How Siege of Islam’s Holiest Shrine in Mecca Cast Long Shadow

The siege, Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan back to back in the same year triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions

The insurgents proved hard to dislodge as they carried advanced Belgian rifles and had planned their attack in detail.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In November 1979, self-styled preacher Juhayman al-Utaybi and his 200 followers mingled with around 50,000 worshippers at Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca before they pushed aside the imam after the dawn prayers and seized his microphone. They took out handguns and rifles hidden in coffins brought to the shrine on the pretext of funeral services while one of them, Khaled al-Yami, read a speech announcing the coming of the Mahdi, the messianic deliverer in Islamic eschatology believed to be a divinely guided man with extraordinary powers to usher in an era of justice.

Yami claimed Muslims had seen Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Qahtani, the so-called Mahdi, in their dreams and now he was in their midst. He proclaimed that the end of days was near and that redeemer would restore justice as Juhayman directed his men to close the shrine’s gates, take positions in its minarets overlooking Mecca, and shoot anyone resisting. He would first pay homage to ‘the Mahdi’. His followers followed suit amid cries of ‘God is great.’

The worshippers, many of whom were foreigners and were initially unable to understand what was going on since the intruders spoke Arabic, tried to reach any exits that were still open, prompting the gunmen to fire a few gunshots. The bloodshed that followed was unprecedented as any violence is forbidden in Mecca as per the Quranic mandate. 

Juhyman and his men blatantly violated the mandate and fully controlled the shrine in about an hour and challenged the authority of the Saudi royal family whom they blamed for the degeneration of social and religious values through a modernization drive. He had earlier gone underground when authorities cracked down his ultra-conservative al-Jamaa al-Salafiya al-Muhtasiba group and wrote pamphlets criticising the royals for their ‘decadence’ and the clerics for colluding with them.

Juhyman believed Saudi Arabia needed a ‘heavenly intervention’ for salvation when he began preaching despite being poorly educated. He was involved in drug smuggling before repenting to find solace in religion but avoided addressing educated audiences as his classical Arabic, the language of Islamic scholars, was weak. 

Juhayman’s experience as a soldier in the Saudi National Guard, though, helped him organise the shrine’s takeover after identifying Qahtani as ‘the Mahdi’ as his attributes matched that of the messianic deliverer. It is believed that Mahdi’s first and father’s names will be similar to the prophet’s and will have a large forehead and a thin nose like an eagle. For Juhayman, Qahtani matched these attributes. But Qahtani was unconvinced initially and went into isolation before he was convinced that Juhayman was right and he was the ‘saviour’. 

In the run-up to the siege, rumours spread that Meccans and pilgrims saw Qahtani in their dreams in Mecca’s Grand Mosque holding Islam’s banner. The rumours coincided with Juhayman’s preparations in remote areas of Saudi Arabia for the takeover. 

The Saudi leadership found itself hamstrung as its key members were abroad. Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud was in Tunisia and Prince Abdullah, the head of the National Guard, in Morocco. An ailing King Khaled and his defence minister Prince Sultan, who were left to coordinate the immediate response, failed to anticipate the scale of the problem and sent Saudi police to understand the scale of the crisis. The police proved no match to the rebels. Their cars were fired upon as they drove up to the shrine, prompting the National Guard to launch a hasty operation as the gravity of the situation became evident. 

The National Guard, too, found the insurgents hard to dislodge. Juhayman’s sharp-shooters carried advanced Belgian rifles and had planned their attack in detail forcing Saudi authorities to press paratroopers, special forces, and armoured units into service. A security cordon was thrown around the shrine and artillery fire was directed towards its minarets while jets and helicopters hovered in the air. 

The rebels repelled the attacks despite getting outgunned and outnumbered over the next two days while the Saudi forces tried to gain entrance into the Grand Mosque, a two-floor building mostly of galleries and corridors spread across hundreds of meters. Casualties mounted to the hundreds as a result.

The insurgents set fire to carpets to create clouds of smoke before they hid behind columns and ambushed Saudi troops. A man-to-man confrontation followed within a cramped space. The problems were compounded when some Saudi soldiers refused to fight, citing the shrine’s sanctity and prompted authorities to seek a fatwa backing the military to use as much force. The fatwa paved the way for anti-tank-guided missiles and heavy guns to take out the rebels stationed on the minarets. Armoured personnel carriers were separately rushed to breach the gates.

Qahtani, meanwhile, thought he could expose himself but soon found his immortality was a fallacy as bullets hit him. Juhayman remained in denial telling his followers not to believe those who said Qahtani was injured. They continued fighting until Saudi forces took control of the mosque’s courtyard and the surrounding buildings on the sixth day.

But the crisis was far from over as the rebels retreated to rooms and cells at the shrine convinced Qahtani was alive. The situation worsened with the rebels pushing into the catacombs and forced the Saudis to seek the help of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who dispatched three advisers from a counter-terror unit secretly. The French team stayed at a hotel in the nearby Taif and devised a plan of flushing out the insurgents by filling the shrine’s basements with gas. Holes were accordingly dug every 50 metres to inject gas through them with the help of grenade explosions into the corner where the insurgents were holed up down in the basement.

The plan succeeded. Juhayman and his surviving followers also ran out of ammunition and food and gathered in a small room with soldiers throwing smoke bombs through a hole made in the ceiling. They were soon forced to surrender but Juhayman was unrepentant when he met Saudi officials and just asked for water. Juhayman and 63 rebels were executed across eight cities over a month later but the siege cast a long shadow.

The crisis had a profound effect on Osama Bin Laden, who blamed the Saudi ruling family for desecrating the shrine. Laden felt the crisis, which has been described as the first such transnational terrorist operation as the rebels included men from Middle Eastern countries and the US, could have been solved peacefully. The response to the siege prompted him to organise al-Qaida to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and to end western influences in the region.

The siege also strengthened the clergy and halted Saudi Arabia’s modernization. It pushed the royals on an ultra-conservative path marked by measures such as the ban on women from driving and the closure of theatres, which took four decades to reverse. The Saudi government increased the allocation for the religious establishment in oil revenues among other concessions to deal with the aftermath of the crisis. This allowed the clergy to develop a network of charities and educational institutes globally to spread its ultra-conservative ideology.

An information blackout thanks to the snapping of phone lines for the first 24 hours created much confusion. The US pointed fingers at Iran, which blamed the Americans and the Zionists and sparked anti-American demonstrations across the world. American embassies were stormed but the siege largely remained obscured. The attention remained focused on Iran, where the American embassy was overrun after the revolution two weeks earlier, and Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion a fortnight later. 

The three back-to-back events triggered a chain reaction and among other things fuelled Islamophobia, which has now escalated globally to epidemic proportions.     

