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Mark N.

PHIL 3620
Dr. George James
The Encounter Between Hinduism and Islam through the Eyes of Mystics

In the popular consciousness of the West there are perhaps no religious traditions seen to

be more antithetical to one another than Islam and Hinduism. Islam, viewed by many in its

orthodox form as a system of rigidly iconoclastic legalism bereft of any transformative

spirituality, certainly strikes a sharp contrast with the ascetic meditation and myriad artistic

personifications of the Deity that comprise popular Hinduism. This dichotomy however, between

the spiritual East and the exoteric West, is a false one, and just as Hinduism is not a term

descriptive of one unified religious tradition, the supposed homogeneity of Islam is in fact a

kaleidoscope of sects, schools of thought, and holy orders. Both rigid ritual legality and esoteric

spiritual ecumenism have played their parts in the Indian and Islamic traditions, and their

histories have long been entwined in South Asia. The 12th-16th centuries witnessed the spread of

Muslim political rule in the Indian subcontinent and ultimately the establishment of the Mughal

dynasty, under whom many of the great philosophical writings of Hindu civilization were

translated into Persian and disseminated throughout the Islamic world. Even a thousand years

ago, Muslim scholars had been fascinated by Indian religion, most notably Al-Biruni (d. 1050),

the Persian polymath who learned Sanskrit and was the first to translate Hindu texts into Arabic.1

Under Muslim rule, Hindus were accorded, along with the Jews, Christians, and other religious

communities, the title People of the Book, in recognition of the foundations of Hindu thought

in the Vedic literature, which served to legitimize Hinduism as an authentic religion. Beyond this

simple social toleration of the other however, the last millennium is replete with individuals from

both traditions who sought a deeper and more divinely-ordained religious pluralism. Contrasting

1 Muhammad Dara Shikuh, Majma-Ul-Bahrain or The Mingling of the Two Oceans (Calcutta: The Asiatic Society,
1998), 1.

with the Muslim clerical establishment and that of the Hindu priests who were often hostile to

each other, we find mystics from both traditions who, by truly respecting, understanding, and

engaging with the other, aimed for both social brotherhood and religious ecumenism. This paper

will discuss a number of such sages but will focus on four that harken specifically from the

Indian subcontinent, two Muslim and two Hindu, in whose writings a number of unique

perspectives are represented, ranging from the academic sophistication of a Mughal prince to the

simple devotion of illiterate holy men and even modern political/social leaders. The nuanced

views of each towards the religious other address both theological and social implications of

Muslim and Hindu unity and have, I believe, the power to profoundly affect the manner in which

we view the goals and methods of inter-religious dialogue.

Hinduism by its very nature has the unique capacity to appreciate the divine as it

manifests uniquely in different and often externally contradictory forms. This religious

perspective is fertile ground for the development of a deep soteriological ecumenism rooted in

the premise that Truth is One, and there are necessarily many different paths to the top of the

mountain of liberation. This view is held by both Mahatma Gandhi and Ramakrishna

Paramahamsa, though the two men had significantly different focuses and goals in their

affirmation of the divine Truth of Islam in particular. The critical importance of the Goddess to

many strains of Hindu thought has long stood out to Westerners as a mystical feminist ideal

utterly irreconcilable with the apparent misogyny of the Abrahamic traditions. This is not

necessarily the case however, as both the sages of Hinduism and the great Sufi masters have

teachings that emphasize the divine feminine, finding in this devotion specifically the grounds

for affirming the religious truths of other faiths.


