sanctified by scripture
activists demolished a mosque in a small town in Rajasthan, the on-line
magazine “OutlookIndia” published a comment with an entirely predictable
message by the well-known secularist Yoginder Sikand. At the editor’s
invitation, I wrote the following rebuttal, published on 31 August 2001.)
In his article
“Sanctified Vandalism As A Political Tool” (www.OutLooklndia.com, Aug.
23, 2001), Yoginder Sikand tries to explain away Muslim iconoclasm as marginal
and uncharacteristic, all while accusing “the Hindus and others” of just
such iconoclasm. In both endeavours, he predictably relies on Richard
Eaton’s book Essays on Islam and Indian History (OUP Delhi 2000).
According to Sikand,
“Eaton clearly shows that cases of destruction of places of worship were
not restricted to Muslim rulers alone. He recounts numerous instances
of Hindu kings having torn down Hindu temples, in addition to Jaina and
Buddhist shrines. He says that these must be seen as, above all,
powerful politically symbolic acts.” Follows a list of such allegations
against historical Hindu kings.
As it takes at
least a page to evaluate or refute an allegation uttered in a single sentence,
I cannot discuss those allegations here, so I will accept for the sake
of argument that there have indeed been “instances of Hindu kings looting
Hindu idols and destroying Hindu temples for political purposes”.
However, it is obvious that these do not create Sikand’s desired impression
of symmetry between Hindu and Muslim iconoclasm. Such symmetry would
require that like Hindu kings, whose goal was political rather than religious,
Muslim kings also destroyed places of worship of their own religion.
Eaton and Sikand would succeed in blurring the contrast between Hindu and
Muslim attitudes to places of worship if they could present a sizable list
of mosques destroyed by Muslim conquerors.
In a further attempt
to blame even Islamic iconoclasm on the alleged Hindu example, Sikand quotes
Eaton again: “It is clear that temples had been the natural sites for the
contestation of kingly authority well before the coming of Muslim Turks
to India. Not surprisingly, Turkish invaders, when attempting to
plant their own rule in early medieval India, followed and continued established
patterns.” How strange then that the Muslim records never invoke the Hindu
example: invariably they cite Islamic scripture and precedent as justification
for desecrating Pagan temples. As we shall see, the justification
was provided outside of the Hindu sphere of influence in 7th-century Arabia.
But at least Sikand
admits the fact of Islamic iconoclasm: “It is true that, as the historical
records show, some Muslim kings did indeed destroy Hindu temples.
This even Muslims themselves would hardly dispute.” However, Sikand claims
that unnamed “Hindutva sources” have grossly exaggerated the record of
Islamic temple destruction: “Richard Eaton points out that of the sixty
thousand-odd cases of temple destruction by Muslim rulers cited by contemporary
Hindutva sources one may identify only eighty instances ‘whose historicity
appears to be reasonably certain’.”
In his seminal
book Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them, independent Hindu historian
Sita Ram Goel has listed two thousand cases where a mosque was built in
forcible replacement of a Hindu temple. Not one of these verifiable
items has been proven false, not by Sikand nor by Eaton or other eminent
historians. It is also instructive to see for oneself what Eaton’s
purported “eighty” cases are, on pp. 128-132 of his book. These turn
out not to concern individual places of worship, but campaigns of destruction
affecting whole cities with numerous temples at once. Among the items
on Eaton’s list, we find “Delhi” under Mohammed Ghori’s onslaught, 1193,
or “Benares” under the Ghurid conquest, 1194, and again under Aurangzeb’s
temple-destruction campaign, 1669. On each of these “three” occasions,
literally hundreds of temples were sacked. In the case of Delhi,
we all know how the single Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque replaced 27 temples,
incorporating their rubble. At this rate, Eaton’s “eighty” instances
easily match Goel’s two thousand, perhaps even the unnamed Hindutva author’s
with the oft-used argument: “Caution must be exercised in accepting the
narratives provided by medieval writers about the exploits of kings, including
their ‘feats’ of temple destruction. Most historians were employees
of the royal courts, and they tended to exaggerate the ‘exploits’ of the
kings in order to present them as great champions of Islam, an image that
hardly fits the facts that we know about them.” So, as Sikand admits in
so many words, the Muslim chroniclers were collectively convinced that
they could enhance the standing of their patrons as “champions of Islam”
by attributing to them “feats of temple destruction”. Perhaps some
of them were liars, as Sikand alleges, and merely attributed these feats
of temple destruction to kings who had no such merit. But fact is:
all of them, liars as well as truth-tellers, acted on the collectively
accepted premiss that a good Muslim ruler is one who extirpates idolatry
including its material places and objects of worship. They all believed
that Islam justifies and requires the destruction of idol temples.
And rest assured that, like the Taliban, they had received a far more thorough
training in Islamic theology than Eaton or Sikand.
