[Vol. I, No. 18] 01 - 15 March 2007
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Bill Gate
Single Parent Family


Islam's perception of and approach towards other religions is characterized by openness, tolerance and inclusiveness. Thus, in the Islamic view God is not a racial or parochial deity who is concerned only about Muslims, but the Lord of the universe and of all humankind. The presence of the divine is not confined to specific sites and modes of worship. Thus the Quran says: "Had God not checked one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure" (22:40). This verse conveys two important points. First, in whatever name people invoke God-whether as Jehovah or Ahura Mazda or Allah-they are nonetheless invoking the same Absolute Being who is the creator of all mankind. Second, whether one remembers God in a synagogue or church or mosque, it is the same God who is being invoked. Islam's universalistic view of the divine is reflected in a Tradition of Prophet Muhammad: "All of mankind is God's family, and the dearest of them in God's sight is the one who is the most kind and helpful to His family."

Islam's inclusionary approach towards other religions is also reflected in its view of prophecy. The Quran says that God has sent down prophets to all peoples and all regions of the world (35:24). The Quran mentions about two dozen prophets by name-including those of Noah, Abraham, Moses (who is mentioned in 136 places), and Jesus-but adds that there are no people in the world who have not received divine guidance through prophets. A Tradition of the Prophet says that there have been as many as 124,000 prophets at different points of time.

It is interesting to note that many Muslim scholars believed that prophets were sent to India which has had a hoary past and an ancient civilization. Shaykh Ahmad Sarhindi, a prominent scholar and Sufi saint who lived in the 17th century, wrote that prophets were sent down to all countries, including India, and that one can see the radiance of prophecy in some parts of the country. Mirza Mazhar Jan-i-Janan, a distinguished Sufi saint of Delhi in the 18th century, regarded the Vedas (Hindu scriptures) as divinely inspired and Hindus, who had their revealed scriptures, as monotheists. He considered the Hindu god Krishna as a saint. Mawlana Manazir Ahsan Gilani, in the first half of the 20th century, wrote that it is inconceivable that prophets were not sent down to an ancient country like India. He believed that probably saints who were known as avatar (divine incarnations) in the Hindu tradition were actually prophets.

Muslims are required to believe not only in the prophecy of Muhammad but in that of all other divine messengers. Likewise, they are required to believe not only in the Quran as a divinely revealed scripture but also in all other religious scriptures.

Peaceful coexistence, tolerance and accommodation are among the cardinal features of the Islamic faith. The Quran explicitly maintains that there is no place in Islam for compulsion in religious matters (2:256; 109:6). Though Islam is against idol-worship, Muslims are advised not to revile those who worship idols or images (Quran 6:108).

The followers of Semitic religions, especially Jews and Christians (who are described in the Quran as People of the Book), share some fundamental articles of faith, notably monotheism, with Muslims. The Quran emphasizes that the tenet of monotheism can provide the cornerstone of dialogue and reconciliation between Jews, Christians and Muslims (3:64). The special affinity between Muslims and Jews and Christians is reflected in the permission accorded to inter-marriages between Muslim men and Jewish or Christian women and the permissibility for Muslims of the flesh of animals slaughtered by Jews and Christians (5:5).

Non-Muslims in the Islamic state

The attitude and behaviour of Prophet Muhammad towards the beliefs and traditions of the followers of other religions exhibited exemplary tolerance, understanding and magnanimity. He allowed a delegation of polytheists and idolators from Taif to stay in his mosque at Madina. Some Christians from Najran, who visited the Prophet, sought his permission to say their prayers in the mosque, which was granted. When he set up a city-state at Madina, he drew up its constitution, which was committed to writing at his instance. This constitution included two significant passages: first, Muslims and Jews will be entitled to the preservation and protection of their respective religious traditions; second, Muslims and Jews will together constitute a (political) community. This covenant was extended, at a later date, to the Christians of Najran and pagan Arabs. Thus the Pax Islarnica included not only Muslims but also Jews, Christians and pagan Arabs, and guaranteed to them religious, cultural, and judicial autonomy. In fact, the Islamic state assumed responsibility for the maintenance and even defence of Jewish, Christian and pagan identities. Thus the city-state of Madina provided the first model of democratic pluralism. The Prophet exhorted his followers to scrupulously protect the legitimate rights and privileges of the dhimrnis (non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state). He issued strict instructions to the effect that, in the event of a war, women, children and religious functionaries belonging to other religions should not be harmed.

