The Silence

A bit curious, historically, is the lack of interest the Muslims rulers of India took in Hinduism. If one compares the translation projects of Greek and Armaic sources into Arabic during the 9th-11th centuries in Damascus and Baghdad with the projects undertaken for Sanskrit, one realizes that there were no projects undertaken for Sanskrit. Not until Akbar, was such a project carried out. That’s the sixteenth century! Muslims and Hindus have been rubbing elbows since the sixth.
So what accounts for this lack of curiosity in their religion? Is it the hubris of monotheists amid polytheists? Was only the intellectual family of Abraham worthy of study? [hmm…they did wipe those Zorastrians out pretty quickly]. Can I ask the same question re: Buddhism? [harder that, because of the Great Escape of Buddhism from India early into the Muslim reign].

Let’s do a faulty memory review. Leave aside Kalila wa Dimna which was a Sanskrit text translated into Pahlavi and from there into Arabic by AbdAllah ibn Muqaffa in 750 or so. We know that Indian physicians and alchemists were present in the ‘Abbasid courts where they presumabley gave the Arabs the numeric system [and the number Zero] but nothing survives of any texts that they translated. In any case, these were not religious texts. The only early Muslim intellectual who paid any attention to the Hinduism as a religion was al-Biruni [d. 1048]. He translated portions of the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s Yogasutras. After him, silence again from the Muslim intellectuals. The Mahabharata was translated into Persian in Kashmir way later in the fifteenth century.

Akbar, they say, instituted a system of translations to augment his wacky new-agey religion. I am not a fan of that particular hypothesis but let’s keep moving on here. The fact is that he did commission an amazing amount of Sanskrit works [Mahabharata becomes Razmnama] to be translated into Persian and vice versa. The translated works were used mainly as poIitical histories of India by Muslim chroniclers [Farishta, for example, uses the Mahabharta as a chronology of Indian history]. It was Akbar’s grandson Dara Shukuh [d. 1659] who really set the ball rolling in terms of puranic and yogic translations – as religious texts. He oversaw the translations of the Upanishads [Sirr-i Akbar]. He had in his court munshis like, the one CM friend Rajeev is working on, Chandarbhan Brahman who translated vedantic works into Persian. Dara Shukuh’s project was more about mingling the twin streams of mysticism then a serious inquiry into the religious life of the populace. He treated the Upanishads as literal equivalents of the Qur’an. This study by analogy will sound pretty familiar to the colonial translation projects that will follow shortly. Cue William Jones and the EIC initiatives.

Back to our Monday Morning Quaterbacking. Why were the Muslims not interested in Hinduism? Either, Hinduism becomes a colonial created text [which would explain the immense output of persian translations in the early modern period but which will also take this post in an entirely different direction] OR:

Is idolatry just the rawest of raw nerve of Islam? Idolophobia? [my neologism for the day] One thinks of the cathartic idol-smashing of Muhammad on his triumphant return to Mecca. One thinks of the severity of iconoclasm established in the earliest centuries. One thinks of the famous episode when Muhammad b. Qasim enters a temple for the first time [ok, only I think of that since no one else even knows about that]. One thinks of Sa’adi’s Indiana Jonesesque adventure in Somnath. One thinks of Somnath itself. One thinks of the rise of Sufi shrines. One thinks of the Wahhabi reaction to the rise of the Sufi shrines.

I am just wondering out aloud. I don’t really have an answer for this silence. Lack of curiosity is not something I can accuse Muslim rulers of India in any other area of. I am also aware that my over-generalization leaves me up for ridicule on the “immutable category of ‘Muslim’ against ‘Hinduism'” front. So, I am an idiot. But my question remains. Why were the Muslims of India not curious about the faith of those they governed? Especially since they did show such curiosity with respect to Judaism, Christianity and Zorastrianism. Why did this cow not moo?

unrelated: One of these days, I will look for my interest in politics. It is around somewhere. For now, I find the recent triumphalism [after Lebanon’s Gucci Revolution – look Rob, cleavage!] of Bush’s agenda a tad moronic. I mean millions show up when Hamas or Hizbullah throw a parade against the Israelis or the Americans and that is not a “revolution!” for terrorism? David Adesnik can go plow the fields of Iraq for his democracy. Juan Cole says something right and something not quite but I approve of his general thrust.

