Making of a Composite Culture: Lively Interactions between Hindus and Muslims Were the Hallmarks of Seven Centuries before Colonial Rule

Allow me to begin with some recollections. In the 80s of the last century, I spent four happy and purposeful years in this city, a resident of Mugga Way, travelling across the length and breadth of the continent, dividing my time fairly evenly in robust discussions with Australian friends, watching cricket, learning to play golf, endevouring to rejuvenate Indo-Australian relations and highlighting the communality of interests that characterize it. Some of this was acknowledged in a reference made to me in the House of Representatives on April 6, 1989 and in a Report of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade later that month. Since then our two countries have travelled a good distance and today have a vibrant relationship.

The recollections of those years are vivid in the minds of the Ansari family. I was therefore happy to receive today’s invitation from my old friend, Professor Amin Saikal, to talk to this learned audience on a subject that, one way or another, is of relevance to humanity in terms of history, culture and contemporary geopolitics.

Professor Saikal had suggested a lecture ‘on any aspect of the civilization of Islam’ and utilizing this leeway I propose to focus today on the interaction that characterized the role played for over seven centuries on the soil of India by people of Muslim faith. Today, they constitute the third, perhaps the second, largest community of Muslims in the world. They are geographically dispersed, linguistically heterogeneous, unified in faith, influenced by its culture as well as by local cultural practices, and are citizens of a vibrant democracy. By the same logic, they are called upon to respond to contemporary domestic and global challenges having an impact on them,

A look at the map is helpful. India as a geographical entity was not terra incognita to the Arabian Peninsula or other lands of western Asia where Islam had its first followers. This was particularly true of contacts with the trading communities of the coastal regions of western and southern India; records show that established trade route existed well before the advent of Islam. So was the presence of Indian trading communities in those lands and tradition records Prophet Mohammad’s familiarity with persons ‘who looked like Indians.’

India was thus a known land, sought after for its prosperity and trading skills and respected for its attainments in different branches of knowledge. Long before the advent of Muslim conquerors the works of Al Jahiz, Ibn Khurdadbeh, Al Kindi, Yaqubi and Al Masudi in the 9th and 10th centuries testify to it. Alberuni in early 11th century studied Indian religion, philosophy, sciences, manners and customs and produced a virtual encyclopaedia remarkable for its detail and objectivity. In fact, a closer reading of his short second chapter ‘On The belief of Hindus in God’ might have saved centuries of misperceptions arguably on theological grounds.

The new faith came to India through diverse channels – through traders in the south and through conquerors and travellers in north-west. A historian has noted that ‘the presence of Muslims in India can be traced to three different sources: conquest, immigration and conversion with the mingling of different stocks taking place in a manner that was beyond social or political control,’ adding that the vast majority of Indian Muslims are converts and that the main agency for conversions were the mystics, principally in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The imprint of this interaction is writ large and was delineated many years back with some precision by another historian. Indian culture, he wrote, ‘is synthetic in character. It comprehends ideas of different orders. It embraces in its orbit beliefs, customs, rites, institutions, arts, religions and philosophies belonging to society in different stages of development. It eternally seeks to find a unity for the heterogeneous elements which make up its totality. At worst its attempts end in mechanical juxtaposition, at best they succeed in evolving an organic system.’

Heterogeneity was the core of this process. It was a characteristic of the social, cultural and philosophical landscape. Interaction with its own people who had opted for a new faith produced a variety of responses, conscious and sub-conscious. One aspect was formal and political, another was social and intellectual. The first adapted to the ground reality, benefited from it and in turn induced the second.

What was the ground reality? In a general sense and right through the medieval period of Indian history two sets of readings are available: the imperial system in northern India and the more modest principalities in the south that developed their own distinctive identities before eventually succumbing to the political pressure from the north.

It is a historical fact that for almost seven centuries from the eleventh to the eighteenth century the state system in India was headed by persons who professed to be Muslim. Despite this at no stage in this period was the state theocratic nor was Islam declared to be the State religion; instead, the norms of governance were regal in a non-denominational sense. Practice thus drew a clear distinction between rules emanating from the Sharia and those from Zawabit or Jahandari (secular state laws). Overtime, the imprint of the structure of Indian society was visible, and so was adaptability. Professor Richard Eaton has observed that ‘the Indo-Islamic traditions that grew and flourished between 711 and 1750 served both to shape Islam to the regional cultures of South Asia and to connect Muslims in those cultures to a worldwide faith community.’ He adds that ‘it is precisely this double –movement between local cultures of South Asia and the universal norms of Islam that makes the study of Indian Islamic traditions so rewarding.’ He also notes that ‘even within South Asia, one finds enormous variations of Islamic traditions not only across social classes and over time, but also across space.’

II

Adaptability and accommodation, and attendant creativity, can thus be depicted as two dimensions of Muslim culture as it developed and flourished in the Indian subcontinent. This was reflected on a wide canvass in many segments of social life. A survey of these in a single lecture can only be illustrative. I therefore propose to explore this in four areas: statecraft, social life, creative arts, and spirituality.

