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Kabir - The Apostle of Hindu-Muslim Unity

Kabir - The Apostle of Hindu-Muslim Unity

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Item Code: NAU626
Author: Muhammad Hedayetullah
Publisher: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788120806115
Pages: 332
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 580 gm
About the Book

Hinduism and Islam are usually considered to be poles apart, especially on religious grounds. But in this work, the author has endeavoured to demonstrate that in spite of sharp differences between them, they met on religious, commercial, intellectual and political levels both in and outside of India. Although orthodox Hinduism and orthodox Islam could hardly reconcile, it is shown here that they were bound to accommodate each other. However, the real fusion took place with the coming to India of a host of Sufis; especially the lives and conduct of the left wing mystics of both religions made the two peoples to come closer through Bhakti mysticism.

Of the many Bhakta-Mystics who strove in this direction, Dr. Hedayetullah made a special study of Kabir (d. 1518) who dedicated his whole life to the achievement of Hindu-Muslim unity on socio-religious levels. So far Kabir has not only been denied his rightful credit as an apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity, but he has also been misunderstood by many. In the present work, he is shown to have gained the place of honour between the two religions as a mediator and a harmoniser. His efforts were crowned with success-the resultant Indo-Islamic culture and civilization is a living proof.

About the Author

Dr. Muhammad Hehayetullah born at Noakhali (Bangladesh) obtained the highest degree in Islamic Tradition (M.M.) from Madrasah-i-‘Alia, Dacca. He became and Culture (Dacca, 1954). Having taught at Magura and Brahmanbaria College, he joined Pakistan Federal Civil Service as Research Fellow at Karachi. A keen student of Comparative Religion, he specialised in Hindu-Muslim relations for his Ph.D. Degree of McMaster University, Canada.


The fundamental fact that must immediately impress itself on every observer of religious life in India is the existence of two great religious communities in the sub-continent, Islam and Hinduism. These two have been juxtaposed in a position of rivalry for the commitment of the Indian population since the major advent of the Muslims into the sub-continent in the 11th century. So important has the confrontation between them been that for many historians and ideologues in recent times it has stood out as the single most important factor contributing to the modern formation of the region. To nationalist historians and writers on both sides the emergence of two states, India and Pakistan, in the area in 1947, after almost a century of political debate and struggle that was complicated by the presence of British colonial authority, has seemed the logical and almost inevitable outcome of this confrontation. If thro- ugh the centuries on the Hindu side there lies appeared a greater capability to accommodate alien and irruptive religious modes within its structure, this has normally been at the price of Hinduizing these alien influences and absorbing them within a wider framework that ultimately robs them of their identity ; while on the Islamic side adoption of local customs and mixture with local populations in the various areas where Islam penetrated, both outside India as well as inside, have never been able to break down the Muslim sense of being a separate community, the best of communities. In the early days of the confrontation of the two groups on Indian soil the sense of difference was exacerbated by the superior social position of Muslims as the conquering ruling power; in more recent times this obstacle to a sense of unity among all the inhabitants of the area has been replaced by the fear of domination of one community over the other and the struggle for relative advantage in a post-colonial autonomous society. ‘Though there has undoubtedly been some meeting and intermingling of the two communities, especially at the level of the life of common people, the great distinction yet remains. To many it appears not only that a fundamental accommodation will never take place but even that none should be sought for.

The present volume rejects and attacks this commonly held view of Indian history by arguing not only that accommodation between the two communities is possible but that it actually occurred in a significant way in mediaeval India with the rise of bhakti religion. The principal focus of the volume is the study of one representative of this type of religious outlook, Kabir, the founder and patron of the continuing group known as the Kabir Panthis. Kabir is not studied for himself alone, however, but as an instance of a wider and fundamentally important process, that of Hindu-Muslim interaction. The key to Kabir’s life and thought, according to Professor Hedayetullah, is his refusal to be bound by the symbol system of a particular religious community and his insistence upon penetrating beyond the superficial expressions of piety to the experience that lies behind. This approach prevented him in his poetry from characterizing himself as either a Hindu or a Muslim, and led him instead to claim to be a worshipper of both Rama and of Allah. In Kabir’s eyes the name attached to the deity whom one worships is only a linguistic convenience; the matter of substance is that there is but a single God with whom the worshipper should seek a relationship of intimate love. Such a relationship constitutes the heart of true religion and necessarily lifts one above the limits of any sectarian or community identification into the realm of the spirit. Kabir thus is presented as perhaps the unique leader in the sub-continent’s long and chequered history to have brought the two most basic religious outlooks found there into a position of mutual adaptation and interaction. Professor Hedayetullah is at pains to emphasize that he believes this adaptation and interaction to have been mutual and not one- sided only, with each religion exerting a profound influence on the life and practice of the other. The adaptation is worthy of study and of enduring significance precisely because it did occur in the sphere of religion, and despite the glaring and basic differences between Islam and Hinduism. Although much greater attention is given to showing the possible channels of Islamic influence on mediaeval Hinduism than vice versa, the broad argument is made that each group affected and influenced the other in ways that transformed the other and made the Indian scene different because of their mutual contact. Bhakti and Kabir as its greatest representative are depicted as the children of the Hindu-Muslim marriage.