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what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me?

13 thoughts on “The Silence”

  1. Last year I attended a lecture by an anthropology professor who had been studying sufism. He discussed an interesting case where he came across a manuscript written by one of the Moroccan sufi orders that detailed breathing techniques. It attributed the techniques to the “al-Jokia” sufi order. He did a bit of research and deduced that it was actually referring to the “Jogis” of India.

    Sorry, I know that doesn’t answer your question, and well, it doesn’t have much to do with the topic at hand… ermmm… okay…

  2. how about south of the deccan? not that i have too many sources, but i did see some interesting stuff from the sufis and kings of the deccan. certain forms of bharatnatyam and other traditional dances were throughly studied and their manuals translated by the muslims of the deccan. additionally, the sinhala buddhist texts in pali were published by muslim merchants of yemeni origin (still in pali) in sri lanka. so maybe more crossover and interest in the south?

  3. The question of why the medieval period relationship between Islam and Hinduism in South Asia is characterized above all by a mutual textual ‘silence’ is one that has been posed several times from both sides. As our gentle blogger points out, there are no comparable parallels to the much-celebrated Ummayad and Abbasid Greek-Arabic translation projects.

    ‘Heresiologists’ such as al-Biruni (and we can perhaps also add the later figure al-Shahristani) are notable exceptions to a scenario in which sustained state-sponsored inquiry into the religious practices of ‘Hindus’ (a category which did not exist in anything like the present form until the late Mughal period at the earliest, and debatably the British colonial period) simply did not occur. Likewise, it has often been noted that for the entire career of the first South Asian Muslim dynasties, the Delhi Sultanate and the early Mughals, only very rarely are Muslims or Islam mentioned in Sanskrit texts, and then usually in terms ethnic difference (no attempt is made to understand the peculiar cultural practices of ‘Turushkas’). There are of course some exceptions on both sides (dharmashatra texts prescribing rituals for purification of captured and converted brahman women, the work of Biruni and Shahristani, etc), but the general scenario of ‘silence’ between the Muslims and other religious communities in the subcontinent prevails. Why this scenario, of what seems from all accounts to be a mutual indifference?

    I am not convinced by the idea that Sepoy floats here that the reason for Muslim lack of interest in Hinduism is ‘idolophobia’. Certainly, some of the dynamic driving translations in Damascus and Baghdad may well have been the fact that a lot of the issues raised in Greek and Aramaic texts would have been shared by Muslim religious scholars (prophetologies and messianic ideas of Abrahamic monotheism). To a significant degree, however, I suspect questions of practical utility impelled the production of most translations into Arabic here. Specifically, the scientific (medical, architectural, agricultural) and political knowledges enshrined in these texts would have been very useful indeed for the elites of newly emergent polities grounded in a civilizational formation (Islam) that was just beginning to define itself, at the same time as rapidly expanding into new and diverse regions (the Abbasid period signals a crisis of identity from which time Islam gradually ceases to be a characteristically Arab religion). Following this line of argument, then, translation into Arabic apprears not so much as a matter of desire to understand a Greek or Aramaic ‘other’, but because of a percieved utility of these knowledges (or to put it in other terms, an attractiveness of the political and civilizational aesthetics present here).

    Thinking along these lines, one has to question why translations from Sanskrit would have been produced by Muslim rulers in Delhi in the first half of the second millennium CE (thinking about why Sanskrit writers did not write about Muslims is another question entirely). No doubt specific forms of knowledge (architectural, military, agricultural, literary) that existed in South Asia were important to the articulation of Muslim authority there. But perhaps the situation was fundamentally different from that in the ‘old Islamic lands’ in a way that made translations, especially from Sanskrit, completely unnecessary.