19th century yogi Ramakrishna, considered one of the modern masters of Vedantic

mysticism, was a devotee the goddess Kali, who for him served as the supreme manifestation of

the Goddess (Shakti).2 His love for and devotion to Kali was such that he even saw her embodied

in certain women in his life, particularly his wife Sarda Devi (a Hindu saint of considerable

repute) who, while only a child at the time of their marriage, he revered as a fully conscious

manifestation of the Goddess. Ramakrishna claimed that upon achieving a state of realization

through devotion to Kali, the Goddess granted him permission to practice and study other

darshanas (viewpoints or schools of thought) within Hinduism such as Vaishnavism, in addition

to Christianity and Islam. With this divine sanction, Ramakrishna systematically devoted himself

whole-heartedly to each of these paths, setting aside for these brief yet spiritually intense periods

any worship of Kali, while recognizing the unity of the paths he explored and the ecstatic states

and realizations they induced within him. Writing on his brief yet profound experience practicing

Islam, Ramakrishna writes, I received Initiation from the Sufi master Govinda Rai. He

transmitted to my heart the beautiful name Allah, which I then repeated with every breathI

learned to make the call to prayer and perform Namaaz, the graceful cycles of prostration and

praise offered by the Muslims five times every day. My practice of Islam was crowned with a

vision of the noble Prophet Muhammad- a robed, dignified, bearded figure of supreme sanctity-

who merged intimately with my being3 Most significantly, Ramakrishna continues, It was

precisely the same Samadhi attained along the paths of the Veda and Tantra. Muslims call it

fanaa. This remarkable first-person account demonstrates how through devotion to the

Goddess, Ramakrishnas heart was opened to the truth of Islam as a path to realization. Through

his great reverence for the Prophet, whom the great Sufi saints report similar visions of, he

2 Zachary Markwith, One God, Many Prophets: The Universal Wisdom of Islam (San Rafael: Sophia Perennis Press,
2013), 119
3 Ibid., 125.

expresses his opinion that Islam is a divine tradition not only because God pervades all things,

but because of the majesty of the figure of the Prophet, the truth of whose mystical experience is

affirmed. Moreover, he affirms the later Islamic tradition of his contemporaries, upholding the

need for initiation into the mysteries by a master, and showing familiarity with Sufi doctrines

such as fanaa (lit. annihilation) and the parallels between these and Hindu trance states. It is

even said that Ramakrishna authored a partial commentary on the Quran, though it is not clear

whether it was preserved or not.4

Ramakrishnas path to realizing the oneness Reality and the unity of the worlds faiths

through devotion to the Mother goddess bears remarkable parallels to the religious journey of the

12th century Andalusian sage Muhaiyadeen Ibn Arabi, popularly known by Sufis as the Greatest

Shaykh for his unparalleled and prodigious writings on poetry, mysticism, and systematic

metaphysics. Ibn Arabis most celebrated contribution to the Islamic tradition is his formal

articulation of the doctrine, based on earlier Sufi concepts, of Wahidat al-Wujood (lit. the

Oneness of Being), which would ultimately become the most widespread metaphysical vision

among the mystics of Islam. This doctrine, much like Vedanta, views reality in terms of a radical

oneness wherein the phenomenal world, rather than being separate from God, is in fact the

creative self-manifestation of Gods infinite attributes or names, which can be seen as roughly

equivalent to the Vedantic view of the Hindu devas. Just as Ramakrishnas transformation was

initiated upon his seeing the Goddess manifest in his young bride, Ibn Arabi recounts in his

magnum opus The Meccan Openings the profoundly transformative vision that overtook him

upon meeting Nizam, the young Persian daughter of a prominent religious scholar from Isfahan.

In Nizam, just as was the case for Ramakrishna, Ibn Arabi witnessed a theophany of the Divine

4 Nikhilananda, Sri Ramakrishna, The Face of Silence (Woodstock: Skylight Paths publishing, 2005), 57.

Essence itself, for she was to him the embodiment of the Goddess in all of her functions.5 A

quote from the works of 13th century mystic Najm al-Din Kubra sheds light on this when he says,

The Essence is the mother of the attributes6. This mirrors Ramakrishnas assertion that

Brahman alone is addressed as the mother indicating that, rather than simply another attribute

of God, the feminine aspect represents the very essence of the divine nature. It was the ecstasy of

this realization of mystical love and devotion that prompted some of the Shaykhs most famous

poetry, in which divisions between religious paths are burned away in the blissful fire of love.

