Culture Bypass: A New Paradigm – 3

From A’daabKhuda HafizAllah Hafiz – How cultural expressions are transformed?

By Ahmed Kamran

In Parts 1 & 2 we discussed an Indo-Persian culture that evolved in India, and how this Ganga-Jamni Tehzib responded to the collapse of Muslim political power and the rise of European powers. We have seen how the frustration of the Muslim intelligentsia gave rise to an aggressive Jihad culture and an inverse reflection led it to the pursuit of modern knowledge and secular progress. Let’s see how Indian Muslims slowly drifted towards a new path of social and political isolation.

In the face of all-round defeat and damage to the past glory of Muslims all over the world, Altaf Hussain Hali’s Mussadas was probably the first modern and powerful literary expression of harking back to the simple and no-frills life of early Islam in Arabia – implicitly blaming and rejecting the extravagance of an ornate but decadent Persianized culture of the Indian Muslim elite.

By 1870’s, the Muslim bitterness against the British reached its climax. Chief Justice of Bengal, John Paxton Norman, was stabbed to death by a Muslim on the steps of his court in 1871. The same year Viceroy Lord Mayo was assassinated in the Andaman Islands by a Deobandi Muslim convict, Sher Ali. A Persian paper of Calcutta expressed the Muslim sentiments in 1869 thus: “All sorts of employment, great and small, are being gradually snatched away from the Muhammadans.” Up to 1838, Muslims in service were almost as numerous as the Hindus and the English put together, the proportion being six Muslims to seven Hindus and Englishmen together. From 1851 the scene changed. Out of 240 Indians admitted from 1851 to 1868, 239 were Hindus, and only one was Muslim. The Muslims were particularly absent from higher professions like medicine and legal practice. In 1869, out of 104 medical licenses issued, there were 98 Hindus, 5 Englishmen and only one Muslim (Ram Gopal, 1959).

But we must not fall victim to the common fallacy of believing that the Muslims were a monolithic body and the conditions and responses of the entire Muslim community were the same. Like any other community of India, Muslims also had variance in their conditions and responses. In their frustration and anger it was the Muslim aristocratic elite that had initially opposed and stayed away from English education. Contrary to common belief, Muslim commoners practically did not show any such aversion. Apart from colleges of higher professional learning, British also opened government schools at tehsil (sub-district administrative unit) and smaller town levels to impart basic modern education. Muslim boys freely entered these Government-run schools in adequate numbers even before the Sir Syed’s movement; at times, their number proportionately exceeded that of others like Hindus. Education statistics from 1880-81 Census show 769 Hindu students and 112 Muslims in colleges in North-West Provinces (modern UP) whereas the numbers for ‘Anglo-vernacular’ middle schools were 170,478 and 32,619 respectively. The Education Commission of 1882 concluded that the number of “children under instruction to total population is larger respectively for the Muhammadan than for Hindu community.”

The issue also had a significant class and economic dimension; the poorer segments of Muslim population, who educated their children up to the high school or at best intermediate level, could not pay for higher education. They usually dropped out during or after high school. As the Muslim aristocracy, angered with this social and economic revolution completely reversing their fortunes, stayed away from English education, the proportion of Muslims in higher and professional education dropped sharply. Little wonder, when in 1878 Sir Syed tabulated the numbers there were only 30 Muslim Bachelor of Arts among a total of 1,373. The proportion of Masters (326 to 5) and Graduates of law, medicine, and engineering put together (3,155 to 57 Muslims) was even more shocking for poor Sir Syed.

Interestingly, this upper class isolation was not limited to Muslims in the North-West provinces. The Hindu landlords of the region were also way behind the Hindus of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay provinces where apparently the severity of the great rebellion of 1857 and its aftermath was much less. Similarly, the Muslims of Bombay and Gujrat (mainly coming from trading and merchant background) exhibited different responses and fared relatively well compared the Muslims of the North-West. On the other hand, Muslims of Bengal province were probably the lowest in the social and education index because of their more precarious economic situation.

Of the two organized cultural and educational efforts of the Indian Muslims in response to their general decline, both Dar al Uloom Deoband (students mainly coming from the middle and lower middle classes) and MAO College Aligarh (students mainly coming from the upper middle and upper classes) attempted to raise the general education level of the Indian Muslims. They both, in varying proportions, combined the European knowledge with religious education. Though the paths were significantly different yet the outcome of the two was not fundamentally different from each other. At the end, both led them to an extra-ordinarily heightened independent social consciousness for the Muslims. Both set of people lived aloof from the common men and remained confined to elite upper and upper middle classes of the Muslims of India. They did not reach out to the common Muslim men and women as it was not their need of the hour. Their objective was to elevate their own economic status and regain the lost social prestige for themselves. Whatever approach they made to the common men was for collecting funds and gathering support for their own cause like today’s elite periodically going out to the people seeking votes for them to reach to the legislative assemblies. During those days it was the question of seeking jobs in the colonial administration and obtaining nominations for the advisory councils and lately for the participation in the municipal and local governments.

The political and social trends that we observe among Indian Muslims of the period, however, were not unique or peculiar to the Muslim community alone. Identical trends were visible among the rest of the Hindu population as well. In fact, in their fight for the colonial spoils, there was clearly a growing trend among both Hindus and Muslims to divert the focus from essential issues and each other blaming for their respective plight and deprivations.

The turn of the 19th century is specially marked by a rapid decline and disintegration of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. With it the spoils of lands falling apart from the Ottoman Empire were divided among various European nations with open support from Great Britain. Independence of Greece was already wrested from Turkey in 1832 and the Caucasian region in the north and Central Asia was encroached in successive Russo-Turkish wars. Algeria was conquered in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881 by France; Britain directly took over Egypt as its de-facto protectorate since 1883. Crete was taken away by Greece in 1896, Morocco was snatched by France and partly by Spain in 1905, and Italy conquered Libya in 1912. With Balkan Wars in 1912, Turkey was almost completely expelled from the Europe (except for a small enclave of Adrianople across Bosphorus that was later recovered by the Turk army). Arabs in Hejaz, Palestine, and Iraq were openly seduced by the British to rebel against Turks in return for false promises. During World War 1 from 1914 to 1918 these activities for re-drawing the world map among top European powers were accelerated and with the eventual defeat of the Axis powers, including Ottoman Empire, in the war almost completely assured the dismemberment of Turkish domains. This gave rise to an acute sense of global injustice among Muslims all over the world. In spite of these countries being from different regions and speaking different languages the common bond was that of all of them being Muslim nations. Indian Muslims being the largest and most politically active group, and already experiencing the brunt of the British colonial subjugation, were the most restless.