    While you have a very high level of conversion to Islam and Arabization in the Ummayad and Abbasid periods, and extensive Arabic influence on what was to become classical Persian; there is much less conversion in South Asia excepting regions that were not yet extensively into settled agrarian and textually dominated societies, and even that was more of a gradual acculturation process. The rapid extension of legal zimmi (often translated as ‘tolerated minority) status to Hindus and Buddhists, the continuing numerical predominance of the latter and the general trend of maintenance of established textual traditions (for a while at least) suggests a different scenario than in lands further West. Evidence of the integration of vernacular styles into early South Asian Muslim mosques suggests the collaborration of ‘native’ architects and artisans. Whether because of relative military weaknesss of Muslim dynasties, the pervasiveness of subcontinental socio-religious allegiances (I will leave aside Nirad Chaudhuri-esque notions of the siren-like and transformative attraction of Indic culture’s inscrutable essence), the history of Islam in South Asia is very much a story of the success of projects to accommodate cultural differnce towards the end of running a stable and productive society. This being the case, I think it makes sense to develop different scholarly languages and categories to talk about Islam in South Asia (and perhaps other regions that remained only incompletely Islamized such as subsaharan Africa or Southeast Asia), ones informed by evidence of the accommodation of difference and related persistance of both major vernacular and alternative civilizational ways of being. Muslim architecture in South Asia from the beginning demostrates significant influence of vernacular styles and collaborration with native artisans and builders. The case is similar with regards to music, cuisine, military technology, scientific knowledge and so forth.

    Why might Sanskrit in particular not have piqued the interest of Muslim scholars in the subcontinent? Some of it might have to do with the character of Sanskrit literacy – access to Sanskrit was rigidly circumscribed, and principles of exclusion were most important with regards to ‘Hindus’ of lower social status. Secondly, if we follow Sheldon Pollock, by the time of the Delhi Sultanate Sanskrit for the most part was a language of high rhetoric and political poetry; emerging vernaculars were already used to convey anything related to the nuts and bolts of material life (laws, land grants, taxation records, etc). So making translations from Sanskrit would not have been of any great practical utility to Muslim rulers in the subcontinent. If Muslim political elites needed to access any forms of knowledge enshrined in Sanskrit, there were professionals attached to the courts who could do the needful with regards to medical, legal, architectural knowledge. I think the case with vernaculars is a whole different story, and here is where cultrual exchanges in the fields of mysticism, literature and performative traditions (often closely linked) such as those Wanderer refers to make the scene (both the north and south bear numerous examples, from Ali Adil Shah Sani’s dhrupads to Jayasi’s jogi-esque poetry).

    I would by no means accuse Sepoy of taking up cudgels on behalf of the two nation theory anachronistically applied (an accusation which he attempts to fend of in advance), but I tend to see the frequent derisions of idolatry (shirk or but-parati) in Persian and Urdu literatures (not too familiar with the Arabic) not so much as an explanation for indifference towards Hinduism, but more as a rhetorical device that goes along with conquest of resistant states and carting off booty by the truckload.

    The question of why and when exactly alternative modes for representing non-Muslims in classical Islamicate literatures (Persian and Arabic) and substantive translation projects begin to emerge in South Asia is a different one. I would be interested to hear views on how conditions or perspectives change such that this becomes the common practice (I also do not find the notion of Akbar’s Din-i Ilahi or ‘wacky new-agey religion’ to be especially compelling).

  4. “If one compares the translation projects of Greek and Armaic sources into Arabic during the 9th-11th centuries in Damascus and Baghdad with the projects undertaken for Sanskrit, one realizes that there were no projects undertaken for Sanskrit.”