One of his most famous poems reads, My heart is receptive to every form; for gazelles a

pasture, for monks a monastery, tables of Torah and script of Quran. My religion is the religion

of love: wherever turn her camels, that my religion is, my faith. This clearly reflects the divine

inclusivism necessitated by Vedantic or Akbarian (belonging to the school of Ibn Arabi)

metaphysics. In another passage, Ibn Arabi more clearly articulates this, advising, Do not attach

yourself to any particular creed exclusively such that you disbelieve in the rest; otherwise, you

will lose much good, and will fail to realize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and

omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for He says, Wheresoever ye turn, there is the fact

of Allah (quoting Quran 2:109).

Another well-known Hindu thinker who would very likely agree with Ramakrishnas

assessment of Islam is Mahatma Gandhi, though the latters studies of the faith, rather than being

inspired by personal mystical experience and speculative metaphysics, were driven by social

concerns and the unification of a new nation. As a major part of the Indian independence

movement of the 1940s, Gandhi found himself as the voice of all the diverse people of India,

including Muslims. In light of the occasional hostility between factions of both communities,
5 Markwith, One God, Many Prophets, 126-130.
6 Sachiko Murata, The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook On Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1992), 76.

Gandhi often found himself facing questions from his coreligionists about the place of the

Muslim minority in a majority Hindu nation. It is in this context of Islams contribution to India

and her people that Gandhis emphasis on the ethical and social teachings of Islam is most

clearly articulated. In a 1929 interview with Young India, Gandhi stated, Islams distinctive

contribution to Indias national culture is its unadulterated belief in the oneness of God and a

practical application of the truth of the brotherhood of man for those who are nominally within

its fold. I call these two distinctive contributions. For in Hinduism the spirit of brotherhood has

become too much philosophized. Similarly though philosophical Hinduism has no other god but

God, it cannot be denied that practical Hinduism is not so emphatically uncompromising as

Islam.7 This quote has great significance, for in it Ghandi affirms that the uncompromising

emphasis of Islam on the oneness of God is a boon to the philosophical Hinduism which he, as a

Hindu and devout reader of the Baghavad Gita, believed to be true, and is thus in a way more

oriented towards the wholeness of God than common adherents of practical Hinduism. He also

states that while philosophical Hinduism affirms this oneness of God and Man, it has overly

complicated these matters and become bogged down in philosophical jargon and speculation.

One of Islams great contributions to India, in Gandhis view, is thus its simplicity concerning

Gods oneness and the brotherhood of man. This emphasis on practicality extends to his

profound respect for the Prophet Muhammad, about whom he writes, I became more than ever

convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam it was the rigid simplicity, the

utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his

friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and his own

mission.8 It is clear that in the Prophet of Islam Gandhi saw a model of ethics, character, and
7 Richard Johnson, Gandhi's Experiments with Truth: Essential Writings by and about Mahatma Gandhi (Oxford:
Lexington Books, 2006), 116.
8 Ibid.

practical action in the world. His concerns were not, however, only pragmatic or practical. When

commenting on the flaws he saw in the Hindu system of life, particularly concerning the caste

system and division between sects, he writes, What was the meaning of saying that the Vedas

were the inspired Word of God? If they were inspired, why not also the Bible and the Koran?9,

and on another occasion rebukes the negative words of a Hindu questioner saying, Is the God of

the Mahomedan different from the God of the Hindu? Religions are different roads converging at

the same point.10 These excerpts demonstrate that, like Ramakrishna, Gandhi was open to the

idea that religions are not only fuctional and useful for bringing the nation together, but share the

same divine source and goals.

