Religious Tolerance in India

Religious Tolerance in India I Sabah Ulkesi I April, 2014

What is tolerance? Tolerance is the opposite of intolerance. If you consult an English dictionary, it will tell you that tolerance means the capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.

Tolerance is a highly valuable quality in social life. It is a fact that there are differences among people in various aspects of life. In such a situation, if people act according to their own mindset, it is bound to create intolerance that may lead to violence. Therefore, the best policy is what is called tolerance. Tolerance is the only way to establish peace in society. Adhering to the way of tolerance creates the kind of environment in which everyone finds room to carry out their constructive activities.

Tolerance is an integral part of India’s tradition. One can say that tolerance is India’s national identity. India has a long history of the culture of tolerance. India is a multi-religious society. Almost all the major religions live in India with total harmony. One can say that India has proved to be a peaceful haven for different religions and cultures. In this sense, one can say that India is like a peaceful garden in which all kinds of plants and trees flourish. This is the identity of India. India is a composite society. According to the 2001 census, the demographics of India’s population according to religion are: 80.5% Hindus, 13.4% Muslims, 2.3% Christians, 1.9% Sikhs, 0.8% Buddhists, 0.4% Jains, and 0.6% followers of other religions.

This composite nature of the Indian society is not by accident. It is directly due to the Indian way of thinking. According to the traditional way of thinking, India believes in plurality, or in the words of the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, “the manyness of reality.” Hindus comprise the majority in Indian population. The Hindu religion is based on advait vad, that is, monism. Monism means that divine reality is one, manifested in different ways. According to this religious philosophy, the Hindus believe that everything in the cosmos is an ansh, or part, of divinity. They believe in the concept of an indwelling god, that is, every human being has a content of divinity. Due to this concept, the Hindu mind accords equal position to every man and woman. This is the genesis of the culture of tolerance in India.

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the holy books of Hinduism. It maintains that all paths lead to the same summit. It was this concept that was declared by the well-known Hindu thinker Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in these words: “We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true.” (Chicago, September 11, 1893). It is a fact that Hinduism believes in religious pluralism. Almost all scholars of Hinduism, for example, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Rabindranath Tagore, C. Rajagopalachari, and S. Radhakrishnan, have confirmed this concept of Hindu philosophy.

A practical example of this culture is narrated by Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) in his famous book The Discovery of India, in these words: “In Kashmir a long-continued process of conversion to Islam had resulted in 95 per cent of the population becoming Moslems, though they retained many of their old Hindu customs. In the middle nineteenth century the Hindu raja (ruler) of the state found that very large numbers of these people were anxious or willing to return en bloc to Hinduism. He sent a deputation to the pundits of Benares, the religious centre of India, inquiring if this could be done. The pundits refused to countenance any such change of faith and there the matter ended.” According to the Hindu pundits, this kind of conversion was not objectionable.

Due to this mindset, the authorities of Hindu religion have given Islam a very honourable status. For example, Dr Bhagavan Das (1869-1958) was a well-known scholar of Hindu religion. He has been an author of a large number of learned works on philosophy and religion. He writes in his magnum opus, Essential Unity of All Religions: “The word Islam has a profound and noble meaning which is, indeed, by itself, the very essence of religion. Derived from salm, peace, shanti, it means ‘peaceful acceptance’ of God; calm resignation, submission, surrender.”

Acharya Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982) was one of the greatest advocates of the Hindu philosophy. He used to say that although he was born as a Hindu, but “main hindu bhi hun, main muslim bhi hun, main Christian bhi hun”, that is, “I am a Hindu too, I am a Muslim too and I am a Christian too.”

This Hindu formula means: ‘I am right, you are also right’. In other words, it is based on mutual acceptance. From the point of view of theoretical theology, this concept may be debatable. However, in terms of pragmatism, it is of great value, because it gives an equal place to all religions and traditions under the same roof. It was this Indian principle that found expression in the political field as the Panchsheel Principle or the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. This formula was propounded by the then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 under of the banner of the Non-Aligned Movement.
The different religions of India have their own distinct history of how they reached this land. As far as the religion of Islam is concerned, it first reached India toward the end of the seventh century AD, that is, in the same period that is regarded among the three golden periods of Islam (qurun-e-thalatha). This first group of Muslim Arabs came from Iraq by sea-route and settled in Kerala, a coastal state of India. Due to the above-mentioned Indian spirit, this group was hailed with respect. The Indians conferred on them the title of Mappila, which means a highly respectable person. Jawaharlal Nehru, in The Discovery of India, observes that when the Arabs came to India, they brought with them a brilliant culture.

Due to this reason, Islam found a very favourable atmosphere in India. In the beginning Muslims were just a small group, but now they comprise about 13% of the 1.2 billion population of India. An Indian scholar Tara Chand who was an eminent scholar of Ancient History and Culture has documented the advent and influence of Islam in India. His major contribution to Indo-Islamic culture and philosophy is the work Influence of Islam on Indian Culture. The book, which was first published in 1922, has become a classic on this subject for researchers and historians.

