Idolatry and the Taliban

The Taliban regime's effort to rally world Muslim opinion behind it by projecting the vandalism at Bamiyan and the large-scale destruction of artefacts in other parts of the country as being in consonance with Islamic tenets, did not fetch the expected support. Barring a few shrill voices from the fringe, extremist quarters, most Muslim countries as well as leading Islamic scholars have voiced their strong disagreement with the Taliban. They insist that Islam does not allow the destruction of the places of worship of others. "There is no compulsion in religion," says the Holy Quran, and in destroying the Buddhas, the Taliban are guilty of a heinous violation of the very religion that they claim to so passionately uphold.

Those familiar with Buddhism know that idol worship is quite foreign to the original teachings of the Buddha, and in this, they come very close to the Islamic position on the matter. Orthodox Hinayana Buddhism had no place for idols of the Buddha, depicting him in the form of symbols, instead, such as, a lotus or the wheel of the law. Yet, over the centuries, particularly owing to the influence of Hinduism and various Tantric traditions, the Buddha's simple creed was turned into an institutionalised religion, the Mahayana or the Great Vehicle, complete with its own priesthood and deities, who came to be represented, of which the 'historical' Buddha, became but one, in the form of idols. An indication of the impact of Mahayanist idolatry is that the Persian and Urdu term for idol, but, is derived from 'Buddha'.

That idols and idol-worship are foreign to the actual teachings of the Buddha does not, ofcourse, condone what talibs have done. Since they have invoked Islam in justifying the destruction of the Buddhas, one must judge their actions in the light of the teachings of Islam, and, in particular, early Islamic tradition as it evolved in South Asia. When Islam first made its presence felt in Afghanistan and India, soon after the death of the Prophet, the schools of Islamic law (mazahib) had not as yet developed. At that time, Afghanistan and India were largely Buddhist and Hindu. The Muslim armies which had taken control of Afghanistan and parts of western India, including Sindh and Multan, were faced with a new situation, about which the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet (hadith) were silent, for the Islamic scriptures referred only to the Jews, Christians and idol-worshipping pagans of Arabia, laying down rules for Muslims to follow in their dealings with them.

When Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sindh from the seaward side in 711 CE, the country was wracked by a civil war, with the Buddhist majority labouring under the oppressive rule of Brahmins. The Chachnama, the principal extant source on the history of Sindh in this period, says that the Buddhists welcomed the Arab Muslims with open arms as deliverers from the Brahminical tyranny. Several Sindhi Buddhist tribes went over to Islam, and in this Sindh was not alone.

It is interesting to note that those areas of South Asia where Muslims are in considerable majority today, including the whole of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Kashmir, parts of Bihar and the entire eastern Bengal, were strongholds of Buddhism at the time of Islam's advent in the Subcontinent. Scores of Buddhists in these areas seem to have willingly converted to Islam in order to tackle the Brahminical revivalism.

Once Muhammad Bin Qasim had established himself in Sindh he sent a letter to the Muslim Caliph in Damascus, seeking instruction as to how he should deal with the Hindus and Buddhists of the conquered area. The reply came that they be treated in accordance with the Quranic commandments relating to the People of the Book (Ahl-i-Kitab), the Jews and the Christians. Accordingly, the Buddhists and the Hindus of Sindh were to be given full freedom to practise their faiths, and their lives and property, including temples, were to be protected. In return, they were to pay a tax, the jizya. The old, the sick, children and priests were to be exempted from the tax. The non-Muslims were not obliged to perform military service, unlike the Muslims. Following these dictates, Muhammad Bin Qasim thus set a precedent which several other Muslim rulers after him followed.

By the 10th century or so, four schools of Sunni Islamic law (mazahib or maslak) had evolved, based on the Quran, the hadith and the interpretations of the ulama. Most Muslims came to be associated with one or the other school of jurisprudence. In South Asia, including Afghanistan, almost all Sunnis considered themselves Hanafis, following, in matters of fiqh (jurisprudence), the school established by Imam Abu Hanifa. The Hanafi jurists of the Subcontinent seemed to have come to some sort of consensus that the Hindus and Buddhists could be considered to be Ahl-i-Kitab or at least as similar to it, and hence are 'protected people' or zimmis. In other words, they believed that it was incumbent on the Muslim rulers to protect the lives and property of their Hindu and Buddhist subjects, and guarantee them freedom of worship and religion. This is clearly reflected in the voluminous fatawa literature of the Turk, Afghan and Mughal periods in India, produced by a leading Hanafi ulama.

The Fatawa-i-Qurrakhani, one of the earliest collections of fatawa of the Hanafi school to be put together in India, deals in considerable detail with the question of the status of the non-Muslim subjects under the Delhi Sultans. Compiled by Maulana Imam Yaqub Muzaffar Kirmani, this compendium was intended as a manual for the then reigning sultan, Jalaluddin Khilji. In response to a query as to what should be done with the places of worship of non-Muslims in a territory ruled by a Muslim king, he answered, "If there were any temples of the zimmis in their cities which have now come under Muslim rule, then, according to the Islamic shari'at, they should be left untouched, and the non-Muslims should not be stopped from worshipping therein. Neither should their properties and lands be interfered with".

Likewise, the 14th century Fatawa-i-Feroze Shahi, compiled in the reign of Feroze Shah Tughlaq, lays down that the places of worship of the non-Muslim subjects of a Muslim sultan should not be demolished. Moreover, the compiler of this collection suggested, on the basis of his own reading of the shari'at, that Muslims may dine with Hindus and may assist non-Muslims in need. Another compilation of fatawa made in the reign of Feroze Shah Tughlaq, the Fatawa-i-Tatar Khaniya, by the noted Hanafi scholar Alam bin Ala, also categorically states that it is not lawful for Muslims to destroy pre-existing places of worship belonging to non-Muslims in lands that have come under Muslim rule.

The story is told of a leading Islamic scholar, Maulana Abdullah Thaneswari, who, when he learnt that Sultan Sikander Lodhi had been pressed by some maulvis to destroy the temples of Thaneswar, confronted the king, telling him that to do so would be a gross violation of the teachings of the Quran. When the sultan retorted that the Maulana was taking the side of the Hindus, and warned him that if he did not desist he would be killed, he replied, "Death is inevitable. Without God's permission no one ever tastes death. Whenever one appears before a tyrant one does so prepared for death. I have simply told you what the Islamic law has laid down."

The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan completely lacks the religious sanction that the Taliban authorities have sought to bestow on it. Rather than helping Islam in any way, it has only further reinforced misleading stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant marauders that are today so distressingly widespread among many non-Muslims. The grave damage that this has caused to the cause of Islamic mission (tabligh) can easily be imagined. Islamic scholars insist that conveying the message of Islam to others is the divine duty of all Muslims, and the Quran itself says that this must be done "through gentle words". But not for the Taliban.

The pulling down of the Buddhas has done the greatest harm to Islam and the Muslim cause, despite Taliban protestations to the contrary.

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