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Guest-Editorial: Jewish-Muslim Relations in South Asia: An Introduction

By Navras Jaat Aafreedi 

For most of their history Jews have suffered persecution and discrimination under Christian and Muslim rule, except in Medieval India, Arab Spain, Ottoman Turkey, the Tunisian island of Djerba and some other areas in the Maghreb. We also have the examples of Denmark and Albania where most of the Jews were saved by Christians and Muslims there respectively during the Shoah or the Holocaust. And even where they have been tolerated, it has almost always been only as second-rate citizens, with the above mentioned exceptions. The only places in the world where Jews were not in a predominantly Christian or Muslim society were China and India, which are also the only two countries in the world where they never suffered persecution and discrimination. Chinese Jewry ceased to exist long ago as a result of their complete and total assimilation. However, Indian Jews not only managed to exist, but thrived in India and came to enjoy superbly cordial relations with their non-Jewish neighbours including Muslims. The reason why Jews could live in peace and harmony with their non-Jewish neighbours in India for centuries lies in the fact that Hindus, numerically the predominant religious community in India and the Jews never felt threatened by each other, as both Hinduism and Judaism are non-proselytizing religions. So there was never an attempt on the part of Hindus to convert the Jews in their midst, unlike the Christian and Muslim attitudes towards them. In sharp contrast to the Jews, the other two Semitic or Abrahamic religious communities could not live in such harmony with the Hindus alarmed and threatened by their evangelism. The only other religious minorities that have never had any problems with Hindus are the Jains and the Zoroastrians, who do not proselytise.

Though Jews and Muslims in South Asia share a recorded history of a thousand years, and South Asia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, this region has yet remained largely neglected in studies focused on Jewish-Muslim relations. South Asian Muslims presented a beautiful spectacle of religious amity with the Jews during their mutual interaction spanning a whole millennium. However, within just a few years of securing Pakistan, they drove out almost all the Jews, estimated to be 1,199 in 1941, from the country. Most of them found refuge in India, before migrating to Israel. The few that remained were driven out during the Arab-Israel wars of 1956 and 1967. In the movement for the creation of Pakistan, Muslims paradoxically drew their inspiration from Zionism, the very political movement which they otherwise vehemently opposed, and which provoked them to throw out the Jews, who were not even active Zionists, living amongst them. The account of their vicissitudes is provided by Shalva Weil along with that of the Jews of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) in two separate articles in this issue; while Akhtar Balouch laments the loss of Pakistan’s Jewish heritage. The Lost Jews of Karachi, a play staged by a group of undergraduate students in Pakistan in 2012, which I have written about elsewhere, also draws attention to this succinct sense of loss. Zeeba T. Hashmi presents the Pakistani perspective on the Jews that were there in the past. Interestingly, a European Jew who had embraced Islam, Muhammad Asad ne Leopold Weiss, was among those at the forefront of the movement for the creation of Pakistan. Dominik Schlosser provides a biographical profile of Asad, who served as Pakistan’s Minister Plenipotentiary at the United Nations in 1952, and is credited for one of the finest English translations of the Qur’an. Asad lost most of his family in the Holocaust, whose authenticity is often wilfully denied by anti-Semites amongst both Christians and Muslims. Fawad Javaid gives us an appraisal of this Holocaust denial in Pakistan. Joan Roland explains the conflict of Muslim and Jewish perspectives of Zionism in India between the two world wars.