I begin with statecraft. There is a consensus among historians that ‘it is a mistake to see the Moghul Empire either as an Islamic state, in which Sharia prevailed, or a Muslim state in which the Muslims, as an entire community, were part of the ruling class.’ Thus a doctrine of ‘supra-religious sovereignty’ became the operative norm. This was reflected, among other things, in ‘the composition of the Moghul governing class where, by 1707, the Rajputs and other Hindus came to have a share in the resources as well as positions of authority within the state roughly to the extent of a third of those available.’

The same was also true of earlier dynasties. The classic text on the medieval Indian theory of kingship is Ziauddin Barani’s 14th century work, Fatawa-I Jahandari, on the techniques and rules of government. It is based on an examination of the working of the institutions of Delhi kingship for over ninety five years. Its postulates were amplified and re-enunciated in the 16th century by Moghul Emperor Akbar’s chief secretary Abul-Fazl Allami in his monumental work The Ain-I-Akbar, which itself is part of a larger work The Akbar Nama.

Barani’s principal dictum was that the institution of monarchy was necessary for social order and the enforcement of justice and that ‘the king should have the power to make state-laws ‘even if in extreme cases had to override the Shariat.’ Barani defined Zawabit or state-laws as ‘rules of action which a king imposes as an obligatory duty on himself for realizing the welfare of the state and from which he never deviates.’ Abul Fazl’s observations on the subject followed and amplified a line of thought no different from the earlier Indian prescriptions of Kautalya’s Arthashastra written in 4th century BC.

Two instances recorded by historians substantiate the Moghul approach. Responding to a letter from the Persian king Shah Abbas I, Jalaluddin Akbar said ‘we must be king to all people who are the treasures of God and have mercy for everybody no matter what their religion and idea is (since) the state of each religious group has two alternatives: either he has made the right choice or if he has made a mistake in choice, he must be pitied not blamed.’ Several decades later Aurangzeb, not withstanding his anxiety to restore the primacy of Sharia in state matters, wrote to one of his officers: ‘What have worldly affairs to do with religion? For you there is your religion and for me mine.’ In another letter, he observed: ‘what concern have we with the religion of anybody? Let Jesus follow his own religion and Moses his own.’

The same was the policy in the Deccan kingdoms where in the philosophy of governance the necessity of a pragmatic approach towards the subjects of the state prevailed. Thus, in the Qutbshahi kingdom of Golconda, ‘very little differentiation was made between the Hindus and the Muslims so far as the affairs of the state were concerned’ and ‘the whole outlook of the state as centred in the person of the Sultan was non-communal.’

The resulting situation has been summed up by another historian: ‘Thus the Akbarian concept of a state based on peace and harmony with votaries of all religions, a composite ruling class representing basically the regional ruling elites and a section of middle bureaucracy, and promotion of a culture based on the poly-cultural traditions of the country combined with Persian and Central Asian culture had struck deep roots and could not be dislodged, despite the efforts of some narrow minded theologians enjoying state support.’

This approach to governance reflected itself in the social life of society. While religious communities, and caste sections within each, lived in segments, compulsions of daily life led to normal cooperation. A study of the pre-Moghul period has observed that ‘it was somewhat difficult to distinguish the lower classes of Muslims from the masses of Hindus’ and that even in the case of conversions ‘the average Muslim did not change his environment which was deeply influenced by caste distinctions and a general social exclusiveness. As a result Indian Islam slowly began to assimilate the broad features of Hinduism.’ Record shows that ‘there was in principle no change in the basic pattern of life and thought between 1350 and 1600.’ Thus ‘the blending of social customs was prompted by necessity but it was not hindered by sectarian or caste considerations. The result was a cultural pluralism that continued for centuries.’

In an essentially feudal order, any assessment of social life has to be in terms of social classes. The condition of the poor was aptly described by a 17th century Dutch trader who observed that ‘the common people lived in poverty so great and miserable that the life of the people can be depicted or accurately described only as the home of stark want and the dwelling place of bitter woe.’ Those at other steps of the social order, middle classes and higher nobility, were better of. The empire had 120 cities and around 3200 towns. Trade and commerce flourished though by the middle of the 18th century the direction of external trade changed and some of the traditional centres of foreign trade suffered considerable losses.

Developments in creative arts were distinctive and constitute a significant phase in the annals of Indian art. The period saw the arrival of a new style of architecture reflected in the mosque and the tomb in the religious domain and the palace, pavilions, town gates, gardens and landscape architecture in the secular domain. The combination of scale, detail and good taste is breath-taking.

The same was the case with painting in which the refined Persian style was combined with the lively vision of Indian artists. The Hindu art of mural painting underwent a remarkable change with the arrival of the Mughals. The themes of the paintings were varied and often focused on religion and mythology. Towards the later part of the Mughal rule, the Rajput School and Pahari School of painting began to develop under local patronage. Though Rajput school was indigenous by nature, after coming in contact with Muslim painting it was completely transformed and gave birth to Kanga School of painting in the 18th century.

Particular effort, under royal patronage, was made to translate religious texts and other major Sanskrit works into Persian. The cultural intermingling in Persian and Sanskrit literatures was a characteristic of the age and has been dwelt upon by scholars. Akbar had the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Atharvaveda translated in Persian. Yet another area of excellence was the writing of history and so was calligraphy, vividly visible to visitors on the panels of the Taj Mahal.

