Mutual respect can be founded only on reason

June 14, 2022

Rohit Dhankar

This is a rejoinder to Prof. Tahir Mahmood’s article “The Past and Prejudice” published in The Indian Express on 14th June 2022. Professor Mahmood is a respected scholar of law and an Ex-member of The Law Commission of India. The article is written in good faith and as far as I can understand with genuine wish for peace and harmony in the country. And still I am writing a rejoinder to it, not because I do not want peace and harmony, but because I believe peace and harmony requires much more than goodwill and good heart in some people. You can celebrate Eid and Diwali together in a spirit of mutual good-will, but that sentiment may be so fragile that a single utterance may blow it to pieces. Unless this mutual goodwill is based on recognition of truth, reason and clear understanding of limits to which it could be stretched; peace and harmony based on it will always be precarious. If we still do not understand it after more than hundred year of public debates on harmony and constant riots, we must be making some fundamental mistake in our thinking and judgment, or we must be scared of recognizing something too disturbing. I am writing this rejoinder to point out what we might be missing in our thinking, and believe unless we pay attention to these points, our goodwill is neither genuine nor of practical value.

One more preliminary before I go on to the substantial task of this rejoinder. I can not write in brief and make my intended point clearly at the same time, thus, am very bad in writing journalistic publishable articles. At the same time the academic style bores me, therefore, what I write is also not academic. This is a conversational peace written in common sense style, which often may sound unnecessarily lengthy. Still I hope that at the least a few people will read it to the end.

In writing his very lucid and goodwill piece Prof. Mahmood makes four arguments, as far as I could understand. They can be listed as follows:

  1. We should not indulge in religious polemics of bygone days,
  2. Muhammad is widely respected by very wise and knowledgeable people,
  3. We have national and international laws against hurting others’ religious feelings,
  4. We believe in universal tolerance and that all religions are true.

I have taken the liberty of changing the order of these points as they occur in the article. Prof. Mahmood’s argument is that since these four points are worth accepting, or are accepted, making derogatory statement against religious figures, and especially against Muhammad, should be strictly avoided. I will take these claims one by one and try to show what is the problem in accepting some of them and why critical analysis of religious figures is necessary even if some of these claims are accepted. In the process I will quote Prof. Mahmood extensively to avoid confusing and misinterpretation, in all quotes emphasis and italics are mine.

1. We should not indulge in religious polemics of bygone days

Ordinarily it is very good and sane advise and I will accept it whole heatedly. But there is a serious problem in this moral norm.

Alluding to Nupur Sharma’s comments on TV Prof. Mahmood writes: “But then, where did they find those stories about the Prophet? What they have said about the Prophet must have been based on hearsay, but that hearsay emanated from some thoughtless statements in old Urdu books, including some by Muslim writers. Of course, these statements have been forcefully refuted by latter-day researchers on Islam. But why would unprincipled critics bother to research the truth?

Several stories from old religious books — of all communities indeed — may not be compatible with modern concepts of human rights and gender justice. However, ours is not the age for indulgence in religious polemics of the bygone days. We are citizens of a modern nation whose Constitution is secular and subjects us to a fundamental duty – “to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India.” We must live by these ideals and stop looking for controversial elements in outdated religious literature for fighting each other, to the detriment of national interest.

There are several problems in these statements hidden underneath the obviously sane and goodwill message. I will take up only a few of them. One, Prof. Mahmood says that what Ms. Nupur Sharma said are based on “hearsay” are written on “old Urdu books”, and “forcefully refuted”. Ms. Sharma (i) referred to flying horse on which Muhammad himself claimed to have visited the haven in one night, (ii) reference in Quran to flat earth, (iii) Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha at 6 and consummation of marriage at 9 years of her age. I have written about all of them here. The first one has references in Quran and there are several Hadith detailing the whole story. The second has reference in the Quran, though possibility of a different interpretation exists. The third has many Hadith which all corroborate these ages.

Would Prof. Mahmood openly agree that Quran and Hadith collections are “hearsay”? They are not in old Urdu books, but in Islamic scriptures, originally Arabic. Quran is the fountainhead of Islamic thought and hadith is explanation of the Quran by deeds and words of Muhammad himself. Yes, there are researchers who try to refute the marriage age, but the traditional Islamic scholars and general Muslim public has not accepted that refutation and stick to the hadith.

