Hinduism and Islam, A Comparison of Beliefs and Practices

Hinduism Essay Subject Image

by Jayaram V

Islam originated in the desert sands of Arabia as a reaction against prevailing native traditions based on the revelations received by Prophet Muhammad. Hinduism originated in the temperate climate of the Indian subcontinent as a result of the synthesis of different indigenous and foreign traditions and in continuation of the prehistoric religious beliefs of lost civilizations.

Although founded by a prophet, in Islam we find echoes of ancient Judo Christian beliefs, with some deviations that are unsettling for both. If in Islam we find the vibrancy of a young and recent religion that is intent upon conquering the world in its zeal to embrace the humanity, in Hinduism we find the patience and tolerance of an ancient tradition, which is willing to let the world takes its own time to appreciate its wisdom and understand its universal appeal.

Definition and Antiquity

The word "Islam" is derived from the Arabic root word "salaama,"1 meaning peace, obedience, purity, and submission. Islam means abiding peace and unconditional obedience to the will of God and His divine law. While other religions derive their names from either a tribe (Judaism), or a geographical area (Hinduism), or a founder (Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity), Islam derives its name from its central doctrine of peace and submission to God. Thus the chief message of Islam is hidden in its very name. While the followers of other religions may call themselves as Christians, Jains, Buddhists etc., the followers of Islam refer themselves as Muslims or Mussalmans, but never as "Muhammadans," which some non-Muslims however tend to call them erroneously.

Islam by all means is a religion founded by a prophet. Hinduism, in contrast, is a group of religious traditions, established over a period of time, through the revelations received by innumerable saints, seers, incarnations and emanations of God. It contains various traditions such as Saivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism that are religions by themselves. In Hinduism personalities do not count as much as the divine law or the dharma. So it is in Islam, where the message of Islam is far more important than the person of Muhammad himself. Muslims therefore do not worship their prophet, unlike the Christians.

The word "Hindu" or "Hindoo" is derived from the Sanskrit root word "Sindhu" and used by Persians, ancient Greeks and many foreigners to denote the people who lived beyond the river Indus, whom Alexander could not conquer. During the medieval period, Islamic scholars and Muslim travelers referred the Indian subcontinent as Hindustan or the land of the Hindus. The word stuck for several centuries and throughout the Islamic Caliphate. During the British rule, the word Hindu was used to distinguish the native Indians who were not Christians, nor Muslims, nor Sikhs, nor Jains, nor Buddhists. The word Hinduism was coined in the 1830s by British scholars to denote the religious traditions of the native Indians to distinguish them from other recognized religions. While they are now popular all over the world under the generic name Hinduism, for generations Hindus recognized their religious traditions as aspects of one eternal Truth that went by the name "sanatana dharma" or eternal law. It is interesting that for over 6000 years, Hinduism went by many names but Hinduism.

Sources of Doctrine

The message of Islam came to Muhammad for the first time through the angel Gabriel, when he was 40 years old, in the year 610 AD, on Mount Hira, near Jabal alNur, the Mountain of Light, in a cave, where he usually used meditate. He continued to receive the revelations for the rest of his life, which were compiled into the Qu'ran, the chief holy book of Islam. The word Qu'ran means something that is read or recited. For the Muslims, it is the inviolable and unchangeable law of God. Every word in it is believed to be the "actual and literal" word of God that cannot be interpreted other than what it is. Divided into 114 chapters (surahs), containing 6000 verses (ayats) and composed in beautiful poetic Arabic, it is recited in every household of the Islamic world and memorized by many by heart. The second most important text of Islam is Hadith, which contains the sayings and deeds of Muhammad, known popularly as Sunnah (the well trodden path). While the Qu'ran is indisputable, the statements of the Hadith often pose problems to the Muslim scholars with regard to their interpretation. Another important source of Islamic practice is Sharia, the Muslim law, which is derived from both the Qu'ran and the Hadith.

Hinduism considers the Vedas (knowledge) to be the revelations of God, which are inviolable and eternal, revealed to the mankind in every age for their welfare and spiritual liberation. It constitutes the very foundation of Dharma, or the Law of God, upon which rests the entire creation. The end part of the Vedas are the Upanishads, which constitute the philosophical base of Hinduism known as Vedanta and which contain the elements of monotheism and descriptions of God as the Supreme Lord of the universe. Perhaps if there is one scriptural source of Hinduism that sums up the vision of Islam concerning God and His glory, it is the Vedanta. Other important sources of Hinduism are the works explaining the six schools of Hinduism, the Vedangas or the limbs of the Vedas, the Puranas or the chronicles of ancient legends and history, the Bhagavadgita, the Agamas or the scriptures of Saivism, the Tantric texts, the epics like the Mahabharat and the Ramayana and the works and sayings of many seers, sages, masters and great souls such as Sri Shankaracharya, Sri Ramanujacharya, Sri Madhavacharya, Abhinvagupta, Lakulisa, Ashtavakra and so on. The Dharmashastras such as Mansusmriti, Apastamba Sutras etc., constitute the chief law books of Hinduism, which prescribe code of conduct for the preservation of social order and promotion of virtue and welfare of people

The Chief Practices

Central to the practice of Islam are the five pillars, namely Shahada, Salat, Saum, Zakat and Hajj.

