Furore over remarks against Prophet marks shift in Arab perception of India

The sweeping tendency to see Muslims as a historical adversary, and the promotion of black and white history to suit this narrative has overshadowed India’s centuries-old mutually enriching ties with the Arab world

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

The high point of Islamic civilization between the eighth and the eleventh century coincided with Baghdad’s centrality to global trade, knowledge, science, and scholarship. It drew people from around the world to the city and by the ninth century, Baghdad had Greek, Indian, Chinese, and Armenian quarters apart from Jewish and Christian suburbs. The diversity also led to an exchange of knowledge that facilitated the development of some of the pivotal scientific ideas. A text that a merchant from India brought to Baghdad in the eighth century first introduced nine numerals and zero and changed the face of mathematics. It made multiplication and division simpler as well as helped develop the decimal system and calculus, which is vital to almost all branches of science and underpins important discoveries in physics.

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Scholars such as polymath al-Khwarizmi, whom algorithms are named after, built on these ideas to create what has been described as “the Arabic hegemony” in mathematics. The Arabs helped the new system of numerals, which Europeans called Arab numerals, to reach Renaissance Europe even as Arabs continue to correctly call them Hindsa (the Indian numerals). The Arab world’s age-old links with India have enabled such mutually-enriching exchanges for centuries and have had Arabs hold Indians in high esteem. Over the recent decades,  Arabs have associated India with Gandhian ideals of religious coexistence. 

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The furor over the derogatory comments ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionaries made about the Prophet Muhammad underlines a shift in how the Arabs have perceived India. The Arabs appear to have finally begun to grasp the radical changes India has undergone since BJP emerged as a hegemon in Indian politics. The comments were a new low in what has been a staple of India’s Islamophobic political and media discourse over the last eight years. They marked a tipping point for Arab countries, where people have been trying to wrap their heads around the situation in India.

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The increasing weaponization of history in India through its narrow interpretation has blurred lines between myths and reality. The sweeping tendency to see Muslims as the monolithic other; a historical adversary and the promotion of black and white history to suit this narrative has overshadowed India’s collaborative and mutually enriching ties with the Arab world. Thanks to the collaborative ties, Panchatantra, one of India’s most significant contributions to global literature, found its way to the rest of the world through its Arabic translation. Kalila wa Dimna, an anthology of Indian fables, has been among the most popular books in the Arab world for over a millennium. Ibn Mukaffa compiled the book in the eighth century from the fables sourced from Panchatantra to engaging philosophers in the wisdom of its tales.

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Alf Laylah wa Laylah (The Arabian Nights/One Thousand and One Nights), which has for centuries influenced storytelling and inspired generations of writers and is known as the Arab world’s biggest contribution to literature, may also have an Indian link. Novelist Salman Rushdie has argued the iconic book’s probable origin is Indian. In a New York Times piece in May 2021, Rushdie wrote Indian story compendiums too have a fondness for frame stories, for Russian doll-style stories within stories, and animal fables. He added somewhere around the eighth century, these stories first found their way into Persian. Rushdie cited surviving scraps of information and wrote the collection was known as Hazar Afsaneh (a thousand stories). Rushdie referred to a 10th-century document from Baghdad and added it describes the Hazar Afsaneh and mentions its frame story about a king who would kill a concubine every night until one of them manages to delay her execution by telling him stories. 

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The Arabs began acquiring Sanskrit texts before they sourced nearly all of the Graeco-Roman philosophical and scientific works to usher in the Islamic Golden Age. In 771, an Indian delegation visited Baghdad carrying a library. The brilliance of its texts is believed to have prompted the commissioning of their translations into Arabic. Indian mysticism was among the subjects the Abbasids, who helmed the Golden Age from the eighth century onwards, tapped into. 

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A courtyard at the tomb of a Sufi saint in Baghdad signifies Indo-Arab links in the spiritual realm. It commemorates Sikhism founder Guru Nanak’s stay there during his 16th-century journey through Arabia for inter-religious dialogue. Nanak, who is believed to have gained deep insights into Islam thanks to the journey, founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion drawing from Islam as a synthesis between two of India’s major faiths.

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In Kerala, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, believed to be the oldest mosque in the southern Indian state, also attests to deep India-Arabia links. Linked to mythical ruler Cheraman Perumal, who, the story goes, saw the moon splitting into two either in his dream or from his palace. Arab traders are believed to have told him how the miracle was associated with the Prophet. This is said to have prompted Perumal to travel to meet the Prophet in Mecca, where he is believed to have died as a Muslim. A friend of Preumalis is said to have later built the Cheraman Juma Masjid in the seventh century. 

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The 8.9 million strong Indian expatriate community in the Arab world represents the continuing symbiotic relationship. The remittances they send have often surpassed India’s other sources of capital inflows. The remittances constituted 2.7 percent of the country’s GDP in 2017 and double the spending (1.15% GDP)on healthcare. Over $30 billion from the region accounted for nearly half of the total remittances of $69 billion India got in 2017. Remittances of over $10.5 billion in 2017 from Saudi Arabia, where almost a quarter of 17 million Indians around the world lived, was the most significant contribution to the flow of capital from a single country.

Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

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