This gloomy international picture led Indian Muslims to Khilafat Movement in protest against Turkey’s dismemberment and a general quest for finding solutions of their common ills with a new global perspective. Pam-Islamism of Jamaluddin Afghani, Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi of Deoband (in fact, a Sikh convert from Punjab) and the drift of Allama Iqbal (from Sare jahan se acha Hindustan Hamara and singing songs for Himalya to Ek hon Muslim Haram ki pasbani ke liye / Neel ke Sahil se Lekar Ta ba Khak-i Kashgar) emanated from this exclusive Muslim consciousness under distress. Extra-ordinary attention was drawn and efforts were made to identify Indian Muslims’ old links with Turkish and Arab lands in the past. Fatwas were yet again revived declaring India a Dar al Harb and some twenty thousand Muslims in large bands were induced to emigrate to Afghanistan as Dar al Islam. An Indian Muslim published a weekly paper Jahan-i-Islam (Muslim World) from Constantinople with articles in Turkish, Arabic and Urdu to influence Muslims in Arab lands, India and Central Asia advocating a global Jihad against British and European powers. Sultan of Turkey’s name was included in the Juma prayer Khutbas in India. Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Maulana Muhammad Ali and Maulana Shoukat Ali in India were interned on charges of treason for speaking in favour of Turkey. The Comrade and Hmadard’s press was confiscated. Powerfully agitated, a group of students from Lahore – eight from Government College, four from King Edward Medical College, and one each from Aitchison and Islamia Colleges – joined and fled to Kabul in February 1915 to participate in Jihad on the side of Turkey. Once again a Jihad Camp was set up in the Pukhtun tribal areas.  A Provisional Government of Independent India was set up at Kabul with Raja Mehender Partap Singh (President), Barkatullah (Prime Minister), and Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi (Foreign Minister) as key leaders. Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi in his enthusiasm for an independent united multi-national India even went to the extent of subscribing to the proposal of Muslims abandoning the Arabic script in favour of a common Latin script for Indian languages. He even traveled to Moscow to seek support from Russia’s V.I. Lenin and his Bolshevik revolutionary party for the independence of India. This was the time when Maulana Mahmudul Hasan, principal of Deoband, planning for a global Jihad, himself went to Arabia and sent Ubaidullah Sindhi to Afghanistan. He was later arrested by Sharif of Mecca from Jeddah and was handed over to British police in Palestine when Sharif rebelled against Turks at the behest of famous British agent ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. On account of some of these peoples’ secret plans communicated through letters written on yellow silk cloth pieces, this movement also came to be known as Reshmi Rumaal Tehrik (Movement of Silk Handkerchief).

Starting from the great rebellion of 1857 to vigorous Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Civil movements were a series of national efforts that were jointly conducted by Hindus and Muslims of India. The perspective and motives of two communities might be partly different but apparently their ultimate goals and larger objectives were the same – freedom from the colonial rulers. The failure of the Khilafat Movement and the abrupt calling off of the Civil Disobedience Movement by the Congress leaders – after violent incidents of Chuara Chauri in Gorakhpur, UP in 1920 and Moplah Rebellion in Kerala in 1921 – were the most significant turning points in the political and social history of India. The honeymoon of Hindu and Muslim politicians during a common national struggle came to an abrupt end.

From here the great drift of the Indian Muslims started on a path leading towards social and political isolation from the mainstream, with both pull and push forces simultaneously working in this direction. In the backdrop of a series of political events taking place in the 1920’s and 1930’s ignoring Muslim sensibilities at a critical moment in their political life and harassed by aggressive Hindu religious movements like Shuddhi and Sanghtan, the Muslim’s perspective, particularly in the Muslim minority areas of India was getting seriously narrowed down to a communal identity and a separatist perspective. The Muslims of India faced a gloomy political situation where apparently options visible to them were extremely limited and their leaders were not willing to take visionary perspectives and bold positions.

Initially, this separatist tendency was limited to seeking special quotas and constitutional guarantees for adequate power sharing for Muslims in a larger Indian framework. The Muslim League’s leadership by now was in the hands of essentially non-religious individuals steeped in secular ideas of English parliamentary system. This was the time when Muhammed Ali Jinnah, then the most outstanding Muslim leader at the all-India level was engaged for his Herculean efforts to cleanse and revitalize the stables of the Muslim League. He insisted in 1935 that the Muslim community “as an entity wants safeguards. Surely, therefore, we must face this question as a political problem’” For him, clearly the issue was not yet that of ‘Islam in danger’. He was showing his willingness to “forget the Communal Award and to apply our mind to larger questions affecting India” (Bombay Chronicle, 3 April, 1936).

In terms of popular politics, the Muslim League at that time had an extremely narrow and limited support base confined to the Muslim elite in the urban centres of Muslim minority provinces of India like UP, Behar, Madras, and Bombay. Out of 144 resolutions passed by Muslim League during 1924-26 only 7 touched upon social and economic problems and its Council decisions were taken by an extreme minority quorum of 10 out of 310. Punjab’s powerful Unionist leader Sir Fazli Hussain almost snubbed him, advising to “keep his finger out of the Punjab’s pie.” No wonder, Muslim League suffered a crushing defeat in 1937 elections, more particularly in Muslim majority provinces. It secured 43 out of 272 Muslim seats, obtaining only 4.8 per cent Muslim votes. Muslim League won 37 out of 117 seats allotted to Muslims in Bengal and that was its best performance; it won only 3 seats out of 33 in Sindh; and, it chose to contest only 7 seats out of 84 Muslim seats in Punjab but barely managed to win 2.

At this point a seemingly unimportant event took place in Bundelkhand, CP, that, in fact, heralded a significant change in the Muslim politics in India. In June 1937 a by-election was held on Jhansi-Hamirpur seat due to a Muslim League member’s death. The Indian National Congress fielded a Muslim candidate, Nisar Sherwani, and backed him by a strong electoral campaign to wrest the seat from an already beleaguered Muslim League. Muslim League put up a fight with its back on the wall. Syed Wazir Hasan (father of Syed Sajjad Zaheer), President of the last Muslim League session in April 1936, appealed to the Muslims to join the struggle led by the Congress. On the eve of by-election, two Vice Presidents of Jhansi Muslim League resigned their posts and advised Muslims not to support the League’s candidate, Rafiuddin. At this turning point Maulana Shaukat Ali raised the famous cry of ‘Islam in danger’ for the first time, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah issued his first openly communal statement published on 30 June 1937 in Urdu paper Khilafat appealing Muslims to “unite in the name of God and his prophet” for saving the “Shariat Islami, special rights of Mussalmans and their culture and their language.” Though Jinnah later denied the authorship of the statement but, significantly, he never condemned the clever exploitation of religious sentiments for political ends. The Muslim League candidate, Rafiuddin, finally emerged victorious by a big margin.

Meanwhile, the side attempts of Muslim League leaders Nawab Ismail Khan and Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman at building collaboration between Muslim League and Congress on the condition of including them as ministers in the future cabinet were spurned by the Congress leaders including Nehru, G.B. Pant, Rafi Kidwai, and Abul Kalam Azad.

An astute political analyst and keen observer as he was Mohammed Ali Jinnah soon realized that the narrow electoral support base would not help Muslim League at all to be an effective political force on the Indian political stage. All along his political career, Jinnah had always stood for secular political ideals and had opposed the Gandhian tendency of mixing religious ideas into national politics. But it was quite obvious that without winning a mass support in the Muslim majority areas, Muslim League could not build the required ‘power’ and ‘strength’. Jinnah, over time, took a full 180-degree turn; he apparently made a tactical compromise with the traditional Islamic forces of Ulema, Mashaikh, and Peers holding immense influence over the Muslim masses in rural hinterlands of Punjab, Bengal, the NWFP, and Sindh whom he had always despised. At times, he had even publicly opposed them. Coming from an urban and different social background, he had clearly seen that in terms of electoral politics Indian Congress was not willing to give him space and his public expressions of secular ideals were not going to take him anywhere near his cherished yet still secular goal of a ‘Muslim majority state’ within or without India.