Like Hinduism, Islam uniquely contains within its foundational structure an openness to

accommodate (with exceptions and conditions) the truth claims of other religions, a fact not

often expounded upon in popular discourse but long the subject of study and debate among

Muslims, particularly the mystics, for whom such possibilities opened doors to realizing the one

Truth behind the multiplicity of form. While the ecumenism of Hinduism is primarily

metaphysical, being based around the different ways of knowing Reality or God (as the case may

be) and the relationship between the spiritual nature of existence and the physical world, Islams

basic support for the plurality of paths is in the plurality of messengers and prophets, each with

their own religious law (shariah) and doctrinal emphasis. While this topic, as the subject of

hundreds of books in English alone, is too extensive to delve deeply into in such a brief paper, its

importance cannot be overstated. A famous Hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) states that

God sent over 124,000 prophets to all people, and over 300 different scriptures, including the

Torah, Gospel, Psalms, Quran, etc. This list has been extended by many Muslim scholars and

9 Ibid., 62.
10 Ibid., 85.

saints to accommodate the Vedas and the Upanishads (as well as the Gathas of Zoroastrianism

and other scriptures), in light of their focus on the doctrine of unity, which is of paramount

importance in Islam.11 Most orthodox jurists circumvent the potentially heretical implications of

this type of speculation with the doctrine of Tahrif, or the corruption of these earlier scriptures

such that, despite a divine origin, they are no longer ideal tools for realizing the truth and do not

have salvific efficacy. Many Sufis and philosophers throughout the last millennium however,

realizing the innate nature of Truth wherever it is found, long viewed these texts as wisdom of

the ancient nations that should be studied and preserved. Truth, as the Prophet Muhammad

said, Is like the lost camel of the believer- it is his right wherever it is found.

Among those Muslims of the Subcontinent that studied the Vedic literature was prince

Muhammad Dara Shikoh, eldest son and heir of the fifth Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (who

ascended to the throne in 1627). The prince is primarily known in Indian popular culture for the

bitter war over succession to the throne fought between himself and his brother Aurangzeb, who

ultimately ordered his execution.12 Shikoh was not only a great prince of the Mughal dynasty, but

was also a mystic well versed in the Quran and Hadith literature, as well as the classics of

Persian and Arabic mysticism and the more common works of Hindu philosophy such as the

Upanishads (Which he translated into Persian), all of which he draws upon heavily in his

explanations of Hinduism. One of his most famous works, The Mingling of the Two Seas,

named for a Quranic episode that became very important in mystical Quranic exegesis, is

concerned entirely with defending Hinduism as an authentic God-given religious path and

explaining the apparent discontinuity between it and Islam from the perspective of Sufism. His

work is unique in that it is a systematic treatise on the subject, divided into discourses on

11 Markwith, One God, Many Prophets, 3-4.

12 Dara Shikuh, Majma-Ul-Bahrain, 4.

everything from the five elements and the senses of the human body to the three gunas of

Samhkya philosophy, presenting teachings of both the Muslim mystics and the Indian

monotheists in support of his claims.13 Among the most critical topics discussed are the Hindu

doctrines of the soul-body dichotomy, moksha, meditative trances, and the distinction between

Brahman Nirguna and Brahman Saguna, all of which have clear analogues in Islam which the

author is keen to demonstrate. While the traditional Islamic view of salvation is concerned

primarily with eschatology and the apocalyptic sorting of humanity into the denizens of the

garden and the fire, Shikoh is concerned with demonstrating the importance of seeking ecstatic

realization of truth while still in this life, and divorcing the self of attachment to the phenomenal

world. In the process, he discusses the nature of the supernal soul (arbc. ruh) all men, and how

it is in fact identical with the transcendent Self of God, an obvious parallel with the central

teaching of the Chandogya Upanishad. Rooted in Ibn Arabis metaphysics, he writes of the Sufi

doctrine of fanaa (lit. annihiliation), often called Istighraq (drowning) but the Sufis,

wherein ones self-hood is drowned in the sea of undifferentiated unity. Dara Shikoh speaks of

this reality in a poem saying, We have not seen a single particle of dust separate from the sun,

and every drop of water is the sea in itself. With what name should I call the Truth? Whatever

name there is, it is one of the names of God. In addition to expressing sentiments very similar to

those of Vedanta, the imagery of the mote of dust in the ray of sun evokes the imagery used by

the Vaishishika school of philosophy to explain its atomistic particularism. Like the specification

of Brahman Nirguna and Brahman Saguna, Reality without and with attributes respectively,