Muslims and Comparative Religion

From early times, Muslims evinced a keen interest in knowing and writing about the religious beliefs and rituals of other people. There is a substantial literature in Arabic on the religious beliefs, rituals, feasts and customs of pre-Islamic Arabia. Some of the important works in this field include Kitab al-Ma'arif by Ibn Qutaybah (d. 883), Kitab al-Muhabbar by Ibn al-Habib (d. 859) and Al-Iklil by Al-Hamdani.

The most important and wide-ranging contributions to comparative religion were made by Al-Biruni (d. 1048), Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), Al-Shahrastani (d. 1153), Qadi Sa'id (d. 1070) and Abdul Qahir al-Baghdadi (d. 1037). Al-Biruni was a genius and a polymath who wrote extensively on mathematics, astronomy, botany, geography and history. He made a pioneering contribution to comparative religion in two of his works, Kitab al-Hind (The Book of India, which was edited and translated by the German Orientalist Edward Sachau) and Al-athar al-baqiyah fil qurun al-khaliya (which was also edited and translated by Sachau as The Chronology of Ancient Nations).

Kitab al-Hind is devoted to a detailed study of the religious doctrines, philosophy, customs and traditions and ceremonies of Hindus. The book is remarkable for three features. First, Al-Biruni employed a unique methodology for the collection of data. He learnt the Sanskrit language from Brahman priests, following which he made a deep study of Hindu texts. In fact, he mastered Sanskrit so well that he translated Brahmagupta's Sanskrit treatise Brahmasiddhanta into Arabic. On account of his erudition, especially his deep knowledge of Hindu beliefs and philosophy, local Hindus addressed him as Vidyasagar (an ocean of learning). Al-Biruni stayed in India for about 12-13 years. During this long period he closely interacted and exchanged views with Brahman priests in order to acquire a first-hand understanding and knowledge of Hindu beliefs and rituals. He also visited Hindu centres of pilgrimage in order to observe the rituals and ceremonies performed there. He thus ingeniously combined what are today known as the textual and field views of Hindu society. In other words, Al-Biruni combined Indology, historiography and anthropology. Second, Kitab al-Hind is remarkable for its amazing coverage and the richness of ethnographic data. Third, as Sachau has remarked in his introduction, the book is remarkable for the objectivity and dispassionate approach of the author. I would like to quote an interesting passage from Al-Biruni's book:

    The same tendency (towards distortion, misrepresentation and prejudiced treatment) prevails throughout our whole literature on philosophical and religious sects. If such an author is not alive to the requirements of a strictly scientific method, he will procure some superficial information which will satisfy neither the adherents of the doctrines in question nor those who really know it……..My book is nothing but a simple historical record of facts. I shall place before the readers the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them (emphasis added).

It is easy and tempting for a Muslim or a Westerner to dismiss Hindu beliefs and customs as hocus-pocus, as a curious bundle of superstitions. But it requires scholarly detachment, broad-mindedness and insight to understand and objectively report the complex world of Hinduism. And this constitutes Al-Biruni's monumental contribution to comparative religion and to Indology. Al-Biruni regarded monotheism as the essence of Hindu religion. He was the first to introduce the Bhagwad Gita to the Muslim world and the first Muslim to study the Puranas.

Al-Biruni wrote The Chronology of Ancient Nations when he was barely 28 years old. Here also one is struck by his extensive familiarity with the Old Testament and the gospels as well as with the texts of Manichaeism and of the Sabaeans. The book is a valuable source for the history and comparative study of religions, including texts, beliefs and folklore.

Ibn Hazm, like Al-Biruni, was a polymath and what is generally known as a Renaissance figure. He was a prolific writer who composed several works on law, biography, historiography, ethics, philosophy and comparative religion. One of his most important works, which is devoted to comparative religion, is Al-fisal fil milal wal-ahwa wal-nihal. It contains a detailed discussion of the beliefs, rituals and customs of Jews, Christians, Magians, Sabaeans and Greek philosophers. This book is mainly textual in nature. Interestingly, it also discusses the differences between various sects in Christianity, particularly the Jacobites, Nestorians and Melkites. His approach to comparative religion seems to be characterized by critical hermeneutics.

Ibn Hazm writes that many Muslims believe that Zoroaster was a prophet. He also writes that Caliph Ali and some of the Companions of the Prophet consider the Zoroastrians among the People of the Book with whom marital relations can be established.