Without leveraging the religious sentiments of the mass of the population the dream of Pakistan was apparently never to come true. This was like changing the ‘means’ for achieving the ‘objective’. From 1940 onwards, we witness a subtle change in the public dressing, demeanor, and religious idiom of Jinnah’s public addresses. Muslim League’s apparatus more openly geared itself to unleash a genie of Ulema, Mashaikh, and Peers fanning out in the rural Punjab, NWFP, and Bengal gathering mass support for Pakistan. The effectiveness of the new clever ‘means’ was undoubtedly astounding. The momentum gathered in the rural hinterland of Muslim majority areas was more than apparent in the landslide victory of the Muslim League in Muslim-majority provinces only eight years later in the 1945 elections. This was a sea change – a great turning point for the Muslims of South Asia. It was the beginning of a journey that eventually put them on a track away from their own cultural heritage. In the upcoming parts we will examine the course of this drift and the significance of its drivers.

To be continued in Part 4


  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:40h, 10 September Reply

    In the backdrop of a series of political events taking place in the 1920’s and 1930’s ignoring Muslim sensibilities at a critical moment in their political life and harassed by aggressive Hindu religious movements like Shuddhi and Sanghtan, the Muslim’s perspective, particularly in the Muslim minority areas of India was getting seriously narrowed down to a communal identity and a separatist perspective

    What political events? What muslim sensibilities? I’d like to see some details on this.

    Very informative post, I must say.

    • Kamran
      Posted at 11:03h, 12 September

      Vinod: As we have seen in the main article above, the Khilafat movement combined with the Civil Disobedience movement was the highest water mark of Hindu-Muslim unity for a common cause. But shortly after an abrupt halt to the Civil Disobedience movement by Gandhi in 1922, there were multiple series of Hindu-Muslim riots, erupting almost every year in major cities and smaller towns all across India, from Bengal to NWFP and from Bombay to UP. In the backdrop of these gruesome riots on religious fault lines involving plunder, rape and killing of both Hindus and Muslims, certain actions or in-actions helped increase the widening gulf between two religious communities:

      1. A shamefully hollow and thoroughly reactionary Muslim sentiment with wailing emotions for the crumbling Turkish caliphate was unscrupulously aided and abetted by the Congress leaders to channelize it in an anti-British movement. Later, during emotionally charged hostile environment of religious riots, Muslims were openly accused by right wing Hindu leaders of conspiring to form a pan-Islamic front and invade India with the help of the Turkish Sultan and the Amir of Afghanistan. The absolutely beleaguered position and shameful impotence of both the Turkish Caliph and the Afghan Amir was obvious to any sensible person having a little knowledge of the world affairs. Yet the practical joke of the bogey of Muslim invasion on India was, unfortunately, not countered well to save the Hindu-Muslim unity by those who were in a strong position to do that at that time.

      2. It could be argued that the sudden rise of Hindu nationalism and finding of their own heroes and cultural symbols in response to an equally aggressive and heightened Muslim consciousness was somewhat natural and expected in large measure. But coming to fore of the extremist organizations like Rashtrya Svem Seva Singh (RSS), Hindu Mahasaba, and Arya Samaj, together with Shuddhi and Snghatan movements openly advocating forcible conversion of Muslims back into the fold of Hinduism went a bit far. As a tit for tat a practical demonstration of forcible Shuddhi (reconversion) was demonstrated on Malkana Muslim Rajputs living in western UP and eastern Rajputana. Influential leaders like Lajpat Rai, Har Dyal, Swami Shardhanand, Dyanand Sarswati, and Dr. Moonje forcefully advocated Spain-like full conversion or expulsion of Muslims from India. Arguably, these were more of emotional rhetoric than a practical solution, but unabated rhetoric made a significant impact on setting the backdrop for political decision making process of the two communities. Similar to the genie of Muslim extremist fundamentalist that later has continued to plague the Muslim politics in Pakistan, the equally ugly genie of Hinduvta that was at that time allowed to come out of the bottle is still haunting the Indian politics.

      3. Knowing full well the implications for the Muslim’s participation in a common national struggle and in total disregard of Muslim religious sensibilities, Congress insisted on adopting the then controversial national anthem Vande Matram in preference to few other non controversial but equally powerful songs suggested for the purpose. Having a serious anti-Muslim and Hindu religious undertones unacceptable to Muslim faith, it was obvious that Muslims would have strong reservation about this anthem.

      4. In response to a challenge thrown by Lord Birkenhead, the British Secretary of State for India, that those Indian leaders criticizing British policy recommendations themselves are unable to produce a workable constitutional framework, an All Parties Conference met in Delhi in February 1928 and later in Bombay in May 1928. The Conference appointed a Committee for recommending the principles on which the future constitution of India should be based and Motilal Nehru was appointed the Chairman of the Committee. Majority of Muslim leaders at that time in their own interest wanted to retain the principle of separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims against the stated policy of Congress for reversion to the principle of joint electorate. However, M.A. Jinnah got his proposals approved by a majority of the Muslim leado ers for conceding the principal of separate electorate provided Muslims are provided with certain safeguards and assurances. On this issue a faction of Muslim League under Sir Mohammd Shafi in Punjab was also separated from M.A. Jinnah (referred to above in the main article). However, at this critical juncture, the Nehru Committee chose to completely ignore the Muslim demands. Muslims publicly dissociated themselves from the Nehru Committee recommendations and a joint recommendation on behalf of all Indian people could not be made. Another opportunity was willfully lost. As W.C. Smith had put it: ‘the Congress refused to placate the Muslim separatists at a time when their demands were moderate’.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:31h, 13 September

      Kamran, thanks

  • Nudrat Alvi
    Posted at 11:44h, 10 September Reply

    Brilliant and in depth account of history of cultural drift in sub continent.
    However, need clarification on incidents mentioned in the following lines, how were these incidents significant turning points?

    “the abrupt calling off of the Civil Disobedience Movement by the Congress leaders – after violent incidents of Chuara Chauri in Gorakhpur, UP in 1920 and Moplah Rebellion in Kerala in 1921 – were the most significant turning points in the political and social history of India.

    • Kamran
      Posted at 11:04h, 12 September

      These are references to two oft-quoted but little known events in the history of the freedom movement of India, which had a combined effect of resulting in an abrupt halt by its leaders to the highly energetic and popular Civil Disobedience movement of 1920’s.