  • Shahada is the daily recitation of the declaration (tawhid) of Islamic creed concerning Allah and His messenger, based on the firm conviction that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is His messenger.
  • Salat is the observation of ritual prayers to be performed five times a day (at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and night). The prayers are in conformity with the Islamic belief that worshippers can communicate with God directly without the intervention of intermediaries such as priests and mullahs.
  • Saum is fasting every year from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan which include abstinence from food, liquids and sexual union between married couple.
  • Zakat is payment of charity tax as a specified percentage of one's earnings to the poor and the needy in order to accomplish inner growth and purification of ones possessions.
  • Hajj is making a pilgrimage to Mecca, to pay a visit to the Ka'ba, the holy shrine, at least once in a life time.

Together these five pillars constitute the Islamic way of life and provide an opportunity to the faithful to adhere to the principles and practices of Islam as established in its sacred texts. The main festivals of Islam are Id al-Adha, which is celebrated to commemorate the end of the Hajj and Id al-Fitre, which is used to celebrate the end of the Ramadan month.

In Hinduism God is worshipped in many different ways. It is essentially by honoring the dharma or the law of God, which consists of performing obligatory duties that are specific to the caste, profession, gender and the age of a person, and the pursuit of the four chief aims of human life (purusharthas), namely dharma (virtue), artha (wealth), kama (sensual pleasures) and moksha (liberation). Public and domestic sacrificial rituals are prescribed for various castes of Hindus. These rituals are either daily (nitya) or occasional (naimittaka), as prescribed in the Grihya Sutras and Srauta Sutras. The daily rituals are performed by an individual during different times in a day, in which offerings are made to the gods, the elements, one's ancestors, animals and the humans. The occasional rituals are performed by an ordained priest according the procedures established in the scriptures. In addition, there are several rites of passage or sacraments (samskaras), performed during different periods of a person's life, starting from his conception till his death. Not all Hindus however practice these rituals and sacraments. Many follow the devotional path and offer prayer and worship to their personal deities, either by visiting a temple or in their own houses.

Pooja is the most popular form of worship in which prayers, chants, flowers, incense and other ritual material are offered to one's personal deity, considering Him or Her to be the highest and the supreme. Pooja is the means to communicate with gods directly, with or without the intervention of an intermediary. Devout Hindus also participate in satsangs or religious gatherings, devotional singing or chanting and recitation of the names of God. They also spend time listening to religious discourses in public gatherings. Hindus who are on the path of spiritualism, practice some form of yoga and meditation, usually under the guidance of an adept guru. Many Hindus practice fasting on specific days in a week or on some specific occasions such as festivals. In Hinduism, the paths to God are many and each path demands its own code of conduct. The most popular ones are

  • karma-marg, the path of good actions,
  • bhakti-marg, the path of surrender and devotion,
  • jnana-marg, path of knowledge and wisdom and
  • sanyasa-marg the path of renunciation.

Hindus make pilgrimages to various temples and sacred places that are associated with the lives, legends and miracles of various gods, goddesses and saintly people. A visit to Varanasi for a dip in the Ganges is considered very auspicious, purifying and spiritually uplifting. Hindus celebrate many festivals, with zest, all the year around. Some of the most popular ones are the Diwali, Dassehara, Ganesh Chaturdhi, Maha Sivarathri, Holi and so on. There are some festivals which come once in several years such as the Kumbh festival.

Important Beliefs and Concepts

Muslims worship and submit themselves to none but Allah, the one and only God, who is Merciful, Eternal, Mighty and Infinite. He is the Creator, the Provider and Sustainer of all creatures and the entire creation. He is considered to be not just the highest God of Muslims, but of all the people in the world, including the Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics and others. Allah is the ruler of the heavens, the earth and all that is between them. Yet He is closer to His pious and thoughtful worshippers, to whom He responds with overflowing love, forgives their sins and grants peace, happiness, knowledge and abundant wealth. Although He is known to most by His popular name Allah, He has 99 other names, which are enumerated in the Qu'ran. According to the Hadith, he who memorizes all the names of Allah, would go to paradise.

