Religious fundamentalism is an elusive concept, inherently influenced by subjective perceptions. Rationalised by the converts, scorned and dismissed by the liberals, the representation of religion in the popular narrative has long swayed between two extremes. The story of Sheikh Sarmad, the 17th-century Sufi mystic who was beheaded by Aurangzeb, bears a lesson still relevant today. (Here the story is depicted by Lahore artist Sabir Nazar.)
When Sarmad famously said, “Men khuda yem” (I am god), he was implying that if god were to be everywhere, inside everybody, then everybody would be god – and, therefore, equal. But the Mughal emperors declared themselves to be the ‘shadows’ of god (zile subhani). This new dynamic demanded that god be placed above the world, with deputies needed to maintain the world’s affairs on his behalf. Sarmad’s subsequent beheading alludes to his breaking the ties of body and consciousness, while his ascent of the staircase is a Sufi symbol of spiritual power.
Today, in place of the autocratic emperors, it is the rise of extremism that is rife. Not only are extremist religious outfits challenging the writ of the state throughout Southasia, the state itself often promotes such groups. In all of this, the public is carried along as both victim and perpetrator. Fundamentalism is not the monopoly of one faith. Fundamentalisms clash with each other, but they also feed off of one another. Hindu fundamentalism in India creates an environment for Islamist extremism to flourish. In turn, the existence of such groups allows the Hindu right to portray Islam as violent and fanatical. Though Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism gave rise to Tamil militancy, both now thrive by demonising the ‘other’. Dismantling fundamentalism will never be a straightforward, one-sided endeavour.