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