This volume thus presents Kabir as the first overt proclaimer of Hindu-Muslim unity, a unity that is achieved by the assumption of both outlooks into a higher religious reality. The net effect of his teaching was to break down the barriers of Islamic theological dogmatism on the one hand and the barriers of Hindu social exclusivism and caste discrimination on the other. Unlike other observers who describe Kabir as a syncretist who attempted to combine fundamentally incompatible teachings into a single system in an arbitrary and undigested fashion, Professor Hedayetullah holds that Kabir brought the two points of view into an integral relationship in his system of thought by refusing both completely to denounce or completely to uphold either. Instead, from a higher perspective he sought to demonstrate that both possess the elements of genuine religiousness and that by focusing the attention upon these elements the way is opened to a kind of piety which transcends their differences.


The interaction between Hindu and Muslim ideas in India took place over a period of several centuries. The two cultures met on various levels, such as_ intellectual, commercial, political and religious. On each of these levels, the two religions influenced each other, sometimes peripherally, sometimes deeply. The most important of these levels for this study was the religious. In spite of their very basic differences, the two traditions were forced by circumstances into some kind of interaction even on the orthodox level. However, the point at which the two religious traditions had something in common was mysticism, and both traditions produced non-orthodox mystics who could hardly be distinguished from one another. The system which expresses the culmination of their interaction is called Bhakti Mysticism.

The interaction of Hindu-Muslim ideas through bhakti mysticism produced a number of great mystics in India during the medieval period. The characteristic feature of these bhakta mystics was that by no orthodox criterion could they be identified as purely Hindu or Muslim. They were the whole-hearted sadhakas of One God; they found no distinction between man and man, such as Hindu and Muslim; and they considered so- called religious observances, rites and ceremonies as useless for actual spiritual progress. In short, the type of bhakti mysticism which these sadhakas formulated and propagated was a simple religion of devotion (bhakti) to God which required no out- ward performance of what are called religious duties, but needed only a pure heart and a sense of absolute surrender to a beloved God. As these bhaktas considered themselves whole- hearted lovers of God, the essence of their religion was love for God.

The greatest of all these mystics, who were products of an environment engendered by the interaction of the two faiths, was Kabir of Banares, North India. Kabir occupies a unique position in the history of Indian national heroes, for he is one of the few figures to emerge from the history of Indian religion during the medieval period. Kabir’s greatness lies primarily in his sustained efforts to unite the Hindus and the Muslims who had been antagonistic to one another for centuries. Kabir came to realise that the quarrels between Hindus and the Muslims were based fundamentally on religion. And it was religious prejudice and bias which prevented the two communities from developing a sense of unity and harmony, even though they were living together in the same society. Therefore, in order to achieve his mission, Kabir overtly denounced both Hinduism and Islam. According to him, the traditional form of Hinduism as well as of Islam was only a creation of Hindus and Muslims themselves, for, he maintained, the One God, Allah or Rama, has created only one human race without making any distinction between man and man. Correlative to this basic idea, Kabir argued that since there is One God, regardless of the different names used for Him, and one human race, there could not be many religions. By breaking down all denominational differences based on religion, Kabir tried to formulate a new religion, rather a new piety or a new spirituality, consisting of good elements from both Hinduism and Islam. That religion, primarily based on bhakti, Kabir hoped would be acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims.

In connection with Kabir’s mission, the most significant point to remember is that in his striving to unite the Hindus and the Muslims under the fold of one religion, he consistently kept himself above all religious denominations. In this, he never identified himself as a Hindu or as a Muslim. The only avail- able evidence of his identification is that of a ‘‘weaver of Benares.’’ Thus, having kept himself above the level of Hindu- Muslim religious categories, Kabir found himself justified in denouncing both Hinduism and Islam with equal severity. He maintained perfect neutrality and showed no soft heart or preference to either religion. Kabiv’s distaste for sectarianism can also be seen in the fact that, unlike many bhaktas, he refused to organise any sect of his own followers. His understanding of one human race and a universal brotherhood of human beings prompted him not only to reject and denounce the Hindu caste system, and all sectarianism that was fostered by either Hindus or the Muslims, but also to refuse to constitute a sect of his own followers.

Kabir’s effort to unite the Hindus and the Muslims on one religio-social platform was crowned with success, at least during his lifetime. But immediately after his death, his followers split up into two separate camps — Hindu and Muslim — thus pulling down the entire structure for which Kabir had struggled so hard. The Kabir-panthis quickly departed from the ideals of Kabir. ‘The Kabir-panth is built up their own sectarian tradition in spite of Kabir’s warnings, and produced a galaxy of literature in the name of Kabir. The history of the Kabir-panthis falls outside the scope of this work.