Nothing characterized the medieval Indian society as well and as comprehensively as the broad realm of spirituality. The 11th and 12th centuries were a period of vigorous Sufi tradition in Khurasan (eastern Iran and western Afghanistan) that was transmitted to northern India and later to other areas. This coincided with the growth of the Bhakti movement that stood for intense personal devotion and complete surrender to God and in the unity of the godhead and brotherhood of humans. It began in South India in the 7th-8th century to bridge the gulf between the Shaivas and Vaishnavas. The Bhakti preachers disregarded the caste system. It is in the life and teachings of Kabir (b 1440), Guru Nanak (b 1439) and Chaaitaya (b 1485) that the Bhakti movement may be considered to have attained its zenith.  Their teachings had an impact on the development of local languages. The two trends imbibed each other’s thoughts, traditions and customs. Both minimized the differences and distinctions between the Hindus and the Muslims and promoted mutual understanding and had a perceptible impact in the cultural domain.

The liberal ideas and unorthodox principles of Sufism had a profound influence on Indian society. ‘By the thirteenth century, Sufism had become a movement and it would not be an exaggeration to say that it brought Islam to the masses and the masses towards Islam… The Sufis made an intuitive choice of the common ground of spirituality between Hindus and Muslims and opened the way for a mutual appreciation of aesthetic values which could revolutionize the whole cultural attitude of the Muslims.’ The liberal principles of Sufi sects restrained orthodox Muslims in their attitude and encouraged many Muslim rulers to pursue tolerant attitude to their non-Muslim subjects. Most Sufi saints preached in the language of common man. This contributed to the evolution of various Indian languages like Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Kashmiri and Hindi. The impact of Sufi Movement was deeply felt on some renowned poets of the period, like Amir Khusrau and Malik Muhammad Jayasi who composed poems in Persian and Hindi in praise of Sufi principles.

A later manifestation of this, at a philosophical level, was Dara Shikoh’s attempt to identify the convergence of the two faiths. In his tract ‘The Confluence of the Two Oceans’, he ‘thirsted to know the tenets of the religion of Indian monotheists…and did not find any difference except verbal in the way they sought and comprehended the Truth.’ Another example is a mid-17th century work, Dabistan-e-Mazahib, described by a scholar as the greatest book ever written in India on comparative religion.

III

This manifestation of Muslim life and thought in India over many centuries depicts adaptability, creativity and diversity. It is sui generis. This is reflected in scholarly assessments: ‘Indian Islam has been remarkable for its identification with India without ceasing to be Islamic’. It adds ‘colour to the bizarre pageantry of India.’ A study on Muslim practices in medieval Punjab cites Barbara Metcalf’s observation that ‘Islam in India has found its expression in both local and cosmopolitan contexts and both these levels have shaped Muslim religious thought and practices.’

This situation underwent a drastic and traumatic change with the advent of British rule and brought forth a multiplicity of responses from social groups and religious leaders ranging from religious reform to militancy. Resistance to the creeping foreign control took the shape of a series of peasant revolts in different regions. The theologian Shah Abdul Aziz proclaimed resistance as religiously valid. The uprising of 1857 was thus the culmination of a process in whose aftermath serious introspection about the Muslim condition took divergent routes, all focused on education. Barbara Metcalf has written in some detail about ‘the diversity of Islamic movements’ that surfaced and has cited with approval Albert Hourani’s judgment that eighteenth century was ‘the Indian century of Islam. On the one side, new theological institutions of repute like Darul Ulum at Deoband and Nadwat ul Ulema at Lucknow were established while on the other Syed Ahmad Khan and his colleagues struggled against odds to bring to segments of the community modern education in the shape of the MAO College that later became the Aligarh Muslim University. Individuals apart, however, modernism made limited headway unlike the reformist currents engendered by the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal and the Arya Samaj in Punjab.

Politically, Muslim approaches to British rule after 1857 ranged between general allegiance (to seek some modest benefits), to protestations on specific issues, and occasional resort to revolutionary language and behaviour. After World War I Mahatma Gandhi’s effort to forge a broad Hindu-Muslim front by linking and supporting the Khilafat Movement with the Non-Cooperation Movement met with some success but could not be sustained. Record shows that in the late 20’s and 30’s leaders of the freedom movement having varying viewpoints struggled with competing impulses on political and societal challenges confronting them. Scrutiny also shows that a lesser dose of cultural bias and a greater element of cultural accommodation may have brought forth greater harmony and, perhaps, prevented the tragic happening of 1947. The political perceptions and maneuvers accompanying it did not have the support of most of the religious scholars, exemplified by Hussain Ahmad Madani of Deoband.

Ten years after the event, the resulting situation was graphically expressed by the McGill scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith: ‘The Indo-Muslim community, battered by outward circumstances and gripped inwardly by dismay, has stood disconcerted, inhibited by effective self-recognition and from active vitality. And yet not only is the welfare of that community is at stake, now and for future generations is at stake. Also the histories of both India and Islam will in part turn on the success or failure of this community in solving its present problems, on its skill and wisdom in meeting the challenge of today.’ Three factors, he observed, would impact on this response: size, past tradition, and involvement in ‘the transcending complex of India.’

The process of recovery from the trauma has been gradual and uneven, at times painful, and was and continues to be influenced by three impulses: autonomous initiatives, policy correctives, and stated or unstated impulses to discriminate.

