the british, the hindus, the sikhs, and the muslims -- 8/3/16

Today's selection -- from Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. Prior to the arrival and gradual takeover of India by the British during the 1700s and 1800s, both the Hindu and Sikh religions had been very diverse and diffuse, differing regionally within India and lacking in central authority. That changed with the ascension of the British. Also with that arrival and ascension, the Muslims of the Mogul Empire, hitherto the ruling class in India, were demoted and humiliated:

"The irony was, of course, that until the British had arrived, nobody had thought of themselves as 'Hindu' in this sectarian way. The British tendency to see the different faith communities in stereotypical ways also helped to radicalize the Sikh tradition; they promoted the idea that Sikhs were an essentially warlike and heroic people. In recognition of Sikh support during the 1857 mutiny, the British had overcome their initial reluctance to admit members of the Khalsa into the army; moreover, once they were recruited, they were allowed to wear their traditional uniforms. This special treatment meant that gradually the idea that Sikhs were a sepa­rate and distinctive race gained ground.

"Hitherto Sikhs and Hindus had lived together peacefully in the Pun­jab, sharing the same cultural traditions. There had been no central Sikh authority, so variant forms of Sikhism flourished. This had always been the norm in India, where religious identities had been multiple and defined regionally. But during the 1870s Sikhs began to develop their own reform movement in an attempt to adapt to these new realities. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were about a hundred Sikh Sabha groups all over the Punjab, dedicated to an assertion of Sikh dis­tinctiveness, building Sikh schools and colleges, and producing a flood of polemical literature. On the surface these groups seemed in tune with Sikh tradition, but this separation entirely subverted Nanak's origi­nal vision. Sikhs were now expected to adopt a single identity. Over the years a Sikh fundamentalism would emerge that interpreted the tradition selectively, claiming to return to the martial teachings of the tenth guru but ignoring the peaceful ethos of the early gurus. This new Sikhism was passionately opposed to secularism: Sikhs must have political power in order to enforce this conformity. A tradition that once had been open to all had been invaded by fear of the 'other,' represented by a host of enemies -- Hindus, heretics, modernizers, secularists, and any form of political dominance.

Sikh soldiers in the British 15th Punjab Infantry Regiment in 1858

"There was a similar distortion of the Muslim tradition. The British abolition of the Moghul Empire had been a traumatic watershed, sum­marily demoting a people who hitherto had seemed virtual masters of the globe. For the first time, they were being ruled by hostile infidels in one of the core cultures of the civilized world. Given the symbolic impor­tance of the ummah's [community's] well-being, this was not simply a political anxiety but one that touched the spiritual recesses of their being. Some Muslims would therefore cultivate a history of grievance. We have previously seen that the experience of humiliation can damage a tradition and become a catalyst for violence. Segments of the Hindu population, who had been subjected to Muslim rule for seven hundred years, had their own smoldering resentment of Moghul imperialism, so Muslims suddenly felt extremely vulnerable, especially since the British blamed them for the Mutiny of 1857.

"Many were afraid that Islam would disappear from the subcontinent and that Muslims would entirely lose their identity. Their first impulse was to withdraw from the mainstream and cling to the glories of the distant past. In 1867 in Deoband, near Delhi, a cadre of ulema [scholars] began to issue detailed fatwas [pronouncements] that governed every single aspect of life to help Muslims live authentically under foreign rule. Over time the Deoban­dis established a network of madrassas throughout the subcontinent that promoted a form of Islam that was as reductive in its own way as the Arya Samaj. They too attempted a return to 'fundamentals' -- the pristine Islam of the Prophet and the rashidun -- and vehemently decried such later developments as the Shiah. Islam had for centuries displayed a remarkable ability to assimilate other cultural traditions, but their colo­nial humiliation caused the Deobandis to retreat from the West in rather the same way as Ibn Taymiyyah had recoiled from Mongol civilization.

"Deobandi Islam refused to countenance itjihad ('independent reason­ing') and argued for an overly strict and literal interpretation of the Sha­riah. The Deobandis were socially progressive in their rejection of the caste system and their determination to educate the poorest Muslims, but they were virulently opposed to any innovation --adamant, for instance, in their condemnation of the compulsory education of women. In the early days, Deobandis were not violent, but they would later become more militant. They would have a drastic effect on subcontinental Islam, which had traditionally leaned toward the more inclusive spiritualities of Sufism and Falsafah, both of which the Deobandis now utterly condemned. During the twentieth century they would gain considerable influence in the Muslim world and would rank in importance with the prestigious al-Azha Madrassa in Cairo. The British subjugation of India had driven some Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims into a defensive posture that could eas­ily segue into violence."


Karen Armstrong


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence


Anchor A. Knopf


Copyright 2014 by Karen Armstrong


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