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The Impact of Islam on Hinduism
Begum Jalil Asghar


Before I discuss the impact of Islam on Hinduism, I shall endeavour to explain briefly what Hinduism generally means today to an enlightened Hindu. This religion is much misunderstood. An eminent Muslim scholar with whom I discussed the subject, admitted that 99.9% of the Muslims still believe that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. It is, therefore, necessary to explain here that the innumerable deities of the Hindu Pantheon are but basically only one or other of the ‘Aspects’ or ‘Energies’ of the Divine Being.

In Islam, also, Allah is described by ninety-nine Attributes as the Giver or Mercy, Benevolence, etc., to the good and, similarly, the dispenser of condign punishment to the wicked. Had Islam allowed symbolism, it is possible that some of the pious may have attempted to depict His Attributes in pictorial or sculptural form. Like all ancient religions, Hinduism reveals in symbolism, ritual, myth and legend. The ignorant find themselves incapable of assimilating all the ‘Aspects’ of God, and are allowed to concentrate on whatever ‘Aspect’ of Him appeals to them. The Hindu workshop or adoration of images as symbols of the ‘Aspects’ or ‘Energies’ of the Divine is different from the idol worship of the pre-Islamic Arabs in the same way as the Roman Catholic adoration of the images of Jesus (sws), the Virgin, or the Cross is different from idolatry. The Christian reformers may view this as a corrupt practice that has crept into the religion, but they do not reject Christianity on that account.

The Sanskirt word for the Hindu deities is deva  or devata as distinct from Paramatma, Ishwara, etc., which are the names of the Supreme Being and which are never applied to the devatas. The latter word is derived from the Sanskrit divya, meaning the ‘Shining One’ or ‘Radiant One.’ Taken literally, all the Christian saints who are depicted with halos round their heads, as emanating a divine light, could be described by these terms. The English word ‘gods’ as distinct from ‘God’, is misleading as it relates to the old Greek paganism where each god had his separate existence under the overall control of Zeus, Jupiter or Jove, king of the heavens.

In Hinduism, since each god or devata was but an ‘Aspect’ of the Divine Being or represented a Divine Attribute, it was easy for ancient Hinduism to absorb all the deities introduced by foreigners into this country or by the indigenous population of ancient India, as representing one or another ‘Aspect’ of the same Divinity. Thus the Vedic Rudra became Shiva; the warlike Kali is also known as Durga, and in her more beneficent moods as Parvati, the Consort of Shiva. Without going into intricate details, it may be mentioned that the ‘Energies’ or Shaktis of the Divine are always given a feminine shape. (Evidently the ancient sages realized that the driving or motivating power in the world is always feminine). In Hindu mythology, for instance, Vishnu the Preserver, by virtue of this Attribute, is the giver of wealth and prosperity to mankind; but the ‘Energy’ that motivates this act of giving wealth and prosperity to human beings is embodied in Lakshmi, the Consort of Vishnu, who is known as the goddess of wealth.

Again, Vishnu in his role of Preserver, incarnates himself in the world as Rama or Krishna, who were born to lead men back to the path of Righteousness from which they had strayed. In other words, whenever wickedness possesses the world, God projects a part of His Being into a super-man who is sent to destroy wickedness and restore moral values to the world.

Thus the famous verses in the Gita:

Whenever righteousness declines and unrighteousness prevails then I incarnate myself; for the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked, and for the establishment of righteousness I come into Being from age to age. (4:7-8)

From this it is clear that those whom the Hindus call incarnations are the same as the prophets mentioned in the Qur’ān, whose duties have been to destroy falsehood, and establish truth in the world. The Hindu idols or images are always symbolical and, therefore, may often mystify or even prejudice the onlooker. The ancient Indian sculptors approached their work in a reverent mood after seeking Divine guidance. For instance, the sculptor would reverently concentrate on the quality of the deity whom he was to depict, and would gradually go into a trance or samadhi whence he would derive the Divine Vision which was to be impressed on stone. The strength of his Vision determined the quality of his work which would range from the grandeur and nobility of the ‘Trimurti’ to the fantastic creations that one often finds in Hindu temples today.

