Muslim-Jewish Relations in India: A Perspective
By Nathaniel Jhirad
India is home to the world’s second largest Muslim population by country, numbering nearly [150 million]. On the other hand, India is also home to one of the world’s smallest Jewish populations, now numbering close to 5,000. While the Muslim communities of India are seen all over India, big cities and small towns, villages alike, the Jewish population of India is largely concentrated in Mumbai. Jewish presence in India was also prominent in Cochin and Calcutta as well where today it numbers only a handful.
Devout and faithful to their respective religions, Jews and Muslims in India share a common identity and loyalty as citizens of India. In my opinion, the welcoming environment that India has been able to provide those that call it ‘home’ has also provided the foundation for a society where people of different faiths can practice their beliefs and exercise the shared sense of identity, not exclusive of each other, rather inclusive. In an interview with one of my Muslim neighbours, whom we have known three generations now, he stated that, irrespective of differences on account of religious identities, we view each other as Indians first. Here lies a significant observation to be made in our personal interactions and from which I learn an important lesson. While human instinct identifies differences first, we must develop a primary instinct to first identify common ground, as Mr. Shakeel portrays.
I think my personal experiences and understanding of Jewish-Muslim relations in India has been the core to nurturing my identity of being Jewish and Indian.
The Anjuman-I-Islam school for girls in the Mumbai Central neighbourhood of Mumbai, bears the distinction of being the first ever school for Muslim girls in the city. Little do we know that the school also bears the distinction of having a Jewess as principal of the school. Mrs. Annie Samson, a resident of one of the Jewish neighbourhoods of Mumbai served as the first principal of the school between 1939 and 1966, a total period of 27 years. Beginning with a school strength of only three girls, the end of Mrs. Samson’s term saw the student count rise to 1200. This was not without her efforts including going door to door to convincing parents to send their girls to learn in school. The extent of Mrs. Samson’s term also meant that she navigated being principal of a school that shifted to an Urdu medium of instruction some time post-Independence. The versatility of Mrs. Samson’s personality and her sense of mission is certainly a milestone for us.
Post-1948, with the establishment of Israel, a number of Jews migrated to Israel. This phenomenon led to a much smaller and less self-sufficient Jewish community in India. As a result, Jewish institutions in India employ a variety of services from non-Jews, many of them Muslims.
Whenever I go to pray, I encounter Mr. Babu Bhai (Bhai means brother in English”), as he is lovingly called. Babu is always seen dressed in his large white mesh skull-cap that’s typical to many Indian Muslims. On frequent occasions, one will notice Babu hurrying with a colourful ‘Kippah’ (Jewish skull cap) in hand towards a Jewish visitor that forgot to put it on. In fact, the sense of responsibility that Mr. Babu feels when he hands over that ‘Kippah’ to a Jewish visitor is not divorced from the sense of responsibility that Mr. Babu feels when he puts on his own skull cap. Certainly, we share the common belief that a head covering is the correct way to walk into a place of sanctity.
Similarly, on my visits to the Jewish cemetery in Mumbai, be it for a funeral or a memorial service, I notice a devout Muslim gentleman comfortably dressed in a sleeveless vest and lungi sitting on the ground, engraving tombstones with names and details like date of birth and the date of passing. The details that Mr. Yassin engraves include Hebrew names and Hebrew dates, almost always in the Hebrew script as well. In both Babu and Yassin’s work, what amazes me is the pure sense of purpose felt by these people, each faithful to his own belief.
One of the things I most enjoy is having conversations around various religious observances with my Muslim friends. The conversation can be something as technical as a matter of ‘dietary law’ or festival observances, or even a matter pertaining to customs and traditions. While the initial perception we hold may be that we are different, engaging conversations actually allow us participants to come to the realisation that our lives are much more intertwined than we think they are. In essence, there is an overlapping spiritual pursuit although our paths may be different. What I see in practice in these relationships is the true attainment of what religion is meant to be. I was particularly impressed by a German Priest from a Church in the Old City of Jerusalem, when he said, “Religion can be defined as seeking G-D. The problem arises, when religion become an act of seeking identity.” It’s rather simple to understand this statement in light of events around the world, many times among people of the same faith.
My previous employer was a bearded, Muslim gentleman. He is widely travelled, and at the same time true to his faith. One year on my birthday, he rested his hand on my head as an act of blessing. Not only did he wish me for a good year ahead, but also wished that I attain the greatest heights of spirituality! This was not the result of a random birthday greeting, rather the cultivation of a relationship that led him to understand my inclination towards religion. I’ve always wished him on Bakri Eid, a day when Muslims commemorate Abraham going to sacrifice his son Ishmael at G-D’s command. The story is actually also mentioned in the Jewish bible in the Book of Genesis (chapter 22) where the narrative is a little different. According to the Jewish Bible, the sacrifice was not Ishmael, rather Isaac.
So far, Jewish-Muslim dialogue in India, at least at a personal level, has not been impugned by the situation in the Middle East. However, with the widespread access to the internet and social media, we must be more active about the sanctity of dialogue between the two groups. Credit must be given where credit is due and one must be thankful to the environment that India has nurtured to allow different minorities live in a shared space as opposed to in isolation. I hope that the past foundations created in the history of dialogue and interaction between Jews and Muslims in India continue to remain within the bounds of civility, where differences arise, and take comfort in shared identity as Indians, and ultimately common religious objectives. I pray that the awareness that Jews and Muslims are Children of Abraham will serve as a pole star of leading one another in seeking G-D, just like it has been in my personal experience.
Nathaniel Jhirad is a resident of Mumbai, and a member of its Jewish Community.
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