Indian Muslims have hesitatingly sought to tend their wounds, face the challenges and seek to develop response patterns. Success has been achieved in some measure; much however remains to be done. Educational levels remain below the national average and are particularly noticeable in regard to women where slow pace of social reforms also results in low social mobility and workforce participation.

Autonomous correctives are one aspect of the matter; interaction with the larger community of citizens is another and requires candid dialogue and careful calibration without a syndrome of superiority or inferiority. The failure to communicate with the wider community in sufficient measure has tended to freeze the boundaries of diversities that characterize the Indian society.

In 2005 the government appointed a committee to delineate the contours of the problem. Its findings (The Sachar Committee Report) showed that on most socio-economic indicators – education, livelihood, access to public services and employment market across the states – Muslims were on the margins of structures of political, economic and social relevance and that their average condition was comparable to, or even worse than, the country’s most backward communities whose condition is officially acknowledged. This was followed by the Report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (the Ranganath Mishra Commission) in 2007. Another report, in 2014, evaluated the implementation of the decision taken and concluded that though ‘a start has been made, yet serious bottlenecks remain’ and asserted that ‘the development of the Muslim community must be built on the bed-rock of a sense of security.’

It is evident from the compendium of official and civil society reports that the principal problems confronting India’s Muslims relate to (a) identity and security, (b) education and empowerment, (c) equitable share in the largesse of the state, and (d) fair share in decision-making. Each of these is a right of the citizen in terms of the plural, secular and democratic dimensions of the Indian polity. The defaults by the state are therefore to be corrected at policy and implementation stages by the state at the federal and state levels. Political sagacity, the imperative of social peace, and an informed and educated public opinion play an important role in this.

Is this being done in sufficient measure in word and deed? There are questions in the minds of many citizens about it, about our commitment to the core values of pluralism and secularism, about our capacity to resist the onslaught of ideas and practices that militate against values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity prescribed for us by the Constitution.

The urgency of giving this a practical shape at national, state and local levels through various suggestions in the public domain is highlighted by enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians. The objective of various groups indulging in strong-arm tactics ‘is to make minorities feel unsafe and insecure, to force them to become furtive and fearful while practicing their faith or celebrating their festivals and thereby destroy India’s pluralist heritage.’ These, along with other manifestations of distress in different social segments and regions, tend to suggest that we are perhaps a polity at war with itself in which the process of emotional integration has faltered and is in dire need of reinvigoration.

This rejuvenation is unavoidable given Indian society’s living experience of diversity and plurality, tolerance and co-existence. The challenge today is to educate opinion about the consequences of intolerance, of narrow nationalism and of illiberal democracy and to ensure that it does not become pervasive by associating with fellow citizens who wish to retain secular principles and practices.

The Muslims of India, inheritors of a rich legacy, cannot but be a part of this process as actors and as beneficiaries. They recall with pride Abul Kalam Azad’s advice to them in October 1947 on the morrow of the Partition: ‘come, let us vow that this is our land, we are for it, and that basic decisions about its destiny will remain incomplete without our voice.’ They are committed to the Constitution and to the constitutional procedures for grievance redressal. They are concerned over rising incidents of intolerance and violence but there is no inclination in their ranks to opt for ideologies and practices of violence. This is reflective of their moorings in a composite society and their non-alienation. They retain and reiterate their claim of being citizens, endowed with rights and duties bestowed on them by the Constitution, and ‘a form of citizenship that is marked neither by a universalism generated by complete homogenization, nor by particularism of self identical and closed communities.’

Despite some shortcomings and occasional aberrations, the Indian model of accommodation of diversity in a country with a complex societal make up remains a relevant example for a globalizing world that requires all members of its citizen-body to go beyond mere tolerance to acceptance of diversity in all aspects of life. Imperatives of ultra-nationalism and geopolitics in recent decades have resulted in projecting the Muslim as ‘the new Other’ and this Otherness is being perceived as a spectre haunting the world very much like radical ideologies of earlier ages. This drift into apprehension and intolerance has to be resisted and reversed; sanity demands that all of us pull back from the precipice and anchor thought and action on civic virtues national and global.

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Living ‘Interfaithly’: What These Two Women Can Teach Us

Three of us friends—M, N, and I—come from different religious backgrounds. One of the things that keeps us together is our common interest in promoting better relations between people who follow (or claim to follow) different religions. We are part of an active interfaith group. In addition, we sometimes together visit organizations that are doing good work for needy people from different religious backgrounds: interfaith service being at least as important as interfaith theological confabulations. I love these visits: one gets to meet inspiring people who are doing beautiful things with their lives, embodying inter-religious harmony and a spirituality that transcends religion even without speaking or theologizing about it.

Yesterday, we went on our latest such trip. N had collected some money which she wanted to give to a woman who had worked in her home as a domestic help when she was a child—which was perhaps more than 40 years ago. The woman, Bibi Jaan, is a Muslim. Now maybe 90 years or so old, she lives all by herself in a little structure in a slum in a distant part of the city.

Bibi Jaan had stopped working with N’s family many years ago. But sometimes during the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan, she would go all the way to N’s place, and N’s father (who is a Muslim) would give her some money in charity. With Ramzan this year scheduled to start shortly, N wanted to go over herself to meet Bibi Jaan and  hand  over  some money that she had collected for her, and M and I decided to accompany her.