      Moplah Rebellion is the name given to the peasant uprising of Moplahs (actually, Mapillah in Malyalam but corrupted to Moplah by English pronunciation), the descendents of Muslim Arab traders settled on the Malabar Coast during 7th century. The Moplahs were peasants to rich Hindu landlords for centuries and had been agitating for many years for better economic deal. There had been many smaller uprisings in the past decades. With the Khilafat movement in rage and a general mood of disobedience and defiance to authority prevailing in the country, thousands of Moplahs rose in rebellion against British authority in July 1921, fighting pitched battles. With a strong economic undercurrent in the rebellion, the Moplah peasants also attacked Neelumbar and Nmaoodri Hindu landlords; many Hindu families took flight in haste and many were killed while others were forcibly converted to Islamic faith. W.C. smith says in his ‘Modern Islam in India’: ‘The Moplas were bitter; bitterly anti-Hindu, bitterly anti-British, bitter against the world that gave them only misery’. This rebellion had the frightening potential of spreading fast to other strong peasant areas. Finally, when a brutal military action was undertaken by the British to crush the rebellion over 2,600 Moplahs were killed, and another 66 died of suffocation in a sealed goods train packed for transporting Moplah prisoners in hot Sun from Kalicut in Malabar to Madras for Court Martial.

      Only about six months later another revolutionary violent spark was to powerfully shake the colonial administration.

      Chaura Chauri is a village in Gorkhpur district in UP. During the hey-days of Khilafat Movement, The Indian National Congress had given a call for Non-Cooperation movement and the sentiments of Hindu-Muslim unity were at their peak. The undercurrent of economic emancipation in Congress’ call in 1921 for stopping the payment of Government dues had electrified the poor people of India. The mass movement was gaining extra–ordinary momentum when a procession was taken out in Chaura Chauri on 5 February, 1922 in defiance of government ban on public agitation. The procession was fired upon but it still defied government authority and chased the police contingent. Police constables took refuge in the village police station where they were locked up by the mob and the police station was set on fire. 21 policemen died of this public violence. This was a clear demonstration of a militant revolutionary fervor at grassroots level that heralded a rising storm.

      These incidents and the revolutionary fervor were too hot to handle for both Congress and Muslim League leaders. Gandhi immediately ordered to call off the Civil Disobedience movement to a great disappointment of the common men in India.

  • Shaheryar Ali
    Posted at 20:20h, 14 September Reply

    its great to read an in depth neutral analysis of Muslim indo pak history.

  • Nudrat Alvi
    Posted at 08:40h, 15 September Reply

    Kamran, Thanks for explaining. It is indeed interesting to know how such a potent common movement was suppressed by their own leaders because of their inability to drive it to a logical conclusion.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:46h, 15 September Reply


    I have only now read this third piece in your series. Thanks for an excellent and very rich account. Certain questions come to mind:

    1. Why is it that neither the Hindus nor the Muslims or their respective leaders were able to reach back into their secular dimensions to form dissent? As I wrote elsewhere, the Arab Muslims had a very rich background in the sciences – astronomy, algebra, architecture etc. Likewise, the Hindus also had a rich background in these very areas. Why is it that they were unable to draw upon more scientific thinking and resorted more to religious thinking?

    2. Why, in your opinion, did there not arise figures like Bacon and Descartes and Hobbes and Locke in the Muslim and Hindu world? These are the figures that made the Enlightenment possible in the West in the 18th century; why did something like it not occur in India and the larger Muslim world?

    3. To my mind, the key difference in the evolution of the West is that Christianity was a dynamic and evolving force leading to the Protestant Reformation and later many offshoots and counter movements but all with a great dynamism. Why in your opinion did such things not happen in the Hindu and Muslim world? Elsewhere on this blog there is a link to an article by Mark Lilla, who now describes these Western movements as exceptions to the general rule whereas earlier historians felt that all cultures would follow this route.

    • Kamran
      Posted at 12:31h, 18 September


      Sorry for late response. The delay was partly because I was busy in other professional engagements, and partly because I felt some of the questions were addressed in part-4.

      My initial thoughts are as follows:

      1. As I’ve already discussed in part-4, to me most of both Muslim and Hindu leaders involved were really not interested in a tolerant and inclusive version of Islam or of a liberal freedom struggle. Their narrow but hardboiled interests were dictating them otherwise. The few leaders having more liberal orientations in their personal outlook apparently were content to remain in the illusion that after having the immediate political objective achieved they might be able to reverse the trend. The genies coming out of the bottle never go back.

      As far as your comments about both Arab Muslims and Hindus having rich background in sciences – astronomy, algebra, architecture etc. and none were able to reach back into their secular dimensions to form effective dissent is concerned, the very theme of my series of articles is an humble attempt at highlighting how, and the factors and the circumstances leading to, the failure of Muslim’s in coming up with a secular response. When reactionary, intolerant and anti-knowledge forces somehow prevail in a society (for whatever reasons) its traditions of tolerance and enlightenment are lost for a long time. This is true for all societies in history. When Spain was won over by reactionary Christian forces holding Inquisitions, the glorious past of Muslim and Jewish scientist, astronomers and scholars was lost for over 500 years. When the Brahmin reactionary right triumphed over the one the world’s most amazing knowledge culture in India and the plurality of ideas was crushed by Shankar Acharya’s restructuring of Hindu thought system, it ahs not been able to fully recover from the shock even after 1200 years. Similar has been the fate of the great Muslim civilization that has not been able to recover from its steep fall in the last about 1000 years.

      2. It is not correct to assume that Hindus and the Muslims have not produced their Bacons, Descartes, and Hobbes. I think both these civilizations could be rightly proud of a fairly impressive share of their own intellectual heroes. Indian has produced an amazing amount of world class intellectual treatises on all academic subjects; they laid the foundations of today’s modern knowledge of Mathematics, political science, astronomy, and many other knowledge disciplines. Similarly, Muslims greatly benefited from the rich heritage of India, Greece, and Egypt through extensive translations done in Arabic and had taken this knowledge base to newer heights, in turn producing their own Avicenas, Alhazens, Jabir Hayans, Khawarzmis, Ibn Rushds’ and Farabis.

      European enlightenment was built over the ruins of glorious Indian and Muslim heritage that we ourselves destroyed in our internal strifes.

      3. It would be misleading to assume that Europe built reformation and Renaissance because of any inherent vitality of the Christian faith leading to the Protestant liberalism. I don’t think so. On the contrary, it was made possible only when they broke the shackles and the intellectual straitjacket of the Christian Church. The European reformation and the renaissance was produced in reaction/response to the Europe’s enlightening interaction with a vastly superior intellectual Muslim civilization during Crusades and for about 100 years of reign of a Christian kingdom later established in Palestine. This transfer of knowledge was mostly through close contacts of elite denominations like Knight Templers. Little wonder that soon after the crusades and the establishment of Christian kingdom in the lands occupied by present day Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon. Little wonder, soon after this interaction, we see a spectacular introduction of ornate architecture, painted ceilings, stain glasses, arches, and baroque masonry in the construction of churches and monasteries in Europe compared to an almost ugly, rectangular box like stone structures practically without windows and external or internal design features. Most of these structures, fortresses, churches and monasteries were built and financed by Knight Templers. Where from this sudden spread of the knowledge of architecture and other knowledge disciplines had come?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:54h, 19 September

      Arun: Both Vinod and Kamran have responded to your questions and I would like to join the conversation as well but I would like to reverse the order of the questions.