According to the Indian Constitution, which came into effect in January 1950, Muslims have equal rights of citizenship in every aspect and there is no discrimination at all on the basis of religion.
There are about one million Muslim masjids, madarsas and various Islamic organizations in India at present. All these institutions are flourishing and working smoothly. There are numerous schools, colleges and universities freely run by Muslims. Muslims have a distinctive presence in every field of Indian society such as the government, administration, business, industry, education, social institutions, and so on. The President of India holds the highest office in the country. He is the head of the state and the first citizen of India. In the history of independent India, four Muslims have, to this date, held the office of the president. These were: Dr Zakir Hussain (1967-1969), Mohammad Hidayatullah (July-August 1969), Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (1974-1977) and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam (2002-2007).

The sound of allah akbar can be heard from the minarets of the Indian mosques in the same way as it is observed as a common phenomenon in Muslim countries. The writer of this article also runs an Islamic centre with complete freedom in the capital city of Delhi. The registered name of our centre is al-markazul islami lil-buhooth wal-dawah, that is, ‘Islamic Research and Dawah Centre’. Our mission is spread throughout India as well as abroad. We never receive the slightest problem from the Indian administration or the Indian people.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Khilafat of Turkey was under constant threat from the British Empire. It is interesting to note that in those days it was only in India that a movement, under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jouhar (1878-1931), originated in support of the Turkish Caliphate. This movement received the full support of Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), who was the greatest Indian leader at that time. This phenomenon is also a testimony to the fact that there is no religious bias in India. Here all religions are given an equal place.

If there are some problems faced by the Muslim community in India, they are due to the law of nature and not on account of any kind of discrimination. Differences are a part of the law of nature. Thus, it is but natural that there are problems in every society, including a Muslim society. These kind of problems are normal and not worthy of any consideration. According to the law of nature, it is impossible to have a country which is totally problem-free, and certainly India is not an exception in this regard.

The ties of trade between India and Arabia existed from ancient times. And, the first Muslim group that came to India in the seventh century was also part of this relationship. Moreover, India has a very special reference in the Hadith literature. According to a tradition, the Prophet of Islam is said to have declared that “he felt cool breeze of knowledge coming from the land of India” (ajedo rih al-ilm min bilad al-hind). Perhaps the Prophet of Islam, through inspiration, discovered the fact that India would be a better place for Islam in the later periods of history. In one of the traditions narrated by al-Nasai, the Prophet of Islam has predicted that in future, a Muslim group will emerge in India that will work for the spreading of the message of Islam. (Sunan al-Nasai, 3175)

Swami Vivekananda is one of the most admired religious leaders of India. He was a great believer in Hindu-Muslim unity. Once he stated his concept in these words: “I see in my mind’s eye the future perfect India rising out of this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islam body.” (Letter dated June 10, 1898, Letters of Swami Vivekananda)

Due to this spirit of tolerance and mutual acceptance, Islam and Muslims found a very favourable soil in India. For example, the Sufis generally came from Central Asia and settled in various Indian cities. They established khanqahs and tried to peacefully disseminate the message of Islam. The Sufis never experienced any obstacle from the Indian society. They converted Hindus to Islam in large numbers and the latter did not object to this process. Jawaharlal Nehru has acknowledged this fact in these words, “It is worth noting as a rule, conversions to Islam were group conversions.” (The Discovery of India) According to the Hindu thinking, if a person peacefully carries out his mission, then it is non-objectionable. Some Western scholars maintain that Islam spread by force. However, the Hindu scholars have themselves rejected this notion. For example, Swami Vivekananda maintains this in one of his writings: “Why amongst the poor of India so many are Mohammedans? It is nonsense to say they were converted by sword.” (Letters of Swami Vivekananda)

The above historical references explain how it was possible that the different groups of religion and culture have been living in harmony in India since long. How the people of a nation had so many religious beliefs and how they could live together from the past to the present with this diversity, without conflict? It was not due to any coincident. But, it was due to the deep-rooted traditions of the Indian culture. The theoretical explanations of this phenomenon can be different, but, it is a fact that this kind of tolerance is a great strength of India. It gives India a special place on the world map. The well-known Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi is the greatest name in pacifism. In its article on pacifism, the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has this to say about Gandhi: “The most massive, comprehensive, and historically effective example of nonviolent activism is that of the movements unchained and organized by Mahatma Gandhi.” The case of Mahatma Gandhi is not an individual case, in fact, he was only a manifestation of India’s spirit of peace and tolerance.

In the pre-WWII era certain countries adopted a social model that was based on uniculturalism. Some examples of these countries are Canada, the USA and Australia. However, this model completely failed to work. Then in the post-WWII period they adopted a new model which was based on multiculturalism. It is interesting to note that India had adopted the model of multiculturalism since the beginning of its history and up until the present day. It is this model that provides the pace of development to both the Muslim community as well as the non-Muslim communities.