Islam acknowledges the succession of prophets and messengers of God, starting from Adam and Noah. Also included in the list are Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus. Muhammad is considered to be the last of the prophets and messengers of Allah. Islam perceives all the prophets and messengers as human beings, chosen by God for the specific purpose of passing on His revelations for the benefit of the mankind. Islam also recognizes the presence of Angels, who are believed to be invisible and never tiring, requiring neither food, nor rest, nor drink, and who spend their time in the service of Allah, obeying His commands and implementing His will. Gabriel, the Angel who passed on the messages of Allah to Muhammad, is considered to be the only messenger Angel. Other important aspects of Islam are:

  • Belief in the resurrection of the dead and the Final Judgment Day.
  • Belief in fate and free will. God is the only source of everything that happens in the world. He uses Qadaa and Qadar, eternal knowledge and mighty power, to execute His will. He knows everything that happened, that has been happening and that will happen. He is responsible for all that happens or not happens. Yet He has endowed the humans with free will and thereby made them responsible for their actions and choices.
  • Belief in Jihad or the struggle for a divine cause. The struggle involved in leading a pious Muslim life, building Muslim community, exercising self-restraint and defending Islam or a Muslim nation, are considered to be Jihad.
  • Conversion to Islam is easy. According to Islamic tradition, any one who sincerely proclaims the glory of Allah and declares Muhammad to be His messenger becomes a Muslim.
  • Islam does not recognize the intervention of middle agents between God and His followers. Islamic faith is a matter of individual faith and commitment to the will of Allah. A follower of Allah can communicate with Him directly through his prayers and virtuous actions.

Hinduism believes in the existence of Brahman, the supreme Lord of the visible and invisible universe, who is eternal, stable, unchanging, indestructible, unborn, blissful, and who goes by many other names such as Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. He is both manifest and unmanifest, known and unknown, high and low, envelops every thing, contains every thing and also resides in everything. He is the Supreme Lord, the Highest Self, the only Truth, who is the creator, sustainer and destroyer of all that is and that will ever be. He manifests Himself as everything and in every thing. He is both the material and instrumental cause of the universe. He creates Rta, the universal order, Dharma, the universal divine law and many divinities to uphold them and manage them. The three gods, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva are but His three highest functional aspects, endowed with the responsibilities of creation, preservation and destruction. Nature or Prakriti is His dynamic energy and primal matter, in which He becomes involved partially to manifest all the beings and objects of His creation. He maintains and upholds Dharma, the eternal law through His various aspects, dimensions, divinities, incarnations, emanations and also through many great souls, who come to the earth from time to time to spread the message of God.

During creation, Brahman, the Supreme Self, who is absolute, subjective consciousness, diversifies Himself, in the form of an objective relative reality, into innumerable beings and objects and enters into them as individual self or Atman. Atman is Brahman in its essence, but, because of its involvement with the elements, qualities and principles of nature, it becomes deluded and suffers from the impurities of delusion or ignorance, desire oriented actions and egoism. It remains chained to the cycle of births and deaths and the law of karma, till it becomes free through the grace of God or by its own good deeds and inner transformation. A person may go to either heaven or hell or the world of ancestors, depending upon his or her deeds upon earth. However afterlife in these worlds are temporary. Upon exhausting their good or bad karma, beings have to return to earth to continue their existence. True liberation comes only when they transcend their limitations, realize their supreme Brahman nature and become one with Him in consciousness.

According to Hinduism, God can be worshipped and approached in various ways. Because He is unconditional love, He grants free will to the beings and makes Himself visible to them in whatever form He is envisaged. Most Hindus worship Him as a personal deity of their chosen form, which may also include His feminine forms and aspects. However of all the forms of worship, He considers the path of single minded devotion, self-surrender and inner purity to be the best and the most effective. Out of unbound love, He also manifests Himself in the images men make to worship Him. Depending upon who created them, how they are created and where they are installed, the images of God contain the potency and presence of God Himself, rendering them worthy of worship and adoration. Thus Hinduism sanctions the worship of the living presence of God in an image or a statue or a symbol or an object.

Similarities Between Hinduism and Islam

1. Both Hinduism and Islam accept God as the Supreme Being and Absolute Lord of the universe. He is the creator and sustainer of all creatures and the entire creation. He is the source and cause of the divine law (dharma in Hinduism) which He upholds through His inviolable will.

2. Both religions acknowledge that while God has the knowledge and the power to execute and enforce His will, by which everything in the universe moves or moves not, God is generous enough to endow human beings with free will, so that they become responsible for their actions and the choices they make.

3. The Allah of Islam is known by 99 names. The Brahman of Hinduism is also known by several names and by knowing them and chanting them one can attain Him.

4. Both Hinduism and Islam acknowledge that God responds to the prayers and aspirations of His followers and grants them peace, happiness, success and knowledge. He loves those who love Him dearly and forgives them for their ignorant and sinful actions.

5. In Hinduism there is a belief that God is the Supreme Self and that the entire creation is His body. Islam believes that the believers of God are like a body who share the same experiences in their love, mercy and kindness towards one another.

6. Both religions believe that God rescues the faithful in times of distress and responds to their calls for help according to their faith and devotion.

7. Both religions believe in the moral responsibility of each individual towards others and in the practice of such virtues as charity, doing good, righteousness, forgiveness, moderation in eating and drinking, tolerance, mercy or compassion, self-control, brotherhood, friendliness, patience and gratitude.