    This assumes the Muslim Indian dynasties (and the greatest of them, the Moghuls) had the same interests as the Abbassids. Is the translation of non-Islamic religious works an integral feature of Muslim empires? What allows us to make this assumption? Perhaps in the Abbasid empire “intellectual” pursuits (science, philosophy, theology) were more valued than in the courts of the Moghuls who valued so-called “decedant pursuits” like art, poetry and literature? Maybe there is something about the confidence of the intellectual culture in latter-day Muslim empires that meant the challenge of “other religions” was not so important anymore (cf. with the early theological debates where kalam gradually gained acceptance after initially being rejected). Or maybe there are a multitude of “causes”?

    Still I wouldn’t be surprised if, at a local level, there was some sort of _rapprochment_ which had important consequences for popular religion (which is not always the same as the bookish religion of the intellegentsia).

    “Is it the hubris of monotheists amid polytheists?”

    The Greeks were a pretty polytheistic bunch. Christianity is regarded in many Muslim quarters as “polytheistic”. Also, is it neccesary to regard the various “sects” of Hinduism as “polythestic”? Some appear, to a layman reading from quite a distance, close to Christian/Islamic “theism”.

    “Is idolatry just the rawest of raw nerve of Islam?”

    Self-evident I’d have thought.

    “One thinks of the cathartic idol-smashing of Muhammad on his triumphant return to Mecca…One thinks of Somnath itself”

    Difference between the two being that the former claimed Mecca as the home of the One True God of Abraham (whom the Arabs recognised as their father) that had been corrupted. He was “restoring” the Original True Religion. Ghazni et al. claimed to be bringing the True Religion to new lands in the service of their One True God.

    “One thinks of the severity of iconoclasm established in the earliest centuries.”

    We’re a pretty iconoclastic bunch, aren’t we? The insides of churches were, however, not too affected. Nor were, it seems, ancient Egyptian artefacts during this period.

    “One thinks of the Wahhabi reaction to the rise of the Sufi shrines.”

    Also see a history of the ahl-e-hadith in India. Many orthodox reformers of India were also Sufis, starting with Ahmad as-Sirhindi.

  5. dacoit: Yes, there are a lot of “silences”. And your point about “practical utility” has been made elsewhere. My question, though, was really towards religious understanding. Not administrative, scientific or medical knowledges. Medieval Muslim kings, when not fighting for their political life had opportunities to put forth a program of study: It could have been as simple as representing the ‘other’ as heretics or as serious as trying to understand the faith of those you govern.

    Anyways. This was just some idle doodling on Monday morning. I don’t want to go too much into the production of various literary cultures.

    thabet: umm, ok. Let me go see a history of ahl-e hadith in India. Must have missed it.

  6. My memory is a bit rusty on this but two thoughts come to me in regard to your question: 1) the initial and indeed most of the Greek translation project was the product of Greek schools still existing in the early Muslim period and/or the product of Christian translators. 2) The great Muslim incursions into India, other than early trade delegations were Turkish dynasties (fleeing from other Turkish dynasties) who depended on Persian court culture, i.e. a culture to which they were not native and which must have resulted in a the least some serious cultural diglossia – for a great period of time their cultural eyes were fixed far to the west. From what I remember of the Ghaznavids, for example, I don’t think that they exhibited much religious curiosity even toward their own putative religion.

  7. dear Sepoy,
    really interesting.

    hmmm… our friend Muhammad bin Tughlaq, in the early fourteenth century, did have some theological debates with jain monks and such like… check out mehdi hussain(or is it hasan? no not the ghazal singer, who’s written the big book on MBT…. barni particularly reviled him for this…

    and amir khusro, with his unabashed hinduki, did serve seven sultans…

    the rulers, imho, probably kept away from ‘hinduism’ becuase of the fact that the sufis were so open to it… and the sufis served as oppositional forces to the throne, so you needed to rely on the more conservative ulama as a sort of support base… and hence you couldn’t be seen as being too inquisitive about those damn infidels…

    what i find realy interesting is that akbar’s syncretism ‘from above’ comes about a century after the beginning of a great syncretic movements ‘from below’… kabir, nanak, dadu… which take elements from both ‘hinduism’ and islam but refused to be branded as neither…

    what thinkest thou?