      I believe there was a great irony in the evolution of the West. It was not that Christianity was a dynamic and evolving force. Rather Roman Christianity had become so degenerate, corrupt, oppressive, and politicized that it invited a revolt. And the internecine brutality that followed gave rise to a general exhaustion with religion, an intellectual movement against it, an appreciation of tolerance, and a separation of church and state.

      The foundation for progress was laid by this acceptance of tolerance and the separation of church and state. The trigger for the subsequent dynamism is also suffused with irony. It was the extreme fragmentation of Europe that gave rise to intense competition that was the spur for innovation. By contrast both India and China were large empires where such competition was absent and where the monarch could set the course in accordance with perceived needs of order and continuity.

      It was the ferment and competition in Europe that created the need to search for ideas that worked and this involved reaching back into its heritage via the material that had been preserved by the Arabs.

      Mark Lilla is right in arguing that the Western evolution was an exception. The 17th century in Europe was indeed a unique time and its main characteristics are very well summarized by Ian Johnston as background to the Hobbesian revolution – I had linked this earlier as well:

      These three major features of seventeenth-century life (the collapse of religious uniformity throughout Europe, the growth of capitalistic opportunities and the new wealth, and the accelerating changes in the population) encouraged what was to turn out to be one of the most important of Europe’s new features: the invention of tolerance.

      The fragmentation and competition in Europe and its consequences are described well in the early sections of Fareed Zakaria’s book The Future of Freedom. See in particular the section ‘The Geography of Freedom’ beginning on Page 35. Both the prior domination of the Church and the later dynamism of growth were the functions of the peculiar geography of Europe.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 09:42h, 16 September Reply

    1. Why is it that neither the Hindus nor the Muslims or their respective leaders were able to reach back into their secular dimensions to form dissent?

    I think the reason is that at the core, hindu and muslim identities are religious and exclusivist and not secular and inclusivist. Secularism is made when times are good and comfortable and when there are no pressures of survival. But when cornered to a wall, the real religious identities are the only saving grace for dignity of a person. Secularism flourishes only in abundance while religion thrives when survival is at stake.

    2. Why, in your opinion, did there not arise figures like Bacon and Descartes and Hobbes and Locke in the Muslim and Hindu world? These are the figures that made the Enlightenment possible in the West in the 18th century; why did something like it not occur in India and the larger Muslim world?

    The Enlightement stood on the shoulders of colonial plunder and the consequent abundance. I reckon that luxury was not available to indians, both hindus and muslims.

    3. The key difference in the evolution of the West is that Christianity was a dynamic and evolving force leading to the Protestant Reformation and later many offshoots and counter movements but all with a great dynamism. Why in your opinion did such things not happen in the Hindu and Muslim world?

    Christianity was ossified for many centuries. The question is what brought about the dynamism in the late 14th century onward? There is an argument to be made that it came from the intellectual advancements of the muslim world. The Enlightenment should be seen as nothing more than the peaking of European civilization, the last one to do so.

    • Kamran
      Posted at 15:04h, 18 September


      In my view, the success in revival, reinvigoration and a complete transformation of society to a position of enlightenment and advancement of learning is not peculiar to the western society, nor the failure in transforming the society from, or falling into, an inert or closed position is peculiar to the Indian or Muslim society. Almost all major civilization of the world i.e. Indian, Chinese, Muslim, and European have experienced both the rise to the top and fall to the bottom in different time frames in their life cycles. Europe’s rise to the top for the last about 500 years is the most recent one. India rose to the top during Chandargupt period and saw its last glory during the time of Harshwardhan before it fell to the bottom to be conquered by the rising and more vigorous Muslims.

      Chinese also independently rose to the pinnacle of the knowledge and technology and worldly expansion till Ming empire before it chose to close itself and turn its back to the rest of the world till a sudden rebirth very recently in 1949. now again they are on the rising curve.

      I’ve already discussed in the present series how Arab Muslims burst out from a desolate and desert environment (similar to the rise of Mongols’ outburst from the steppes of Turkistan, a liittle later) and fusing with another ancient culture of Persia rose to the envious heights of worldly gains together with reaching to the heights of knowledge and sciences, but eventually paving the way for the Europeans to take the baton from them.

      The proclivity to rise is not inherently embedded in any particular civilization. To me, the human civilizations are also like self-generating organic bodies, having the capacity to develop and grow or to self-destruct themselves.

      The real issue is to identify the measures that help self-build or self-destruct a particular civilization at a particular time and space.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 03:42h, 20 September

      Kamran, I actually agree with you that revival is not peculiar to western culture although it came across that way in my comment to which you responded.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:14h, 20 September

      I want to highlight something from the ‘On Hobbes’ lecture that SA linked us all to. The link is
      The portion I want to highlight is –

      It’s probably fair to say that people are not by nature tolerant or, if they are, they can be quickly turned into very intolerant creatures. And one feature of the traditional community is that it is a recipe for intolerance: it has little room for outsiders or the importation of different lifestyles. Where traditional structures, beliefs, and ways of living have held sway for a long time, innovation is not welcome.

      But if religious differences of opinion became an unavoidable fact of life and if, after 150 years of inconclusive but very bloody slaughter, people began to realize that they wanted to end the warfare, and if, in addition, there was a lot of money to be made if people could set aside their religious differences and cooperate in profitable speculative ventures, then tolerance became, however unwelcome in some quarters, necessary. Tolerance, in a word, was good for business and necessary for civil peace. The constant invasion of the community by strangers simply increased the need.

      This is what I was trying to get at when I said earlier –

      I think the reason is that at the core, hindu and muslim identities are religious and exclusivist and not secular and inclusivist. Secularism is made when times are good and comfortable and when there are no pressures of survival. But when cornered to a wall, the real religious identities are the only saving grace for dignity of a person. Secularism flourishes only in abundance while religion thrives when survival is at stake.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:54h, 20 September

      Vinod: The real issue is one of causality. If times were good and comfortable, there would be little need to curb all the instincts that secularism demands. What I get from reading the article on Hobbes is that things had to get really bad before European society could get around to being tolerant. And there has been quite a revival of religion in the US lately. It is hard to figure out whose survival is at stake there.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:04h, 21 September

      SA, to start from fundamentals – a human being’s fundamental instinct is one of self preservation and self advancement. If these purposes can be better met in pairing with like minded people who share common narratives of who they are and where they come from, regardless of the truth of these narratives, then human beings will necessarily do so. Groups more often than not provide better chances of meeting these objectives. Religion and beliefs provides the necessarily glue in the form of shared stories and myths to form groups. The necessary consequence of forming groups is to define oneself and ‘the other’. Such grouping is most effective when the beliefs of one’s own group are clearly claimed to be superior to others’. Intolerance of the other helps to a significant extent here, especially so in conditions where the individual simply cannot walk away and create his own life. The individual’s well being lies in belonging to the group and professing belief in the shared belief system and participating in struggles to convert this belief into reality.
      In contrast, where there is abundance of opportunity for the individual to walk away from the group and make a decent life for himself, it is possible to preach tolerance and secularism. The abundance of opportunities ensures that there is no real causal link between belonging to intolerant groups and doing well in life. Tolerance flourishes in such contexts. Tolerance is a virtue and like all virtues is demanding on character and easy to follow in conditions of ease and comfort.