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

What Reframing Of History Tells Us About Fast-Changing Saudi Arabia

Saudi ruling family’s ties with revivalist theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab conferred legitimacy on its rule but they are increasingly being underplayed with an acceleration of change in Saudi Arabia

Diriyah has hosted American rapper-singer Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia’s concerts. Reuters

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When a restored 18th-century palace will be opened to the public for the first time later this year in Diriyah, it is expected to be among the major attractions in Saudi Arabia as it opens up to the world. The monument near the Saudi capital Riyadh is a key landmark in the country’s history. The ruling al Saud family signed its pivotal pact with revivalist theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who advocated a narrow and literal interpretation of the Quran, at the mud and straw palace in 1744. 

The pact would have the Sauds take charge of politics and military and Salafi clerics, pejoratively known as Wahhabis, monopolise legal, religious, and social affairs. It helped Abdul Aziz, Saudi Arabia’s first monarch, to establish a viable state by the early 20th century after the family’s attempts to do so were frustrated twice. Aziz declared himself king in 1932 six years before oil was discovered and helped transform the kingdom with two of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, into one of the world’s richest nations. 

Al Saud’s ties with Wahhab conferred legitimacy on his family’s rule. But they are increasingly being underplayed with an acceleration of change in Saudi Arabia since its de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS, was elevated as the Crown Prince in 2017. MBS has championed modernisation. His calls for a more moderate Islam, an end to ban on women from driving, sidelining of religious authorities, reopening of cinemas, etc have been seen as part of efforts to undermine the al Saud’s pact with the religious establishment. There is more in-your-face evidence of this in Diriyah, where the place Wahhab lived opposite the palace has been transformed into a dining district. 

In a report in June, the news agency AFP noted a restored version of Wahhab’s mosque is open on the site but a research centre, built about seven years ago and devoted to his branch of Islam, Salafism, is not. The agency cited analysts and said they say the palace’s opening is part of MBS’s larger effort of stoking Saudi nationalism and reframing its history. It noted exhibits dotting the palace spotlight the al Saud family’s achievements with no mention of its partnership with Wahhab. 

For Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, Diriyah encapsulates the new Saudi nationalism, putting the al Sauds as the primary authors of Saudi history and architects of its unity while erasing Wahhab from the national narrative. She told AFP that MBS’s father King Salman preserved a place, albeit reduced, to commemorate Wahhab when he first showed interest in redeveloping Diriyah in the 1970s. Diwan added MBS sees Diriyah, which also now features attractions such as fine dining, art galleries, and a Formula-E race track in line with his vision, as a global attraction. Wahhabism does not easily co-exist in MBS’s programme of art biennales, world wrestling, and raves, said Diwan.

American entertainment executive Jerry Inzerillo, who has been hired to transform Diriyah, told AFP that MBS approves every rendering of Diriyah and spent up to 30 hours painstakingly reviewing its street layout. For Inzerillo, Diriyah could be for Saudis what the Acropolis is for Greeks and the Colosseum is for Italians even as he dismissed the idea that Wahhab is being written out of history. Yet music, which Wahhab’s teachings saw as an abomination, has made a strong comeback in Saudi Arabia as well as his backyard—Diriyah, which has hosted American rapper-singer Pitbull and Swedish House Mafia’s concerts.

Heritage and entertainment are key elements to the transformation of Saudi Arabia and Diriyah, where music virtually disappeared 300 years back with Wahhab’s rise, as part of efforts to revamp the Saudi economy. Limiting the clerical power over the affairs of the state has emerged as an important aspect of the transformative change. In 2017, MBS told global investors that they were returning to being a country of moderate Islam open to all religions and to the world. 

Saudi Arabia has been promoting entertainment and leisure as part of a drive to create jobs and end the country’s dependence on oil. In 2016, it created a new General Entertainment Authority (GEA), which aims to double household spending on entertainment to 6% percent by 2030. Music was not always taboo in Saudi Arabia, where summer festivals in cities such as Jeddah featured concerts before public musical education was confined to military academies for training bands for official marches. 

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

How Prophet Muhammad Was Ahead Of His Time

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia with entrenched notions of superiority

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Shortly before he passed away, Prophet Muhammad spelled his moral and ethical mandate for Muslims in his last sermon. He essentially reiterated his vision that was pivotal to his successes against possibly all odds. The Prophet declared all humans descended from Adam and Eve and there is no superiority ‘of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, a white person over a black person, or of a black person over a white person.’ He called for treating others justly to ensure that no one would be unjust to his followers. ‘You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity […] you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. […] Treat women well and be kind to them […]’

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s last address and his life-long egalitarian teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia with entrenched notions of superiority. He challenged inequalities based on kinship, tribal affiliation, wealth, and triggered ferocious opposition from the elites such as Umayya, whose slave Bilal, an African, was among Islam’s first converts and prominent members of the budding Muslim community. Umayya tortured Bilal, who was known for his euphonious voice, to force him to renounce Islam. He would place a rock on Bilal’s chest to have him fall in line. Bilal, who was known to be close to the Prophet, refused to give in. He would go on to have the distinction of giving the first public call for prayers or azan to Muslims and marrying a woman from an important Arab clan.

Bilal’s social mobility illustrated how the Prophet transformed Arabia with social justice at the core of the transformative change he effected. He created a society, which took care of its weak and treated them with respect, uprooting an oppressive power and social structure that accorded an individual low or high social status as per nasab (kinship or lineal descent). The change did not come without trials and tribulations. The Prophet’s own turned against him. The persecution he faced forced his flight to Medina. He suffered assassination attempts and wars by much stronger adversaries. But he struck a balance between idealism and pragmatism, which helped him win him over even his worst enemies. He ended a cycle of reprisals and constant warfare and ushered in unity, order, peace, and justice. The Prophet united warring tribes and gave them a sense of community to eventually have them welcome him back to the city of his birth—Mecca.

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The Prophet, who founded the first Muslim state of Medina, was way ahead of his time. The Medina Charter, which many consider the constitution of this state, best illustrated this. The charter outlined the political rights and duties of the state’s inhabitants. Medina, one of Islam’s holiest places as the Prophet’s final resting place where the first Muslim community was established, was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter. The charter sought to end conflicts among tribes and maintain peace among all its inhabitants – Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans.

The charter declared no Jews will be wronged and will be treated as one community with the believers. It sought to protect the religious rights of non-Muslims and was known as Sahifah Medina or Dustur Medina in Arabic. It was perhaps the first such written document incorporating religious and political rights. The charter specified means for conflict resolution and sought to promote mutual respect and acceptance. It underscored Muslim commitment to human lives and religious minorities in line with Quran’s mandate for Muslims to respect all previous messengers such as Jesus and Moses and to honour their followers. It recognised equality and the right to peaceful coexistence with all groups getting protection and rights to live as per their beliefs.

