Temple Destruction by Islam
By Meenakshi Jain
Politics may or may not be the art of the possible, but historical writing on
the Muslim community in India is certainly fast approaching that exalted state.
It is truly extraordinary that as echoes of jihad reverberate through the
sub-continent, western and Marxist scholarship should be desperately segregating
present battles from past contests and in the process, willfully exonerating
Muslims of acts of commission traditionally laid at their door. The sanitization
of Islam's public profile is all the more intriguing given the west's own
growing preoccupation with problems of fundamentalism and terrorism.
Be that as it may, there is a continuing thread between India's historic
experience and contemporary predicament, which we can ignore only at our peril.
At the heart of the matter is the long drawn-out unresolved and stalemated
civilizational struggle, which refuses to blow away, and in fact demands final
resolution. This is not simply a clichéd clash between Islamic monotheism and
Hindu polytheism as is made out in standard accounts on the subject. The issue
is far more visceral, which explains both its extended duration and bearing on
Scholars of religion would see merit in the proposition that India is the
last refuge of a once universal spiritual tradition that has everywhere been
replaced by Semitism of varying varieties. Given that
Islam is the extreme form of Semitism and India the greatest expression of
'paganism', the formula of accommodation can logically have no appeal for the
former. This remains the painful reality, however well historians may camouflage
The intolerance of idolatry was first exhibited in Arabia and by the Prophet
Mohammad, who had never set eyes on India. That was the inexorable logic of the
religious movement he had set in motion. (Muslims, like many others, confused
the Hindu practice of image worship with idolatry. Hindus
were never idolators. The image was always perceived as a means of focusing on
the Almighty, it was never equated with the Almighty. Elaborate rules governed
the consecration of a statue into an image of worship, and its disposal in case
Since the issue of temple destruction has acquired a fresh leash of life in
the wake of the Babri Masjid – Ram Janmabhoomi controversy, it is
understandable that academics should have directed their considerable talents to
clearing up this particularly messy bit of the past. It is not possible here to
take note of the rich literature generated on this vexatious issue. A reference
to Richard Eaton's essay on 'Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States',
published in his book, Essays on Islam and Indian History, (OUP 2000),
would suffice to highlight the main theses of this genre of historical writing.
The preliminary argument expounded holds faulty use of Persian chronicles and
treatises responsible for the unflattering depiction of Muslims down the ages.
British administrator-scholars, so the story goes, consciously produced
inaccurate translations of Persian texts in a bid to contrast their beneficent
rule with that of their bigoted and intolerant predecessors. The historical
truth, present-day apologists of Muslims argue, is that Persian chroniclers of
medieval times widely exaggerated and sometimes even invented, the
temple-demolition sprees of their patrons.
But surely this raises more questions than it solves.
One does not need to be communally-minded to infer that desecration of Hindu
holy sites was held to be meritorious activity in the entire Muslim world, which
is why the writers in question felt the need to glorify such acts, whether they
actually took place or not. Certainly, even the most pro-Muslim
historian would be hard put to name a single medieval writer of whatever
stature, who disapproved of such vandalism or regarded it as un-Islamic.
Further, the fact of a level of destruction is not contested by any scholar,
though there is debate on its possible motives.
Pertinent in this context is the Muslim community's perception of the manner
of its spread in the sub-continent, and the pivotal role played by temple
destruction in the 'remembered past' of the Muslim state and people. Local
legends invariably eulogize a small band of the faithful who arrive as
torch-bearers of the faith in the hostile terrain and face the resistance of the
infidel populace. The ensuing bitter struggle climaxes in the take-over of the
area temple by the army of Mohammad, its transformation into a mosque, and the
conversion of the principal pagan leaders to Islam. The mosque thereafter serves
as the disseminator of Islam in that region, in course of time contributing to
the establishment of a sizeable Muslim population in the environs. However
modern historians may interpret such narratives, they are indicative of the
Muslim community's preferred account of its expansion.
The ingenuity of modern scholarship is most severely
put to test in the case of Mahmud Ghazni. Even in the Muslim world, it is
difficult to rival his record in temple destruction, he belonging to a breed
apart. Yet we are asked to believe that these were 'secular
exploits,' waged with a view to financing political ambitions in Khurasan. His
plunder of Iranian cities is cited in defence of this argument. But, skeptics
may well ask, did he also attack Muslim sacred architecture in erstwhile Persia?
Further, what fraction of the wealth of India was actually concentrated in
temples, and what proportion did it constitute of Mahmud's total haul from this
country? Did the indemnity and spoils of war from Indian princes not far exceed
the loot from temples? If wealth to pursue an expansionist programme were all
that was needed, would not the booty obtained from Hindu rajas have sufficed?
