Akbar. Because much like our modern day politicians, Aurangzeb conveniently used religion to justify his political strategies, he has earned a bad reputation as someone working with an agenda of Islam, in the process somewhat tarnishing the image of Islam as well – especially Sunnite majority Islam – invoking it against the Shi'ite Deccani Sultanates, Marathas dismissed as kafirs or infidels to be dispatched to Hell and the Portuguese who pre-dated the Mughals with aggressive control of the Western coasts and Indian Ocean waters identified as theological Islam's eternal enemies as Christians, along with Jews (together called yahudo nasara).
As the Mughal state began to crumble from the last decades of the 17th century, though the actual process of decline and fall of the empire took an amazing 150 years (with Aurangzeb's death in 1707 and the great Indian revolt-mutiny in 1857), religion was used in some cases to mobilise support against the Mughals; Sikhs and Satnamis come to mind straightaway; Jats had their own ways to press for their demands; and yet the majority non-Muslims were self-assured of their respectable and comfortable place in the universe.
Not only scripture-bound way of life was available to them but also those wanting to question the oppressions embedded in them had the freedom to do that (as bhakti saints such as Kabir did), with political regimes maintaining critical distance in the secular sense in which modern state is required to maintain equidistance and place itself above religious or sectarian lobbies.
In terms of developing a consensus for peaceful community relations and identification of Hindus as indeed a people with scriptures revealed to them through prophets sent by God, several efforts were made by scholars, Sufis and Sultans and their sons to develop a common ground and identify a language, an idiom, aimed at a scripturally-validated position of the essential unity of mankind.
Following this line, attempts were also made through medieval period to show that the religious leaders of Hindus, Brahmins, may have descended from Abraham, a prophet common to Jews, Christians and Muslims; sounding enthusiastic Brahma also felt like Abraham much as Ram and Rahim could be considered as equivalent. Even if the historical and political links between these religions and their followers (Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and not to forget Buddhists and Jainas) could be tenuous, but it is such a nice thought to think that these people along with a number of other sects and communities with traditions and customary practices of their own could try to live peacefully as people of the same God and ways criss-crossing to achieve Him - God who is the creator of all beings and God who exists in all beings.
Certainly, the attempts to see parallels and indeed connections between the notion of pantheism in Upanishadik advaita (non-dualism) and Sufic wahdat-ul-wujud (monism or unity of being) are not desperate attempts to hold on to the possibility of peaceful co-existence, articulated also in modern political terms as unity in diversity. And, as the devout like to put it: God knows best and He doesn't discriminate between people, high or low, man or woman, or between humans and animals for that matter; there is a provision for justice for all.