But the Hindu has always regarded the image as an aid to thought or concentration, and in the higher spiritual mood he has always discarded it as redundant. Essentially he realises that God can neither be described in words nor expressed by symbols. ‘Him the sun cannot express, nor the moon, nor the stars, the lightning cannot express Him nor what we speak of as fire; through Him they shine.’ Thus runs a Vedic verse. In the highest reaches of spiritual thought, the Hindu philosopher, having exhausted all his epithets of praise for the Divine Being and found them inadequate, is reduced to describing Him negatively, as ‘Not thus! Not thus!’.

We must admit at once that the weakness of this system of thought is that one may get so absorbed in counting the leaves as to forget the tree. The three paths leading to Salvation or freedom from rebirth are the paths of Knowledge, Action and Devotion. While the path of Action as defined in the Gita is that of selfless action detached from all forms of self-interest, the ignorant interpreted it to mean the strict observance of religious rituals, taboos and sacrifices. In short, the path of liberation for the large majority of the people was the religion of good deeds and ceremonial. For the elect, it meant the transformation of the will in order to attain harmony with God’s wishes – the Divine law; for the common people it meant rigid formalism, and for the lowest class of the populace crass superstition.

After the decline of Buddhism and Jainism, the great movements for religious reform started in the South where Islam first came into contact with Hinduism and leavened the growing mass of Hindu thought.

Arab contact with India started in pre-Islamic times, and from the seventh century onwards Arab traders settled in large numbers on the west coast of India and married Indian women. These settlements were specially large and important in Malabar where, from a very early time, it seems to have been the policy of the rulers to encourage traders to settle at the ports. Muslims were treated with respect and were allowed to build mosques and propagate their faith. Tradition has it that one of the Malabar kings converted to Islam in the early ninth century and made a pilgrimage to Makkah where he died. Tara Chand, in his book Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, says that the memory of this event was kept alive in Malabar by the Zamorin who, at the time of his installation to the throne was dressed like a Muslim and was supposed to occupy the throne only as a viceroy awaiting the return of his converted ancestor from Arabia. The Maharajas of Travancore, also, received their sword of kingship with the words: ‘I will keep this sword until the uncle who has gone to Makkah returns.’ Muslims and Christians were designated as ‘Mapillas’ – modern ‘Moplas’ – which means either ‘great child’ or ‘bridegroom’ and was considered a title of honour, the Christians being distinguished as ‘Nurrani Mapillas’. A Muslim could be seated by the side of a Nambudri Brahman, a privilege which was deined to the Hindu castes; and the religious leaders of the Mapillas were allowed to ride a palanquin alongside the Zamorin. In fact, the Zamorin thought so highly of the Muslims that he ordered that in every family of fishermen in his dominions at least one male member should be brought up as a Muslim.

Between the eighth and tenth centuries, Muslims established themselves prominently in the political and social life of the areas in the south where they had settled. Their leaders became minister, admirals, ambassadors, and farmers of revenue, and made many converts to Islam, established mosques and erected tombs which became centres of the activities of their saints and missionaries. In the north, Muslim saints followed wherever the Muslim army led, but on account of the disturbed conditions of the north, Islamic influence took longer to assert itself there.

The first impact of Islam on Hinduism revealed itself indirectly by emphasizing a monism which was uncompromising and absolute. This idea was propagated by the great Hindu philosopher Sankara who endeavoured to remove the fissiparous tendency of different Hindu religious sects by establishing that the scriptures of the Hindus had one consistent teaching to impart, ie the oneness of God and the doctrine of Maya or illusion.

The second great teacher of the Middle Ages, Ramanuja, preached that the Supreme Being or Ishwara divided Himself into five different manifestations for purposes of meditation and worship; thus Ramanuja aimed at refuting the uncompromising monism of Sankara. But although he still maintained the ancient privileges of the higher castes, he gave a ray of hope to the Shudras and the outcastes by stipulating that the outcastes should be able to attend certain temples on a fixed day in the year and by accepting a group of Shudras as his disciples.