Since temple destruction did not cease with Mahmud Ghazni, this is obviously
not a wholly viable interpretation of events. Indeed, every single Muslim ruler
after him till Aurangzeb indulged in this past time, with similar or lesser
frequency. So, modern scholarship defines temple destruction in this era as a
purely political activity intended to 'de-legitimize and extirpate' defeated
Hindu ruling houses. Scholars like Eaton argue that it was only in instances
where Hindu rulers had linked their political authority to royally patronized
temples that destruction was resorted to. This activism, he says, was not
prompted by the 'theology of iconoclasm', but by the desire to sweep away all
'prior political authority' in the newly conquered territory. Further, Eaton
says, attacks on images patronized by enemy kings was well integrated into
Indian political behaviour from the sixth century AD itself, long before the
Islamic advent in the sub-continent. The Muslims, he contends, only followed and
continued established sub-continental norms.
This is a skilful dressing-up of events, but alas, grievously faulty on many
counts. As is abundantly obvious, its fundamental thrust is to reduce, if not
altogether eliminate the religious dimension in the world-view of Muslim
conquerors. But the supposed secular orientation of the Sultans is not easy to
reconcile with their consistent endeavours to remain on the right side of
Islam's religious divines. Logically, the goodwill of the latter entailed
compromise with the former stance. The two were diametrically opposed
Indeed, Eaton himself draws attention to the intimate links forged between
Muslim religious divines (he mainly focuses on the Chishti Sufi order)
and the Islamic state. In every instance of the establishment of a Muslim state
in the sub-continent, Muslim divines, he says, injected a legitimizing
'substance' into the newly created body politic at the moment of its birth.
It would be natural to infer from the steady association of Sufis with
Islamic state formation that Muslim empires had a pronounced religious
dimension. In the Hindu world, by contrast, religion and state never acquired
such a symbiotic relationship, there being few instances, if any, of Hindu
pundits actively participating in state formation. Separation of religion and
state was a fact in the Hindu world from the very outset. Certainly, its
spiritual leaders did not pontificate on matters of state or on the policies to
be pursued vis-à-vis state subjects belonging to other denominations. Buddhist bhikshus,
for instance, never advised Emperor Ashoka on his dealings with his Hindu
subjects, just as Brahmins refrained from directing the initiatives of Gupta
kings towards the sanghas.
Further, though Hindu rulers patronized temples, they did not uproot existing
modes of worship or impose their own favourite gods on their people. In a
significant number of cases, in fact, they elevated already existing local
deities, a phenomena which accounts for the great spurt in temple building from
the 6th century onwards, that Eaton refers to. Lord Jagannath, widely
acknowledged as the state deity of Orissa, was, for instance, originally
worshipped among some tribal communities, and was later adopted as the regional
deity by successive ruling dynasties.
Even if it is conceded that temples had become sites for 'contestation of
kingly authority' before the coming of Muslims, the fact remains that Hindu
kings were thereby attempting to appropriate the identity symbols of their
rivals, and not to crush or destroy them, as in the case of Muslim
conquerors. The difference in the two intentions is important.
It is also not inappropriate to question why Muslim rulers fighting rival
Muslim contenders never vandalized Muslim sacred architecture, sponsored or
patronized by the enemy party. If temples were destroyed merely to 'sweep
away' prior political authority, mosques, mazhars, dargas and madrasas
associated with renegade, rebellious or usurper Muslims should have been meted
the same fate. That this was not so was because they were part of a shared
religious culture that was common to Muslims on both sides of the political
divide. Hindu temples, not partaking of this spiritual tradition, and in fact
constituting the despised 'other' in Muslim theological discourse, inevitably
met a different end.
Lastly, Prof. Eaton makes the point, that once the territory of a Hindu raja
was incorporated into the Muslim realm, the temples within it were treated as
state property and left unmolested. However, he hastens to add, that any
suspicious activity on the part of the Hindu ex-ruler rendered the temples
immediately vulnerable to attack.
Surely this admission exposes the chinks in Prof. Eaton's argument. If, as he
had earlier claimed, Muslim Sultans attacked temples because they were a source
of legitimacy, then surely the link between the Hindu ruler and the temple had
snapped on annexation of the kingdom and its absorption into the Muslim
dominion. Why then was this form of punishment now resorted to? Such behaviour
on the part of Muslim sovereigns is eloquent testimony to the hollowness of the
so-called synthesis that allegedly evolved under their dispensation. It is
farcical to talk of a Hindu-Muslim political, material and spiritual culture
when the first and set response of every Muslim ruler on however slender a
pretext, was to attack the holy sites of their infidel subjects.