8. Hinduism believes in the law of karma. Islam believes in God's reward for good deeds and punishment for bad deeds. Thus declares the Qu'ran, "Whoever does good deed, he shall be repaid ten-fold; and whoever does evil, he shall be repaid with evil." (5.32)

9. Both religions advocate non-violence and non killing of human life. Says Qu'ran "According to Jewish tradition...whoever kills a human life...it is as thouh he kills all mankind; and whoever saves a life, it is as though he saved all mankind." (6.160).

10. Both religions believe in the company of the pious and not responding to evil. "And when they hear slander against them, they turn aside from it and say: 'We shall have our good deeds and you shall have your deeds. Peace be on you, we do not desire the company of the uninformed." (28.54).

11. Hinduism is a tolerant religion. Hindus believe that each individual has a choice to pursue a path in accordance with his or her inner inclination and religious beliefs and interfering with it would tantamount to taking responsibility for another's salvation and also karma. In Hinduism pursuit of Truth is far more important than belief or disbelief in God or a particular divinity. Islam does not recognize other religions, unless they are specifically mentioned in the Qu'ran. But it truly respects all those whoever believe in God, who are pious, who are not evil, irrespective of the religion to which they belong. Following are some of the quotations from Qu'ran in support of this view:

  • There is to be no compulsion in religion. (2.256)
  • When those come to you who believe in Our signs, Say: "Peace be on you. Your Lord hath decreed mercy for Himself." (6.54)
  • Be courteous when you argue with the people of the Scriptures, except for those who do evil. Say to them, " We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit." (29.46)

12. Both Hinduism and Islam believe in the efficacy of prayers and in remembering and reciting the names, words and deeds of God, for inner purification, God's forgiveness and mercy.

13. Barring the differences in the details, both religions believe in the ultimate destruction of the world and the rescue of the pious and the pure by God.

Dissimilarities Between Hinduism and Islam

I. Muslims believe in none but Allah, the one Supreme God and follow only Qu'ran. Hindus worship one God, but in many forms, aspects, incarnations and emanations. They are not particular about the name or the method of worship. They also worship the various gods and goddesses either as the highest God Himself or as an aspect of Him or even as a separate entity. They follow not only several scriptures but also the sayings of several saints and seers.

2. A person converts to Islam by proclaiming faith in the supremacy of Allah and accepting Muhammad as His messenger. Technically, a firm declaration of faith in Allah and the prophet is sufficient to convert to Islam. In contrast, a person becomes a Hindu either by birth or by personal choice, but without the need to confirm his faith in any particular God, scripture or messenger. A Hindu may be a theist or an atheist, a believer in absolute God or a local deity. Whatever path he may choose, he needs to be a seeker of Truth and upholder of Hindu Dharma.

3. Islam does not recognize any intermediary between man and God. A worshipper can reach out to Him directly through his prayers. In Hinduism there is a choice. A person can worship God directly or seek the intervention of a priest or a Guru for assistance.

4. Hinduism believes in the law of karma. Islam acknowledges that God rewards people for their good deeds and punishes them for their evil actions. However Islam does not recognize any law other than the law of God which is declared in the Qu'ran. Unlike Christianity, Islam does not proclaim that men are born in sin. Men are born pure, free of sin, by the grace of Allah and shall remain so as long as they have abiding faith in Him, follow His law and worship Him, practicing virtue and avoiding evil. Hence no need to seek forgiveness through a priest.

5. Islam does not recognize any hierarchy of priests, bishops, monks and Popes. In Hinduism there is no central authority like that of a Pope. But it has priests, Shankaracharyas, guru sampradayas (traditions of gurus), ascetic traditions and sectarian organizations that regulate the religious affairs of the individuals, who follow them or seek their help. The Muslim Imams are but religious scholars with no particular divine authority and pious servants of God, serving the faithful as His true followers.

6. Islam does not believe in rebirth, but only resurrection and the Last Judgment Day. In contrast to Islam, Hinduism considers life in heaven and hell as temporary. A soul regains freedom forever only through self-realization.

7. Hinduism does not have a concept of prophets and messengers, but incarnations, seers, sages, gurus and divinities who pass on the revelations of God to the mankind.

8. Sharia, the Muslim law, is imposed through Muslim clerics, well versed in Qu'ran and Hadith, to punish those who disobey the commands of Allah as declared by Him in the Qu'ran. Hindu religious law is presently not imposed through an independent religious authority, but, portions of it, through the government judiciary, according to Hindu civil code.

9. Islam considers God and his creation to be two distinct things. God exists everywhere in His creation. But in a theological sense He is not His creation. So is the case with creatures and the people He creates. He is closer to them and ever watchful and heedful, but He is separate from them and never unites with them. He may reward them for their faith and good deeds by ensuring them a place in heaven, but there is no such concept as liberation through self-realization. Many schools of Hinduism, however, consider God and His creation to be the same. There is either no distinction or very little. God is both the material and instrumental cause of His creation. He exists as the Supreme Lord of the entire creation and also as the individual self (atman) in all beings and objects. The individual self is the same in essence as the Highest Self and when it regains its true consciousness it has the same consciousness as that of God.