However, even the Arab-Israel conflict has failed to dent the cordiality of relations between Jews and Muslims in India, home to the world’s third largest Muslim population, where all synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are looked after by Muslims, as we are told by Priyanka Borpujari; and where most of the students in the Jewish-run schools are Muslim, the subject of Jael Silliman’s article. The engraver of Jewish tombstones for the entire State of Maharashtra, with the highest concentration of Jews in India, is a Muslim, whose profile is provided by Rachel Delia Benaim. The only teacher of the Hebrew language in India at the tertiary level of education is a Muslim, Khurshid Imam, who has been interviewed by me. Similarly, India’s only calligrapher of Hebrew, Thoufeek Zakriya, happens to be a Muslim, the subject of Paul Rockower’s article. It was largely at the initiative of Muslim academics that the first-ever conference on Hebrew language and culture took place in India, about which one can read here. The longest serving principal of the biggest and oldest school for Muslim girls in Mumbai, Anjuman-i-Islam, was a Jewish lady, Anna Samson, whose twenty-seven-year-old tenure finds mention in Nathaniel Jhirad’s personal narrative on his bond with Muslims as a Jew. Moinuddin Ahmad writes about his perception of Jews as an Indian Muslim, and his association with them. Anuradha Bhattacharjee throws light on the high administrative positions the Bene Israel came to enjoy under the rule of Muslim Sidis in Janjira, and the harmony between Jews and Muslims there. Kenneth X. Robbins and John McLeod tell us the story of a most interesting romance between an Indian Muslim freedom fighter and a Lithuanian Jewish woman. Their child heads a pharmaceutical giant in India today, known for its laudable philanthropy. Ori Soltes explores the convergence of Jewish and Muslim elements in the art of the US-based Indian Jewish painter Siona Benjamin. Eyal Be’eri reports on the visit of the first ever Pashtun/Pathan delegation to Israel. Religious syncretism and Jewish-Muslim dialogue in India and beyond is the topic of Amit Ranjan’s essay. Charles Solomon, a Baghdadi Jew from Kolkata, now settled in Sydney, pays tribute to the Muslim domestic help his family had in India. Traditionally only Muslims were employed as cooks in the Baghdadi Jewish households in India because of the similarities of dietary laws in Judaism and Islam.

Yet, it would be shying away from a harsh reality not to acknowledge the fact that Muslims even in India have hostile and antagonistic feelings towards Jews, largely influenced by the Arab-Israel conflict, but also by the overly literal interpretations of the polemics in their religious narrative. Mehnaz M. Afridi, who has contributed to this issue an account of her personal journey as a South Asian Muslim educator of the Shoah, points out in an essay titled, “Nostalgia and Memory in Jewish-Muslim Encounters” (Crosscurrents, September 2015):

The Qur’an represents itself as a universal teaching; hence its rhetorical style appears to refer negatively to Jews in general terms. Since for Muslim believers the Qur’an is inimitable scripture (the inimitability of the Qur’an is an absolute dogma of Islamic theology), the negative portrayal of Jews represents a level of truth that is extremely difficult to question. As scripture, the Qur’an is a powerful foundation for the worldview of Muslims around the globe. The kind of intercommunal conflicts we witness today may be only a few years old, but the verses of scripture have an eternal quality to them.

It is precisely due to this inimitability or irrefutability of the Qur’an that it would be utopian to expect from Muslims a declaration on the lines of Nostra Aetate (1965), whose fiftieth anniversary we just commemorated. The South Asian Muslims, who are antagonistic towards Jews, are those who have never come into any direct contact with them, not unlike the South Asians of other religious persuasions, because of the small numbers and scarcity of Jews in the region. The estimates of Jewish population in India, the only country in South Asia with a Jewish minority, vary from 3,500 to 10,000 in its total population of 1.3 billion. Their proportion in the population is a mere 0.0004 per cent. Thus Muslims, largely unaware of the Jewish presence in South Asia, not those amongst them who have been in direct contact with Jews over a long period, attacked Jews in Pakistan and in India when they came in contact with them. The Jews in Pakistan were attacked not by the local Sindhi Muslims, who had long been in association with them, but by the Mohājirīn, the term by which the Urdu speaking migrants from the plains of northern India came to be known in Pakistan. All this finds mention in Apnā Ghar (1961), written by the first Jewish novelist of the Hindi language, Meera Mahadevan (nee Miriam Aaron Jacob Mendrekar). One can read about it in Anna Guttman’s overview of the portrayal of Muslims in Indian Jewish fiction. Similarly, the few sporadic attacks on Jews in Mumbai (not the 2008 Pakistani terrorist attack on Beit Chabad at Nariman House) were perpetrated by Muslim emigrants from the plains of northern India, and not by the local Bohra Muslims who were most cordial with them, as attested by a Baghdadi Jewish emigrant from Mumbai settled in Australia. From a personal account given to me, the stabbing of his brother and the constant stalking of his sister by North Indian Muslims forced this man and his family to leave India where his grandparents had found asylum when they fled from persecution in Iraq a hundred and fifty years ago. As he said, it was easy for these Muslims to target the Baghdadi Jews, easily identified because of their lighter skin colour, their Anglicisation, and their inability to speak any Indian language fluently. That was clearly unlike their coreligionists, the Bene Israel, who had been resident in India for a much longer period of time and were physically and culturally indistinguishable from the general Indian populace. The latter enjoyed the comfort of their fluency in Marathi, the local language which they spoke as their mother tongue.