A woman called Uma was the only person N was in touch with who knew where Bibi Jaan lived. Luckily, N had Uma’s telephone number. She spoke to Uma, and Uma readily agreed to take us to meet Bibi Jaan.

When we got to Bibi Jaan’s place in the slum, we found the door locked. Bibi Jaan had gone out and we didn’t know where she was and when she would be back.  It was pointless waiting for her. And so, we headed for Uma’s place.

Even though we missed meeting Bibi Jaan, our encounter with Uma made up for it. Uma’s love and concern for Bibi Jaan were palpable and truly touching, I discovered as we engaged Uma in conversation. Uma happened to be a Hindu, and Bibi Jaan a Muslim, but this religious difference didn’t seem to matter in what was their very obviously intensely close relationship.

Uma spoke in a language I couldn’t understand, but N translated bits of what she said, so I managed to get a rough idea. It was something like this: Bibi Jaan worked a domestic help in Uma’s home for a very long time. Uma had known her ever since she was a little child, maybe more than 50 years ago (Uma is now almost 60). Bibi Jaan had once served Uma and her family, but now she was old and infirm and alone and the roles had been reversed. It was now Uma’s turn to take good care of Bibi Jaan: which she does—and with seemed to me to be great love.

Every Thursday, Uma arranges for Bibi Jaan to come over to her home, where she gives her good food to eat and also gives her a ‘head-bath’. Bibi Jaan spends the night there, along with Uma’s family. The next morning, Uma takes Bibi Jaan in an auto-rickshaw to a Dargah, a Muslim shrine: perhaps Bibi Jaan likes spending time there. On several occasions, Uma has paid the bills when Bibi Jaan has fallen sick. Uma has also taken Bibi Jaan along with her on trips outside town.

Uma isn’t at all very ‘educated’ by the standards of the world.  She lives in a very modestly-sized house and receives a meagre pension—a thousand rupees a month, if I understood correctly—on account of her deceased husband (fortunately, her son has a job and helps support her financially). Yet, despite (or perhaps precisely because of) her educational and economic background, she seems to lovingly tend to Bibi Jaan.

This was truly interfaith harmony in action: A Hindu and a Muslim woman bound together by a relationship based on love and mutual service that began more than half a century ago and is still going strong! I don’t think I’d witnessed anything like this before!

I don’t suppose Uma and Bibi Jaan have ever heard of the phrase ‘interfaith harmony’, but that’s something they’ve been living out together, over many, many years!

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Sacred Mysteries: The Quran, Mary and the Annunciation

In the Quran, Mary the daughter of Imran is brought up as a girl in the Temple. Zachariah (the future father of John the Baptist) goes into the sanctuary and finds that she has provisions. Asked where they came from, Mary answers: “From God. God gives provision without reckoning to those whom he wishes.”

The Quran gives the same account as in St Luke’s Gospel of Zachariah being struck dumb before the birth of John. But the story of Mary living in the Temple and receiving provisions from God is in none of the four Gospels. It is however found in the Infancy Gospel of James. This was not admitted into the Christian canon of inspired books, but did give subjects for artists through the centuries.

In this book, from the 2nd century, Mary is said to have been chosen to spin textiles to make the veil of the Temple. She is also said to have first heard the voice of the angel Gabriel while she was fetching water. Her conver­sation with the angel (drawn from St Luke’s account) finishes back home while she is spinning thread.

The Quran insists on the virginity of Mary when she conceives her son Jesus, whom the Quran calls Messiah. God will teach him “the Scripture and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel”. But the Quran forcefully states that although Jesus is a prophet, “God is not one to take to Himself any son.”

There is a fascinating miniature (above) in a manuscript from about AD 1307 of The History of the World by Rashid al-Din, now in Edinburgh University Library. It shows on the far side of a stream the angel Gabriel, with the appearance of an ordinary man, addressing Mary, with a pitcher, her eyes cast down. It is probably the only image of the Annunciation in an Islamic manuscript, according to the art historian Sarah Drummond in an impressive new book.

In Divine Conception: The Art of the Annunciation, she looks at representations of the Annunciation under 12 categories, such as the metaphors for Mary’s virginity, the role of Joseph and Mary’s occupation. I had not realised until I read her chapter on Mary working with the spindle that this way of depicting her derived from the Infancy Gospel of James. I had assumed it was simply a likely occupation for her to have been busy with when the angel arrived.

Mary is shown holding a spindle in the mosaics that flank the gloriously tranquil 12th-century image in the main apse of the basilica at Torcello, in the Venetian lagoon, showing Mary holding the Child Jesus.

The Torcello images derive from a Byzantine tradition, as does a panel 8in high from the spectacular ivory throne of Maximian, the Archbishop of Ravenna from 546. The throne is still on show in Ravenna, where a mosaic from the period, in the church of S Vitale, shows Maximian wearing the pallium, the wool scarf sent him by the Pope as a mark of his authority. He stands next to the Emperor Justinian, who perhaps presented him with the throne, the symbol of his teaching office.

