Illustration of two figures in different traditional garb, reaching out to hold hands, with their shadow made of many figures overlapping


The Gentler Yin


​Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Vipan Chandra

Najaf hamare liye Hardwar-au-Kashi hai (Najaf [the Shia holy place in Iraq where Imam Ali is buried] is to me my Hardwar and Banaras).

Thus sang Roop Kunvar Kumari, a Hindu poetess, according to an article by the columnist Intizar Hussein in the February 13, 2006, issue of The Dawn, the leading English daily newspaper of Pakistan. Hussein also mentions other Hindus, notably Milkhi Ram, Kalidas Gupta Raza, Raja Chandu Lal Shadan, Ramji Mal, and Sarjoo Prashad Nigam, who composed elegies (marsiyas, in Urdu) in honor of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad.

This to me was a revelation and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. The world has lately been engulfed by renewed controversy over the nature of Islam, primarily as a result of violent reactions on the part of many Muslims in various countries to the insult heaped on their faith via the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad originally published in a Danish newspaper. “Intolerant,” “bigoted,” “medieval”—these are some of the descriptions now attached to Muslims and their faith even more tenaciously in many quarters of the world. And, considering the sometimes-violent frenzy unleashed by the cartoons, these descriptions may stick.

Yet, in my mind the Dawn article juxtaposed this terrifying yang imagery with the gentler yin imagery of tolerance, friend-ship, inclusion, and harmony that has been long an equal part of Islam but that has tended to be pushed aside by the actions of fanatics. If Islam is to be rescued from a dangerous slide toward a bloodier confrontation with the West, it is imperative that its more genial practitioners and their friends in other religious traditions strengthen and broadcast the yin side of Muslim history far and wide. And what a history that has been! I can recapture only bits of it here.

The sixteenth-century Moghul emperor Akbar had Hindus, Jesuits, Jains, atheists, Zoroastrians, and Muslims in his court.

South Asian Muslims and Hindus can recall how eminent Muslims through the centuries have worked to cultivate tolerance and peace, often at the cost of being denounced by the orthodox clergy as traitors to their faith. And many Islamic leaders in different parts of the world have carried on a running dialogue with non-believers in order to deepen and enrich their own grasp of spirituality. All educated people of South Asia are familiar with the sixteenth-century Moghul emperor Akbar, who had Hindus, Jesuits, Jains, atheists, Zoroastrians, and Muslims in his court to help him fulfill his personal spiritual quest. He and several other Islamic rulers of India even sponsored the publication of Hindu works of faith and wisdom, such as the Ramayana and the Bhagavad Gita, for the bene-fit of their subjects. Akbar’s great-grandson Dara Shikoh translated the Upanishads, the ancient Hindu works of spiritual philosophy, for the enlightenment of Persian readers. In fact, it was through a French translation of his Persian version that the Western world later came to know of these gems of learning. Today, Abdul Kalam, the president of India, a devout Muslim, doesn’t find it beneath his faith to read the Bhagavad Gita in his own search for spiritual insights.

Hindus of similarly ecumenical spirit have long celebrated Islamic mysticism and its message of inclusion and egalitarianism. The Sikh faith of India arose as a response to the need to build a bridge between the best of Islam and the best of the Upanishads. The revered poet Kabir, a fifteenth-century Muslim weaver, like-wise wrote hymns in praise of the uplifting qualities of the divine in both religions, while castigating the sectarian loyalties of each. To this day, in the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, Kabir has a place of reverence equal to that of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith. And to many Hindus and Muslims as well, Kabir remains a saint of the highest order. It is not uncommon for Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs to name a son Kabir. A Hindu version might be Kabir Das; a Muslim version might be Kabir Ahmed or Kabir Ali; and a Sikh version might be Kabir Singh. One of my own nephews is named Kabir.

Kabir and the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Muslim saint Bulleh Shah of Punjab, through their poetry and songs, also preached the transcendent virtue of ultimately not relying on scriptures, priest-hood, rituals, mosques, or temples for communion with God, but on love of humanity, insaniyat in Urdu. This, for them, was the noblest path to the divine. Numerous shrines to them and to others like them across India have through the centuries continued to draw pilgrims of all faiths offering obeisance and seeking blessings. It was this tradition that evidently produced the Hindu celebrants of Ali recalled by the columnist Intizar Hussein.

To shift the gaze away from India, any-one even superficially acquainted with In-donesian culture would also recognize that, for ages, Islam and Hinduism have not only coexisted in those islands, but have also deeply interpenetrated one another in many syncretic ways, giving joy and com-fort to all. On a visit to Seoul, South Korea, in the early 1970s, I met a Muslim diplomat from Jakarta who put me, a secular Hindu in the Nehruvian mold, to shame when he flawlessly recited several episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana that had long been consigned to the hazier parts of my memory. The poison of a violently intolerant Islam in Indonesia is really a recent import from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.

When courageous Muslims everywhere stand up and forthrightly admire, and ask their co-religionists to emulate, the ecumenical examples of goodwill, good sense, and joy from history and contemporary life, and isolate and neutralize those closed minds who have hijacked their faith, not only Islam but also other belief systems across the world will be immensely richer, because the hands of non-Muslims who seek to do the same within their own faiths will thus find universal validation and added power in their quest. In the specific context of India, the bigots of the Bajrang Dal and the champions of the sectarian Hindutva will, in my view, have no leg to stand on.

Let the yin shine!

Vipan Chandra is Professor of History at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

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