Q: Is Hindusim and Islam the same?
A: In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 by a radical Islamic group, many Americans have become suspicious of both Islam as a religion and of the ethnic people from countries that practice Islam. One very sad aspect of this backlash has been that Americans have reacted negatively to people who are not at all practicing Islam, let alone one of the militant versions. Hindus and Sikhs both have been treated with hostility by people who simply react with prejudice to those who look different from the way they do. So, herewith a short attempt to draw some important distinctions.
There is no question but that Americans as a whole are not particularly well versed in knowing religions other than their own, though whether that makes them different from other people is a question that must wait for another time. Still, I won’t forget the New Year’s 2000 broadcast on CNN when in a highly embarrassing moment celebrated interviewer Larry King asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama whether they had “new years” in the Islamic religion. Ouch. Couldn’t someone have told Larry beforehand that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist, not a Muslim?
Not quite as painfully, but still to the point, I also remember Prime Minister Indira Gandhi being interviewed on a Sunday morning news show in the 1970’s during one of the times of war between India and Pakistan, when a reporter asked her how she could reconcile being engaged in military action with her religion. Specifically, the reporter referred to the teachings of non-violence by Mahatma Gandhi as the summation of Hinduism, and he presumed to point out to Mrs. Gandhi that this is what she should be practicing, too. The Prime Minister remarked to the reporter fairly curtly that he did not understand Hinduism at all and moved on to another question.
And right she was, of course. Hinduism as a whole does not teach total abstention from military action, though as should be true for all of us, it holds up the ideal of a world in peace without a trace of. In the meantime Hinduism’s social teaching reckons with the fact that a society can and must defend itself against unjust actions, such as an invasion. Let us not forget that the second caste in the traditional Hindu society is the Kshatriyas, originally the warriors and leaders of the armies. And everyone knows that the Bhagavad Gita, classic text of Hinduism that it is, is the prelude to one of the greatest epic battles in religious literature. So, Hinduism, like most religions, does not demand total non-violence.
What, then, are the distinguishing points between Hinduism and Islam? Let me point out some of the more salient ones:
1. Islam began with one person, the prophet Muhammad, who attempted to recall Arabian culture to a monotheistic faith. Hinduism, on the other hand, is the product of millennia of development; its origins are shrouded in the mists of some of the earliest civilizations.
2. Islam teaches that one and only one book contains God’s pure revelations, the Qur’an, while Hinduism holds that there are many sacred scriptures beginning with the Vedas and encompassing the Upanishads and Brahmanas, as well as (in a somewhat derivative sense) the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
3. Islam teaches that there is only one God. In Hinduism this is a complicated issue. Many Hindus also claim that there is only one God, but their understanding of this statement may be very different from what a Muslim might mean. First of all, for many Hindus, the one God is identical with the totality of all true reality and found only by looking deeply into one’s Self (Atman = Brahman). And second, the overwhelming majority of Hindus would maintain that God manifests himself in the form of many gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, the goddess, and all the other deities associated with them. Further, Hindus enjoy representing their gods in the forms of physical images in temples and at home, a practice that, again, is not at all compatible with Islam.
4. Islam teaches that there is only one way to God, namely by practicing the teachings as revealed in the Qur’an. These include the so-called five pillars (confession, prayer, fasting, alms-giving, and pilgrimage) as well as numerous other rules divided into those things that are obligatory (fard), permitted (halal), and forbidden (haram). By contrast, Hinduism is far more open in allowing people to find different ways to God and methods of practicing their faith.
5. Islam teaches that the goal of its religion is a single unified society living by Islamic principles. An often understated, but crucial, concept in Islam is the “umma,” the community of those who follow Muhammad. Right from the beginning of the religion, Muslims understood themselves not just as practicing a religion of personal faith, but as establishing a community that would be governed by the rules of the Qur’an and the shari’a, the legal interpretation of those rules. Thus, the conversion of individuals to Islam also has included transferring their allegiance to an Islamic society. In any part of the world, the presence of a Muslim majority (or even dominant minority) and the attempt to establish an Islamic state pretty much go hand in hand.
Now, it would be a mistake simply to say that Hinduism does not have a similar goal in a qualified sense. That is because all religions probably do, viz. in all religions the ideal world would be one in which everyone believes and practices one’s own religion. That’s only human nature, and Hinduism in particular has over the many years become very thoroughly engrained in the culture of India. Nevertheless, Hinduism does not come with a societal mandate the way Islam does. Hinduism is not as oriented towards a Hindu government and society.
6. Islam has a concept of “jihad” or “holy war.” This is a controversial notion these days, and many Muslims go to great pains to explain to the rest of the world that a jihad is first and foremost a spiritual struggle and not at all the idea of “spreading Islam by the sword.” Nonetheless, only a blind and deaf person can be totally unaware of the way in which, particularly again of late, many Muslims are using the word “jihad” to refer to acts of violence. Rightly or wrongly, this is the use of the term we encounter day in and day out. For that matter, on a historical note, the particular group of Islam with which the Taliban is associated, namely the Wahhabi movement, has a history of carrying out extensive purges in the Arabian peninsula over the last two centuries. And even though they are unexcusably extreme in their implementation of Islam, they are not far out on the Islamic spectrum of belief. If anything, they represent some of the purest interpretations of the Qur’an, adhering, as they do, to the most conservative and literal school of the shari’a, the Hanbilite school.
Suffice it to say that Hinduism has no concept of “jihad.” A Hindu society, like virtually all others, will have a concept of a just war, but there is no further spiritual significance to such an act. And I am quite sure that Indian courts treat terrorists as criminals and not as heroes.
So, at the risk of having belabored some hopefully obvious matters, these are a few important points of distinction between Islam and Hinduism. In the light of current events, my summary has taken on a somewhat negative tone towards Islam, and one can only hope that increasingly Islamic leaders will more and more actively distance themselves from excesses of those who misuse their good name.
Taking critical looks at cultures and religions is always a dicey undertaking since there are so many factors and variations involved. Nonetheless, nothing is gained by simply closing one’s eyes to the flaws that come along with the positive, and this includes facing up openly to what may be problematic in one’s own background. God has given us a conscience that allows us to see or feel even beyond our particular upbringing. I trust that all of us will, with the help of God, see what is wrong and what is right within our traditions.