10. Hindus consider the world in which we live to be illusory and unreal. It exists in relation to the senses and to the extent they can grasp it and make sense out of it. It is unreal in the sense that it is ever changing, destructible, impermanent, created and relative. We are not sure whether what we see is the reality or the truth, because the senses are such imperfect and unreliable instruments of truth. The best means to arrive at truth are direct experience, the experience of others, the inferences based on the things that exist or do not exist or may exist and may not exist, and scriptural authority. The concept of maya or illusion, the existence of Prakriti or nature, either as a dependent or independent aspect of God, and the role of senses in the delusion of the individual beings are alien to Islam. According to Islam the word here is as real as the heaven or hell. They are God's creation and rest in Him.

11. Hinduism do not see much distinction between man and the rest of the beings. Man is but one stage in the liberation of soul from the bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. In Islam there is a clear demarcation between humans and animals. Only man can be a true believer and follower of God. The rest of the creatures in the world are created by God for the benefit of man.

12. Like Christianity, Islam believes in a Devil known as Iblis. But unlike in Christianity, he is not considered a fallen angel, but a Jinn. In Hinduism there are Asuras who are fallen gods and who are forever in conflict with gods. There are also demonic beings called Rakshasas who are cruel and mischievous and defy the authority of God at the slightest pretext, although they chose to worship Him for selfish and egoistic reasons and try to misuse their power for doing evil deeds and causing unrest. In the highest sense, in Hinduism as in Islam, God is the ruler of all the worlds and evil is but an instrument of God to punish the wicked and if possible reform them. However, unlike in Islam, the Hindu hell is ruled by a pious god known as Lord Yama, who is considered to be an epitome of justice and virtue.

13. The Islamic cosmology essentially consists of the heaven, the hell and the earth. The Hindu cosmology is more complicated. Hinduism recognizes innumerable worlds and planes of existence. God is all these and also beyond them. No one can truly fathom His worlds or the extent of His manifestation.

14. In Islam there is no concept of Trinity. God is one and indivisible. Hinduism recognizes three highest functional aspects of God in the form of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, who are called the Three Deities (Trimurthis), depicted either as one or separate deities, who carry out the three primary functions of God's manifestation, namely creation, preservation and destruction. Each of these three are also recognized as God Himself by their followers.

15. The main focus of Islam is upon the outer practices, whereas in Hinduism it is both upon external and internal practices. According to Islamic tenets, there is only one God and only way to worship him, and it is as declared by the Prophet and as stipulated in the Quran. Accordingly, it prescribes a strict code of conduct for people to follow, how, when and where they should pray, how they should practice virtue or morality, how they should conduct themselves in public or private life or treat others, and so on. In all these matters it does not give them much freedom but expects them to follow strictly what is already stipulated in the Quran or what the Prophet himself followed or suggested in his lifetime. It also does not give any freedom to its followers to explore God on their own or in their own ways or engage in spiritual or mystic practices, which are not permitted by the tradition. They are not allowed to consider or explore any possibilities in search of truth, which are not approved. Islamic rulers in the past condemned as heretics anyone who tried to explore God on their own such as the Sufis, and subjected them to sever persecution and punishment. In contrast, in Hinduism there is an equal emphasis upon the external as well as the internal. The scriptures place a lot of emphasis upon duty, morality and code of conduct. At the same time, they give complete freedom to people to pursue God or explore truth according to their essential nature and personal preferences. Mysticism and spirituality are the heart of Hindu higher wisdom. There are innumerable paths, ascetic and mystic traditions from which people can choose what is convenient for them to explore their spirituality and establish direct communion with God or their personal deities.

Comparison of Hindu and Islamic Practices

Apart from the above, following are some important differences between the two religions, with regard to their respective religious practices.