In a further attempt
to minimize Muslim iconoclasm, Sikand claims: “As in the case of Hindu
rulers’ attacks on temples, Eaton says that almost all instances of Muslim
rulers destroying Hindu shrines were recorded in the wake of their capture
of enemy territory. Once these territories were fully integrated
into their dominions, few temples were targetted. This itself clearly
shows that these acts were motivated, above all, by political concerns
and not by a religious impulse to extirpate idolatry.”
In fact, there
were plenty of cases of temple destruction unrelated to conquest, the best-known
being Aurangzeb’s razing of thousands of temples which his predecessors
had allowed to come up. But I concede that stable Muslim kingdoms
often allowed less prominent temples to function, most openly the Moghul
empire from Akbar to Shah Jahan. This was precisely because they
could only achieve stability by making a compromise with the majority population.
could preach all they wanted about Islamic purity and the extirpation of
idolatry, but rulers had to face battlefield realities (apart from being
constrained by the never-ending faction fights within the Muslim elite)
and were forced to understand that they could not afford to provoke Hindus
consisted in enlisting enough Hindu support or acquiescence to maintain
a stable Muslim empire. After Aurangzeb broke Akbar’s compromise,
the Moghul empire started falling apart under the pressure of the Maratha,
Jat, Rajput and Sikh rebellions, thus proving the need for compromise a
In order to justify
this compromise theologically, the zimma system originally designed
for Christians and Jews (but excluding polytheists, a category comprising
Hindus) was adapted to Indian conditions. This zimma or “charter
of toleration” implied the imposition of a number of humiliating constraints
on the non-Muslim subjects or zimmi-s, such as the toleration tax
or jizya, but at least it allowed them to continue practising their religion
in a discreet manner. The long-term design was to make the non-Islamic
religions die out gradually by imposing permanent incentives for conversion
to Islam, as witnessed by the slow plummeting of Christian demography in
Egypt or Syria, from over 90% in the 7th century via some 50% in the 12th
century to about 10% today. The system had the same impact in South
Asia, yielding Muslim majorities in the areas longest or most intensely
under Muslim control.
To varying extents,
the zimma system could include permission to rebuild destroyed churches
or temples. But even then, non-Muslim places of worship, though tolerated
in principle, were not safe from Muslim destruction or expropriation.
The Ummayad mosque in Damascus was once a cathedral, as was the Aya Sophia
in Istambul; the Mezquita of Cordova was built in replacement of a demolished
church. Eaton and Sikand can propose their rosy scenario of Islamic
iconoclasts emulating an imaginary Hindu iconoclasm only by keeping the
non-Indian part of Muslim history out of view. It is entirely clear
from the Muslim records that these temple-destroyers consciously repeated
in India what earlier Muslim rulers had done in West Asia. The first
of these rulers was the Prophet Mohammed himself. And this brings
us to the crux of Sikand’s argument.
When the Taliban
ordered the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, a secularist choir assured
us that this had nothing to do with “genuine Islam”. To me it seems
rather pretentious for secularists with their studied ignorance of religions
to claim better knowledge of Islam than the Taliban, the “students (of
Islam)”, whose mental horizon consists of nothing but the detailed knowledge
of Islamic theology and jurisprudence. Nonetheless, Sikand repeats
the exercise: “Most importantly, a distinction must be made between Islamic
commandments, on the one hand, and the acts of individual Muslims on the
other. The Quran in no way sanctions the destruction of the places
of worship of people of other faiths.”
In deciding what
is genuinely Islamic and what is not, it must be borne in mind that Islamic
law is very largely based on the precedents set by the Prophet. Thus,
it is lawful to kill Rushdie because the Prophet himself had had his critics
executed or murdered. Likewise, the Taliban could justify their destruction
of the Bamiyan Buddhas with reference to Prophet’s own exemplary iconoclasm.
The primary Islamic sources on the Prophet’s career (the Hadis and
Sira) teach us that during his conquest of Arabia, he did destroy
all functioning temples of the Arab Pagans, as well as a Christian church.
When he was clearly winning the war, many tribes chose to avoid humiliation
and martyrdom by crossing over to his side, but he would only allow them
to join him on condition that they first destroy their idols. The
truly crucial event was Prophet’s entry into the Kaaba, the central shrine
of Arabia’s native religion, where he and his nephew Ali smashed the 360
idols with their own hands.
When prophet Mohammed
appeared on the scene, Arabia was a multicultural country endowed with
Pagan shrines, churches, synagogues and Zoroastrian fire-temples.
When he died, all the non-Muslims had been
converted, expelled or killed, and
their places of worship laid waste or turned into mosques. As he
had ordered before his death, only one religion remained in Arabia. If
we were to believe Yoginder Sikand, Mohammed’s iconoclasm was non-Islamic.
In reality, Mohammed’s conduct is the definitional standard of what it
is to be a good Muslim.
