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Religious Syncretism and Jewish-Muslim Dialogue in India and Beyond

By Amit Ranjan

“It may be moon and crescent
Or it could be David’s star
The idea is Ishq, and ascent
And not the madness of war.”

The Jew-Muslim conflict is the talk of the time. It needs to be probed, however, whether it is a religious conflict or a geopolitical one. Often, in the modern world, terms are easily conflated by vested interests to fan prejudices and form alliances on some other lines than what the real issues at hand are. A direct counterpoint to the conflict mentioned above is the Jewish-Muslim relations in South Asia. Most of the Jews of South Asia are in India. They are very small in number – around five thousand – and yet there is practically no history of persecution against them by any community in the long history of India.

Despite the talk of intolerance in the current Indian political situation, the toughest cynics also agree that secularism is built into the fabric of Indian multiculturalism. The constitution that we gifted ourselves is not a historical break in pronouncing secularism, but a continuity of the long grassroots Sufi-Bhakti movement that started around 13th century. The Bhakti saints were generally from lower classes and castes and led a grassroots cultural resistance against priesthood and kingdoms by producing literature and music in local languages and enlightening the people with the idea of reaching out to god without any intermediary. They were joined by the Sufis who came from regions around Persia, and who had the exact same ideology – that the mortal’s soul is a part of the divine soul, and vice versa. They blended into each other like Ganga and Yamuna, and produced a Sangam, a confluence of syncretic cultures where spiritual upliftment was of utmost importance. This raised the commonfolk against parochial visions of the world. It is only during the British colonial rule and its ‘divide and rule’ policy that spiritual narratives were re-interpreted and appropriated to suit divisive politics. People’s culture did suffer a dent with a century of this influence, but the Sufi ethic is wired into our system and always reaffirms itself. That almost all the major world religions are present in India, without any major conflict, is a testimony of the history of syncretism of India.

Jews have a long history in India. While those in Calcutta were Baghdadi Jews, who settled there around 18th century, the Jews of Cochin pre-date the advent of Islam in India in its southern parts around 7th century. After the creation of Israel, and after the partition of India, the population of Jewish people in India was about 30,000 – and a majority of them migrated around 1950. Now, the Jewish people are concentrated in Bombay, but earlier there was a sizeable population in Calcutta as well. Interestingly, it is Muslims who are caretakers of synagogues here, and it is largely Muslim children who go to Jewish schools in Calcutta. Michael Bender, a graduate student of FIU who has done an MA dissertation on Hindu-Jewish relationship, tells that in the 2008 Bombay attacks, Muslims rallied around to help Jewish people when the Chabad house was attacked. Coming back to Sufism, there is something very little known, and very interesting – that Sarmad Kashani, one of the foremost Persian poets of India of the 17th century, was a Jew from Armenia. Bender says that Sarmad is not a lone exception, and that quite a few Jews embraced Sufism in India.

One also has to include a little Hindu discourse in here to understand the whole context of Indian syncretism. There were two Hindu-Jewish leadership summits, the first in 2007 and the second in 2008. Bender tells that the Jewish leadership appreciated the fact that stereotypes about Jews or Israel do not exist in India, as they are perpetuated in other parts of the world; and that the lack of anti-Semitism is a proof of India’s commitment to a plural society. The second summit also iterated, in its declaration that the Swastika is an ancient symbol of Hinduism, “that it was misappropriated by the Third Reich, and abused as an emblem” by it. On the other hand, there was, a few years ago, a restaurant by the name of Cross Café in Bombay, which had the Swastika symbol. Bawa Jain, the Secretary-General of The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, tells that after the initial controversy, the owner removed the symbol as a mark of respect to the Jewish people. It is interesting to note that the first Hindu-Jewish summit was also attended by Maulana Jameel Ahmad Ilyasi, President of All India Organisation of Imams of Mosques. That a Hindu-Jewish summit was attended by a leader of Indian Imams is indeed an important breakthrough in terms of an inter-faith dialogue, and would go a long way in dissipating differences. The second summit also iterated that Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, which in words of Bender, “is a huge deal because of the emphasis on this aspect in Abrahamic religions.”

The other interaction that goes on between these two groups – Jews and Muslims – takes place in the United States of America where both these groups are big diasporas and almost equal in numerical strength. Both groups roughly have a strength of five million each in the US. Jain and Bender both contend that Muslims of US are highly educated and also well integrated into the American way of life. With respect to day to day interaction, Jain contends that the communities’ interaction is amicable as is between any citizens, and he stresses that the conflict is on the geopolitical turf, and not in common people’s lives.

On the conservative side, there is the Habad or the Chabad movement, which is a Hebrew acronym for “Wisdom, Knowledge and Understanding.” The believers of this movement are concentrated at Crown Heights in Brooklyn. They are a closed community who preserve their ages-old-culture and do not interact much with other groups. Bender thinks that this must be looked at in positive light, for continuance of traditional values and old knowledge is important for any religion or community. It is because of groups like this that despite modernity we have such a surfeit and variety of food and culture in the world. An interesting aspect of the Habad is that they disapprove of the creation of the state of Israel, for they believe that it had to be created through God’s will and not through human intervention.

In terms of inter-faith dialogue, there are lots of efforts being made in the US. The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding started a “Twinning” project seven years ago to ameliorate the stereotypes and prejudices that the two communities hold about each other. Twinning organizes several events beginning first week of November every year in New York, and is followed by events worldwide. This year’s theme was “We Refuse to be Enemies.” Their 2015 press release states that “The Season of Twinning officially kicks-off on Sunday, November 1 with an Interfaith rally in Trenton, NJ, to be followed by events in Washington, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Brussels, Tel Aviv, Rabat, Morocco, and scores of other cities in nearly 20 countries around the world.” Jain tells that Jews have visited over a hundred mosques under this program. It goes beyond this, and there are specific discussion groups – for example, the Jerusalem Post reported in November 2011 that dozens of Jewish and Muslim women congregated at a synagogue to discuss women’s issues and found that the women of two communities have a lot in common.

At a more political level, there are several small and big efforts being made. For example, The Traubman family in California started the Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue in 1992, and has currently called for a national dialogue rising above war, listening to all narratives, overcoming stereotypes, seeing each other’s equal humanity, learning to be for both peoples, and helping our two great cultures prosper for the good of all.” An inter-faith dialogue in 2008 organised by Muslim World League saw the Saudi king meet with senior Jewish leaders, where they had a dialogue about the 1994 UN General Assembly Convention which had called for spreading a culture of tolerance and peace. Jain tells that recently The Times of Israel condemned the US presidential candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim statement, and hinted that such a statement is akin to fascism.

Within the US discourse, this paper veered from the specifics of the South Asian Muslims. That is because Muslim immigrants from across the world, who take up American citizenship, have a similar trajectory of preserving their religious identity as well as of assimilating into a new world. Though this article is just able to touch upon various issues because of limitations of its scope, it is fairly clear that people’s lives at the grassroots are very different from what goes on in the realm of geopolitics. Also, despite a volatile situation across the world, there are serious and earnest efforts to make it a better world. India and its time-tried ethos of pluralism are an example for the rest of the world.

Dr. Amit Ranjan 
is currently a Fulbright Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages at Florida International University and is also working on a novel set in 19th century India, a work which started at the prestigious Sangam House Writers’ Residency. As an Australia Awards Ambassador, he promotes awards instituted by the Australian government. He has been the recipient of prestigious fellowships like Endeavour and Inlaks.


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

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Thank you for this well researched, informative article!

    January 9, 2016

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