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The Charter had its roots in infighting, which the Prophet ended by unifying communities. Muslim scholars have sought to revive its spirit to end the political violence in the name of religion, particularly since the 1980s in the name of fighting communism, which boomeranged and sparked a virulent form of Islamophobia. In January 2016, they put their heads together at a conference in Morocco reaffirming the values enshrined in the charter. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who hosted the gathering, underlined the charter promoted unity, pluralism, and religious freedom. He sought the revival of its spirit for a more peaceful and inclusive world.

The Prophet also signed a charter of privileges with Christians in 628 and pledged them freedom of worship, movement, and protection in the event of war years after Ethiopia’s Christian kingdom offered asylum to some early Muslims when they faced persecution in Mecca. The Prophet allowed Christians from Najran in modern-day Saudi Arabia to worship in his mosque when he ruled Medina. The treaty he signed with the Christians pledged ‘there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith. […] No bishop will be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his parish.’  The treaty reflected the Quranic spirit. The Quran says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ It calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times and also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book), ahl al-dhikr (the people of remembrance). The Quran also addresses the Christians as ahl al-Injīl (the People of the Gospel). The Quran mentions the Jewish holy book Torah 18 times as a true revelation and source of guidance and wisdom.

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The four Khulafa Rashidun (rightly-guided) caliphs Abu Bakar, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, the Prophet’s close companions, succeeded him and laid the foundation of Islam’s Golden Age, which produced icons such as polymath Ibn Isa, known in the West as Avicenna. The period between the eighth to eleventh century marked the high point of this age marked by great strides in science and learning. For Islamic science expert Glen M Cooper, this era profoundly affected the development of empirical science. Cooper has argued the West ultimately became the heir of those scientific developments. For him, contributions of Muslim scientists to medicine and the flourishing of science during the Golden Age of Islamic civilisation can be explained, in part, by basic Islamic religious beliefs and practices. British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili wrote scholars and scientists of the Islamic Golden Age are no less worthy of mention in the history of science than Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. Among them, Ibn al-Haytham was the greatest physicist in the 2,000-year period that separated Archimedes and Newton. Polymath Al-Bīrūni is regarded as the Da Vinci of Islam. Mathematician and astronomer Al-Tūsi influenced Copernicus while Ibn Khaldūn is known as the father of social science and economic theory.

The golden age was the most remarkable period of scholarship and learning since Ancient Greece when the Islamic Civilisation spread across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Muslims produced rich literature, thought, and contributed to science. The quest for knowledge was among the primary goals of the Muslim rulers when Christian Europe followed outmoded teachings and Arabs mastered science. In an essay titled Questions on Natural Science Englishman Adelard of Bath, who left behind his traditional education at the cathedral schools of France and travelled to Antioch (Turkey) in the 12th century, cited the blind adherence of Europeans to intellectual orthodoxy. He wrote that Arabic science has freed man to explore the natural world with his own faculties and reason as a guide.

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Medicine became a part of Islamic culture that espoused sound health. ‘Make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease: old age,’ the Prophet advised his followers. Muslims over the centuries drew on traditional practices to make their medicine the world’s most sophisticated by the 10th century. The Islamic culture fostered a tradition of book-making that transmitted knowledge from one place to another when Europeans languished in the intellectual darkness. Crusades were a manifestation of this darkness for which distortions about the Prophet were used as a justification in an attempt to eliminate Islam and Islamic Civilisation.

The misrepresentations persisted even as Europe overcame its inferiority to the much intellectually advanced Islamic world to dominate the world. They gained a fresh currency in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have put a spotlight on these distortions. They echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions in a futile attempt to overshadow an extraordinary legacy, which could be the panacea for many of the contemporary problems provided Muslims, in particular, understand its essence—justice and equality.  

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

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

The Truth About Prophet Muhammad’s Marriages

The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders about the Prophet Muhammad mark a new low in their anti-Muslim rhetoric but essentially echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions  

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

For crusade chroniclers in the Middle Ages, writes historian John Tolan, the Prophet Muhammad was either ‘a golden idol that the “Saracens” [Muslims] adored or a shrewd heresiarch who had worked false miracles to seduce the Arabs away from Christianity.’ Tolan notes the depictions made the Prophet ‘the root of Saracen error and implicitly justified the crusade to wrest the Holy Land’ from Muslim control. The crusades were not just wars but a divinely argued bid to eliminate Islam and Islamic civilisation, which arose in the seventh century and made pivotal contributions to literature, learning, thought, and science. An estimated 40,000 Jews and Muslims were killed in the first crusade in the 11th century on Pope Urban II’s call.

The misrepresentations of the chroniclers persisted in modified forms in the European discourse. They have been used to justify the colonization of Muslim lands and to promote missionary activities since Europe overcame its inferiority to the much intellectually advanced Islamic world by becoming capable of original science, which Muslims dominated for over 600 years. The distortions gained a fresh currency beyond the western world in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks as demagogues globally sought to tap into Islamophobia to disenfranchise Muslims and delegitimize their genuine aspirations and grievances.

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Distortions about the Prophet and character assassination related to his marriages have been an important part of the ideas these misrepresentations shaped. Much of this has centered around his polygamy and betrothal to Aisha. The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, who are known for their deep antipathy towards Muslims, about the Prophet Muhammad have put a spotlight on these distortions. They mark a new low in their anti-Muslim rhetoric but essentially echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions amid a shrinking space for Muslims with the emergence of the BJP as a hegemon in Indian politics.  

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The Prophet in reality lived mostly a monogamous life. He was 25 at the time of his first marriage to his employer, Khadija, who had been married twice before and had children. The union lasted for over 25 years. In a society where polygamy was a norm, Khadijah remained his only wife until her death. After Khadijah’s passing, a woman named Khawlah bint Hakim is reported to have suggested to the Prophet to either marry Aisha, who was unmarried, or Sawdah, a divorcee, to look after his daughters as he was busy with preaching.

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When Hakim proceeded following the Prophet’s go-ahead, both proposals were accepted. Since they were made on his behalf, he could not have backed out as per tradition. He married both but only consummated the marriage with Sawdah, who was of the Prophet’s age. Aisha came to the Prophet’s home years later at her father’s insistence. In his book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan notes the Prophet’s union with nine-year-old Aisha was just a betrothal. The marriage was not consummated until after she reached puberty and became eligible for marriage as per norms in Arabia.

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Islamic theologian Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has argued that the Prophet agreed to send the proposal for marriage when he learnt Aisha’s parents were looking for a match for her and that they would not have been doing so if she had been just nine-year-old. He has maintained she was aged around 20. Ghamidi notes the Prophet spent almost 25 prime years of his life in the companionship of a single wife, Khadijah, and never thought of having a second wife and remarried only when his first wife died. The Prophet’s second wife was a 50-year-old widow. According to Ghamidi, the Prophet delayed bringing Aisha home for years so that his older wife taking care of his household did not complain of any lack of attention.