Al-Sharastani's major contribution to comparative religion is contained in his book Al-milal wal-nihal, which has been translated into French. The book is remarkable for three distinctive features. First, it contains a detailed discussion of the beliefs and ritual observances of several religious groups, including Jews, Christians, Magians, Buddhists and Hindus. His description of Hindu beliefs and traditions is remarkably free from prejudice. Thus he regarded Hinduism as a great religion and wrote appreciatively about the Hindu practices of meditation and yoga. His attention to the variations in religious traditions is reflected in his discussion of the differences among the various sects among Christians as well as Muslims. Second, his discussion and analysis of denominational ad sectarian differences is quite objective. Third, he brings out the bearing of religious and sectarian differences on political processes.

Qadi Sa'id of Andalusia, in his book Tabaqat al-umam, wrote that Hindu religious thought is basically premised on monotheism.

Islam in India

Muslims evinced a keen interest in the religious beliefs and traditions, philosophy and sciences of India since early times. Thus, during the reign of Caliph Al-Mamum in the early ninth century, a school for the teaching of Sanskrit was set up in Baghdad and a group of Sanskrit scholars from India was invited for the purpose. A number of Sanskrit treatises were translated under royal patronage at this school. It is significant to note that the first translation of the Quran in an Indian language was done more than a thousand years ago at the instance of a Hindu king Mahrog in 883.

The Quran contains some words from non-Semitic languages. Interestingly, there are two words of Indian origin in the Quran, namely zanjabil (ginger) and kafur (camphor). These two words are mentioned in the Quran (76:17, 76:5) in relation to the taste of a soothing drink which will be offered to people in paradise. The word zanjabil has been derived from the Sanskrit word shrangaver, and the word kafur from karpur. Camphor tree is not native to India. Since ancient times it has been imported from Java and China. Probably the Sanskrit word karpur was derived from a similar-sounding Javanese or Chinese word. Since Arab traders took camphor from India, the word karpur was Arabicized into kafur. The Arabs in turn took it to Europe, where it was transformed into camphor in the English language.

Muslim geographers, historians and travellers provided a wealth of information about the beliefs, ritual, customs and traditions of Hindus. Mention may be made of Sulayman the Mercant, who visited India in about 851, Abu Zayd al-Sayrafi, who came to India around 916 and Al-Masudi, who visited India in the 10th century. Buzurg ibn Sharyar wrote a whole volume on India called Ajaib al-Hind (mysteries of India). Abdul Qahir al-Baghdadi, in his book Al-farq bayn al-firaq, dwelt at considerable length on various sects and denominations among Muslims as well as the followers of other religions, including Buddhists who are described as thamaniya. Muslims became familiar with Buddhism in Central Asia where it was widely prevalent. Muslim historical sources refer to Buddha as Budhasif, which seems to be a corruption of Bodhisatva. The widely used Persian word but is derived from Buddha.

According to an Islamic tradition, the prophet Adam descended in southern India or in what is now known as Sri Lanka. Interestingly, there still exists a huge human footprint on a hill which is revered by Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. Muslims believe it to be the footprint of Adam, Buddhists that of Sakyamuni and Hindus that of Shiva.

Many Muslim kings in India were great patrons of Hindu learning and arts. They extended patronage and encouragement to Hindu poets, writers, musicians, astronomers and scientists. King Zainul Abideen of Kashmir (1420-1470) commissioned the translation of the Mahabharata into Persian. Alauddin Husain Shah, the Sultan of Gaur in Bengal (1493-1518), ordered the translation of the Mahabharata into Bengali. The patronage of Hindu learning reached its highest watermark during the Mughal period. Emperor Akbar, who was a great patron of Indian culture, philosophy and art, commissioned the translation of the Atharva Veda, Mahabharata, Ramayana and some of the Puranas into Persian. It is estimated that about 90 Persian translations of the Ramayana are in existence, more than the translation of the text in any other language.

Dara Shikoh, son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, was a great connoisseur of Indian philosophy and metaphysics. He was well versed in Sanskrit and Hindu texts. With the help of Brahman scholars, he translated the Bhagwad Gita and 52 Upanishads ( which he called Sirr-i-Akbar) into Persian. Towards the end of the 18th century, a French scholar Anquetil de Perron chanced upon Dara Shikoh's translation and he rendered it into Latin, which was published as Oupnekhet in 1801. This translation played a key role in introducing Indian philosophical thought to Europe. Arthur Schopenhauer (d. 1860) became fascinated with Indian philosophy through this translation.

The tolerance and openness of many Muslim rulers in India is also reflected in the grants offered to Hindu and Jain temples and places of pilgrimage. King Zainul Abideen of Kashmir, the ughal Emperor Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan in the Deccan regularly offered grants and endowments to Hindu and Jain temples located in large parts of the country.