Prof. Mahmood is right in pointing out that there is much in religious books of all communities that is not compatible with modern ethics and with our constitution. He is also rightly points out that we should live according to the ideals of the constitution. But he does not notice that the need to discuss, criticize and debunk all obscurantist religious literature arises precisely to be able to live by the constitution and keep the constitution rational, secular and liberal. Let me give a few examples.

Today there is ban on cow slaughter in many Indian states. Imagine an atheist Indian citizen who believes that this ban is undue restriction on the food choice of citizens, and argues against this ban. A believing Hindu comes up with the argument that we should respect sentiments of Hindus attached with cow, and that Hindus never ate beef. Our atheist, of course, can argue that as per our constitution religious feelings of any community are not enough to restrict choices of other citizens. But he may also like to counter the part of the argument that Hindus never ate or recommended beef eating by quoting from Upanishads1. It would be legitimate, useful and even necessary; and of course a constitutional right of our atheist. Thus, a discussion on Vedas and Upanishads may be necessitated in an argument on freedom of choice of food for constitutionally living Indian citizens.

Let’s take another example. The idea of Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is constantly opposed by Muslims in the name of following their religion. UCC like beef-ban is a public issue of concern for all citizens. In opposing UCC Muslims clerics and ordinary Muslims often claim that many provisions in it are likely to be against Sharia and quote from Quran, hadith and Islamic law books to support their argument. I would argue that in such situation, which is a reality, it becomes necessary for Indian citizens arguing to show that what is written in Quran and Hadith, like much in Upanioshads and Vedas, is actually retrograde and can not be accepted today. For example rights of women, gay, and other differently sexually oriented people as well as the issues of polygamy.

What I am arguing is that the obscurantist ideas in old religious scriptures impact our lives today, and therefore, have to be discussed and criticized, opposed and debunked today. Freedom of expression as far as criticism of Muhammad and Quran is concerned is another such issue. It has motivated dozens of murders in the memory of living people. If one bans criticizing religious scriptures then one is depriving citizens of their right to argue their point fairly and freely; and giving undue advantage to obscurantist and anti-constitutional ideas.

2. Muhammad is widely respected by very wise and knowledgeable people

This is an argument from authority, and one can give examples of equally good scholars, if not politicians, who criticized Muhammad. One can mention Voltaire or even Vivekananda2, for example. But the real argument I want to make is that historical personalities and great leaders of humanity may have many good qualities and may be seen as reformers; and at the same time may have very bad acts and sayings in their account. Unless Prof. Mahmood rejects all hadith, one is likely to fund much in there which does show Muhammad in very reprehensible light. The story behind verses of Chapter 66 of The Quran, itself is nondigestible for a modern mind. In addition one can see Sunan Ibn Majah 18533, Sahih al-Bukhari 24784, Sunan an-Nasa’i 40645, Sunan Abi Dawud 4506 and many more which will not allow a modern person to take statements in appreciation of Muhammad on trust, even if they come from as highly respected personalities as Gandhi. Therefore, argument on authority do not take us too far.

Prof. Mahmood claims “I am, however, not a religious person and look at the Prophet not as a miracle-performing superhuman figure, as many Muslims do, but as a revolutionary social reformer who in the words of eminent Indian jurist late Laxmi Mall Singhvi was “a thousand years ahead of his time”.” Well, then let us understand properly that no reformer and revolutionary is above criticism and no one demands “sar tan se juda” for criticizing and even insulting a revolutionary reformer. But more importantly this “a thousand years ahead of his time” argument crops up too often and it is seriously flowed. Even if one accepts for the sake of argument that Muhammad was 1000 years ahead of his time and was a great reformer, we can not forget that he also freezes that reform at his own time by declaring that he is the seal of prophets7. Even the interpretation of Quran is frozen in the seventh century by as authentic an interpreter as Ibn Kathir. He says that Quran should be explained first by Quran itself, second by Hadith, third by the saying of the companions, and fourth by the second generation Muslims. Thus effectively being guided by people who were all dead by end of seventh or maximum by mid-eighth century. And then “Whoever explains the Quran with his opinion or by what he has no knowledge of, then let him assume his seat ion the fire”.8 Thus, arresting this revolution, if it ever was, in the eighth century.