Members of the Bene Ephraim Judaizing Movement in Andhra Pradesh feel threatened not by the local Muslims, but by Islamist terrorist organizations, as pointed out by Yulia Egorova in her study of their relations with Muslims. One can sense the antagonism of the Muslims, those of them who have never been in direct contact with Jews, towards them in Yusra Husain’s report on the Malihabadi Pathan response to the academic interest in the tradition of their Israelite origins, and in Ari Zivotofsky’s and Ari Greenspan’s travelogue of their expedition to Malihabad. Saira Mujtaba reports on the perceptions of Jews held by Shi’a Muslims in Lucknow, a major centre of Muslim scholarship, whose rulers were Shi’a Nawabs of Iranian origin. Ambreen Agha highlights how the European anti-Semitic identification of Freemasons with Jews found its way into India, also expressed in a movement to liberate a historical structure in Lucknow housing a Freemasonic Lodge from that organisation’s possession, as it was believed originally to have been a Shi’a imāmbargāh. The place had to be rescued from the control of “Jews”, as the Freemasons came to be seen by the local Shi’a Muslims involved in the campaign. The effort continues. One can get here an overview of the attitudes of Lucknow’s Muslims towards Jews and read here about Lucknow’s Jewish connection. Shehnaz Haqqani presents her analysis of how Jews figure in the discourses of the popular Indian Sunni Muslim televangelist Zakir Naik. Other than the references to Jews in their religious narrative, the Muslim perceptions of Jews are also formed by their press, the Urdu press in particular. Urdu is the lingua franca of almost all South Asian Muslims, and therefore writings in Urdu play a crucial role in influencing the Muslim perception of Jews, the subject of Md. Muddassir Quamar’s article. The South Asian Muslims have a diaspora larger in size and geographically more widespread than that of Muslims from any other region of the world, giving them a great power to influence Muslim opinion globally, which they do not quite realise. For a more comprehensive view of Jewish-Muslim relations in South Asia, I would suggest reading my article on the subject in Asian Jewish Life and watching a video of a lecture of mine.

If this special issue of Café Dissensus on the theme of “Jewish-Muslim Relations in South Asia” succeeds in drawing the attention of scholars and social activists to Jewish-Muslim relations in this part of the world, largely unnoticed by them, it would serve its purpose.

Guest Editor:
Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi
is an Indo-Judaic Studies Scholar and a Muslim-Jewish Relations Activist, employed as Assistant Professor in the Department of History & Civilization, School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Gautam Buddha University, Greater NOIDA, India. He is also the Honorary Executive Director of the Youth Outreach Programme of the Society for Social Regeneration & Equity (SSRE), the only NGO in South Asia actively involved in promoting understanding between Jews and Muslims. He was the first Visiting Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations (CMJR), Woolf Institute, Cambridge, UK. He completed his fellowship tenure there in 2010. One can read more about him here and can access many of his publications at Academia.edu. He can be followed on Twitter and can be reached at Aafreedi@gmail.com

***

For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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  1. knanya1@rediffmail.com #

    A new book of scholarship – The Jewish Background of Indian People – a historical, anthropological, archaeological and etymological study of the Lost Tribes of Israel, written by Abraham Benhur, is a path-breaking investigation into the history of migrations of people in ancient times. It sheds light on the advent of Jewish refugees from Assyrian and Babylonian captivity in the north-west of India after fleeing from slavery in Media and Mesopotamia. It traces the progress of these people, characterized in the Bible as the ‘lost people’, in the mountainous recesses of Afghanistan, prospecting for blue sapphire in the Bamiyan and plying the caravan trade along the Northern Trade Route (the fabled Silk Route) with merchandise from India and China. These merchants are known to have reached as far in India as Tamralipti (Calcutta) in the east and as deep south as Pondichery in Tamilnadu and Muziris (Kodungallur) in Kerala in order to link up with the merchant ships from Rome which used to visit the Malabar coast for the spices and sandalwood.