  8. and oh yeah, almost forgot…
    there is this sanskrit inscription from delhi, the palam baooli inscription, from the time of aluddin khiilji(?)
    you have to have to read this….

  9. Anand: Good point re: Tughluq’s conversations. The sufis, though, weren’t all that interested in Hinduism per se.

    Recently, I sat through a paper that posited a revision of Dara Shikoh on various grounds; chief amongst them being that his interest in Hinduism wasn’t to understand that cosmology but to “incorporate” it into Islamic cosmology. Hinduism [a particularly theistic interpretation] becomes an earlier, corrupted message of God – a message perfected and renewed by Islam. Sounds Macaulayish.

    I should perhaps say more about this in a sep. post.

  10. regarding early muslim contacts with India..
    this one is the most quoted One…

    ….It concerns with a miralce which the prophet performed ( Splitting of the Moon)..and seen in India.

    Now I have two reported incidents on it..

    One “… Seen by Chakrawati Farmas a King of Malabar who later went to Arabia and Met the Prophet and even presented him with pickles….”

    Searh the net …and you will Many link ….
    is one of them…

    The all quote

    The incident relating to King Chakrawati Farmas is documented in an old manuscript in the India Office Library, London, which has reference number: Arabic, 2807, 152-173. It was quoted in the book “Muhammad Rasulullah,” by M. Hamidullah:”

    Now this is Interesting….
    I have visisted the India Office Libraries site..which is a part of British Librararies site.

    and have used all the methods of search I find this particular article… {Arabic, 2807, 152-173)….and even have tried to contact curator and Incharge via the emails regarding the authenticity of this article….

    But so far I do not have any positive response..

    ….But this incident is quoted so many times…and at so many Web sites….its over whelming….. some one must have authentiated it…and validated it… Other wise… its on so many sites….it simply has become a established one…

    …. I am posting this on this site to…. Because… I want to know …” is it validated ..?”
    and can any one help me validate it….?

    ….. I cannot simply dismiss it…neither can I accept it untill its validated…

    So please help me on it…

  11. ah yes … sorry I forgot to post the Other incident…

    It is said… Raja Bhoj also witnessed this
    Splitting of Moon and sent his ambassador to validate it…..

    a certain Mr Rattan… who along with One more same name Rattan went there…and came back to settle in Bhatinda (Western Punjab)

    ……So I have at least two accounts….which say… such a contact with Muslims and India was there even in the time of Prophet Mohammed (MPUH).
    this was just for info..


    #42 by aquaris on June 1, 2005 5:18am PT
    Re: # 37

    I have finnaly got a response….

    From Dr Colin Baker and here it is….

    Sorry for the delay in answering your enquiry, but it is partly due to
    the fact that your source “Muhammad Rasulullah,” by M. Hamidullah” gave
    only a partially correct reference.

    I have located the manuscript you are interested in. The shelf mark is
    IO ISLAMIC 2807 and the section you want is on pages 81 verso – 104
    verso (inclusive). It is entitled “Qissat Shakruti Firmad” which,
    according to the catalogue (Loth 1044), is “A fabulous account of the
    first settlement of the Muhammadans in Malabar, under King Shakruti
    (Cranganore), a contemporary of Muhammad, who was converted to Islam by
    the miracle of the division of the the moon.”

    Should you wish to order a microfilm or paper copy see for prices and method
    of ordering and payment.

    For further enquiries on photography you should contact, quoting in all correspondence the
    shelfmark IO ISLAMIC 2807, pages 81 verso- 104 verso and your full
    postal address.


    Colin Baker

    Dr Colin F Baker
    Head of Near and Middle Eastern Collections
    The British Library
    Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections
    96 Euston Road
    London NW1 2DB

    T +44 (0)20 7412 7645
    F +44 (0)20 7412 7858

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