It is true that
the Quran has little to say on temple destruction, though it is very eloquent
on Mohammed’s programme of replacing all other religions with his own (which
obviously implies replacing temples with mosques). Yet, the Quran
too provides justification for the smashing of the objects of non-Islamic
worship. It claims that Abraham was the ancestor of the Arabs through
Ismail, that his father had been an idol-maker, that he himself ordered
the idols of his tribe destroyed (Q.37:93), and that he built the Kaaba
as the first mosque, free of idols. It further describes how Abraham was
rewarded for these virtuous acts. Obviously it cannot be un-Islamic
to emulate a man described by the Quran as the first Muslim and favoured
If Abraham existed
at all, the only source about him is the Bible, which carries none of this
“information”. It tells us that Ismail was the son of Abraham’s Egyptian
concubine Hagar, and that she took her son back to Egypt; Arabia is not
in the picture at all. Nor do pre-Islamic Arab inscriptions mention
Abraham, or Ismail or their purported aniconic worship in the Kaaba.
The Quranic story about them is pure myth. Considering the secularist
record on lambasting “myths”, I wonder why Sikand has not bothered to pour
scorn on this Quranic myth yet.
All the same,
Islamic apologists regularly. justify the desecration of the Kaaba by Prophet
Mohammed as a mere restoration of Abraham’s monotheistic mosque which had
been usurped by the polytheists. This happens to be exactly the justification
given by Hindus for the demolition of the Babri Masjid, with this difference
that the preexistence of a Hindu temple at the Babri Masjid site is a historical
fact, while the preexistence of monotheistic and aniconic worship established
by Abraham at the Kaaba is pure myth. At any rate, the Islamic account
itself establishes that the model man Prophet Mohammed desecrated the Kaaba
and forcibly turned it into a mosque, setting an example, particularly,
for Mahmud Ghaznavi, Aurangzeb and the Taliban to emulate.
Let us conclude
with a comment on Sikand’s conclusion: “Hindus and Muslims alike, then,
have been equally guilty of destroying places of worship, and, in this
regard, as in any other, neither has a monopoly of virtue or vice.
The destruction of the mosque in Rajasthan and building a temple in its
place, like the tearing down of the Babri Masjid by Hindutva zealots or
the vandalism of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, shows how sanctified
vandalism and medieval notions of the politics of revenge are still alive
and thriving in our part of the world.”
Look how claims
are smuggled into this conclusion which have not been established in Sikand’s
argumentation. Even by Sikand’s own figures, Hindus and Muslims were
far from “equally” guilty, as a handful of alleged cases of temple destruction
by Hindus do not equal the “eighty” well-attested Islamic cases.
Also, the notion of revenge, attributed here to Hindus and Muslims alike,
does not apply to both. The Hindu kar sevakh in Ayodhya were arguably
taking revenge for the destruction of the preexisting Rama Mandir, but
the Islamic destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas was not a case of revenge
on anyone. The Taliban or Afghan Islam in general had not been hurt
or threatened by Buddhists or by any other religion. Their iconoclasm
was not a case of vengeance, but of unilateral and unprovoked aggression.
Nobody in this
forum, or so I hope, claims a “monopoly of virtue” for the members of one
religion, nor that of vice for those of another. The problem with
religions is that they can make virtuous people commit vicious acts out
of innocent piety, viz. by ordaining vicious behaviour as divinely sanctioned.
In spite of Sikand’s attempt to whitewash Aurangzeb, evidence remains plentiful
that this Moghul emperor committed acts of persecution and iconoclasm which
would generally be considered vicious (they certainly would if committed
by Hindutva activists, witness the torrent of abuse after the demolition
of the Babri Masjid). Yet, by all accounts, Aurangzeb was a virtuous
man, not given to self-indulgence, eager to fulfil his duties. Likewise,
the Kashmiri “militants” who massacre Hindus are not people of evil character.
They have left fairly cosy jobs or schools behind to put their lives on
the line for their ideal, viz. bringing Kashmir under Islamic rule.
It is the contents of their religion which makes them cross the
line between their own goodness and the evil of their terrorist acts.
The problem is not Muslims, the problem is Islam.
The founding texts
as well as the history of Islam testify to the profound link between iconoclasm
and the basic injunction of the Prophet, viz. that “until ye believe in
Allah alone, enmity and hate shall reign between us” (Q.60:4), i.e. between
Muslims and non-Muslims. I can understand that a peace-loving Muslim
who is comfortable with religious pluralism would have problems with this
quotation, and generally with the unpleasant record of the founder and
role model of his religion. Having wrestled with the Catholic faith
in which I grew up, I know from experience that outgrowing one’s religion
can be a long and painful process. Regarding a Muslim’s reluctance
to face these facts, I would therefore counsel compassion and patience.
But Yoginder Sikand
doesn’t have this excuse. For him as a secularist, facing and affirming
the defects of religions should come naturally. One of the best-documented
defects of any religion is the role of Islamic doctrine in the destruction
of other people’s cultural treasures, rivalled only by Christianity in
some of its phases, and surpassed only in the 20th century by Communism.
A secularist should subject the record of Islam to criticism, not to a
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