    Benhur marshals anthropological,archaeological,and etymological evidences that have hitherto been ignored or overlooked by scholars to link the mysterious and unclaimed burial sites extant in these parts to the Lost Tribes of Israel. He is convinced that the disciples of Jesus Christ had traveled to different parts of the world to seek out the ‘lost’ people, the Bible spoke about (Mathew, 10:6). St Thomas had come to Kerala because he knew Jewish descendants of lost tribes lived in this area, from Gondophorus’ Kingdom of North West India.

    The book The Jewish Background of Indian People says that the Pathans of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the Hindu and Muslim Bhatts of northern India, the Hindu and Muslim Patels of western India, the Bhatacharyas of Bengal, the Mizos found in eastern India, Gowda Saraswats settled chiefly along the Konkan, the Iyers & Aiyankars of southern India and St. Thomas Christians (Nazrani Mappilas)of Kerala, are all descendants of the lost tribes who merged into and submersed themselves in the Indian mainstream.

    The book asserts that the earliest converts- Sankarapuri, Pakalomattam, Kalli and Kaliyankal Family members-to Christianity that St Thomas had secured were indeed members of these Jewish tribes. The author also traces the progress of four of these ‘Jewish Brahmin’ converts to Christianity who had later settled themselves in and around Kuravilangad in Kottayam district of Kerala. Their present status is traced.

    ‘The Jewish Background of Indian People’ presents a detailed account of human mobility in ancient times. The book is divided into eight parts, viz., ‘The Location of Eden’, ‘The Anthropology of the Arabs and Jews’, ‘The Lost Ten Tribes’, ‘The Jews in India’, ‘The Megalithic Dolmens’, ‘the Jews and the Brahmins of South India’, ‘The Jewish Christians of Kerala’ and the ‘Jewish Background of Indian People’.

    Part 1 is devoted to tracing the location of Eden and the Biblical version is woven around it, while the entire second part of the book deals with the anthropology of the Arabs and the Jews. This chapter traces the origin of the Arabs, the ancient Arabian kingdoms, the Hebrew tribes like the Ismaelites, Israelites, the Midianites, the Edomites and the vanished tribes of Moabites and Ammonites.

    The research-oriented contribution of the author begins with the third part of the book entitled ‘The Lost Ten Tribes’. The author traces the immigration of the Lost Tribes of Israel. He thinks that the megalithic burial monuments found in the Caucuses Mountains, Baluchistan and the Indian peninsula have port-holes which indicate Jewish authorship. This point is sought to be confirmed by the writings of the father of history, Herodotus and the Mauryan Era rock inscriptions found in Afghanistan in the Aramaic script. The fourth century BC inscriptions in Aramic and megalithic dolmens in Baluchistan go to prove significant presence of Israelites in northwest India.

    The author has tried to answer some intricate questions such as how did the builders of the Megalithic monuments come to the Indian peninsula and how far is the Jewish ethnicity correlated with the people of ancient India. According to the author, the Israelites had been the principal operators of trade along the fabled Northern Trade Route (Uthara Mahapath), in the Persian Age(BC 550-330). These Jews gradually extended their operations to the south of India along the Southern Trade Route (Dakshina Mahapath) and the Dravida Path. These Jews had connections with the Scythian immigrants (the Sathyaputras or Saka-Pahlavas) who had settled down around Chitradurga in Karnataka in 4th century BC.