  • Despite the tradition of polygamy, Hindus are now strictly monogamous. Islam permits polygamy.
  • Muslims celebrate mainly two festivals, Id al-Fitre and Id al-Adha. Hindus celebrates many festivals throughout the year. They have festivals in every season, for every planetary configuration, auspicious occasion and for every major god or goddess. Perhaps no other religion has so much cause to celebrate as Hinduism. In a way it is a celebration of time itself and the journey of man upon earth. In worldly matters Islam is an austere religion and Hinduism liberal.
  • Islam prescribes a specific dress code for Muslims based on the principle of modesty. They are advised not to wear clothes that are too thin or too tight. Women are expected to wear burkha in public. In Hinduism there is no specific dress code either for men or women, except on specific occasions or to perform certain rituals. Widowed women are expected not to wear ornaments or colorful dresses. Obscenity and public nudity are not tolerated.
  • Both Hinduism and Islam do not approve of close and intimate mingling of opposite sexes outside marriage and family relationships. Kissing in public is a taboo. Dating is considered both irreligious and immoral. Both religions proclaim marriage as a bond between a man and a woman, established through mutual consent, with God as the witness. In Islamic society there is no disrespect for eunuchs. In fact, in medieval India they were an important part of royal harems and court politics. But gays are regarded as contemptible and liable for punishment. Premarital sex, extra marital relationships and adultery are considered immoral in both religions. In Islam they attract physical punishment. Married people can seek divorce on certain valid grounds and the aggrieved parties are entitled for compensation.
  • Both religions prescribe a code of conduct with regard to food and drinks. For the Hindus the cow and the bull are sacred and should not be slaughtered. So they are forbidden from eating beef. For the Muslims, the pig is an unclean animal. So pork is forbidden. Islam explicitly prohibits intoxicating drinks and substances. As in Judaism, Muslims cannot eat meat unless it is prepared in accordance with prescribed rules.
  • In Islam abortion is equated with murder and not permitted unless the mother's life is in danger. In Hinduism also abortion is equated with murder. According to the Vashishta Sutras, "He is called Bhrûnahan who kills a Brâhmana or destroys an embryo (the sex of) which is unknown." The notorious practices of sati (widow burning on the funeral pyre of her husband) and drowning of girl children for economic or religious reasons are now, thankfully, things of the past. Male children usually enjoy more privileges in Hinduism than female children, because of the religious duties assigned to them towards their parents and ancestors and for continuing the family lineage, which is so important for the continuation of dharma upon earth. In Islam the distinction between men and women is mostly social and economic rather than religious in nature.
  • Hindu society is characterized by caste system. The distinction is based not so much according to racial or social differences, but birth and family status. In Islam there is no distinction based on the birth or family status of a person. All believers are equal and equally dearer to Allah. If there is any distinction among people, it is between believers and non-believers, those who acknowledge Allah and His messenger and those who do not and the pious and the evil.

Confrontation and Consequences

Hinduism and Islam confronted each other during the medieval period, with little scope for possible reconciliation between the two, because of some irreconcilable differences that could not be just wished away, especially when one of the two factions involved in it were as uncompromising in their beliefs and practices as the Islamic rulers and nobility. Islam came to India as the religion of the conquerors, while Hinduism remained for centuries as the religion of the vanquished. Most of the Muslim rules who ruled India pursued a policy of religious intolerance, either for the sake of petty and personal politics or to receive the appreciation of other Muslim rules or to present themselves to the Muslim world as upholders of Islamic faith. They indulged in the wanton destruction of many Hindu temples, large scale massacre of Hindus and conversion of many through force and fear. Not all Muslim rulers were cruel. But some of them were excessively so. While the Islamic rulers succeeded in creating pockets of Muslim influence, they failed comprehensively in reaching out to a large section of the Indian population and converting them the new faith, either because the latter shunned them for fear or prejudice or because they remained under the protection of Hindu rulers who still managed to retain political power in areas where the Muslim rulers could not reach.

To the early Muslim rulers, the native Indians presented themselves as an arrogant and uncompromising lot, who believed themselves to be morally and ethically superior, while to the Hindus the Muslim rulers appeared as perpetrators of religious monstrosity. However such was the political and social conditions of the times and the need for prudence that the barriers to communication and the distrust between the two groups could not be maintained for long. The situation is well described by a modern historian in the following words, "The arrogance of Hindu was gone during course of thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, that of the Muslim by the beginning of the fifteenth. Both were ready to meet each other, and both sat at the feet of masters like Kabir and Nanak to learn that their quarrels were futile and in the ultimate analysis the essence of all religions was but the same."

The Muslim rulers played an important role in shaping India and its cultural and social milieu for nearly a thousand years. They also saved the subcontinent from the more destructive and cruel invaders like the Mongols. It is difficult to estimate the course of Indian history had they failed. The confrontation between Hinduism and Islam resulted in two significant developments within Hinduism. The intolerant policies of Muslim rulers made the Hindu caste system very rigid and uncompromising. Secondly, some democratic aspects of Islam found their way into Hinduism in the form of social and religious reforms, which aimed to eliminate social and caste based distinctions within Hindu society and the procedural and scriptural complexity involved in worshipping God.

Hindu Muslim Integration

India is perhaps the only country where a very large section of Hindus live in harmony with a large section of Muslims, without the compulsion of making any significant adjustments and sacrifices in their beliefs and practices. There are still many issues between the two that remain to be resolved, but overall it is not a gloomy picture, especially when we view it in the context of what has been happening in the other parts of the world. This understanding and synthesis of ideas between the two communities is a product of centuries of interaction and mutual adjustment. It culminated in the development of a distinct culture that is peculiarly Indian. Since it is built on a strong foundation, without coercion, over a long period of time, it survives the vicissitudes of the present day conflicts, which are usually ignited by the uninformed and the ignorant, who are unfamiliar with the ethos of the Indian psyche. Some of the features, concepts and practices that emerged out of the process of integration between the two religions are described below.