3. We have national and international laws against hurting others religious feelings

To my mind this is the strongest argument Prof. Mahmood is advancing. However, the history of riots, agitations, threats, announcement of bounties and murders makes one very suspicious about it. This is a story of continuous attack on freedom of expression from old times, the space is closing. And unless this pressure to close the space is resisted, it will demand more and more. Prof. Mahmood rightly notes that a “new section (295A) was added” to existing laws “in 1927 to lay down penalties for “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” In its background was an incident of defamatory outburst against Islam and its founder.” But forgets to note that Rangila Rasul was published as a reaction to “Sitaka Chhinala”9; and that the Published Mahashy Rajpal was murdered. And the murderer was declared a hero of Islam by such important people as Iqbal. The support of the highest leaders of Muslim community to such murders, to my mind, was the cause behind the “notorious fact that many prominent Hindus who had offended the religious susceptibilities of the Muslims either by their writings or by their part in the Shudhi movement have been murdered by some fanatic Musalmans.”10 I would like to quote somewhat extensively from Dr. Ambedkar to show that the problem is bigger than we think and the triggers for violence are too extensive to deal with the laws without making Hindus more or less mute on Islamic issues. Please see the names and triggers for killing four people between December 1923 and September 1934, roughly 11 years: “First to suffer was Swami Shradhanand, who was shot by Abdul Rashid on 23rd December 1926 when he was lying in his sick bed. This was followed by the murder of Lala Nanakchand, a prominent Arya Samajist of Delhi. Rajpal, the author (sic) of the Rangila Rasool, was stabbed by Ilamdin on 6th April 1929 while he was sitting in his shop. Nathuramal Sharma was murdered by Abdul Qayum in September 1934. It was an act of great daring. For Sharma was stabbed to death in the Court of the Judicial Commissioner of Sind where he was seated awaiting the hearing of his appeal against his conviction under Section 195, I. P. C, for the publication of a pamphlet on the history of Islam. Khanna, the Secretary of the Hindu Sabha, was severely assaulted in 1938 by the Mahomedans after the Session of the Hindu Maha Sabha held in Ahmedabad and very narrowly escaped death.”

The next para is important: “This is, of course, a very short list and could be easily expanded. But whether the number of prominent Hindus killed by fanatic Muslims is large or small matters little. What matters is the attitude of those who count towards these murderers. The murderers paid the penalty of law where law is enforced. The leading Moslems, however, never condemned these criminals.” This is the problem, and it can not be solved only by law or by preaching others to respect Mohammad. It can only be solved by unconditional condemnation of such violence by serious and thinking Muslims.

4. We believe in universal tolerance and that all religions are true

Tolerance is great and important. Prof. Mahmood quotes Swami Vivekananda “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” This seems to be directed to Hindus, as Vivekananda is “proud to belong to” that religion. As I said tolerance is important, but can tolerance always be one sided? There are umpteen number of obscene pictures on the social media depicting Sita and Parvati, Krishna, Durga and Mahishasur. Derogatory pictures of Ram, Krishna and almost every Hindu god. There is plenty of literature which openly and often rightly criticizes Ram and Krishna for various deed of their mythical lives. There may be some idiotic tweets against all this, but there is no violent agitation; maximum one sees attempts to take such people to court, which is a constitutional right of all citizens. So there is plenty of tolerance there.

But when it comes to say something on Muhammad the country burns or someone gets murdered. Prof. Mahmood says “The anguish of the Muslim masses on the condemnable incidents of insult to their Prophet is understandable, yet its violent expression also tarnishes his fair name. Such a reaction to his denigration by a few misinformed individuals cannot be justified on the touchstone of what is known in law as the “choice of evil defence”.”

The “anguish” is “understandable”, but “violent expression also tarnishes his fair name”. One wonders whether it is only a matter of tarnishing “his fair name” or the lives, respect for freedom of expression of others, fear in the society and belligerence is also involved? And is it a matter of “a few misinformed individuals” or a very substantial section of the Muslim population? The slogans for beheading Ms. Sharma, earlier protests and violence on 10th June 2022 does not seem to square with this assessment of “a few misinformed individuals”

Considering all religions true is again a problematic statement, even if from Swami Vivekananda. First, it seems the other way round to me, they all seem to be false rather then true to me. But let’s pass that. There is hardly a Muslim who would say that Quran might be wrong. Or if there is something in Quran that does not fit with the idea that all religions are true should be ignored or discarded. Or that Quran can be figuratively interpreted to square with the idea of all religions are true. If these three assumptions are true, then I suggest a little survey. Open The Quran randomly at any place. You will have two pages in front of you. Count how many times the Quran declares all other religions false and prescribed punishment for those who do not accept the one true religion—Islam, in these two pages. My guess is you will find on an average 4 instances of calling all others religions false and prescribing very severe punishment for non-believers. I wonder how Prof. Mahmood square his recommendation of accepting all religions as true in face of this Quranic fact? Being an open-minded professor of law he may be able to say that in spite of Quran, all religions are true; but how many Muslims will be able to accept that? Then, is this a simple rhetoric or an advice to Hindus alone? The point I am making is that this advice can work only if all believe in this. It cannot be demanded from Hindus alone.

