Camille Backman: Dara Shikoh and Hindu-Muslim Relations

Examining points of cultural exchange and moments of connection through works of art can reveal several deeper dimensions to the existence and establishment of Islam within India. In particular, certain historical moments of leadership and promotion of education in support of exploring multiple methods of thought reveal specific efforts to create a society that allowed both Islam and Hinduism to develop and grow. The leadership and creative efforts of Dara Shikoh and his involvement with a variety of art forms exemplify his willingness and efforts to promote an adaptable form of Islam. Examining the relationship of Hinduism and Islam through different studies of social and political interaction reveal further strain and efforts made by these communities to adapt and develop in the same areas.

Several instances of protection of ideals and recognition of parallel habits flourished during the Mughal presence in India. The reign of Akbar introduced innovative new perceptions of Shari’a and Islam, and challenged the previously strict and established orthodox practice of Islam. Akbar’s reign drew inspiration from the doctrines of the sufi teacher Ibn ‘Arabi and the new perception of God’s role in the universe led to the discussion that “all religions and sects being themselves illusory must be tolerated, under the principle of sulh-i kul” (Habib 8). The implementation and adaptation of this thought as a guiding principle in leadership exemplifies a departure from previously strict interpretations of the qu’ran and rather shifts to using the religious text as method of promoting tolerance and exercising reason. The interpretation and promotion of new consideration of the relevance of adaptation to the circumstances in India during the reign of Akbar created space for the expansion of tolerant efforts and further attempts to allow the development of both Hinduism and Islam to expand within India. The translation of the Upanishads showcase the transition to the influence Dara Shikoh promoted in continuation of understanding and creating these interfaith efforts. This translation effort and promotion of a text that deeply displays the ideals and trends of Hinduism provided space and controversy for the Islamic community, but ultimately led to further instances of alliance and provided several notions that the “cause of Hindus and Muslims was inseparable” (Habib 10). The leadership established through the Mughal reign in India promoted and established space for interfaith ideas and efforts to grow, regardless of the conflicting and convoluted support from separately established Muslim communities.

The efforts of Dara Shikoh in creating works of poetry and providing translation of established Hindu works promoted certain trends that support the syncretic structure of Hinduism and Islam in India today. In particular, the trends of mysticism and the development of a mystic practice of Islam created several bridges between the two religions in India. Once again, many of the positive interfaith efforts occurred during the Mughal rule in India. Rasheeduddin Khan urged a reinterpretation of the relationship between the Hindus and Muslims in order to understand the trends as not solely being defined by conflict and confrontation. The influence of Islamic Sufism in India created a culture of adaptation and the “proliferation of Sufism in fact became one of the important mechanisms of ensuring communal harmony between the Hindus and Muslims” (Burman 1212). The efforts and works of Dara Shikoh embody this notion in his willingness to create a work that examines the mystic qualities and philosophies of Hinduism and Islam.

Exploring the impact of Sufism in India is one the key factors to understanding the develop of tolerance and interfaith relations within this area. The qualities of Sufism in India provided space and efforts of understanding between Hinduism and Islam. According to Char, the qualities of Sufism provided a reputation of “having been lovers of peace and bridge builders” (Char 110). The development of these schools of Islamic thought within India provide clarity to attempts of interfaith understanding and tolerance, and in particular, the interpretation of Shari’a created communities of coexistence and exchange as not only practical but moral pillars to uphold. Ultimately, the practice of Sufism in India reveals certain elements of Islam that promote and emphasize a focus on tolerance and harmony in existing alongside already established communities and religions. While there was conflict between the tension of desire to convert to Islam, and the desire to respect and tolerate alternate theological views, the overall attempt to convert was not a leading factor in the practice of these Islamic communities.

Part of the development of interfaith relations in India reveal the adaptation and development of alternate practice and communities of Islam. Exploring the framework in which Islam developed in India reveal certain parallels and further exploration of the social practices and traditions developed as a result of the establishment of Muslim communities in India highlight certain aspects of tolerance and cohabitation. The practice of Islam in India is unique for the trend of having “accepted and retained the local cultural traditions but adapted them to its own requirements and needs by putting an Islamic content them” (Fazalbhoy 1548). The efforts made of exchange and translation that the efforts of Dara Shikoh and those preceding and following him feed into this development of adaptation of Islam in India. Of particular note in tracing and exploring certain syncretic trends in Islam and India, is the meeting ground of these two communities manifested through Sufi shrines which contain further forms of expression and interaction between the two primary communities. The exchange of translations and certain rituals practiced in Sufism and Hinduism alike are key to understanding the unique form of Islam that developed India.