What emerges starkly from the tour de force of modern scholars on temple
destruction in medieval India is that though the motives of the Muslim Sultans
may have 'evolved' and 'advanced' over the centuries, there was no variation in
the end result. On the admission of modern scholars, be it financing
expansionist programmes, consolidating political authority, punishing formerly
loyal Hindu princes, Muslim rulers without exception responded with one standard
solution -- temple destruction. It is astounding that modern scholarship should
gloss over this fact.
Further, the issue of temple destruction cannot be relegated to the
backburner, given its hold on the Muslim psyche. In the last half century,
temple destruction has been liberally indulged in, in Pakistan, Bangladesh and
the Kashmir Valley, to name just three prominent arenas. Since Muslims
constitute the dominant majority and political community in all the three areas
and face no threat from the Hindus, temple desecration here cannot rightly be
attributed to the alleged political compulsion to contain infidels.
Leftist Indians who talk of the futility of righting
medieval wrongs exhibit complete insensitivity to the fact that temple
destruction is not just a past hobby in the Muslim world, but a continuing
modern trend, and that, its underlying motivation is religious not political.
What makes the Babri episode so galling for Muslims is that it constitutes a
rare instance of them being at the receiving end, though even here Hindu actors
in the drama had taken care to select a non-functional masjid as the ground on
which to join this issue.
The Islamic problem in India cannot however, be reduced to a single point
issue of temple destruction. That was only symptomatic of the deep chasm between
the two antithetical belief systems. Genuine synthesis was never a feasible
proposition given the Muslim religious fraternity's profound horror and disdain
of native traditions. No school of Islamic theology in the sub-continent ever
advocated dialogue, much less rapprochement with the native faiths, which is the
pre-requisite of a synthetic culture. Hinduism and Islam were never placed on an
equal footing throughout the period of Muslim political domination.
Scholars who treat Muslim rule as just one of the routine dynastic shuffles
in India show inadequate appreciation of the cataclysmic nature of the change
that occurred in 1196 AD with the establishment of the first Islamic state in
the sub-continent. Hindu and Buddhist rule never
acquired the brutal edge that remained the trademark of Muslim domination; they
never entailed forcible conversions, the imposition of a foreign political elite
or the ascendancy of an alien language and culture. India had known foreign
rulers in her ancient past as well, but they had completely immersed themselves
in the spirit of the land and become propagators of her civilizational
greatness. No one can honestly claim that Muslim rulers sought to emulate such
By now sufficient documentary evidence exits of the Muslim religious classes'
resolve and determination to ensure that Islam retained its pristine purity in
this land. Scholars who harp on the Hindu practices of Muslim converts refer to
an interim period during which such behavioural patterns were gradually replaced
by Islamic ones. Though one can list endless number of Muslim revivalist
movements, one is hard put to name any that advocated that the faith strike
On the basis of available evidence, it is difficult to support the contention
of Marxist scholars that a composite culture eventually evolved in the land. It
would, however, be equally erroneous to conclude that either faith triumphed
over the other. The implicit struggle resumed during colonial rule with the
overwhelming majority of Muslims refusing to countenance the possibility of
Hindu political ascendancy. Partition flowed from the logic of events, but in
the nature of things it, too, was an expression of the continuing civilizational
deadlock. The Hindu political community in independent India fudged the larger
dimension of the struggle and embarked on a policy of identity-dilution and
Muslim appeasement. In other words, it ensured the continuation of the
civilizational stalemate, rather than its termination. This monumental lapse of
the Indian political elite has facilitated Islam's burning quest to re-join
battle with its millennial foe. Kashmir is an expression of that renewed
struggle, as is the silence of most Indian Muslims on this new theatre of the
Viewed in the context of implacable Islamic hostility towards paganism and
the expansionist nature of the faith, Pakistan 's policies towards India assume
a frightening coherence. Its espousal of the cause of Kashmiri Muslims and
silence on Muslims in the rest of India is indicative both of its strategy and
objective. It stands to reason that if Muslim rights are ensured in the rest of
India, they cannot be endangered in Kashmir, where in any case, the Muslims are
treated by the Indian state as more equal than their co-religionists in the rest
of the country. Clearly this dimension of the problem needs to be explicated.
Today, there is a two-way battle being fought in the Indian sub-continent.
There is, most prominently, the old millennial struggle between Islam and the
kafirs. Less noticed, but not less crucial, is the contest between predominantly
Sunni pan-Islamism with its international dimension and disdain of local
cultures and a non-Sunni Islam that is wary of being swamped by the
former and in search of allies and indigenous links. This latter Islam is yet
very much a fledgling struggling for survival. Not surprisingly, its pre-eminent
exponent hails from the strife-torn state of Jammu & Kashmir, where both the
battles are acutely joined. He is the state's present Chief Minister, Dr. Farooq