  • The bhakti movement. One of the most notable developments in Hinduism during the medieval period was the rise of bhakti movement, which emphasized devotion and surrender to God as the best means to salvation. The bhakti movement was not based on new ideals, but age old concepts of Hinduism, well emphasized as early as 10th century BC in the scriptures such as the Puranas and the Bhagavadgita and the sectarian movements like Saivism and Vaishnavism. It played an important role in helping Hinduism to face the challenges posed by the monotheistic Islam, with its emphasis on a personal relationship between man and one God, through prayers, surrender, cultivation of virtues, performance of good deeds and obedience to His law. Bhakti movement refined Hinduism, strengthened its roots and prepared it for a challenging and prolonged confrontation with Islam on a level playing field.
  • Indo-Sarcenic architecture. The early Muslim rulers relied upon local talent and used the material from the temples they destroyed to build monuments, as their focus was mostly on expanding their empires and consolidating their power, rather than undertaking large scale projects and elaborate structures. However as the time passed by, they began inducting Persian architects, along with native builders, in the construction of their buildings and mosques. This resulted in the emergence of distinct architectural styles that are collectively referred as Indo-Islamic or Indo-Sarcenic architecture, which can be seen in many medieval structures that are still intact in places like Delhi, Multan, Bengal etc. The synthesis of Indian and Islamic architectural styles reached its culmination during the Mughal period, in the form of numerous buildings and monuments, including the famous Tajmahal, the Agra Fort, the buildings of Fatehpur Sikri and the Mausoleum of Shersha Suri at Sasaram. The Indo-Sarcenic architecture is a prime example of the willingness on the part of Muslim rulers to come to terms with Indian culture and its religious value and on the part of the Hindus to participate in the creative expression of sublime catholicity, setting aside their personal beliefs and religious ethos.
  • The spread of Sufism. The Sufi movement placed more relevance upon personal and mystic experience in receiving the knowledge and truth about God, rather than upon the codified laws of Qu'ran. The philosophy and practices of Sufi saints were similar in many ways to those of many ascetic traditions of Hinduism, especially Saivism of the kind that prevailed in Kashmir and parts of Northern India. The Sufis practiced rigorous asceticism, under the guidance of a master, for intense purification leading to an awakening or enlightenment called marifah, that would eventually culminate in mohabbat or love for God and fanah, annihilation of the individuality by its dissolution in the all consuming love for God. Because of its similarities with the ascetic traditions and the bhaktimarg of Hinduism, Sufism gained widespread popularity in India and played an important role in bridging the gulf between the two communities.
  • The tradition of Satyapir. Veneration of Hindu saints by Muslims and Muslim peers by Hindus resulted in the common tradition of worshipping Satyapir or a True Saint.
  • Growth of Urdu. One of the significant developments in medieval India during the Islamic rule was the emergence of Urdu as a popular language of common people in many parts of India. It is a synthetic language which evolved out of the mingling of many words and ideas from Persian, Arabic, Turkish and many Indian languages of Sanskritic origin. It is still being used as the medium of communication in both India and Pakistan, as the language of the elite as well as common man.
  • Purdah System. Centuries of Muslim rule and frequent abduction of Hindu women by Muslim soldiers and Mongolian invaders led to the practice of purdah by Hindu women in certain parts of northern India like Gujarat and Rajasthan. It consisted of segregating women from public view and the use of a veil to cover their heads and faces in the company of men and in public.
  • Exchange of ideas. Hindus borrowed ideas and concepts from Muslim astronomy, calendar (Zich), medicine, metullargy, and a special branch of horoscopy called Tajik, while the Muslim scholars studied Hindu scriptures, Vedanta and the Hindu medical science of Ayurveda, Hindu astrology and the techniques of Yoga and meditation. Many of these ideas traveled far and wide to Persia, Central Asia and beyond up to Europe. Many Indian scriptures and ancient sciences were translated into Persian.
  • The founding of Sikhism The integration of Islamic and Hindu ideas through Bhakti movement reached its zenith in the teachings of Guru Nanak, which eventually led to the formation of Sikhism as a separate religion, under Guru Arjun Singh, the fifth Sikh Guru. Sikhism combines the best of both Hinduism and Islam. Many of its concepts and practices are similar to those of either Islam and Hinduism. Sikhism considers the distinction between the God of Hinduism and of Islam to be in name only. God is the one and the only Truth. He has many names and powers and can be reached through prayers, good works, selfless service, intense longing and devotion, not only in direct communication with God as in Islam but also with the help of a Guru.
  • The Din-Ilahi of Akbar. Known for his religious tolerance and interest in the comparative study of world's major religions, Akbar, the greatest of the Mughal rulers, promulgated a new religion called Din-i-Ilahi or Tauhid-i-Ilahi in 1581, a religion, which he believed, would be acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims. According to Dr.Ishawri Prasad, the Din-i-Ilahi "was an ecclectic pantheism containing the good points of all religions - a combination of mysticism, philosophy and nature worship. Its basis was rational; it upheld no dogma, recognized no gods or prophets, and emperor was its chief exponent." Whatever might be the consequences of Abkar's folly or wisdom, the Din-i-Ilahi was a fine example of the vision of religious harmony, amity and understanding, the enlightened minds of medieval India on both sides wished to see. As a religion it failed, but as an ideal vision of the finest of the Indian minds it stayed in the core of India's collective wisdom.
  • Political implications. The continuous Islamic rule in the subcontinent and the conversion of many native Hindus to Islam resulted in the creation of sizeable Muslim population, culminating in the formation of Pakistan and Bangladesh and a sizeable Muslim minority community in India that is perhaps the largest Muslim population in any nation in terms of sheer numbers. The presence of large population of Muslims in the subcontinent enabled the British to implement the policy of divide and rule with far reaching consequences, the effect of which still linger on.