      On the rise of religion in US, it is hard to say to what extent US has become intolerantly religious. We don’t have a clear feel for it. The US is nowhere near Saudi Arabia in religiosity. The current revival of religious sensibilities may not have such force as to be considered a challenge to the above hypothesis. It may be a result of the limited dogmatism of intolerant forces of human nature that prevails at all times regardless of circumstances, simply by virtue of being part of human nature, and which does raise its ugly head every now and then seeking to draw power towards itself.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:49h, 21 September

      Vinod: This is a plausible hypothesis but if you read the article on Hobbes, this is not the path that was followed in the emergence of secularism in Europe. Secularism did not follow abundance; rather it preceded it. The evidence on that is fairly clear.

      If one takes Saudi Arabia as the extreme of religiosity, whose survival is at stake there? There could not be a greater instance of abundance. Yet, secularism and tolerance have not ensued.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 01:43h, 22 September

      SA, I may need to tweak my hypothesis further.

      Abundance need not be a reality. It is sufficient that the possibility of abundance or opportunities without the group support be real. That is when secularism thrives. Although Europe had not yet become rich, it was fast getting there. The initial stages of colonialism were already bringing in goods and creating a rich merchant class. Everyone could see that if they take a little bit of risk in travelling on the seas they too could get rich.

      On Saudi Arabia, it’s richness is a relatively recent phenomenon. If this abundance could last for a longer time, then there is a chance that secularism takes root there. Having said that, I am aware of the weakness in the causal connection in that. There is no singular causal connection between the two. I’m beginning to see that there may be more factors than mere abundance involved for secularism to take root. For one, Saudi has not suffered the internecine warfare that Europe had going on. Secularism does not seem like a much-needed alternative in Saudi yet. I suppose that although abundance is a prerequisite for secularism it is not sufficient. There has to be more. Do you see a problem in this last statement?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:30h, 22 September

      Vinod: I am not yet convinced that abundance is a prerequisite for secularism (we would be more accurate if we use the term tolerance instead). Abundance is certainly not a sufficient condition for tolerance; it may not even be a necessary condition.

      The riches that started coming in with colonialism were accompanied by incredible displays of intolerance in the colonies. American Indians were at the wrong end of intolerance in a continent rolling in abundance. The two world wars, examples of extreme intolerance, were waged by societies marked by abundance.

      What we should be discussing is whether tolerance is a necessary condition for abundance? If so, tolerance by whom and for whom?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:35h, 24 September

      SA, I’m arguing that abundance is a prerequisite for secular tolerance. It does not necessarily cause tolerance to spring. That takes care of intolerance in India and US despite the abundance. Unless you can give me an example of religious tolerance showing itself in conditions of poverty or limited resources/opportunities my argument stands.

      Tolerance is not a necessary condition for abundance. Your own example of the US demonstrates that. An intolerant society can be quite rich.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 10:03h, 24 September

      I realize that what I’m saying is not very useful. I haven’t given a factor that will help realize tolerance in a society or prevent intolerance. Secondly, I doubt whether what I’ve hypothesized can be established through historical evidence either. It is based on an intuitive idea about human nature – the assumption that tolerance is a higher level value that rests on the basic level need for survival; survival being the fundamental instinct driving group beaviour. Where group adhesion is necessary for basic survival and where there is competition for resources from competing groups, tolerance gets compromised.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:31h, 24 September

      Vinod: Survival is a good place to start building an argument. I feel where the hypothesis goes astray is in positing that survival and tolerance are antithetical. It could be argued that survival in difficult circumstances requires a great deal of within group tolerance – there is nothing one can achieve without the help and goodwill of one’s group members and one has to cooperate whether one likes them or not. Ironically, it is often when one becomes independent and self-sufficient that conflicts begin. When you have nothing, what is there to fight over?

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:53h, 27 September

      It could be argued that survival in difficult circumstances requires a great deal of within group tolerance –

      This would be a good place to see how often societies/groups have done that. Jared Diamond’s book on ‘How Civilizations choose to succeed or fail’ goes exactly to that point. The evidence points to both ways – your hypothesis and mine. 🙂

    • Vinod
      Posted at 09:03h, 27 September

      It later occurred, Diamond’s book may not be that helpful. He did not focus on intra-group tolerance. We may be on our own here.

      But there is one thing that is common to Diamond’s investigation on the choices that societies make regarding survival and what is being discussed here. Something happens to some societies whereby they start to suddenly recognize that it is not in their larger group interests to contiue to be intolerant. They suddenly mend their ways. Why doesn’t this happen to happen to all societies that are reaching an existential crisis? I don’t know. All I know now is that the instincts can go either way – the enlghtened way of the survival of the group as a whole or the narrow way of survival of insidividuals at the cost of the destruction of the group.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:00h, 27 September

      Vinod: I think Diamond explains this fairly clearly in Chapter 14 (Why do some societies make disastrous decisions?). He has the following to say about the “failures of group decision-making on the part of whole societies or other groups”:

      I will divide the factors into a fuzzily delineated sequence of four categories. First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Second, when the problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it. Then, after they perceive it, they may fail even to try to solve it. Finally, they may try to solve it but may not succeed.

      In my view, Pakistani civil society will get around trying to save Pakistan when it is too late. To Diamond’s factors we have to add what we mentioned earlier about the Taliban – they don’t really care if Pakistan survives or not.

      Thanks for recommending this book (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) about two years back. I had it in my library and could quickly refresh my memory.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 06:18h, 21 September

      Doesn’t the above just provide an interesting hypothesis to the beliefs that hold sway in man. If the above is true, then one may simply say that man learns to select from his beliefs, both tolerant and intolerant ones, depending on the conditions around him. This connects to the other post in the comments of which we are discussing how beliefs and context interact with each other.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:58h, 21 September

      Vinod: This is the premise of this series. Religions contain all sorts of messages. Why is that different strands get emphasized at different times? Clearly this is a function of politics which is another name for the external context. And this should also suggest that beliefs do not dominate material interests; material interests dominate beliefs. Religion has forever been the handmaiden to politics.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 02:12h, 22 September

      SA, What I’m trying to get at is whether the lack of abundance/opportunities in an impoverished indian subcontinent could have been an insurmountable roadblock to secularism or tolerant Islam and Hinduism even if the politics did not become communal.

      Politics itself has many messages in it, from the communal to the tolerant and enlightened. The question is why some political messages resonate with the masses and why some do not. I think it has to do with the instinctive assessment on the possibility of a viable future through each of these messages. That is why understanding the general instinct of human beings can help here. Second question, the Nussbaum premise, is whether these instincts can be trained and checked through education in a proactive way.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:41h, 22 September

      Vinod: When Europeans first started coming to India, they were dazzled by its riches and the relative grandeur and opulence of its cities. The name Golconda has taken on the generic meaning of great wealth. Till the arrival of the Europeans the Indian economy accounted for a quarter of global wealth (the Chinese economy accounted for another quarter). All this abundance did not do much for tolerance in India. And if it did, it took very little time for it to disappear.

