Al-Biruni and Hindu-Muslim Relations: Lessons from Malaysia

Although there has been peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims in Malaysia, this is now under threat.

Although Malaysia is a multicultural country whose constitution guarantees the freedom of religion for those of all faiths, its recent politics has been heading in the direction of intolerance and bigotry. A case in point is the worrying trend in Hindu-Muslim relations.

For more than 1,000 years, Muslims and Hindus have co-existed in the Indian subcontinent. Due to the current conflicts that have their origins in the activities of political parties, many assume that Hindus and Muslims have been antagonistic towards each other for centuries. While it is true that there has been a great deal of friction and conflict between them, at the same time, the more than 1,000 years of occupying the same land led to the development of a rich culture that was a product of interaction, respect and mutual borrowing in many fields of life.

Although there has been peaceful coexistence between Hindus and Muslims in Malaysia, this is now under threat, partly due to the recent development of a more exclusivist orientation among certain segments of Malays that stresses a Malay-Muslim identity at the expense of non-Muslims. This politics of identity sometimes result in the denigration of other communities. A few years ago, there was the fiasco of the Technological University of Malaysia (UTM) Islamic and Asian Civilisations module, in which derogatory remarks were made about both Hinduism and Sikhism.

Photos of two presentation slides bearing UTM’s logo went viral on social media. The module claimed that Islam had introduced civility into the lives of the Hindus of India. It was suggested that Hindus preferred to be “dirty”, and that Islam had taught Hindu converts to Islam the importance of cleanliness and healthcare. The module had also apparently taught that Hindus “believe that dirt on the body is a form of ritual that could lead to the attainment of nirvana”.

UTM identified the offending lecturer, conducted a probe and terminated his services. The university said the lecturer had not stuck to the curriculum provided by the ministry.

However, this was not the full extent of bigotry against the Hindu community. Several Hindu temples have been vandalised in past years, the most recent being in Penang at the Sri Muneeswarar Temple in Tengku Kudin Road in 2016.

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It is vital, for the sake of maintaining mutual respect and tranquillity in Malaysia, that its political and religious leaders continuously speak out against bigotry and violence in the name of religion. Muslim leaders in particular have a greater responsibility in this regard as Islam in the religion of state in Malaysia. This means that the Muslim political and religious elite should not merely ‘tolerate’ the presence of non-Muslim minorities but actively protect their rights and property.

Muslims in Malaysia should think more about who their Hindu countrymen are. They may want to read and take advice from the great Muslim scholar, Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni. Al-Biruni was born on September 5, 973, in Kath, Khwarazm (modern Khiva in present-day Uzbekistan) and died on December 13, 1048, in Ghazna,  Afghanistan, at the age of 75.

During his youth, Khwarazm was part of the Iranian Samanid Empire. Al-Biruni spent his early years under the patronage of various rulers until finally becoming part of the court of Mahmud Ghaznavi (979-1030), the ruler of an empire that included parts of what is now known as Afghanistan, Iran and northern India.

Al-Biruni went to India with the troops of Mahmud and remained there for many years. During this time, he studied Sanskrit, translated a number of Indian religious texts and conducted research on Indian religions and their doctrines. Al-Biruni was the first Muslim and probably the first scholar to provide a systematic account of the religions of India from a sociological point of view. Al-Biruni can also be said to be the first to systematically study religions from a comparative perspective. He studied Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.

Typical of the great scholars of his period, Al-Biruni was multitalented, being well-versed in physics, metaphysics, mathematics, geography and history. He wrote a number of books and treatises. Apart from his Kitab ma li-l-Hind (The Book of What Constitutes India), he also wrote Al-Qanun al-Masudi (on astronomy and trigonometry), Al-Athar al-Baqia (on ancient history and geography), Kitab al-Saidana (Materia Medica) and Kitab al-Jawahir (Book of Precious Stones). His Al-Tafhim-li-Awail Sina’at al-Tanjim gives a summary of mathematics and astronomy.

As far as Hinduism is concerned, his most important work was his Kitab ma li-l-Hind, in which he presents a study of Indian religions. It is quite remarkable, in fact, that Al-Biruni’s work on India is considered to be a vital source of knowledge of Indian history and society in the 11th century, providing details of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India.

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Kitab ma li-l-Hind aimed to provide a comprehensive account of what he called “the religions of India and their doctrines”. This included the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, science, customs and laws of the Indians. Al-Biruni considered what we call “Hinduism” as religion centuries before Europeans recognised Hinduism as not mere heathenism.

Al-Biruni’s approach was to make assessments of the religions of India based on what was logically acceptable. He was fully aware of the need to refrain from making value judgements about Indian religions from an Islamic perspective. He was very conscious of the need to present Indian civilisation as understood by Indians themselves. In order to do so, he quoted extensively from Sanskrit texts, which he had either read himself or which were communicated to him.

Malaysians are on the whole a tolerant and respectful people. However, the political developments of recent years — which have seen an unhealthy development of identity politics in the form of, among other things, reckless statements made by politicians, religious leaders and educators — threaten to upset the current harmony that informs our society. This will potentially affect Hindu-Muslim relations.

There is, therefore, clearly a need for dialogue between the Hindu and Muslim communities of Malaysia. The purpose of this dialogue is to examine the commonalities in values, beliefs and culture that exist between Hinduism and Islam and to reaffirm the commitment that the two communities have to peace and harmonious living. Al-Biruni should be considered a starting point for such dialogue.

Syed Farid Alatas is Professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Sociology.