Shikoh emphasizes that both Gods transcendence (tanzih) and imminence/resemblance (tashbih)

are critical in understanding the divine Reality that permeates existence.14 Most remarkable in

13 Ibid., 44.
14 Ibid., 55

Dara Shikohs work is his affirmation of the infinite cosmic cycles of the universes creation and

destruction, which directly brings to mind the cycles mentioned in both Samkhya and

Vaishishika philosophy. Expressing deeply Vedantic sentiments, he quotes the great Sufi poet

Hafiz as saying, There is no end to my story, or to that of the Beloved, for whatever hath no

beginning can have no end. He comments on this saying, After the termination of this cycle,

the world of Adam, the father of men, will re-appear in exactly the same manner, and as such it

will be endless. He cites in support of this the Quranic verse, As He brought you forth in the

beginning so shall you return (7:29), and a cryptic tradition concerning the Prophets ascent to

heaven. It is said that our prophet, may peace be upon him, saw a line of camels, proceeding in

succession without any break, and on each of which two bags were laden, in each of which there

was a world just like that of our and in each such world there was a Muhammad just like him.

Our Prophet asked Gabriel, what is this? Oh Prophet of God, since my creation I have been

witnessing this line of camels preceding with bags but I am also unaware of their meaning.

This, Dara Shikoh says, is a reference to the infinity of the cycles.15

M. R. Bawa Muhaiyadeen is a figure of mythic proportions among Sufi Muslim

communities in Sri Lanka and Western converts to Sufism alike. Illiterate and speaking only the

ancient language of Tamil, Guru Bawa (as he was called in the West) lived and taught in a

religious milieu comprising Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and even western Jews who

travelled to Sri Lanka to benefit from his wisdom. Preaching a message of unity and love,

Bawas teachings were deeply rooted in the doctrines of the Qadiri Sufi order of which he was an

initiate. Living in a dominantly Hindu area, however, and preaching to mostly Hindus and

Buddhists, his lectures, recorded by followers and later translated into English, are couched in

the symbolic language of the Subcontinent. Rather than Dunya, the word used by Muslims to
15 Ibid., 75.

refer to the lower world of human perception and experience, Bawa speaks of Maya and

Samsara as the apparent reality of the world the veils the eye from the Oneness of creation.

Scattered throughout the 30 or so books of his teachings translated and published by Bawas

followers in America are myriad references to the deities and mythologies of the subcontinent,

explained allegorically as the aspects of God and the trials of the soul on its journey to union

with God.

For example, in June of 1970 a yogi by the name of Swami Puri visited the town of

Jaffna, Sri Lanka where Bawa lived at the time. In the course of a discussion concerning a story

of Krishna and Garuda, Bawa explained, "The two wings of the Garuda signify Craving and

Infatuation. The body indicates Maya (illusion). Its two legs represent good and evil actions.

Krishna is the radiance of the Soul (Atma). The five heads of the Cobra signify the physical body

made of the five elements, Earth, Fire, Water, Air, and Ether. Thus Maya and the five senses

thrive because of the assistance rendered to them by the Soul.... Krishna sought and obtained the

help of enemies referred to as the Garuda and the Cobra who are inimical to one another and who

attempt to kill one another in their desire for dominance. The soul is now on friendly terms with

its natural enemies and has extended its help to them and even sought their help. When Atma is

not seated itself in its proper station, how could it overcome its enemies?16 "This is an excellent

example of a Sufi saint affirming the truth contained in Hinduism, albeit in his own nuanced and

idiosyncratic* manner. Another compelling example is one in which Bawa responds to a question

concerning the Buddha, specifically the latters seeming lack of concern for the concept of

God, which by the standards of Muslim orthodoxy represents a gross breach of divine

injunction. Commenting on Siddhartas silence on the subject of God, Bawa states, Buddha said

16 M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, The Divine Luminous Wisdom that Dispels the Darkness (Philadelphia: Fellowship
Press, 1972), 152.