While Sankara was born in the last quarter of the eight century Ramanuja lived in the eleventh. It was during this period that the Arab Muslims established themselves in the South. It must be pointed out that most of the elements in the southern schools of devotion and philosophy taken singly are derived from ancient Hindu systems; but the elements in their totality and in their peculiar emphasis betray a singular approximation to the Islamic faith, and therefore make the argument for Muslim influence probable. As time went on, however, the Islamic influence on Hindu reformers and philosophers became more direct and obvious in the increasing emphasis on monotheism, emotional worship, self-surrender, and adoration of the teacher as the spiritual preceptor and guide who is human and yet divine. This conception was probably Shī‘ah in origin. In addition, there was the growing laxity of the rigours of the caste system and indifference towards ritual.

Referring to the doctrine of monism Tara Chand says: ‘The conception was ancient but not dominant. Practical religion consisted in either the performance of good actions and sacrifice or in following a system of mental and spiritual training (Yoga) without dependence on a god with whom intimate relationship could be established. Philosophical religion dwelt in the region of abstraction and only practical needs forced it to take account of the conception of God. Buddhism and Jainism were largely atheistic; only in later times did Mahayana develop a theistical cult, but the worshipers of Amitabha (or God) formed only one of the numerous sects.’

As regards the other points of emphasis, self-surrender or submission to the will of God is an essential part of the Islamic religion; secondly, although devotion to the teacher or Guru is an important part of Hindu culture, this ancient homage is not the same thing as devotion to a spiritual director who is a pir, imam, or prophet. This conception of the deified teacher was incorporated in medieval Hinduism, and was transformed in the typical Hindu manner and fitted into the theory of incarnations. Thus Sankara became to his disciples the incarnation of Shiva, and the modern Ramakrishna Paramahansa is venerated as the incarnation of Vishnu by his followers.

In the twelfth century, there arose two sects in the South which clearly reveal the influence of Islam. They are the Lingayats or Jangamas and the Sidhhars. The Lingayats are worshippers of one God in the form of Shiva, who manifests himself as the world teacher (Allama-Prabhu). Basava, the leader of this movement, is supposed to be an incarnation of Allama-Prabhu. There are no sacrifices, fasts, pilgrimages or purification ceremonies for a Lingayat; there is no caste and no distinctions based on differences of birth or sex. Marriage is voluntary, child marriage is forbidden, divorce is allowed, widows are permitted to re-marry, the dead are not cremated but buried; the theory of transmigration of the soul is not believed in. The Lingayats are found in the Kanerese and Telugu countries. They call themselves Virsaivas, the brave followers of Shiva. The Muslim character of their customs and even the name of their deity as Allama-Prabha should be noted.

The following hymn is obviously Islamic in its sentiments:


God is one and the Veda is one;

the disinterested true Guru is one, and his initiatory rite is one,

when this is obtained His heaven is one;

There is but one birth of men upon earth;

And only one way for all men to walk in.

But as for those who hold for Vedas and six Sastras,

And different customs for different peoples,

And believe in plurality of gods,

Down they will go to the fire of hell!


The Siddhars are equally uncompromising in their denunciation of caste and image worships.


O Brahmans listen to me!

In all this blessed land

There is but one great caste,

One tribe and brotherhood.

One God doth dwell above

And He hath made us one

In birth and frame and tongue.