Exploring certain defining aspects of the Indo-Islamic Great Tradition reveal the significance and importance of the work of Dara Shikoh through his time in India. The interaction of religion with forms such as poetry, music, and architecture provide key bonds between the two communities in developing certain aspects of Islam in India. Of particular note was Dara Shikoh’s involvement of translating and interpreting the Upanishads. Through this translation a shift of the views of the Sufis can be best understood through viewing that the “mystics incorporated quite a few elements and features of the Hindu tradition into the corpus of their liturgy” (Momin 252). Through translating the crucial text relating to Hinduism, Shikoh provided deeper understanding and recognition of not only similarities, but also concepts and ideals that could only deepen the sentiments and faith of the Sufi community. Of particular note is the open minded and humanistic tendencies of the Sufis. In understanding and the Sufi interpretation of Wahdat-al-Wujud, and the strong hold to believing  “at the metaphysical level in the essential oneness of all existence and at the human level in unity of mankind” (Momin 252). For this doctrine to hold such precedence in guiding the practice and rituals of this group of Muslims in India, the possibility and understanding of certain Hindu beliefs do not alienate the two religions. The Muslim contribution to Hindi literature through translation and reinterpretation provide the largest examples of exchange as a means of extending understanding, and creating opportunities for friendship among Hindus and Muslims. The emphasis on serving humanity and volunteerism define the basis of Sufism, and provide the largest tension in the influence of Hinduism on Islam largely due to the Ulama preferring and prioritizing a practice of Islam free from the influence of surrounding religions. Shikoh rejected this desire to encapsulate Islam without regard to the structures the Muslim community to interact with, and rather wished to highlight the possibilities of similar beliefs.

The most significant contribution to the beginning of understanding and exchange between Hinduism and Islam stems from Dara Shikoh’s work, The Mingling of Two Oceans. Ultimately, Shikoh aimed to expand the Indian mind through his production of this text and through comparison of Islamic Sufi concepts and Hindu Mysticism. This work does not necessarily provide clear connections and cannot contain all the answers and solutions of unity among Hindus and Muslims, but it does provide evidence of a sincere and insistent attempt to provide unity and understanding between the two groups. This work reflects Shikoh’s close investigation of the Islamic Sufi works, his deep examination of certain masters of Sufism, and certain elements of the Qur’an and Traditions of the prophet. Despite being raised in a pure and rather strict teaching of Sufism, Shikoh expanded his belief and learning through challenging prejudice and examining the teachings with a new perspective and outlook.

Dara Shikoh engaged with a variety of art forms during his time in India. He created several instances of poetry that exemplify some of the deeper thinking and progressive ideas his time and leadership provided. For example, he writes “Kingship is easy; make thyself familiar with the ways of asceticism, (for) if a drop can be the ocean why should it (then) be the pearl.”

Of primary significance in The Mingling of Two Oceans is the pragmatism Shikoh introduces his work with. In proclaiming that his views are “concerned with facts and puts them as they are” (Shikoh 37), Shikoh allows the interpretation of his work to stem from a place of development and personal challenge, rather than simply demand an understanding. The beauty of this work exists in his comparative narrative and the common ground they share, in particular the various points that they meet. The work contains a variety of sections and subjects, thus I will choose to highlight sections that I found particularly moving and impactful to both the Hindu and Sufi followings of faith.

Shikoh begins the beginning of this work with reference to Sufi concept of oneness and the enormous presence of God within the natural world. He writes, “We have not seen a single particle of dust separate from the sun. ( And) every drop of water is the sea in itself. With what name one should call the Truth? (For) whatever name there is, it is one of the names of God.” These lines highlight certain qualities of the Sufi sect of Islam, and demonstrate the connectivity believed and treasured by this particular form of Islam. In particular, the concept of interconnectivity is a unifying factor among Sufistic Islam and Hinduism, and this verse does an excellent job of demonstrating the connectivity of God. This verse in particular highlights the constant, but not overpowering presence of God and perception of God for those who practice this form of Islam. By showcasing a connectivity in worldly interactions instead of creating a divide among action as a means to elevating faithful status, Shikoh demonstrates another vein of similarity among Sufism and Hinduism.  

In his exploration of the elements, Shikoh writes about the presence and establishment of the environment he engages with. Shikoh explains that “I was a hidden treasure, then I desired to be known; so, I brought the creation into existence” and reveals the the involvement of God in all the world around him. Both the Hindu and Muslim traditions of faith reveal a similar attitude towards the creation of the world, and recognize the artistry and great efforts of God in creating such a magnificent environment. Similarly, in his discourse on sound, Shikoh writes, “wherever thou hearest, it is His melodious voice, Who has, after all, heard such a rolling sound?”. This verse once again highlights the connectivity and beauty that God provides for the environment. Recognizing the presence and detail God provides in the world, and perceiving the presence of God solidifies the understanding of certain Sufi perceptions and practice of faith. Further, the exchange of music in India exemplifies certain ways in which these communities and inspire each other. When approaching sound as divine and recognizing the powerful messages that sound itself contains, both communities can commit and create instances of understanding and kinship.