Sarah Drummond also looks at the artistic convention of showing a tiny child sailing down a beam of light towards Mary at the Annunciation. It seemed like a good idea to 13th-century European painters. But in the 18th century, Pope Benedict XIV squashed this convention on the grounds that the body of Jesus was only formed in the Virgin’s womb once the Holy Spirit had exerted his power.

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Passages from the Bible Discovered Behind Qur’an Manuscript

An “extraordinary” discovery by an eagle-eyed scholar has identified the shadowy outlines of passages from the Bible behind an eighth-century manuscript of the Qur’an – the only recorded palimpsest in which a Christian text has been effaced to make way for the Islamic holy text.

French scholar Dr Eléonore Cellard was looking for images of a palimpsest page sold a decade earlier by Christie’s when she came across the auction house’s latest catalogue, which included fragments from a manuscript of the Qur’an which Christie’s had dated to the eighth century AD, or the second century of Islam. Scrutinising the image, she noticed that, appearing faintly behind the Arabic script, were Coptic letters. She contacted Christie’s, and they managed to identify the Coptic text as coming from the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy – part of the Torah and the Christian Old Testament.

“This is a very important discovery for the history of the Qur’an and early Islam. We have here a witness of cultural interactions between different religious communities,” said Cellard, who is attached to the College de France.

“It’s quite extraordinary,” said Christie’s specialist Romain Pingannaud. “Once you know it’s there, you can only see it, it becomes so obvious. We missed it at the beginning. It’s fascinating, particularly because it’s the only example where you have an Arabic text on top of a non-Arabic text. And what’s even more fascinating is it is on top of passages from the Old Testament … It shows the contact between communities in the first centuries of Islam; it’s very relevant.”

Christie’s, which is offering the fragments for auction with a guide price of £80,000-£120,000 on Thursday, believes that the manuscript is likely to have been produced in Egypt, which was home to the Coptic community, at the time of the Arab conquest. It said that the fragments “resonate with the historical reality of religious communities in the Near East and as such are an invaluable survival from the earliest centuries of Islam”.

While the writing style of the Qur’an scribe dates it to around the eighth century or early ninth century, it is not possible to identify how much older the ghostly Coptic writing is, although the formation of the letters means it is unlikely to have been written earlier than the seventh century, according to Pingannaud. “Carbon 14 testing would date only the material, not the writing, but it’s quite destructive and these folios are too thin,” he said.

Qur’anic palimpsests are “extremely rare”, according to Christie’s, with only a handful having been previously recorded, none of which were copied above a Christian text. Other examples of Qur’anic palimpsests include two leaves from a seventh-century Hijazi Qur’an, which is copied above an earlier version of the Qur’an.

“We think this is because the Qur’an is such an important text and although vellum was very expensive, the Qur’an was always written on new material. It’s highly revered and so they would use brand new material,” said Pingannaud.

It was, however, “quite common in the Byzantine and Greek worlds to have palimpsests”, he added. “Parchment is very strong, it doesn’t suffer too much – it’s sensitive to humidity but very solid,” he said. “At the time it was erased the parchment was probably like new and it’s only with centuries passing that the ink which sank into the parchment provides this ghost image we see.”

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Jerusalem and Muslim-Christian Relations

Earlier this month, Cardinal Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in the Vatican, visited Riyadh where he met with King Salman bin Abdul Aziz. His visit was considered historical.

Over the past six years, despite the rising number of extremist and terrorist incidents, relations between Christians and Muslims have witnessed major breakthroughs in terms of exchanging visits with the Vatican. Pope Francis has himself paid visits to Egypt and Turkey, while Arab and Muslim religious officials have also visited the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

There was a consensus to cooperate to combat extremism and terrorism, confront immigration and Islamophobia, issues facing Muslim minorities across the globe and the cohabitation between Christians and Muslims in the Arab world and other Islamic countries.

Pope Francis has taken distinctive positions on issues pertaining to violence and wars in Arab and Muslim countries and against the discrimination endured by Muslims in the West. The Pope was displeased with the position taken by US President Donald Trump on the Jerusalem issue, along with the halting of peace talks to bring justice to the Palestinian people.

Jerusalem at the Centre of Conflict

Yet, there is quite some level of ambiguity over the question of Jerusalem itself. The Vatican has for a while now maintained that the holy sites in Jerusalem must be internationalized and taken out of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Arab parties have kept their silence on this issue considering that Zionists want to take control of all of Jerusalem, especially its religious sites, and that the unification of Jerusalem as an eternal capital of Israel will further harm peace between religions in Jerusalem. Still, no one saw an interest in opposing the Vatican, given the fact that the Arab parties insist that the Old City of Jerusalem is the capital of the Palestinian state, of course without excluding its holy sites.

Now that President Trump’s possible visit to Israel in mid-May has neared, the US has started negotiations with the Vatican over the possible special status of Christian holy places, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the surrounding areas, to facilitate the final phase of colonization of Jerusalem for Israelis without the objection of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian authorities, especially since some Protestant and Evangelical authorities share closer positions with the Israeli stance.

There is a solid Arab and Islamic position regarding Jerusalem and its freedom and which insists that it is the political capital of the Palestinian Arab state. Then there is the position of the Arab Christians of Palestine and Jerusalem — currently living in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon.