The religious reform movement which started in the south spread to the north from the fourteenth century onwards. The religious leaders in Maharashtra, Gujarat, the Punjab, Hindustan and Bengal deliberately rejected certain elements of ancient creeds and emphasized others, and thus attempted to bring about an approximation between the Hindu and Muslim faiths. At the same time Muslim Sufis, writers and poets show a strong tendency to assimilate Hindu thought and practices. Ramananda who lived between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the U.P. is considered to be the bridge between the south and north. He taught the doctrine of devotion to all these four castes without prejudice, partook of meals with every one including Muslims who were among his disciples, and admitted even women into his religious order. Ramananda’s two famous disciples who struck two different paths were Tulsidas, who wrote the Ramayana, and Kabir, who is revered equally by Hindus and Muslims. When the latter died, his Hindu and Muslim disciples quarrelled among themselves as to whether he should be buried in the Muslim manner or be cremated in the Hindu manner.

Kabir expressed his creed in the following words: ‘The Hindu resorts to the temple and the Musalman to the mosque, but Kabir goes to the place where both are known. The two religions are like two branches in the middle of which there is a sprout surpassing them. Kabir has taken the higher path abandoning the custom of the two. If you say that I am a Hindu then it is not true, nor am I a Musalman; I am a body made of five elements where the unknown plays. Makkah has verily become Kasi and Rama has become Rahim’.

Again he says: ‘Hindus call upon Rama, the Musalmans on Rahman, yet both fight and kill each other, and none know the truth’.

We now come to Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, whose mission was the unification of the Hindus and the Muslims. His creed is the nearest in approach to the Islamic faith. He declares: ‘In this age of sin, there is only one book which is acceptable to God. Its name is the Qur’ān. The day of the Hindu Pandits and scriptures is gone. Rahman has become God’s name. Believe in Him as Creator’.

Guru Nanak’s fifth successor, Guru Arjan says: ‘He who has no love for the Prophet (sws) passes his days and nights in distress, goes through torture and is at last thrown into Hell’.

Tuka Ram, one of the great of Maratha saints, who was a contemporary of the Maratha warrior chief Shivaji and wielded a great influence on him, writes:


What Allah wishes that is accomplished, O! my friend

Baba the Maker is the sovereign of all.

Cattle and friends, gardens and goods all depart.

My mind dwell, O friend! On my Sahib who is the Maker,

I ride there on the horse of mind and the self becomes the horseman.

O friend! Meditate on Allah, who is in the guise of all,

Says Tuka: the man who understands this becomes a ‘Darwaish’.


In Bengal, one of the followers of the Dharma cult, a modified form of Mahayanism, who were being persecuted by the Hindus, describes with glee the iconoclastic activities of the Muslims in which the latter destroyed many idols in Hindu temples. He says: ‘The Brahmans began to destroy the Creation and acts of great violence were perpetrated on the earth. Dharma (moral law) who resided in Baikunth (Heaven) was grieved to see all this. He came to the world as a Muhammadan. On his head he wore a black cap and in his hand he held a cross-bow. He mounted a horse and was called Khoda. Brahman incarnated himself as Muhammad, Vishnu’s Paighambar, Shiva became Adam, Ganesh came as a Ghazi, Kartik as a Kazi, Indra a Maulana. The Rishis of Heaven became faqirs, the sun, the moon and the other gods came in the capacity of foot-soldiers and began to beat drums. The goddess Chandi incarnated herself as Haya Bibi and Padmavati became Bibi Nur. The gods broke the temples and monasteries. Falling at the feet of Dharma Ramai Pandit sings: “O, what a great confusion!”’

The great leader of this movement, who tried to bring the Hindu and Muslim faiths together in Bengal, was Chaitanya who is said to have dearly loved the Yavana (Muslim) and had several Muslim disciples. Chaitanya preached the unity of god and rejected all caste distinctions. According to him, worship consisted in love and devotion, song and dance, producing a state of ecstasy in which the presence of God was realized.

Coming to modern times, we have the two important reformist movement of the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj in Hinduism. The latter is more influenced by Christianity and has discarded the theory of rebirth. Both of these sects denounce idol worship, the Arya Samajists being most militant in this respect. They take their inspiration from the Vedas which they say preached only the unity of God; but they denounce the theory of incarnation, image worship and ritualism as a corruption of the pure Hindu religion and they believe in a functional caste, not in a hereditary caste system. A famous Arya Samaj hymn decries rituals thus:


O God how can I please Thee since I possess nothing that

I can bring to Thy service?

