The Past, Present and Future of Muslim Scholarship on the Hindu Tradition

November 3, 2022

Bilal Muhammad is a Fellow and Research Assistant at the Berkeley Institute for Islamic Studies. He is also an MA Candidate at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, B.Ed at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and Honors BA in Political Science and History at the University of Toronto. He is an educator and researcher based in Toronto, Canada.

The Past, Present and Future of Muslim Scholarship on the Hindu Tradition

Muslims have been interacting with Hindus for over a millennium. When the Spanish scholar Ibn Ḥazm (d. 1064 AD) sat down to write a work about all the religions of the world, he was aware of the existence of India (al-Hind) and the Brahmins (barāhima), although he knew very little, and of what little he knew, some of it was just plain wrong.[1] However, what his book shows is that information about the Eastern extremity of Muslim civilization had reached the extreme West by the early eleventh century. This is made all the more significant by the fact that Muslim contact with Japan, not that much farther to the East, would not happen for many centuries.

At the same time that Ibn Ḥazm was pontificating about the religious diversity of humanity, al-Bīrūnī (d. 1048) was doing the hard work of getting to know the particulars of a foreign language, culture, and religious tradition. Brought to the Indus River Valley by the Afghan conqueror Maḥmūd of Ghaznī (d. 1030), al-Bīrūnī set his sharp analytical mind to the task of understanding what we now call Classical India.[2] He studied Sanskrit and produced a series of works meant to give readers of Arabic deeper insight into this foreign world. At times he emphasized similarities, and at times he spoke plainly about the significantly different social values and metaphysical concepts of this unique civilization. In doing so, he opened the minds of his readers to almost half of South Asia, as many places farther East were until then virtually unknown to his audience.[3] He was an exemplar of intercultural understanding, recognized even until today as making a unique contribution to the intellectual history of humanity.[4]

Later Muslims continued the scholarly interaction, but usually within a Persianate intellectual world. In many respects, al-Bīrūnī’s Arabic texts were anomalous, as Persian became the prime medium for intellectual exchange with the Sanskritic culture of South Asia.[5] Much of the exchange was rooted in the scholarly patronage doled out in the courts of various Muslim rulers, and as such should be understood as a part of the political projects of minority ruling elites.[6] For example, the Mughal court was particularly interested in producing Persian translations of the Mahābhārata, considered along with the Rāmāyaṇa as the two most important stories of ancient kingly India.[7] But at times, other works emerged from the ʿulamāʾ that seemed more focused on grappling with religious difference, at least as we now understand it. For example, a Naqshbandī sufi leader named Mirzā Maẓhar Jān-i Jānān (d. 1781) speculated that pre-Muḥammadan prophets must have come to South Asia, and so therefore there should be a revealed core of truth somewhere within Hindu thought and practice. However, he did not systematically try to reveal that core through detailed analysis of Hindu religious culture. He expressed a sympathetic engagement with his Hindu neighbors, but unlike al-Bīrūnī, seemingly never attempted to study it on its own terms.[8] But someone who did try to grapple with the textual tradition at the level of theology and philosophy was the Mughal prince Dara Shukoh (d. 1659). Motivated by his mystical inclinations, Dara Shukoh focused a great deal of effort on translating the Upaniṣad-s, classical Sanskrit texts widely read by various Hindu schools of thought. In addition, he would visit gurus to learn the lived traditions of interpretation and embodiment, much as sufis privilege time spent in the company (suḥba) of their shaykh. Although committed to the dominant Ḥanafī school of South Asian Islamic law, he grappled seriously with an attempt to find similarities between Sanskrit and Persian terminology of mystical unveiling. In the end, he was executed by his brother Aurangzeb (d. 1707) in a typical Mughal pattern of royal succession, who did not share his interest in the religious ideas and practices of unbelievers (kuffār).[9]

By the time of British rule, less and less interest seems to have been shown by the Muslim scholarly class of South Asia in the ideas of their Hindu neighbors. Nor did any particular intellectual discipline (ʿilm) ever develop about how to make sense of the Hindu tradition, referencing the contributions of past scholars and building on their work by adding new data and insights. Core intellectual disciplines such as jurisprudence (fiqh) were maintained during the colonial period, and that functioned as a bridge that made it possible to continue the madrasa system even after Independence in 1947.[10] However, the emergence of postcolonial states has not seemed to brought about a revival of the legacy of al-Bīrūnī and others. Individual scholars, such as Prof. Muhammad Akram in Pakistan, have touched on particular subjects, such as his scholarly article on the Bengali mystic Ramakrishna (d. 1886), who contended that he had arrived at the highest mystical truths of Islam.[11] However, there is still a dearth of scholarly engagement with the Hindu tradition by Muslims.