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For Ghamidi, only someone with a sick mind can think that at 55, the Prophet suddenly became obsessed with multiple marriages. He argues in the last eight years of his life, the Prophet married eight more women for the sole reason of taking care of the widows of those killed in the battles of Badr and Uhud:

… [it] became a collective issue faced by the small state of Medina. The Quran, therefore, stated that if the relatives and guardians of these orphans thought that they would not be able to take care…since it was no easy a task to be able to do it alone, they should marry the mothers of the orphans. This appeal was made by God…. It was but natural that the Prophet…take the lead in responding to it.

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The Prophet married further to honour women, who were held as captives in military campaigns, and to lead by example in liberating enslaved people. In his book, Aslan notes wars resulted in hundreds of widows and orphans who had to be provided for and protected by the community even as the Quran calls monogamy the preferred model of marriage. The Quran says ‘no matter how you try, you will never be able to treat your wives equally.’

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Aslan argues the community that Muhammad was trying to build in Yathrib, following his flight from Mecca, would have been doomed without polygyny.  He writes Muhammad married nine women in the course of 10 years in Yathrib mostly for political reasons. ‘…as Shaykh of the Ummah, it was Muhammad’s responsibility to forge links within and beyond his community through the only means at his disposal: marriage.’ He married Umm Salamah to forge a relationship with the Makhzum, a powerful Meccan clan. ‘His union with Sawdah—by all accounts an unattractive widow long past the age of marriage—served as an example to the Ummah to marry those women in need of financial support,’ writes Aslan.

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Aslan notes that Jewish patriarchs Abraham and Jacob; the prophets Moses and Hosea; the Israelite kings Saul, David, and Solomon; and nearly all of the Christian/Byzantine and Zoroastrian/ Sasanian monarchs, all Shaykhs in Arabia had either multiple wives, multiple concubines, or both. In the seventh century Arabia, a Shaykh’s power and authority were largely determined by the size of his harem. Aslan writes the most shocking aspect of Muhammad’s marriages is not his 10 years of polygamy in Yathrib, but 25-year monogamy in Mecca, which was almost unheard of at the time. Yet medieval Popes of the crusades, the European Enlightenment philosophers, and American evangelical preachers alike have subjected the Prophet to vicious attacks over hundreds of years over his marriages, especially with Aisha.

The distortions are a legacy of the Dark Ages when Europeans languished in the intellectual darkness mired in barbarism after squandering ancient Greece and Rome’s achievements while the Muslim world carried the light of learning, which eventually paved the way for the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It is high time that they are dispensed with for a more inclusive world when Abrahamic religions in particular have more that unites rather than divides them.

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

How Hindu Statue, Temple Became Emblems Of Pluralism In Malaysia

Murugan’s statue and temple at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Batu Caves, a major tourist attraction outside the Malaysian capital of Kaula Lumpur in Selangor, were little-known except to the locals until American naturalist William Temple Hornaday came to know about them during a hunting trip in 1878. Hornaday drew the attention of western archaeologists to the hitherto obscure but important site. He discovered the locals would catch bats in the caves within a limestone outcropping dating back to prehistoric times, and retreat into them when wild animals overran the woods. The caves’ popularity grew after British explorers found aboriginal drawings made of charcoal, which have since disappeared, at their entrance.

Over a century and a half after Hornaday popularised the Batu Caves, they are better known for a Hindu temple built there in 1891 and the 140-feet high gold-painted statue of the chief Tamil deity Murugan. The world’s largest Murugan statue and sixth tallest Hindu sculpture is located near the base of a 272-step flight to the entrance to the largest of the Batu Caves, where Tamil trader K Thamboosamy Pillay built the temple. Pillay chose the site to build the temple after finding a similarity between the shape of the entrance of the caves to the tip of vel, the spear Murugan wielded. He is said to have dreamt of the Hindu Goddess Sakti requesting him to build the shrine for her son, Murugan.

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In 1888, Pillay placed a vel before a consecrated idol of Murugan was installed at Batu Caves. The Thaipusam festival, commemorating Murugan’s victory over the demon Surapadman with his vel and the deity’s birth, was first celebrated at Batu Caves in 1892. The Hindus continued praying there until the British rulers stopped the prayers in 1916 and ordered the vel’s removal. The vel was reinstalled and the Hindus were allowed to resume prayers at Batu Caves after a court ruled in their favour.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Malaysian prime minister after independence, visited Batu Caves during Thaipusam in 1959. His successor Tun Abdul Razak Hussein followed suit in 1971 to recognise Thaipusam as a national festival. When Tun Hussein Onn, Malaysia’s third prime minister, visited the shrine in 1978, he advised the temple management to take legal action against the companies involved in quarrying activities at Batu Caves. The quarrying continued until Indian-origin Datuk Seri S Samy Vellu became Malaysia’s works minister. Vellu ordered an end to the quarrying activities and relocated them to an alternative site with the help of the Selangor state government. 

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Murugan’s statue, the centrepiece at the site, was added at the foot of the stairs to the caves in 2006 as the world’s tallest statue of the Hindu deity in Muslim-majority Malaysia. One of the caves lined at the site with dioramas, representing scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, is known as Ramayana Cave. The cave’s entrance is marked with a statue of Lord Hanuman, one of the heroes of the epic. 

Hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims annually visit the site. The main celebrations of Thaipusam in Malaysia are held at the Batu Caves. Hindu devotees from all over the country, carrying kavadis or symbolic burdens including body piercings, pay annual homage to Lord Murugan after climbing the 272 steps to his temple.

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Murugan’s statue and Hindu shrine at Batu Caves are key emblems of multiculturalism and pluralism in Malaysia, where Indians (eighth percent) are the third largest ethnic group after the majority Malays and the Chinese (26 percent), the dominant economic force. Tamils account for a bulk of the Indians, mostly Hindus, in the country—81 percent—numbering about 1.5 million. They trace their roots to the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and began arriving in the region in the 15th century mostly as textile and spice traders. The British rule in Malaysia accelerated their migration in the 18th century when Tamil labourers were brought to the region to build roads, and railways and to work on plantations. Other Indians in Malaysia include a sprinkling of Sindhis, Bengalis, Telugus, Gujaratis, and Malayalis.

Malaysian Indians, who otherwise lag behind other communities, have risen and held key positions in the country. They have served in the Malaysia Cabinet since independence with Vellu being one of the longest-serving ministers from 1979 to 2008. Vellu was appointed as the special envoy on infrastructure to India and South Asia after demitting office. Gobind Singh Deo became Malaysia’s first Sikh Cabinet minister when he was named as the communications and multimedia minister in Mahathir Mohamad’s government in 2018.