    Part 5, entitled ‘Megalithic Dolmens: A Structural Study of Jewish Tombs’, is devoted to the architecture of the megalithic monuments of South India and their affinity with the burial customs and practices of the Israelites. The megalithic monuments excavated in different parts of Kerala and elsewhere have been a subject of great fascination for scholars and laymen alike. Granite chambers known as dolmens, rock-cut caves (catacombs) cap-stones, hood-stones, menhirs and terracotta urns, etc., have been excavated from different parts of the State. These are believed to be burial chambers of unknown authorship. And similar chambers have been unearthed from different parts of the earth, such as Baluchistan, Kashmir, the Caucuses Mountains, Northen Europe and the eastern board of the Mediterranean, the Nile delta and Alexandria.

    Who were the builders of these monuments? They obviously possessed vast knowledge and impressive technology to be able to build these impressive monuments. Abraham Benhur, explorer of the megaliths and author of the book, ‘The Jewish Background of Indian People’, has traveled extensively in and outside Kerala to gather data for a new investigation of this age-old mystery. He has dug into ancient records of great travelers such as Herodotus and religious texts and the Sangam literature of Tamil Nadu to come up with a theory about the ownership of these monuments. It is an entirely new theory. He says that it was the people, the Bible and other records point out as the Lost Tribes of Israel, who actually built these monuments.

    It is, indeed, a novel inquiry. Abraham Benhur sets you thinking about one of the most fascinating topics of ethnography –the Jews and their origin, the Diaspora, and the Lost Tribes. The author seeks to link St. Thomas Christians of Kerala,the Pattars (Aiyers and Aiyankars) of South India, the Pathans of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Lost Tribes and assign the authorship of the ancient megalithic age monuments found in these places to the Israelites. The author gives us an interesting account of the Jewish Kokim tombs and compares them with the features of the rock-cut caves in Kerala, and port hole cists found in south India and those found in Afghanistan and the Caucuses mountains. The comparative study is quite thought-provoking. He writes: “Since the Jews traditionally buried their dead in chambers and urns and since similar sites are extant in Israel, West Asia and wherever Jewish exiles lived, and since it is known that Jewish merchants had arrived in South India during the time of the Mauryan Empire, it is reasonable to assume that the tombs found in Kerala belonged to the Jews. The similarities in the construction of the tombs found in South India with the tombs with port-holes found in the Caucuses, North Africa and Europe compel us to reach the same conclusion.” He points out the laterite rock-cut caves of Kerala having striking similarities with the soft limestone caves found in Israel and concludes that the dolmenoid cists, rock-cut caves, burial urns, menhirs and capstones were all remnants of the Israelites who reached South India before the advent of Jesus Christ.

    Part 6 discusses the myths, legends, literature and history relating to the Jews and Brahmins in south India. In order to prove his surmises, the author has made intensive study of the cultural traits of Aryan Brahmins – the Sathyaputras and the Saka Brahmins- and the Nambuthiri Brahmin settlements in Karnataka and Kerala. The ethnic identities of the Tulu Brahmins, the Nambuthiri Brahmins and the Phallava Brahmins of Kanchipuram have been delineated with much research. The author says that these Aryan Brahmins actually had Central Asian and Persian roots. The megalithic monuments of Brahmagiri (Chitradurga), Coorg (Kodagu) and Wayanad belonged to Jews who had accompanied Chandragupta Maurya after the emperor abdicated the throne and became a pacifist Jain monk. The author argues that the characteristic burial chambers excavated from these places were of these Jewish people. He asserts that the burial chambers found in the early Christian centres of Kerala go to prove that it were the Jews whom St Thomas had converted when he arrived by sea to the trading port of Kodungallur. There were no Nambudiri settlements in Kerala at the time, and it was the Israelites who had come in pursuit of trade from north India who had been treated as Brahmins.

    Abraham Benhur’s book ‘The Jewish Background of Indian People’ is a surprise treatise on the progress of the human family that went on to populate the world after the Great Biblical Flood. It delineates the routes taken by the descendants of Noah to occupy the continents. It is the story that proves that all humans belong to one family and that the different warring races worldwide had their roots in one family. The book informs us and enlightens us about how humanity was divided into clans, communities, tribes and races. It serves to remind us of our true legacy. It points to the right direction that humanity should take.

    January 8, 2016

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