Professor Mahmood’s article is only a good-hearted attempt at moving towards peace and harmony without building proper foundations for this. Glossing over the contemporary truths of our society will never help us go past the present day social rift. I see even very modern, very well educated, advocate of scientific attitude Indians (Hindus and Muslims both) demanding arrest of Nupur Sharma. The government may be partial and biased, it may show promptness in arresting Ratan Lal and may avoid taking action on Ms. Sharma; but liberal citizens should rather argue for their freedom of expression rather than demanding arrest. Those who argued for Hussain’s freedom to paint what he wanted, who argued for Ratan Lal not to be arrested; are now suddenly asking Ms. Sharma to be arrested. This is plain and simple hypocrisy and double standard. If we continue on this path, at the first stage, there shall be thousands for whom demands of arrest will be raised, as there are thousands making fun of Hindu gods. And at the next stage, it will be impossible to say anything about religion in this country. That will cripple democracy and kill all democratic discourse. This is also very amusing to see that the people who never tire preaching dissent would like to kill all dissenters as soon as they show dissenting views regarding Islam.


14th June 2022

Rohit Dhankar

Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Secretary, Digantar, Jaipur.

The views expressed in this article are strictly personal, and neither of the organizations I am working for endorses them.

1“He who wishes that a son should be born to him who would be a reputed scholar, frequenting the assemblies and speaking delight- ful words, would study all the Vedas and attain a full term of life, should have rice cooked with the meat of a vigorous bull or one more advanced in’ years, and he and his wife should eat it with clarified butter. Then they would be able to produce such a son.” Brihad-Aranyak Upanishad 6:4:18, page 940. The Brihadaranyaka Upanisad, Translated by Swami Madhavananda, Published by Advaita Ashrama, Almora, 1950.

2“Think of the good Mohammed did to the world, and think of the great evil that has been done through his fanaticism! Millions massacred through his teachings, mothers bereft of their children, children made orphans, whole countries destroyed, millions upon millions of people killed!” Swami Vivekananda, Raja Yoga, Brentano’s, New York, 1920, page 79.

3“Abdullah bin Abu Awfa said “When Muadh bin Jabal came from Sham, he prostrated to the Prophet who said: ‘What is this, O Muadh?’ He said: ‘I went to Sham and saw them prostrating to their bishops and patricians and I wanted to do that for you.’ The messenger of Allah said: ‘Do not do that. If I were to command anyone to prostrate to anyone other than Allah, I would have commanded women to prostrate to their husbands. By the One in Whose Hand is the soul of Muhammad! No woman can fulfill her duty towards Allah until she fulfills her duty towards her husband. If he asks her (for intimacy) even if she is on her camel saddle, she should not refuse.’”

4Narrated `Abdullah bin Mas`ud: The Prophet (ﷺ) entered Mecca and (at that time) there were three hundred-and-sixty idols around the Ka`ba. He started stabbing the idols with a stick he had in his hand and reciting: “Truth (Islam) has come and Falsehood (disbelief) has vanished”.”

5“’Ali came to some people of Az-Zutt, who worshipped idols, and burned them. Ibn ‘Abbas said: “But the Messenger of Allah [SAW] said: ‘Whoever changes his religion, kill him.’”

6“Narrated Uthman ibn Abul’As: The Prophet (nay peace be upon him) commanded him to build a mosque at Ta’if where the idols were placed.”

7Quran 33:40. “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the last (end) of the Prophets. And Allah is Ever All-Aware of everything.”

8Tafsir Ibn Kathir, translated by Shaykh Safiur-Rahmqan Al-Mubarakpuri, published by Darussalam, Riyadh. Page 29-33

9“Rangila Rasul was written in reply to Sitaka Chhinala—a pamphlet written by a Muslim alleging that Sita, wife of Rama, the hero of Ramayana, was a prostitute.” B.R. Ambedkar, page 169, Pakistan or Partition of India, published by Dr. Ambedkar Foundation, New Delhi.

10ibid page 156