An interesting reflection of the Islamic perception of other religions is to be found in the views of Sufis or Muslim mystics. By and large, Sufis have a liberal and accommodative approach towards the traditions and followers of other religions. Some of them drew on Hindu religious symbols, imagery and metaphors to describe the nature of the divine as well as mystic experiences. In the Deccan, Burhanuddin Janam (d. 1582) frequently used Sanskrit terms for expressing spiritual experiences. He described God as Shuddha Brahma (Pure Being) and the phenomenal world as maya (mirage), which are evidently derived from the Hindu tradition. A number of Hindus, particularly ascetics and yogis, used to visit the khanqahs of Sufi saints. In the Deccan and elsewhere, many of the Sufis admitted Hindus and people of other faiths into their circles of disciples and adepts. The Lingayat Hindu community of Karnataka formed a significant proportion of the disciples and devotees of the Sufis of Bijapur. In 1857, when an atmosphere of chaos and insecurity prevailed in much of northern India, many Hindus sent their womenfolk to the khanqah of Shah Abdul Bari in Amroha in the belief that it would be a safe haven for them. Mirza Mazhar Jan-i-Janan in Delhi had many Hindu disciples.

Shaykh Abdul Quddus Gangohi (d. 1537) frequently used Hindi couplets and Hindu idioms in his mystic compositions. He used the pen-name Alakh Das in his compositions. Shah Fazl-e-Rahman Gunj of Moradabad (d. 1895) translated some parts of the Quran into Hindi. The translation is significant for the appropriation of a number of idioms and concepts from Hinduism. He described God, in keeping with the Hindu idiom, as Parmeshwar, Maha Ishwar, Manmohan, Maha Thakur. He translated the Quran as Maha Ved or Great Veda and the Islamic term Qiyamah (Day of Judgement) as Mahapralay.


The relationship between Islam and Christianity has been characterized, at different points of time, by a mixture of peaceful coexistence, competition, hostility, polemics and contestation. I will not go into the issue of the demonization of Prophet Muhammad in European history or the Crusades. I will conclude by citing two interesting instances in the context of India. Shah Abdul Aziz was a prominent scholar in Delhi in the 18th century. He was known not only for his erudition and oratory but also for his deep knowledge of other religious traditions. Quite a few Britishers used to visit him in order to benefit from his learning, to enjoy his delightful and witty conversation and to engage with him in friendly polemics. I will narrate one of the conversations between Shah Abdul Aziz and some of his English visitors. Once an Englishman said to him, "I wish to ask you a question, but I want a rational and logical and not a dogmatic answer from you. The question is this: How is it that your Prophet's grandson was killed in battle, but your Allah could not save him?" Shah Abdul promptly replied," When our Prophet's grandson was surrounded by enemies, he went to God and sought his intervention. God replied, "I have yet to get over my only son's crucifixion, and you want me to save your grandson." The Englishman had a hearty laugh and went away, satisfied with Shah Abdul Aziz's witty reply.

During colonial rule over India, a large number of Christian missionaries were active in proselytizing activities. A German evangelical missionary Karl Pfander was sent to India by the Basel Mission in 1839. He was well versed in Arabic and Persian as well as in Islamic texts. He had written a polemical book in German on a critique of Isam and in defence of Christianity. After spending a few years in Calcutta he arrived in Agra in 1841 and soon began circulating copies of the Urdu translation of his book and other pamphlets which were highly critical of Islam. This engendered a great deal of disquiet and anger among the local Muslims. Maulana Rahmatullah, a prominent scholar of Agra who was not only well versed in Islamic learning but had also made a study of the Bible and the gospels, decided to confront Pfander. He got in touch with Dr Wazir Khan, a surgeon by profession who had collected, in the course of his stay in England, a substantial literature on the critical study of Christian scriptures. Maulana Rahmatullah and Dr. Wazir Khan challenged Pfander to a public debate, which was held in January 1884 and was attended by a fairly large number of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. Flustered by the massive evidence marshaled by Mawlans Rahmatullah and Dr. Wazir Khan, Pfander had to admit that there were significant variants in the texts of the Old and New Testaments and that the alteration and corruption of the texts of the Bible could not be denied. Pfander suffered a humiliating defeat, following which he was transferred to Peshawar. Later, Mawlana Rahmatullah wrote comprehensive treatise in Arabic on a critical study of Christian scriptures, known as Izhar al-Haqq. The book was subsequently translated into many languages, including French, Turkish and English.

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