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Kulasegaran Murugeson (human resources) and Xavier Jayakumar (water, land, and natural resources), Waytha Moorthy Ponnusamy (national unity and social well-being), and Sivarasa Rasiah were other ministers of Indian origin to serve in Mahathir’s seventh Cabinet. Saravanan Murugan, another Indian-origin minister, succeeded Murugeson as the human resources minister in 2020. Edmund Santhara Kumar Ramanaidu is the second minister of Indian origin in the current Prime Minister Muhyiddin bin Mohamad Yassin’s government.

Tunku Abdul Rahman-led Malaysian ruling alliance set the tone for an inclusive system in the country. He ensured representation to all ethnic communities including Indians as nation-building overshadowed divisions. His rule coincided with harmony and political freedoms in the country, where the Constitution’s Article 3 guarantees the freedom of religion. Rahman’s United Malays National Organisation worked with Chinese and Indian political parties and formed a national coalition, which later expanded and was renamed National Front (Barisan Nasional, or BN). The interethnic coalition, which included the Malaysian Indian Congress, governed the country from 1957 to 2018 when BN, which delivered robust economic growth, lost power for the first time.

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There was a rupture in Malaysia after 1969 when the alliance lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time. The racial riots and the 18-month emergency rule that followed led to a rise in Malay nationalism. In 1971, the government launched New Economic Policy as an affirmative action plan favouring Malays as the democratic space narrowed and sparked ethnic tensions. Over a decade later the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Sikhism was established in 1983 to promote harmony among Malaysians. There have since been efforts to address Malaysia’s polarisation and to adopt an inclusive Malaysian national identity with civil society groups playing a key role in bridging differences through dialogues among different faiths and ethnic groups. 

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

Indonesia: Beacon Of Hope In Times Of Bigotry 

The Indonesian state promotes the coexistence and diversity needed to keep together a country of multiple languages, geographies, and faiths

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

From a backwater to one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, Indonesia’s westernmost Island of Bali has come a long way over the last four decades. It is also no longer just a beach destination for around 20 million tourists, who visit the island annually. Bali has emerged as a lifestyle destination; a gourmet getaway with an array of gastronomic delights. Babi guling, traditionally served on special occasions such as weddings, is among the most sought-after dishes at open-air restaurants dotting Bali. Literally meaning ‘turning pig’, babi guling is the roasted suckling pig dish made with garlic, ginger, and turmeric. Tender and juicy, the delicacy is cooked on a hand-turned skewer over the fire.

Foodies relishing the pork dish is a rare sight in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and home to 12.7 percent of Muslims globally. Pork is forbidden in Islam and Muslims consider pigs unclean. But Muslim dietary restrictions are not applicable in Bali, a Hindu enclave. Hindus account for Indonesia’s two percent population. Around 90 percent of them or around 3.4 million Hindus are concentrated in Bali. Virtually every street has a temple dedicated to Hindu gods in Bali, which is among Indonesia’s most developed parts with just under five percent of the people below the poverty line compared to 12 percent nationally.

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The world’s tallest Hindu statue of the God Vishnu sitting astride the mythical bird Garuda, said to be his companion and vessel, is also located in Bali and is one of the region’s centrepieces. The 75m high sculpture is known as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. Atop Ungasan Hill in the Garuda Vishnu Kencana Cultural Park, it is the world’s largest copper statue and the third tallest. With a wingspan of 65m, it stands on a pedestal, making its total height (121m) 30m taller than the Statue of Liberty. The statue showcases Vishnu, who is believed to be the preserver and protector of the universal equilibrium, in a meditative state, riding on Garuda’s back with his eyes half closed. 

President Joko Widodo inaugurated the sculpture in September 2018 at a gathering of thousands of people including the country’s top leaders and one of his predecessors, Megawati Soekarnoputri. Traditional dancers performed and fireworks lit up the night sky in a grand celebration of Indonesian multi-culturalism at the inauguration ceremony of the statue. Widodo, in his address at the event, called the statue a masterpiece and a source of Indonesia’s pride. He said the statue shows his country has not only inherited extraordinary masterpieces such as ninth-century Buddhist temple complex Borobudur and Hindu temple complex Prambanan. Widodi said they are capable of creating cultural masterpieces such as Garuda Vishnu Kencana. He called the statue, which took over 28 years for its completion, a historical footprint of Indonesia.

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Hindus in Indonesia also include converts who adopted Hinduism in the 1960s and 1970s on the neighbouring Java island and over 100,000-strong Indian Hindu diaspora community, mostly Tamils and Sindhis, in places such as the capital Jakarta and Sumatra’s Medan. In the Muslim-majority island of Lombok, both Hindus and Muslims, adhering to the Waktu Telu tradition, pray at the Pura Lingsar Temple complex. Built in 1714, the complex nestled in rice fields is a multi-denominational site for Hindus and the followers of Waktu Telu and includes a lily-covered pond devoted to Lord Vishnu.

Indonesia, where the national airline Garuda is named after the Hindu god Vishnu’s vehicle and the country’s currency notes carry another deity Ganesh’s picture, promotes the coexistence and diversity needed to keep together a country of multiple languages, geographies, and faiths. Its moderate and syncretic approach to religion complements its belief in Islam. The ceremony for the installation of a white and gold statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning and wisdom, to honour the country’s Hindu population on the premises of the Indonesian embassy in Washington in 2013 illustrated this. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presided over the ceremony on the Jewish New Year. He made blessings of Saraswati ‘in the name of Allah, the most benevolent,’ and spoke about religious tolerance. 

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Hindus account for Indonesia’s two percent population with around 90 percent of them or around 3.4 million Hindus concentrated in Bali. Alamy Stock Photo

Yudhoyono also participated in the ceremony for the statute’s purification. Mayor Anak Agung Gde Agung from Bali’s Badung and the sculptors of the statue performed the ritual for it. They burnt incense and offered palm leaves and fruits to the deity. The holy water needed for the ritual was transported on Yudhoyono’s plane from Bali to avoid restrictions on carrying liquids on regular flights. Agung sprinkled the statue at the ceremony, where Yudhoyono underlined Islam as a religion of peace while denouncing the so-called Islamic State and calling for ‘more love, tolerance, and knowledge.’

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Dino Patti Djalal, the then Indonesian Ambassador to the US, told news website npr.org that the 16-feet high statue atop a lotus in front of the embassy of the country with the largest Muslim population says a lot about the religious freedom in Indonesia. Sculptors were flown from Bali to carve the statue on-site of the goddess worshipped on Basant Panchami as the embodiment of learning. Yellow is Saraswati’s favourite colour. Basant Panchami is celebrated at the onset of spring when yellow flowers of the mustard crop bloom.