      Almost everyone recognizes that great opportunities for prosperity and wealth creation in the subcontinent would open up if we were capable of little more tolerance. Yet, people derive much more psychic satisfaction from vituperation than from the prospects of abundance. We have to deal with the frailties of human nature that do not conform much to rational calculations of mutual gain. We can hope that the faculty of critical thinking might help us out of this quagmire and it is to that faint hope that this blog is dedicated.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 00:41h, 18 September Reply


    I am disappointed that you chose not to respond to the questions I raised. I hope you have not misunderstood them or misunderstood their intent. These are genuine puzzles in my mind. For example, Tariq Ali has mentioned an Islamic reformation though I do not know any details of his views about this.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:35h, 18 September

      Arun, I did not expect impatience from a thinker like you. 🙂

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 03:25h, 20 September Reply

    Kamran, South Asian, and Vinod,

    Thanks to all three of you for extended responses to my questions. As an aside to Vinod, I was not impatient with Kamran, I thought he had decided not to respond.

    It is of course impossible for me to respond to the many many detailed points you have all made. I also do not have the detailed knowledge required to respond fully. However, I would like to submit a few remarks.

    I agree with Kamran about the splendor of classical India and early medieval Islam. While I am no scholar of classical Indian thought, I have more than a passing familiarity with what is there to be learned though I do not possess that learning myself. Even a single text like Nagarjuna’s “Mulamadhyamakakarika” of which I have read parts is sufficient to indicate the intellectual level and level of debate that existed then. I mention this text by name also to indicate that there were thousands of treatises that were lost. And even those that exist are barely known to the world. I know less about Islamic civilization but know about Avicenna and Al Khowarizmi and some of their work.

    I agree only partly with South Asian about the fragmentation and consequent ferment of both Christianity and Europe. I agree only partly with Vinod and Kamran that most of the early dynamism of Europe came from Islamic civilization.

    This agreement is partial because fragmentation and internecine warfare is often one side of the coin whose other side is innovation. So the kind of description you have given is to my mind one-sided and a little self-serving. Except for Kamran who mentioned it briefly, none of you have mentioned the equally great civilization of classical Greece, the first civilization to crack the problem of science. (Classical Indian thought never managed to extract the core of science from the envelope of Hinduism as such. Even though Aryabhata came close to figuring out the Copernican heliocentric system as early as the 5th century CE, it languished because it was not extracted from religious writings. As another aside, South Asian wrote a post on Hinduism earlier but this was more of an inaccurate sociology of Hinduism, not really its whole thought content which is the same as that of classical Indian thought itself.)

    And what was the Renaissance if not a rebirth of classical Greece? True, there was much interaction between Greece and India: I have already mentioned how the idea of caste influence Plato’s Republic, but many other ideas of a metaphysical, epistemological, political, ethical, aesthetic, and scientific sort went back and forth between India and Greece. This is well described in McEvilley’s “The Shape of Ancient Thought”. Again, Aristotle was already discovered by the Arabs and this undoubtedly helped the Renaissance and Humanism.

    My asking about Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and Locke in particular was to ask why we do not have such figures in so-called classical modern times. We do have some – I know of Gangesa’s Navya Nyaya school in the 13th century CE which anticipated elements of set theory and logic and there are a number of other major figures too. But because they have been largely neglected except for a handful of brave scholars, they remain obscure and have had almost no historical impact outside of their own traditions.

    Perhaps the answer to this whole set of questions and responses is that we need scholars to write truly universal histories, not taking sides to aggrandize one civilization in favor of another. I agree that colonialism and its aftermath makes it hard for us to be fair-minded but this is what is required to set the record straight.

    Kamran, are you ready for the undertaking? If you write such a history, I will gladly be the first to read it.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:26h, 20 September

      Arun, the reason you find our positions somewhat partisan is because mainstream history is already heavily euro-centric, almost completely ignoring the contributions to Europe from other superior civilizations during the medieval period and glorifying the innovation of Europeans as if it all sprang from vacuum. And I think we instinctively are, for the lack of a better word, counter-mainstreamish.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:21h, 20 September

      Arun: A number of claims in your response were not clear:

      1. In what way was the argument about fragmentation and internecine warfare self-serving? What was the end that was being served?
      2. There are many cases of fragmentation and internecine warfare that have little to do with innovation. India was fragmented into many princely states that were often at war with each other; there was awful warfare between religious communities in India from the 1920s on; there was religious conflict in Northern Ireland; there is terrible conflict in the Middle East. None of these have yielded any innovation. So, going over why the fragmentation and conflict in Europe did have an unexpected outcome seems a worthwhile exercise.
      3. I did mention that this unusual outcome in Europe spurred the reaching back into its heritage – which was Greek.
      4. I don’t see where I took sides and tried to aggrandize one civilization over another. It is a well-acknowledged fact that a lot of the Greek heritage was preserved during the intervening Islamic period.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 16:44h, 20 September Reply


    The antidote to Eurocentrism is not “Islamocentrism.” Again, I point out that a balance of internal and external factors is required if we are to get an accurate sense of the past. This does not mean all biases can be eliminated but rather that historians and readers of histories must strive for a balanced view.

    To take just one example from the history of mathematics, the word “algorithm” comes from “Al Khowarizmi” whose work Al Jabr gave us the word “algebra.” He lived around the tenth or eleventh century, I think. (Incidentally, I first learned this from a mathematics book written by a white mathematician.) How should one trace the line from Al Khowarizmi to the Italian mathematician Cardano in the Renaissance who first gave the solution to cubic and quartic equations and also anticipated imaginary numbers? Should one simply say that Cardano got it from Al Khowarizmi or should one simply say that Cardano came up with it all by himself? Neither is right and that is just one reason why history is so difficult. Each person wants to say “my father is stronger than yours.” One has to resist such impulses.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 21:43h, 20 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I read all the responses and tried to keep them in my mind and then write my response. It is possible I missed some of the things everyone said. I got the feeling from what everyone said that the discussion could have been a little more balanced. But I agree with the main point that it would be interesting to see when turmoil leads to innovation and when it doesn’t.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:07h, 21 September

      Arun: I am not convinced that the breakthroughs in Europe were the inevitable outgrowth of their particular religious culture. Rather, it was a series of accidents that triggered the emergence of modern science in Europe. It is of interest to think about these accidents without taking anything away from the achievements of European civilization.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 22:08h, 20 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I forgot to mention two things in my previous post: by “self-serving” I meant to say you were all treating the West and its internal development a bit unfairly.

    Second, I am going to be away for the next twenty days so it is unlikely I will be able to respond.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 22:35h, 25 September Reply

    Vinod: Less that 24 hours after writing my last response to your questions about tolerance and survival, I came across a book review that addresses the same issues and brings us up to date with the latest thinking in evolutionary biology. There is a lot of material there for fresh thinking and I have summarized it in a new post.