In spite of his good intentions, Kabir was misunderstood by people both during his lifetime and after his death. His strange ideas puzzled people at home and created enemies outside. His mother and his wife rebuked him for his involvement in matters of religion, which, they thought, was the business of Brahmans and Mullahs. Being a member of a Muslim family, his utterance of the name of the Hindu God, Rama, embarrassed his parents and his wife.

Outside his family, the Brahmans and the Mullahs raised a hue and cry against Kabir’s ideas. First of all, his denunciation of the sanctified position claimed by those so-called guardians of religion engendered open hostility against him. Second, both Hindu and Muslim religious personages found it impossible to tolerate the authority of a low-caste man like Kabir speaking on religious matters. Third, Kabir’s overt rejection of both traditional Hinduism and Islam, his preaching of the idea of one religion for the people of India, and his ignoring the distinction that is implied by names like Allah and Rama, were considered sacrilege by orthodox Hindus and Muslims. According to the legends, these enemies tried to get him penalised by the Muslim administration of that time.


For quite a long time, I have been interested in making a study of the Hindu-Muslim relation in India in its historical and religious perspectives. When I had the opportunity to peruse a few books on this subject, I became convinced that the history of the relationship between Indian ideas and those of Islam con be traced, even outside India, as far back as the seventh century of the Christian Era. I became especially interested in studying this subject in the Indian context. Having made further investigation, I discovered that at about the same time the process of interaction and assimilation between Hindu and Muslim ideas, customs, manners, etc. had started in South India. The process of the interaction between the two faiths and the two communities began with the coming of the Arab Muslim trader-missionaries to the West and the South- western coasts of India. This trend eventually led to the upsurge of a mass religious movement - the Bhakti Movement.

The Bhakti Movement — a religion of devotion — is a combination of the efforts of Hindu and Muslim mystics who, in their highest spirituality, transcended all distinctions between man and man religiously as well as socially. The religious message of these bhaktas or the great souls of God was characterised by such universality that their message was accepted by Hindus and Muslims equally. Also, the rank and file of their disciples was swelled by Hindus and Muslims indiscriminately. In other words, the Bhakti Movement created an atmosphere of harmony and concord in the religious life of medieval India.

One of these ‘abids was Kabir, a Muslim weaver of Banares. He was a unique person in every respect — in his upbringing, teaching and mission. He was not only a true product of the interaction of Hindu-Muslim ideas, but also a sincere ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity. By preaching a new spirituality, he not only disregarded the formal religions of Hinduism and Islam, which he considered merely man-made, he also struggled to unite the two communities by a new piety which would not discriminate between them either religiously or socially.

Unfortunately, the teaching of this great sddhaka has not been appropriately dealt with. It has been misrepresented since his death, and many writers have not given proper treatment to its real significance. Some writers have tried to see him as a Hindu while others consider him exclusively as a Muslim.

These are the results of careless study of Kabir’s teaching. Although on the basis of different parts of his teaching, one can take him as a Hindu or as a Muslim or a pure philosopher, the fact remains that, if we consider his teaching in its entirety and thoroughly examine its significance, we will find it impossible to place him exclusively in one category.

In this work, I have attempted to present the history of the Hindu-Muslim relationship in its religious perspective. Within this general context, I have also studied the life and teaching of Kabir by emphasising his distinctive contribution to the religio-social life of medieval India. Kabir tried to combine Hindu monism’ with Islamic monotheism by discarding all the artificial barriers created by the two communities in the name of religion. Denouncing all religious formalisms, he preached a new religious universalism in an attempt to resolve the tensions that had prevailed between the two communities for so many centuries.

As for the sources, in completing this work, I relied primarily on Kabir’s sayings as recorded in the Bijak and in the Adi- Granth. I have also collected information concerning Kabir’s life and teaching from the writings of both medieval and modern writers. All information that I have gathered from different sources — primary as well as secondary — I have reinterpreted in an historical perspective.

For the present work, the first inspiration came from Professor J.G. Arapura. I am greatly indebted to him and to Professor Paul Younger for their assistance in bringing this work to completion within a reasonable time. Their comments and suggestions were very illuminating. I am especially grateful to Professor Charles J. Adams, profound scholar of Islam, of McGill University, for having generously contributed the Foreword to the book.

It is not possible to mention the names of all my friends who helped me in completing this work. I thank all of them. To my friend Peter Craigie, who has been particularly helpful, IT express special gratitude. I also owe thanks to Patricia Huber, Howard Hanson and Christopher Harries. They helped me very much.

Finally, when I came to Canada having in mind the object of obtaining a Ph. D. degree, my mother was ambivalent : she was pleased that I was going abroad for higher studies, at the same time she feared that she would not be able to see me again, because of her ill health. She is still alive but has be- come chronically ill.

My mother allowed me to come to Canada to obtain a Doctoral degree. During the period of my studies in Canada, my mother’s blessings have been a constant source of inspiration to me. I dedicate this work to both her and my father. They suffered so much in my absence.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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