Basant Panchami is celebrated as Hari Raya Saraswati (the great day of Saraswati) in Bali, marking the beginning of the Pawukon calendar. Prayers are organised at homes, educational institutions, and public places to mark the festival. Teachers and students dressed in brightly coloured clothes carry cakes and fruits to schools for temple offerings. 

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The installation of the statue was not decided on religious grounds alone but more for what it symbolised. The Hindu goddesses represent education, creativity, and music. A swan and a peacock flanking Saraswati represent beauty and pride sans ego and vanity. Saraswati idol holds a book depicting learning. A stringed instrument (veena) of the goddess represents the harmonising of mind and body. Prayer beads of Saraswati depict spiritual knowledge. Saraswati represents simplicity and elegance. She is depicted wearing a white dress representing knowledge for overcoming darkness and ignorance.

The statue was installed over a decade and a half after the 9/11 attacks globally sparked a virulent form of Islamophobia. Indonesia remains a beacon of hope as state-sponsored bigotry tears apart large parts of the world with Muslims being mostly at its receiving end. The statue is among its best reminders. Djalal told npr.org that the goal of installing it was to have the sculpture as a symbol of religious tolerance. Busts of national heroes and flags otherwise adorn the embassies in Washington’s Embassy Row. Sculptures of Winston Churchill, the UK’s Prime Minister in the 1940s, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish secular republic, and Mahatma Gandhi, in loincloth and sandals, adorn the British, Turkish, and Indian missions nearby.

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At the Saraswati statue installation ceremony, long sleeve blouses and headscarves of observant Muslims contrasted with the brightly colored strapless and tight sarongs of Balinese dancers at the event. In its report on the ceremony, the Huffington Post noted this and added that there were some moments during the celebration, where the faiths abutted but did not clash, and in essence summed up what Indonesia is about.

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

Babylon Brigade: Christian Militia That Fought ISIS On Muslim Cleric’s Call

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistanis fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the 91-year-old head of Iraq’s clerical establishment Hawza, is known to be reclusive. He mainly issues messages through his representatives and rarely appears in the public, on the television, or receives visitors. Sistani, however, made an exception when he hosted Pope Francis at his modest home on Najaf’s Rasool Street. Sistani stood outside his austere meeting room to greet the pope when Francis walked a few hundred meters to meet the ayatollah for the 40-minute meeting in March 2021. Francis, the head of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, took off his shoes before white doves symbolizing peace were released when the pontiff entered the doorway. He cradled Sistani’s hands during the meeting as the two discussed ways of stopping violence in the name of religion.

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Sistani told Francis that Iraq’s Christians deserve to ‘live like all Iraqis in security and peace and with full constitutional rights’ as Francis thanked the ayatollah for raising ‘his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted.’ The meeting came amid increasing acknowledgment of Sistani’s role in unifying Iraq, which helped it defeat the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the terrorist group masquerading as Caliphate, in July 2017.

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Sistani’s fatwa urging able-bodied men to assist Iraqi forces in fighting ISIS was a turning point in the war on ISIS. It encouraged thousands of volunteers to sign up for Popular Mobilization Forces better known by its Arabic acronym Hashd to fight the group. ISIS controlled a bigger territory than Austria and 40% of Iraq and a third of Syria at its peak when the Iraqi state almost collapsed when its American-trained forces fled Mosul in June 2014 and allowed the terrorist group to overrun the city.

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Francis’s visit would not have been possible without the bridge-building Sistani played a key role in and helped unify the country to take on ISIS effectively. ISIS’s brutality triggered a sense of urgency that helped Iraqis rise above regional, ethnic and sectarian divides to help defeat it. Rayan al-Kildani’s Christian Babylon Brigade militia was among those who fought ISIS under the Hashd umbrella. A resident of a predominantly Christian village in a mountain range with crosses even taller than lampposts every 100m near Mosul, Kildani described to BBC in 2016 how they fought side by side with the Muslim militias. Kildani added they have really good defense forces now and no one is ‘going to do anything bad to the Christians’ and that their suffering is over.

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Francis echoed Kildani when the pontiff visited Mosul as the Iraqi government rolled out a red carpet for him. Children in festive dresses lined the streets and waved Iraqi flags to welcome Francis as he arrived at Mosul’s Hosh al-Bieaa Church Square years after the city was virtually reduced to rubble in the fighting against ISIS. He said Christians received assistance from Muslims when they returned to the town. Francis underlined the need for reaffirming their conviction ‘that fraternity is more durable than fratricide, that hope is more powerful than death, that peace more powerful than war.’ His audience held olive branches as Francis led prayers in Mosul.

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The pontiff led the first prayers at the renovated Church of the Holy Immaculate Conception, which was damaged during the war, in the Christian town of Qaraqosh, where Christians trace their roots back to almost as far as Jesus’s lifetime. He visited Mosul as a pilgrim for peace and said terrorism and death never have the last word. The pope said even amid the ravages of terrorism, they can see, with the eyes of faith, the triumph of life over death. He referred to Iraq’s history of pluralism and hoped its legacy would be ensured. Francis called religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity ‘a hallmark of Iraqi society for millennia.’ He said it is a precious resource on which to draw, not an obstacle to be eliminated.

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A cross made from wooden chairs from churches across the region was also erected in Mosul’s Church Square in the honour of Francis, who visited Erbil in northern Iraq to express his gratitude to the local community for offering refuge to Christians during the war on ISIS.

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Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier welcomed Francis when he arrived in Baghdad. A choir was also arranged for the pope when he entered the airport. Crowds waved Iraqi and Vatican flags as Francis left for a welcome at the presidential palace. Traffic circles en route were decorated with the Vatican’s yellow and white flags. At the presidential reception, the pope spoke about Iraq’s diversity, which he said is to be treasured. He addressed leaders of several denominations at the cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad and held a mass at the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph.

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The papal visit was a major boost to inter-faith harmony in Iraq as it emerges from terrorism, dictatorship, occupation, and the civil war. As the New York Times rightly emphasized: ‘[…] in some ways [Sistani is] an ideal interlocutor for Francis: holy, credible and powerful. His decisions carry weight.’ Theirs was a meeting of the minds. It was a step towards realizing unity among the world’s major faiths. The pope made a case for it at a multi-faith gathering he addressed during the same trip in Iraq’s Ur, which is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews trace their roots to. Francis quoted a passage in the Bible in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his offspring will be. He emphasized Abraham saw the promise of his progeny in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis said, referring to Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The pope urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity while underlining they illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together.