  • Kamran
    Posted at 17:23h, 27 September Reply


    The issues raised by you are very important and require a separate debate. These issues were simply beyond the theme and the subject of present discussion on ‘Culture Bypass’ that is limited to only a particular aspect of the development of Islam in India, its historical drivers, and its outlook for the future.

    I am indeed flattered at your invitation for writing a ‘universal’ history of the world. I am neither trained nor professionally engaged as an academician. Far from it, with an ordinary education to my credit I am professionally engaged in the mundane commercial world, though, at times I do feel that Ghalib had expressed my feelings when he had said, ‘Fikr-e Dunya main sar khapata hun, Main kahan aur Yeh Wabal kahan’.

    Well, let that remain as a digression. I do not find myself competent to satisfactorily address the important questions you have raised, but my tentative comments about some of the questions are as follows:

    1. While talking about the achievements and failures of different people, we usually refer to Indians, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, and Europeans but remaining on the same plane we refer to ‘Muslims’ as a whole and not Arabs, Persians, etc. Muslims as a whole share only, at best, a common religious belief system and nothing else. The Muslims of Philippine, India-Pakistan, Iran, China, Arab lands, and Turkey are as much different from each other in their achievements and failures as the Christians of Western Europe, China, India, Bolivia, and Philippine are different from each other.

    2. As explained already above, the Hindus (Indians) and the Muslims (Arabs and Persians) one after the other in different time frames have demonstrated immensely powerful intellectual ferment and produced outstanding scholars, treatises, and original ideas that have had powerful impact on the later further development of knowledge and sciences. In spite of the great change in their existing circumstances today, none could deny the original contributions of Egyptians, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and Persians other than the Greeks in laying the foundations and building the initial blocks of the human knowledge and technology. I don’t think there is any need to recount all that here as enough research and published material is already available on this subject. As much as that claims have even been made that all original thinking and intellectual foundation work had already been done by 1500 AD by the predecessors before Europeans arrived on the scene only 500 years ago to take the baton from the Arabs-Persians and developed the technology. Off course, it is exaggerated and ignores the spectacular developments in entirely new spheres of knowledge and sciences in recent times. But it is also not a sentimental claim of the type as you mentioned what Persians call Pidram Sultan Bood (I’m the son of a king). Egyptians developed amazing esoteric ideas and superb construction techniques. One couldn’t help admiring the intellectual brilliance and deep philosophical inquiry of Indian Vedantic treatises, Upanishads, and amazing works of Aryabhat, Kanad, Gemini, Patanjali, Chanakya, Pannini, Gotam Buddh, Mahavir, and a long list of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain philosophers in India.

    3. Greeks in their turn laid the foundations of modern sciences and European philosophies. These are not sentimental stories that Arabs and Persians built their first paper mills in Baghdad in the eighth century and soon finest coloured papers and excellent books were being produced in Baghdad, Samarkand, Cordoba, and other centres of intense intellectual activity. There is now lot of material written and published by Europeans themselves. All these people have made solid contributions in the development of human knowledge.

    4. Notwithstanding the political vicissitudes of today, and leaving aside the current religious sentiments and biases post 9/11, it is an interesting academic exercise to imagine how the Europe would have fared and what kind of world we would have inherited today, had the Amir Abul Rehman’s advancing army, so far undefeated, not been distracted in plunder and consequently was not defeated at the hands of otherwise withdrawing Charles Martel (the grandfather of Charlemagne) at Tours in the Pyrenees in 732? After that Arabs seem to have forgotten about it and never made any serious attempt at crossing the Pyrenees. Had the Arab armies from Spain would have crossed the Pyrenees, entered France and then the European plains would have not offered any practical resistance, would the Europe have met its enlightenment and Renaissance full 760 years before it eventually came? Would Europe possibly have saved these otherwise wasted 760 years and have seen, on a much larger scale, the grand intellectual firmament and splendor that an otherwise isolated Spain witnessed for about 600-700 years before it gave way to the dark forces of Black Friars and infamous Christian Inquisitions that Ferdinand and Isabella imposed on the people of Spain after winning it over from the Muslims in 1492?

    5. The European Renaissance around 1500s was certainly a re-discovery of Greek legacy but for the Europeans only. The glory of the Greece long buried by the Europeans themselves was already discovered 750 years ago by the Arabs in Iraq and Spain and the Persians together with a rediscovery of Egypt, India, and China. Many of the original Indian work on Mathematics and Astronomy has reached us via the Arabs. This aggregate of human knowledge collected from various parts of the world was further developed, refined, and put together in new formulations and commented upon before it was learnt by the Europeans in the universities of Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba, equivalent of today’s Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT.

    6. The Roman Catholic Christian Church that gradually evolved after the Christianity making a historic compromise at the Council of Nicea in 325 to allow a massive fusion of Pagan ideas and belief system with a monotheistic religion of Judaic origins for a long time comes out as a heavy black curtain on independent thinking and creative ideas. In fact, it seems to have continued to repress the creative intellectual energies of Europe for over 1200 years in spite of a burst of new ideas and independent thinking demonstrated by innumerable luminaries of Spain of European origin, mostly Jewish scholars of great achievements, who had thrived in an exemplary free environment of intellectual laissez-faire.

    7. It is strongly indicated from the sequence of events in the Europe of the Middle Ages that the enviable growth of independent thinking in Europe was first induced by the Christian priests of certain orders who came close to Muslims during successive Crusade campaigns and the formation of a Christian kingdom in Palestine and Syria, particularly with the dissident Ismaili Muslim orders of those days who are well known to have excelled in both esoteric and secular knowledge and sciences. Apart from sections of European clergy outside the core of Roman Catholic Church coming into regular contacts with the then enlightened society of the Syria, Iraq, and Spain, many of the European origin scholars, particularly those of Jewish faith, either expelled or escaped from Spain where intolerant and heavily reactionary Church was making advances, were also arriving in Western Europe, particularly in Netherlands and England, and brought new and fresh ideas into Europe to prepare the grounds for the Reformation and the Renaissance.

    Then around this time an event takes place in another part of Europe, coincidentally again by Muslims that to me triggered a sea change in Europe’s political, economic and social life – a paradigm shift in Europe’s life that brought in its wake the irresistible movement for reformation and renaissance.

    We may discuss it some other time in a separate discussion.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:09h, 27 September

      Kamran/Arun: There is one dimension that we are ignoring. The founts of knowledge in the Western tradition are all part of a living tradition – Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, etc. are all part of a good modern education. For Indians and Arabs, the original sources are nothing more than celebratory names, reminders of a past greatness. Even for South Asians the living sources are the Western ones. Should we discuss the reasons for this difference and its implications?

      For the record: Here is an article that puts some of the celebratory names from the Islamic period in context:

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 20:26h, 11 October Reply

    Kamran/South Asian,

    Kamran, sorry I have taken so long to respond as I was traveling. You have made several interesting observations and I accept many of them. I will not add more. Regarding your being an amateur, as long as you are daring enough and do your homework, I would gladly be the first to read it. Someone also needs to write a counterpart to Harold Bloom’s book called “The World Canon.” That is one of the ways in which it can become a living tradition. Going back a long way, there is still too little known about the Indus Valley Civilization because its language still remains to be deciphered.

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