Thy radiance gives light to the sun, the moon, the stars,

Dost Thou require the flickering light of my oil lamp

To illumine Thy path in the heavens?

Thou art Omnipresent; Thy Essence is found in the flowers, the fruit, and the leaves;

How foolish it would be for me to make an offering of

Thine own Essence to Thee.


I have said enough to show that the Hindu religion and thought has been deeply influenced by Islam throughout the ages. It is obvious, therefore, that many Hindu leaders of religious thought and their followers admired and respected their Muslim compatriots and the general attitude of the common people was of mutual goodwill. Tara Chand mentions the names of about a hundred saints, including women, who led the movement of religious reform through ten centuries under the impact of Islam. It seems to me, therefore, that it is not true to say that the communal tensions between the two communities arise out of factors which are inherent in their respective religious thoughts. Even if image worship is considered to be a feature of Hinduism which is repugnant to Islam, we have seen that there are many Hindu sects which denounce it as vehemently as the Muslims do, while the latter have condoned similar forms of worship in the case of Roman Catholic Christianity.

One is, therefore, led to the conclusion that the iconoclastic zeal of the Muslim conquerors of North India which is still glorified in song and story, arose out of some other deep-rooted prejudices. There is an old Arab tradition that of the three goddesses of the pre-Islamic Arabs, namely Lāt, ‘Uzzā, and Manāt, the idol of Manāt disappeared from the Ka‘abah before the Prophet (sws) made his triumphant entry into Makkah, and consequently, remained undestroyed after the destruction of the idols at Makkah. It was reputed among the early Muslims that this idol of Manāt  had been brought to Somnath and established there. It is said that Mahmud of Ghazni had heard of this tradition and was seized with the desire to complete the work left incomplete by the Prophet (sws) and to destroy this idol.

Although the idol of Somnath was a Hindu creation and had nothing to do with the ancient Arab idols, this tradition would account for the fervour of Mahmud’s destructive zeal and the iconoclastic activities of some of the Muslim rulers which scholars find difficult to understand in view of the spirit of toleration that generally governed early Islam, whether in peace or war, we know how scrupulously the triumphant Arab armies were checked by their leaders from pillage and bloodshed. We have read the story of the victorious Caliph ‘Umar (rta) riding through the streets of Jerusalem with the Patriarch, discoursing courteously on the religious antiquity of the Holy City and, later, praying on the steps of the Church of Constantine, rather than within it, so that future generations of Muslims may not lay claims to it as a Muslim place of worship. In short, a study of Islamic history reveals that the sanctity of the Christian churches was respected by the Muslims in Europe, despite the image worship and superstitions prevalent among the Christians in the middle ages. The ritual of the Roman Catholic Church with its elaborate ceremonial and its adoration of the images of Jesus (sws), Mary, and the Cross, is as far removed as orthodox Hinduism is from the austerity and simplicity of the Islamic rites of prayer and worship. The mystical Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity as comprising the three personalities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, in one and the same God is as far removed from the Islamic idea of the Unity and Indivisibility of God as the Hindu conception of God in the three aspects of Creator (Brahma), Preserver (Vishnu) and Destroyer (Shiva) or Liberator (from the trammels of the world) as some prefer to call Him.

We must remember that in the golden age of Islamic history, reasoning or the exercise of judgement played a very important part in Muslim thought and gave a great stimulus to learning in Europe. By their appeal to reason, the Muslims struck the first blows on the superstition and fanaticism of the Christians of the middle ages. They influenced Christian theology by questioning their superstitions and dogmatic beliefs at every step, spreading scientific knowledge, and generally undermining faith in the absurdities enunciated by the ecclesiastics of the Christian Church until the coming of the Reformation. This spirit of inquiry needs to be revived in order to bring about the second golden age of Islam.

(Courtesy: Iqbal, Jan 1960)

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