The Nupur Sharma controversy represents a crisis in Hindu-Muslim relations. It has been said, however, that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. For often a crisis also brings a great opportunity in its wake. Perhaps this moment of crisis in Hindu-Muslim relations can also be a great teaching moment. How might that be possible?
In the heat of the exchanges on the issue of the putative discovery of the Shiva-linga in the Gyanvapi mosque, aspersions were apparently cast on the character of the Prophet of Islam. However, no one has challenged the accuracy of the statement made in the course of the debate, for which the relevant chapter and verse from Hadith literature (Bukhari 5134) has been cited abundantly during the debates. Some videos even depict the Islamic evangelist, Zakir Naik, confirming the statement involved. So while the motive underlying the statement that was made can be questioned, the same cannot be said of the statement, which is apparently textually accurate.
One must now note that similar accusations can and have been made against revered Hindu figures. Sita, by one calculation, it seems, was six years old when she was married to Rama. The Puranas are full of accounts of the gallantries of the many gods of the Hindu pantheon. And so on. How then does the Hindu tradition teach us to deal with such cases and help us understand the situation better?
The Hindu tradition does so by advising that one should not do what the holy figures do, but rather do what the holy figures ask us to do (na devacaritam caret… devakathitam caret). It thus sets up a distinction between the character of the person and the statement made by the person.
Is this a cop out? I would like to suggest that a serious argument may be involved here. The reason why we look up to great figures in history is because of the contribution they have made in their respective fields. Thus we look up to Einstein for his famous theories of relativity (and not because he was not an ideal husband). We look up to Mahatma Gandhi for devising a way of fighting for justice without violence (and not because he was not an ideal father). We look up to President Kennedy for taking the right decision during the Cuban crisis (and not because he was not a family role model).
When we think of Prophet Mohammed, we think of the founder of one of the major religions of humanity, under whose inspiration the hitherto unknown Arabs founded a far-flung empire within half a century of his passing away. When a Muslim thinks of the Prophet, he thinks of a person through whom God’s words became human words. To invoke the more mundane side of the lives of these major figures is, in a sense, to diminish them, for we thereby draw the focus away from their great achievements, for which we cherish them, and compromise their inspirational role in our lives.
The advice contained in the saying, that one should not act as the sages acted but act as they ask us to, it seems to me, conveys this point in a folksy way. If we adopt a similar attitude in this case, then we could argue that what really matters about the Prophet is that he was a channel for conveying God’s word to humanity, he “spoke” God’s words, and that this was the great miracle of his life, and this is what one should focus on.
My suggestion is, however, open to a serious objection from the Muslim side, namely, that the Prophet is the ideal person whose actions Muslims are encouraged to emulate and that, by distinguishing between his prophetic (speaking for God) role from his exemplary role, I am being unfair to the Islamic tradition. This objection seems to me to be well-founded and must be taken with the utmost seriousness. One cannot separate out the private and public life of the Prophet the way we might do so in the case of an Einstein or a Kennedy, or even a Gandhi, because both the Quran and the Sunna constitute the great sources of the Shariah. And the Sunnah stands for what the Prophet said or did.
However, it is clear that the Muslims are not expected to follow the Prophet in all respects. For instance, the ordinary Muslim cannot emulate the prophetic function of the Prophet. Even the number of marriages allowed to a Muslin under the Shariah, for instance, is restricted to four, as against the many more recorded in the biographical accounts of the Prophet. Here again, perhaps, Hinduism might help us understand Islam. The Gandhian saint, Vinoba Bhave, points out in his writings that we admire the Maratha chief, Shivaji, for building numerous forts, which enabled him to become a military force in his times. But if we feel that the country needs to become a military force in our own times, we wouldn’t go around building forts, but instead would build military training centres or airfields, or similar institutions suitable for a modern army. The obvious point is that when we decide to follow a great leader, we must adapt his model to the contemporary setting in order to be true to the leader.
The provision for quadrigamy in the Islamic tradition could serve as a case in point. The revelation, which provides for four wives for a Muslim, took place after the battle of Uhud, in which the residents of Medina fought off the Meccans, under the leadership of the Prophet, and were able to hold their own, but at great cost to human life. This loss of life left many women and children in the Muslim community without support, and it could be argued that the provision for four wives was to enable the burden to be shared with the rest of the community. Perhaps the message here is to imagine how best this might be achieved in our times. That is to say: How best one might provide for the widow and the orphan in our society.
How then might Hinduism help us understand Islam? It could do so first by pointing out that the details of the private life of religious figures need not come in our way of heeding their teachings; that, if the Prophet did marry Aisha at the age of six and the marriage was consummated at the age of nine, this fact need not compromise his role as a messenger of God. And Hinduism also helps us understand Islam better by promoting the realisation that the teachings of religious figures should not be followed blindly, that one should look at them through a contemporary lens, and that this is what the Quran perhaps implies by emphasising aql (one’s discriminative faculty), as a young Malaysian Muslim woman scholar once suggested to me at a conference.
The author, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. Views expressed are personal.