They were always against the colonization of Jerusalem by Zionists, including the holy sites. It is known that some of them opposed Trump’s statement. We also know that the former Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria had banned the Copts of Egypt from visiting Jerusalem under occupation. Muslims are still disputing over whether or not to visit Jerusalem in support of its people, despite the fact that the Palestinian Authority supports such visits.

The debate over the usefulness of visiting Jerusalem is a waste of time and is no longer justified. Zionist colonies are expanding in Jerusalem and adjoining areas, while Palestinians, Muslims and Christians are being displaced against their will or by the purchase of their lands. The Palestinian people are urging for our solidarity, even if through a visit.

The Palestinians today are trying to do something beginning from Gaza. It is then unnecessary to hesitate on whether to visit Jerusalem or not under the pretext that it is occupied. The occupation aims to displace people and remove holy places. A visit by a million or two million people to Jerusalem every year will send a message to the Palestinians that we have not abandoned them.

Moral Christian Influence

The numbers of Christians in Jerusalem and Palestine have decreased because of the pressure and circumstances of the occupation. Yet the Vatican has a great moral influence, just like the Christians of Palestine and the world. The same thing can be said about the Eastern Orthodox Church, whom the majority of Arab Christians belong to, and Russian and Greek political and religious positions.

There is no doubt that the Palestinian Authority should be the one to approach the Catholic and Orthodox communities, as well as the Protestant and Anglican churches that disagree with the orientations of the new Zionized evangelical institutions.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan and their religious authorities have great moral and political power in Arab and Islamic societies as well as in the international community. Palestinian and Arab parties should thus work together in solidarity with the Arab Christians to complement their role towards the world’s religious and political parties.

I do not know if there has been any development in terms of communication and agreement, or in terms of taking action in this regard, but the visit of Cardinal Tauran to Riyadh may have fostered this consultative spirit and the spirit of solidarity in preserving Jerusalem’s freedom, religious safety and holy places.

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How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

Former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is a prolific writer and thinker. He is also one of the most inspiring voices for interfaith understanding today. In this book, the Rabbi makes a plea for interfaith solidarity to counter the current threats to humankind. He rightly says: “I see in the rising crescendo of ethnic tensions, civilisational clashes and the use of religious justification for acts of terror, a clear and present danger to humanity. For too long, the pages of history have been stained by bloodshed in the name of God. Allied to weapons of mass destruction, extremist religious attitudes threaten the very security of life on earth. In our interconnected world, we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened by difference.”

Today, the Rabbi says, a crucial question before us is whether religions can become a force for peace rather than a source of conflict. That, he says, depends on how different faiths and cultures make space for ‘the other’. He suggests that people need to move away from seeing the other as a threat to their beliefs and way of life and, instead, regard them as an ‘enrichment of the collective heritage of mankind’. In this regard, he points out: “Religion can be a source of discord. It can also be a form of conflict resolution. We are familiar with the former; the second is far too little tried. Yet it is here, if anywhere, that hope must lie if we are to create a human solidarity strong enough to bear the strains that lie ahead. The great faiths must now become an active force for peace and for the justice and compassion on which peace ultimately depends. That will require great courage, and perhaps something more than courage: a candid admission that, more than at any time in the past, we need to search—each faith in its own way—for a way of living with, and acknowledging the integrity of, those who are not of our faith. Can we make space for difference? Can we hear the voice of God in a language, a sensibility, a culture not our own? Can we see the presence of God in the face of a stranger?”

The Rabbi has some very pertinent advice to offer: “When religion is invoked as a justification for conflict”, he says, “religious voices must be raised in protest. We must withhold the robe of sanctity when it is sought as a cloak for violence and bloodshed.” In other words, “If faith is enlisted in the cause of war, there must be an equal and opposite counter-voice in the name of peace.”

For people of different faiths to live in harmony with each other, the Rabbi suggests we need to recognize the image of God in people who follow faiths other than the one we identify with. Also, recognizing that God is worshipped in diverse ways in different religions, we need to understand “the dignity of difference” and recognize “why no one civilization has the right to impose itself on others by force: why God asks us to respect the freedom and dignity of those not like us.”

The Rabbi says that what he terms as “nothing less than a paradigm shift” may be needed “to prevent a global age becoming the scene of intermittent but destructive wars”. In this regard, he explains: “I believe each of us within our own traditions, religious or secular, must learn to listen and be prepared to be surprised by others. We must make ourselves open to their stories, which may profoundly conflict with ours. We must even, at times, be ready to hear of their pain, humiliation and resentment and discover that their image of us is anything but our image of ourselves. We must learn the art of conversation, from which truth emerges not by the refutation of falsehood but from the quite different process of letting our world be enlarged by the presence of others who think, act and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own”.

God, the Rabbi tells us, “Transcends the particularities of culture and the limits of human understanding”. “He is my God but also the God of all mankind, even of those whose customs and way of life are unlike mine”, he writes. By developing this understanding, people of faith might remain secure in their own religious tradition but yet can be moved by the beauty in other traditions too. “Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others”, the Rabbi says. “In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need that confidence now”, he stresses.