we must do our duty and help all those who have this body of man. He spoke of charity,

surrender, and helping other lives. But Buddha did not speak about God. Why? Buddha was the

only one at that time who was in communion with God He had escaped the confinement of his

body But his meditation was meant only for a true man who had managed to escape from the

things that kept him confined. Only such a man can meditate on God.17

Perhaps most unique in Bawas teachings is the repeated references to the transmigration

of the soul and rebirth in new bodies, shocking language considering Islams emphatic rejection

of the doctrine of reincarnation that is so characteristic of Hinduism. Commonly in Bawas

dictated writings one finds statements such as, Whatever he surrenders to, and whatever

qualities he takes into himself will be the form of his rebirth. In the end he will be subject to one

hundred and five million rebirths.18 These are often made in passing and without explanation,

yet their intended meaning is elucidated elsewhere. As he spoke to a dominantly Hindu audience,

it is not surprising that the symbolic language he used would be one intelligible to his listeners

(in accordance with the prophetic dictum speak to people in accordance with their

understanding), however in other places he explains, It is while you are living in this world, in

this very birth, that you undergo all these rebirths Every new quality is indeed a rebirth . . .The

heart and the face reveal the person's state, whether it be happiness, sorrow, anger, vengeance,

and all the other states that a person experiences. Each of these is a form that a person has taken

at a particular time. In this way, without his even being aware of it.19 Thus, using the Hindu

language of transmigration, Bawa is in fact teaching the orthodox Muslim doctrine of temporal

atomism, known by Sufis as Tajdid al-Khalqi bil-Anfaas (lit. The renewal of creation in each

17 Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, The Wisdom of Man (Philadelphia: Fellowship Press, 1983), 135.
18 Ibid., 67.
19 M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, To Die Before Death: The Sufi Way of Life (Philedelphia: Fellowship Press, 1997), 115.

breath), wherein existence is destroyed and recreated by God every instant.20 Seen holistically,

Bawas writings display a knowledge of orthodox Muslim history and creed that are surprising

considering his illiteracy and the outwardly heterodox style of his teaching. Finally, Bawa

Muhaiyaddeen emphasizes the importance of dedication to a guru to achieve enlightenment. This

idea, while of critical importance to most schools of Hinduism, is also very important for Sufis,

who ritually swear oaths of allegiance and spiritual apprenticeship to certain shaykhs to benefit

from their mystical blessings and teachings.

It can be seen from the perspectives presented that, beneath the apparent polar opposition

between Islam and Hinduism is fertile ground for social brotherhood and even the development

of an ecumenical and inclusive theology, ground tilled by the spiritual masters of both traditions,

in whose writings one finds a unique openness to affirming the divine truth manifest in the other.

This is especially important in todays world, when stereotypes and generalizations dominate the

many people view religion.


Richard Johnson. Gandhi's Experiments with Truth: Essential Writings by and about
Mahatma Gandhi. Oxford, UK: Lexington Books, 2006.
Markwith, Zachary. One God, Many Prophets: The Universal Wisdom of Islam. San
Rafael, CA: Sophia Perenis Press, 2013.
Muhaiyaddeen, M. R. Bawa. The Divine Luminous Wisdom That Dispels the Darkness.
Philadelphia, PA: Fellowship Press, 1972.
Muhaiyaddeen, M. R. Bawa. The Wisdom of Man: Selected Discourses. Philadelphia,
PA: Fellowship Press, 1983.
Nikhilananda, Adiswarananda, and Dhan Gopal Mukerji. Sri Ramakrishna, the Face of
Silence. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Pub., 2005.
Dara Shikuh, Muhammad. Majma'-Ul-Bahrain or The Mingling of the Two Oceans.
Translated by M. Mahfuz-Ul-Haq. Calcutta, India: Asiatic Society, 1998.

20 Murata, The Tao of Islam, 11.


Muhaiyaddeen, M. R. Bawa. To Die Before Death: The Sufi Way of Life. Philadelphia,
PA: Fellowship Press, 1997.
Murata, Sachiko. The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic
Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.