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

More Unites Than Divides Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity, Judaism

Ur in Iraq is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined

Pope Francis listens as Mufti Rahmi Yaran reads verses from the Quran at the Blue Mosque in Turkey in November 2014. Getty Images

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

At a March 2021 multi-faith gathering in Iraq, Pope Francis quoted a passage from Genesis, the Bible’s first book, in which God asks Abraham to look at the stars and imagine how countless his progeny will be. For Francis, Abraham saw the promise of his descendants—Muslims, Christians, and Jews—in the stars. ‘[…] he saw us,’ Francis told the gathering in Ur, which is believed to be Abraham’s birthplace. The pontiff urged his audience to see in the stars a message of unity. They, the Pontiff underlined, illuminate the darkest nights because they shine together as he appealed for unity. The Pope called Ur ‘the land of our father Abraham’ where faith was born. ‘[…] from [Ur], let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters.’ He called hostility, extremism, and violence betrayals of religion, which are not born of a religious heart.

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The Pope’s call for unity was in consonance with shared traditions of the world’s three major religions, which have more that unites rather than what divides them. Ur is among myriad examples of how Abrahamic religions Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which trace their roots to and revere Abraham, are intertwined. It is in Ur that their spiritual forefather, Abraham, whose followers account for over 50 per cent of the world’s population, is believed to have first heard the voice of God. Ur is mentioned in the Quran and Christian scriptures as Abraham’s homeland, which he is believed to have left on God’s command to found a new nation in Canaan spanning Palestine and Syria to become the founder of monotheism. God is believed to have promised Abraham that his ‘seed’—Jews, Muslims and Christians—would inherit the land. The Prophet Muhammad traced his lineage to Abraham’s first son Ishmael. Jews and Jesus are believed to be the descenders of Abraham’s younger son, Isaac.

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Around 300 km from Abraham’s birthplace, biblical prophet Ezekiel’s tomb in Kifl with Hebrew carvings is another example of shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures. Ezekiel is known as Dhul Kifl in the Islamic tradition and Kilf, which is located at the centre of routes to Muslim pilgrimage cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Mecca, gets its name from that. A synagogue and a mosque surround the tomb of Ezekiel, who preached in modern-day Iraq in the sixth century BC and is believed to have seen God’s visions there. Mentioned twice in the Quran, both Muslims and Jews revere him. In July 2016, Kilf was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site years after the restoration work centred on Ezekiel’s tomb began in 2009. The outer courtyard of the shrine has a mosque and the inner sanctum retains the Hebrew markings to protect its Jewish heritage.

In 2010, the tomb’s Muslim caretaker, Sheik Aqil, told journalist Steven Lee Myers of The New York Times that they take care of both the Islamic and the Jewish sections of the shrine as they are both part of Iraq’s history. ‘It’s a Muslim’s duty to protect it,’ Aqil told Myers. In 2019, writer Alex Shams wrote Ezekiel’s Tomb ‘is one of those rare, beautiful places where Arabic and Hebrew flow freely into each other.’ The Arabic calligraphy on Ezekiel’s tomb wishes peace upon him. Shams wrote the shared veneration for Abrahamic religious figures is common across the region, citing examples of Daniel’s tomb in Shush and Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan (Iran). The reverence is rooted in Muslim beliefs perhaps best reflected in the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi’s poem which likened Adam’s children to valuable limbs of one body:

When the world gives pain to one member, the other members find no rest. Thou who are indifferent to the sufferings of others does not deserve to be called a man. 

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Muslims have considered Jews and Christians as allies since the days of the Prophet. When Muslims faced persecution in Mecca, the Ethiopian Christian kingdom offered asylum to them. Christians from Najran (modern-day Saudi Arabia) were allowed worship in his mosque when the Prophet ruled Medina. The Prophet signed the Charter in Mount Sinai in 628 pledging the freedom of worship, movement, and protection during war for Christians. The prophet promised ‘there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith. … No bishop will be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his parish.’ This was in line with the Quranic mandate, which says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ The Quran, which calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times, also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book), ahl al-dhikr (the people of remembrance). The Quran also addresses the Christians as ahl al-Injīl (the People of the Gospel), and mentions the Jewish holy book Torah 18 times as a true revelation and source of guidance and wisdom.

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Medina Charter, which was adopted when the Prophet Muhammad founded the first Muslim state in the seventh century and is considered its constitution, sought to end conflicts and maintain peace among Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans. It underlined ‘a believer will not kill another believer for the sake of an un-believer.’ The charter outlined the political rights and duties of all inhabitants of Medina, which is also the Prophet’s final resting place, irrespective of their faith. Medina was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter.

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The charter, which is perhaps the first such document to have incorporated religious and political rights, provided for means for conflict resolution by promoting mutual respect, tolerance, and pluralism. Based on the commitment to human lives and religious minorities, it drew inspiration from the Quran, which mandates Muslims to respect all previous messengers, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and to honour their followers. The charter, which said ‘no Jews will be wronged for being an unbeliever,’ recognised equality to all residents, their rights to peaceful coexistence. It gave all tribal, religious and ethnic groups protection and the right to live as per their beliefs. The charter’s Article 30 said ‘the Jews will be treated as one community with the believers.’

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When Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattab conquered Jerusalem in 637, he offered security for Christian possessions, churches, and crosses as the commander of the faithful. He declared the churches ‘shall not be taken for residence and shall not be demolished … nor shall their crosses be removed.’ Umar declined Jerusalem patriarch Sophronius’s invitation to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher saying he did not want Muslims to use this as an excuse later to lay claims over the holiest Christian shrine. 

It has, however, been a slippery slope since the Crusades sought to eradicate Islam in the name of religion. But there have been attempts to revive the spirit of the Medina Charter to end the violence for political ends in the name of religion, which has created havoc since the West brazenly used it in the 1980s to defeat the USSR. In January 2016, Muslim scholars put their heads together at a conference in Morocco and reaffirmed the values of the charter. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who hosted the gathering, recalled the charter affirmed unity by promoting pluralism and religious freedom while seeking the revival of its spirit for a peaceful and inclusive world. 

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

Guru Nanak: Eternal Unifier, Guiding Light As Bigotry Becomes Order Of Day

Nanak’s relevance has grown more than ever before as he preached against religious prejudices and founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion and a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In August 2019, tensions escalated between India and Pakistan when New Delhi stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status to take full control of the Himalayan region, which the two countries have claimed in full since the end of the British colonial rule in 1947. Islamabad reacted to the change in the Muslim-majority region’s constitutional status by downgrading diplomatic ties with India amid a lockdown and a communications blackout to prevent protests over the sweeping changes and sweeping restrictions. The ties between the two countries deteriorated months after they were on the verge of another war in February 2019 when Islamabad retaliated against an Indian airstrike in Pakistan following a car bomb attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama. 

Meanwhile, the construction of a corridor to provide visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib built at the last resting place of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, in Pakistan continued unhindered. It was finished and inaugurated within a year ahead of Nanak’s birth anniversary in November 2019. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, participated in the inauguration ceremonies of the corridor on either side of the border as the two countries, which have fought four wars, found a rare common ground amid fraught relations.    