“Something far stronger than toleration is required”, the Rabbi says, for peaceful relations between adherents of different faiths today. And this something, he writes, must “come from within the great religious traditions themselves”. One form of that idea, which he articulates, is that the one God, creator of diversity, commands us to honour His creation by respecting diversity. In this context, he says, “Until the great faiths not merely tolerate but find positive value in the diversity of the human condition, we will have wars, and their cost in human lives will continue to rise.”

The idea of the dignity of difference does not mean relativism, the Rabbi explains. It is based on God’s transcendence of God from the created universe, with its astonishing diversity of life forms, all of which derive from a single source. The Rabbi suggests a “test of faith” being whether believers in God can make space for difference. “Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine?” he asks, adding, “If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.”

The Rabbi suggests that recognizing the divine in the other is the way to develop respect for the other. “I believe”, he tells us, “that we are being summoned by God to see in the human other a trace of the Divine Other. The test is to see the divine presence in the face of a stranger; to heed the cry of those who are disempowered in this age of unprecedented powers; who are hungry and poor and ignorant and uneducated, whose human potential is being denied the chance to be expressed.”

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Anti-Muslim Media Bias Calls for PR Offensive

Maybe you read the story this past week about how a significant number of Muslims in Britain said they didn’t know who was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.

According to a survey of 3,000 British Muslims by The Policy Exchange, an independent British think tank, 31 percent of Muslims believe America was “responsible” for the terrorism that killed nearly 3,000 innocent civilians. More than 52 percent said they didn’t know who was responsible, but 7 percent blamed Jews while 4 percent blamed Al-Qaeda, whose leader Osama Bin Laden openly claimed responsibility. Researchers and Western media commentators concluded it is “deeply troubling” that so many Muslims are willing to “entertain wild and outlandish conspiracy theories.”

That may be true if that was the whole story, but it is not. The truth is the Western news media does not care about truth or accuracy when it comes to Muslims, or Arabs. It is easier to attack us than to write accurately about us. The media ignored significant parts of the survey that show the majority of Muslims strongly oppose extremism. Muslims strongly believe in their religion. And, the survey shows they not only respect others but also identify with the same concerns of non-Muslims.

Maybe it is our fault as Muslims and Arabs that we allow the Western news media to be so biased and we fail miserably to make the media accountable for its exaggerations and lies. For example, here are things the media did not report that were in the survey and that I argue are significantly more important:

The survey shows most Muslims do not see the bigotry they face in society as their most important challenge. Harassment on religious or racial grounds is not as important to them as are the many other issues they share with non-Muslims.

That is a fascinating considering Muslims make up only 4.8 percent of the British population and more than half of the Muslims interviewed were immigrants. Being immigrants and a minority makes them more easily subject to bigotry. Yet Muslims do not have a chip on their shoulder, according to the study.

What concerns them? Most said they are concerned with the same issues that concern other people in Britain and the West. Those issues include crime, violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. A majority, 93 percent, see themselves as British citizens. Imagine that. Muslims do not think they are different from others. They see themselves as being the same. But there is more that was skipped over in the coverage of the survey by the racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab Western news media.

A total of 49 percent of Muslims said they believe they have to do more to tackle extremism and radicalization in Britain’s Muslim community, while only 39 percent believed enough was being done. Only 3 percent said too much is being done.

If you are worried about Muslims being patriotic to their adoptive countries, 52 percent said they would report without hesitancy any member of their community who supported or encouraged terrorism in the Syria conflict.

That is important because that issue is the focus of fears that Muslims are being drawn into Daesh because of the Syrian conflict.

A significant 35 percent of Muslims said they believe moderates in their community are drowned out by extremist activists. A 2011 study of Muslims by the PEW Research Centre in America said that more than 48 percent of Muslims believe their own religious leaders have not done enough to speak out against Islamists’ threats.

I agree. I think the problem is that too often, the mainstream Western news media focuses on the so-called “leaders” rather than on the people.

If you only relied on the Western news media, you would think most Muslims are fanatics who support extremists and need to be put on watch lists, spied on, and monitored for violence and crimes.

I think it is our leadership that has the problem. Too many live in the Western countries physically, but mentally they are too focused and consumed almost entirely by the politics they left behind in their countries of origin.

That makes the leadership different from the community they seek to lead. The survey shows 89 percent of British Muslims condemn “political violence.” That reflects exactly how non-Muslim Brits feel.

There is so much more in The Policy Exchange survey that deserved more coverage from the biased mainstream Western news media. The issue is not about whom to blame for Sept. 11, 2001. Taken out of context, that single issue makes Muslims and Arabs appear to be extremists. In context, though, you might recognize that the issue is exaggerated and not as important as it was made to seem.

The whole survey reinforces the truth that Islam is a religion of peace. And, extremism is a threat not just to non-Muslims but to Muslims and Arabs, too. When it comes to the patriotism of immigrants, Muslims and Arabs are no different than anyone else. As Muslims and Arabs, our real problem is we just do not do a good job of presenting who we are and what we believe to the rest of the world. We treat communications, public relations and PR messaging like foreign concepts. But they are the most important things we need to understand and engage.

We need to stop listening to and enabling the extremists in our community who falsely claim they speak on our behalf. We must tell our stories to the rest of the world better, more extensively, and more often, not just through the “news” media but also through the entertainment media including through movies, books and even television sitcoms. Humour is the most powerful method of communications to break through racism and bigotry.

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