Over the centuries, Hindus and Muslims learned to live in peace and amity with each other to the extent possible, despite the gulf that stands between them, in the form of uncompromising religious beliefs and practices that are difficult to ignore. Each side recognizes the onerous responsibility that rests with them in maintaining peace and harmony, in the common interests of all and in the interests of India as one nation. The process of adjustment is still going on. The occasional communal violence that flares up in parts of India between the two communities is a product of the pent up frustrations and mutual animosity in an economic environment of scarcity and poverty, that struggles to survive in the hands of a few fanatics from both sides, in a sea of brotherhood, tolerance, adaptation. mutual appreciation and incredible understanding. There are festivals in which both communities participate with equal zeal. There are Dargas to which Hindus and Muslims pay visit. There are some sects of Saivism with sizeable number of Muslim following. There are traditions in the field of arts, dance, poetry music and singing, in which it is difficult to trace where contribution of one side ends and the other begins. The Indian film industry is an epitome of Hindu Muslim harmony and cooperation, where one can see an astonishingly high level of cooperation and understanding on the part of the writers, directors, producers, actors, musicians and singers from both sides. The world perhaps does not know that whatever animosity that exists between India and Pakistan is mostly political, created by the politicians on either side and perpetuated by them for their own political ends and that there is a great deal of appreciation and understanding among the people in both countries towards each other. The cooperation and true conciliation between the two nations may perhaps have to wait for longer due to the turn of events in the last few decades, but inevitable.


Hinduism and Islam are two of the worlds major religions, with sizeable following in various parts of the world. They have some core ideals and flashes of a grand vision which they share. If we accept religion as a product of the environment in which it arises, chosen by God to deal with certain predominant problems of human existence peculiar to the times and the place in which they originate, we will understand why both Hinduism and Islam remained unfamiliar to each other till they stood face to face. Yet God has not rendered them entirely new so that He could keep the theologians on both side busy and arguing, but made provision for bridges of understanding. Hidden in the bosom of Islam are some of the finest and the best ideals of human life and religious aspiration, which also find their unmistakable expression in the core concepts of Hinduism, pulsating with vibrant energy, that are difficult to ignore even by a superficial glance. The differences are in relation to practice, code of conduct and interpretation of scriptures and traditions that should not, if we want to live in peace and harmony all over the world and fulfill the will of God for peace and universal amity, interfere with the process of normalization that began sometime in medieval India and still continuing, despite the challenges of mutual distrust and animosity that still linger on in some vicious minds of both communities. Hindus and Muslims can coexist, wherever they are, if they are willing to accept religion as an instrument of peace and human salvation rather than as a conduit through which they can compensate their feelings of inadequacy and pent-up animosity, the very vices that seem to contradict and negate the Divine Law which every religion proclaims to uphold. To achieve proper unity, there is also a need for give and take and appreciation of mutual differences without being threatened by them. As remarked by Rabindranath Tagore, "The world-wide problem today is not how to unite by wiping out all differences, but how to unite with all the differences intact; a difficult task, for it permits of no trickery and calls for mutual give-and-take...The Muslims in our country are striving for advancement as a separate community. However disagreeable and disadvantage that may be for us for the time being, it is the only right way to achieve genuine unity someday in the future." 2

Suggestions for Further Reading

1. It is transliterated as 'salāma' and in some versions simply as s-l-m (sin-Lam-Mim) which is also the root of many Semitic words such as 'shalom' in Hebrew, 'salimu' in Akkadian, 'saliem' in Maltese, 'shlama' om Aramaic and 'šlama' in Syriac. The word is interpreted variously in the Quran. It is also the root of the word 'Muslim'

2. From an essay on the Hindu University written in 1911 and as published in The Universal Man by Rabindranath Tagore, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, 1961

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