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Nanak remained a unifier even as ties between India and Pakistan were at their lowest ebb. High-ranking officials of the two countries, who had been avoiding each other like plague, rubbed shoulders with each other at the inauguration of the corridor on the premises of the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib on the Pakistani side. Centuries after he passed away, Nanak remained an uniter. Nothing symbolises it more than the gurdwara, which stands at the place where Hindus and Muslims, who revered Nanak equally, are believed to have found flowers under a white sheet when they arrived for Nanak’s last rites. Muslims buried a part of the sheet and flowers and built a mausoleum in Nanak’s memory. Hindus put their share in an urn and interred it. 

Nanak’s relevance has grown more than ever before as he preached against religious prejudices and founded Sikhism as a monotheistic religion and a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism. The composite culture Nanak contributed significantly to is being torn apart with Muslims at the receiving end of bigotry passed off as nationalism for their erasure with full state patronage. Nanak’s family was Hindu and his association with Muslims was much deeper than is widely known. His teacher was a Muslim and the first to understand his spiritual prowess. He called Nanak a blessed and gifted child and attributed his superior intelligence to it.

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Rai Bular, a Muslim landlord, was the one to prevail upon Nanak’s father and his employee, Mehta Kalu, to allow Nanak’s otherworldly pursuits. While Nanak wandered with holy men, Kalu wanted him to focus on his education. Bular was also the first to report miracles which indicated Nanak’s holiness. Bular, who became Nanak’s first devotee outside his family, is said to have witnessed a hooded cobra shielding the Guru from the sun while he was sleeping under the open sky. He saw this as a sign of Nanak’s spiritualism. Bular also reported how the shade of a tree remained on Nanak even when the position of the sun changed while he slept. He rushed to tell Kalu Nanak was an exalted person upon seeing this. 

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Bular was totally devoted to Nanak and convinced Kalu that his son was a man of God. He dedicated much of his land to the Guru. Gurdwara Janam Asthan, which stands at the place of Nanak’s birth, and much of the city around it is located on the land Bular bequeathed to the Sikhism’s founder. Rai Hadayat, a 17th-generation descendant of Bular, led Nanak’s 500th birth celebration. Bular’s family has continued a tradition of leading annual processions to celebrate Nanak’s anniversaries in Nankana Sahib in what is now Pakistan. Bular’s descendants are the custodians of the bequeathed land, whose revenues are spent on the welfare of the Sikh community and the maintenance of their places of worship in Nankana Sahib. Sikh emperor Maharaja Ranjit Singh bestowed the Rai Bahadur title on Bular’s descendant, Rai Issa Khan, a fellow Bhatti Rajput, and made him a revenue collector in recognition of his family’s contributions to Sikhism. 

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In May 2018, the Shiromani Gurdwara ParbandhakCommittee (SGPC), which manages Sikh places of worship, acknowledged Bular’s ‘immense contribution’ to the Sikh history and erected his portrait at Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum. The SGPC unveiled another Muslim Nawab Rai Kahla’s portrait at the museum in July 2017 for sheltering Nanak’s spiritual successor, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1705. Kahla ruled a small principality in Punjab when he offered Guru Gobind refuge in defiance of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb’s decree. Guru Gobind gave Kahla a holy pitcher known as Ganga Sagar, which holds water despite its asymmetrical holes and a sword as a token of gratitude. Kahla’s descendants have preserved the relic, which they took to Pakistan in 1947 after they were uprooted from the Indian side of Punjab at the time of the Partition in 1947. It has remained in the custody of Rai Azizullah Khan, a former Pakistani lawmaker, since 1975.

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The courage Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, the ruler of Malerkotla in what is now the Indian side of Punjab, showed in speaking out against the execution of Guru Gobind’s sons, Zorawar and Fateh, in 1705, ensured his kingdom remained untouched in 1947 when the subcontinent’s division triggered violence. The violence left around a million dead and triggered a virtual exchange of populations between the Indian and Pakistani sides of Punjab. It damaged the centuries-old coexistence and continues to cast a long shadow. But Malerkotla has remained untouched by the upheavals. It remained the Indian Punjab’s only Muslim pocket while the rest of the region was emptied of Muslims in 1947. It continues to be an exception even amid the fresh wave of violence against Muslims thanks to what is seen as Guru Gobind’s blessings to Malerkotla. Guru Gobind is believed to have blessed the nawab that ‘his roots shall forever remain green’ when he learnt about his stand against Zorawar and Fateh’s execution.

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Baba Bulleh Shah, a Muslim saint and direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, also spoke out against the Mughal highhandedness. He was a friend of the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur and hailed Tegh Bahadur as a ‘holy warrior’ when he was executed. The saint earlier dissuaded the guru from seeking revenge on Muslims for Aurangzeb’s attitude towards the Sikhs. He followed in Nanak’s footsteps and promoted inter-religious harmony. Nanak in fact travelled to Arabia in the 16th-century with his Muslim companion, Mardana, for inter-religious dialogue, which provided him deep insights into Islam. In Baghdad, Nanak stayed with a Muslim saint. A courtyard at the tomb of the saint in Baghdad commemorates Nanak’s stay in the city. 

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The Muslim descendants of Mardana, known as rubabis, performed kirtans or devotional songs at Amritsar’s Golden Temple for generations before partition ended the tradition. They began the practice at the instance of the ninth Sikh Guru Guru Tegh Bahadur as Mardana played a musical instrument called rubab as Guru Nanak sang his poetry. Baptized Sikhs alone have since 1947 been doing kirtans as partition trore about Punjab’s syncretic culture. But syncretism remains integral to Sikhism, whose scripture Guru Granth Sahib includes the writing of Muslims including Baba Farid. Guru Arjan, who compiled the first edition of the scripture and had it installed in 1604 at the Golden Temple, is widely believed to have invited Mian Mir, a Muslim saint, to lay the shrine’s foundation in Amritsar. 

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Muslim holy men such as Farid, whose picture adorns the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan and are among revered Muslim figures in Sikhism, also made vital literary contributions. Waris Shah gave full shape to Heer-Ranjha and contributed to Punjab’s syncretic culture until the revivalism in the 19th-century weakened it. But Nanak has remained a guiding light, who in poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s words ‘awakened India from a deep slumber.’ Iqbal hailed Nanak as ‘mard-e kaamil [perfect]’ in a poem about him. Iqbal lamented ‘our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]’; did not recognise the worth of that ‘jewel of supreme wisdom’. In another poem, Iqbal paired Nanak with Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti and wrote: ‘The land [India] in which Chishti delivered the message of truth; the garden in which Nanak sang the song of oneness that homeland is mine, that homeland is mine.’

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