In addressing the specific understanding and perception of God, Shikoh demonstrates another level in which Hindus and Sufi Muslims could come to understanding each other. Shikoh emphasizes that  “one who disbelieves the beholding of God is a thoughtless and sightless member of his community”. The power of this verse lies in the mention of community and the emphasize on perceiving faith as opposed to blindly following faith. Furthermore, Shikoh emphasizes the binding and expansive influence of religious community. During this time in India, expansion of ideas and new methods of thinking were prioritized by the Mughal ruling system. Shikoh conveys the notion of straying from faith as straying from development of perception and growth. Both the Sufis and Hindus seek out the manifestations of God and thus can create a communal perception and appreciate within the individual faiths.

Shikoh highlights the importance of leadership figures as another method of affirming and instructing faith. When Shikoh explores the impact of Apostles and Saintship he highlights the giving and service like nature that faith requires of communities. Moreover, the message of urgency and importance within this comparison is the recurring devotion to God. Shikoh writes of the message that followers should go, and give thy heart to one, who in the circle of existence has remained always with thee and will so continue to be.” For the most part, the guiding figures of Hinduism function in a similar way to saints, and all interact and elevate the potency and universal qualities of committing faith to one source of inspiration and divinity. This selection of words also showcases the giving and volunteer like qualities of the Sufi sect of Islam. While the rules that inform Islam all stem from committing and serving God in the most faithful and true way possible, The Sufi sect focuses on the very human manifestations of such a lifestyle, and focus into the volunteerism and sharing aspect of the faith. Once again, this verse highlights the vast presence of the divine and showcases another intersection of faith among Hinduism and Islam.

In order to explore the meeting points of Hinduism and Islam, Shikoh examines the process of salvation and the importance of community among both faiths. First, he emphasizes the collect and necessary engagement of the community through showcasing that “The whole world, whether of souls or bodies, Is One Fixed Person”. This verse demonstrates the mystic and innovative thinking style of Shikoh, and stresses his commitment to interfaith efforts. In unifying the mass of those he is surrounded with, Shikoh creates further instances of shared experience and shared devotion to communities unified in expressing and following specific traditions guided by faith. Shikoh extends his mystic metaphor to involve the creation of bodies and the world as strongly linked together and writes, “Truth is the soul of the world, the whole world the trunk, Souls, angels and senses are the bodies.” This section of exploring bonds between faith reaffirm Shikoh’s mission to discovering and honoring truth in tradition and faith. Rather than accepting one form of expressing and discovering faith, Shikoh constantly emphasizes the importance of truth and the necessary stance of discovery and innovation required to truly commit to faith in a way that expresses not only deeper understanding, but also refreshing assurance in the malleable and positive qualities of sharing common desires among faith groups.

Finally, the examination of the infinity of cycles reveals what I believe to be one of the most powerful arguments for interfaith dialogue among both Hindus and Muslims in recognizing the never ending reach and influence of faith. Shikoh reveals of God that “there is no end to my story, or that of the beloved, for, whatever hath no beginning can have no end.” The utmost importance of this verse is the mention of the influence and power of the divine in interaction with communities and with the world. Shikoh emphasizes that the presence of divinity and the constant continuation of God within the environment of the world. In showcasing the power and deep history that perceiving the world with faith in mind allows, Shikoh yet again creates an instance of communal understanding and possibility for both faiths to navigate with. In emphasizing the lasting impact of faith, Shikoh demonstrates further methods in which interfaith dialogue and understanding can occur.

The current situation in India reveals that the relationship between the Hindu and Muslim communities are not conducive to peaceful and positive interactions, and in this way the efforts of Dara Shikoh did not have a long reaching impact. However, the magnitude of his devotion to finding places of similarity and urging those of his faith to understand the multitude of ways in which the two faiths intersect and contain methods to understand each other are extremely important. While it takes larger communities to get involved into interfaith efforts and begin dialogues of understanding in spite of different religious backgrounds, the influence and willingness of individuals brave enough to question and entertain multiple ways of perceiving and understanding faith make up the structure and basis for interfaith communication to exist and occur. Dara Shikoh made many efforts to involve the arts into interfaith communications, and creating further instances of understanding through these forms will ultimately lead to more successful and lasting interactions among these communities.

works cited:

Habib, Irfan. “The experience of Islam”. Social Scientist, vol 41. no 5. 2013.

Burman, Roy “Muslim Syncretism in India” Economic Political Weekly, vol 31. 1996.

Mom, AR. “The Indo-Islamic Tradition” Sociological Bulletin, vol 26. 1977.