It is necessary to contrast this situation with Jewish, Christian, and Atheist/Agnostic scholars working in European and North American institutions who have dedicated their lives to studying the Hindu tradition. The colonial period saw the emergence of serious scholarly interest in both Islam and Hinduism from a Western lens. Numerous scholarly articles and books were produced in English, French, and German, and centers for research in major universities were established. The concept of “World Religions” emerged, as an attempt was made to categorize the entire religious diversity of humanity within a Western humanistic framework.[12] Some favored the concept of “The Science of Religion” in which to fit the “data” of Islam, Hinduism, and all other traditions.[13] This is the foundation of the present intellectual situation, where Muslims who seek to study Islamic Studies in American, French or German universities have to privilege the knowledge production of this particular colonial intellectual past. Hindus face a similar situation with Hindu Studies in the same universities.

So why can’t Muslims produce Muslims scholars who are specialists in the Hindu tradition, carrying forward the millennium of engagement between the two traditions into the twenty first century? The answer is simply that they can if they want to.[14] If Muslims believe that Islam is a universal truth that can respond to the existence of competing truths in human society, then that should be demonstrated at the scholarly level. But many Muslims dismiss thousands of years of Hindu texts and traditions, and the existence of nearly a billion Hindus around the world, as simple polytheism (shirk). Some of the few who do engage the tradition often simply want to appropriate the monistic metaphysics of Kashmiri Śaivism and/or Advaita Vedānta to bolster monistic tendencies within Sufi metaphysics, an intellectual project that often goes by the moniker “Perennialism.”[15] Even more intellectually suspect are those who attempt to appropriate words or phrases from Sanskrit texts in an attempt to claim that they predicted the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace upon him and his family, in 7th century Arabia. Hindus with anthropomorphic conceptions of the Divine do a similar type of appropriation of verses of the Qur’an that discuss the “hand (yad)” and “face (wajh)” of God, arguing that they are proof that the Qur’an was revealed by Kṛṣṇa.[16] Muslims scholars would reject such an interpretation based on the lack of authority amongst Hindu intellectuals to reinterpret classical Arabic texts, and likewise Hindus would reject Muslim intellectuals attempting to do the same with Sanskrit texts.

Most Muslims are also oblivious to fact that many popular gurus and Hindu academics are actually converts, indicating the global ascendance of the Hindu tradition. The presence of Ramakrishna’s disciple Vivekananda (d. 1902) at the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago is often put forward as a watershed moment in the missionary movement of Hindus outside of a South Asian context.[17] Fast forward over a hundred years, and it is hard to know whether Hinduism in the USA is more popular amongst White Americans or immigrants from South Asia and their children.[18] Muslims, understandably, are fascinated by conversion stories from countries with small Muslim minority populations (USA, UK, EU, etc.), but seem unaware that the same phenomenon is at play in the Hindu community.[19]

Perhaps part of the problem is due to the division of scholarly labor. Studying the Islamic tradition is time consuming. If someone spends 10 years of their life in Qum or Najaf or Cairo or Karachi, they are just beginning to be a scholar of Islamic law and theology. The same is true of the Hindu tradition. It takes a long time to master Sanskrit, and to become competent in the detailed Sanskrit texts and commentaries that are considered authoritative in the present. Given this, it seems unlikely that anyone could become a scholar of the highest standing within the Muslim community (such as the marājiʾ), and at the same time study the Hindu tradition well enough to competently discuss it with those who have been immersed in the interpretation of classical Sanskrit texts their whole lives! Even the efforts of past Muslims who studied the Hindu tradition reveal their limitations. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Chishtī (d. 1683) produced an interpretive version of the Bhagavad Gita in his era, but where is the Muslim scholar that can competently discuss the rich Sanskrit commentarial tradition on the Gita, such as the works of Rāmānuja (d. 1137) and Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa (d. 1793)?[20] Muslim studies of the Hindu tradition can only escape the limitations of the past through participating in and augmenting the structures of an intellectual discipline (PhD programs, scholarly journals, academic conferences, endowed university professorships, etc.) that allow for scholarly exchanges on these subjects between Muslim specialists, Hindu scholar-practitioners, and other academics who adhere to different worldviews. If Muslims refuse to seek out and support such intellectual opportunities, then any Muslim interested in this subject will come to the unavoidable conclusion that the only reliable sources of scholarly knowledge are anything but Muslims! Hindus, Christians, Jews, and Atheists/Agnostics are already in the process of transforming Hindu Studies from an Orientalist relic into a truly global academic discipline that bridges East and West. Muslims should be part of this endeavor, as well as create space for intra-Muslim scholarly conversations about the implications of this knowledge for the global Muslim community. Increasingly accurate and sophisticated knowledge about Hindu histories, texts, theologies, and practices will allow Muslims to more competently engage global cultural diversity, carrying forward the thousand-year legacy whose locus classicus remains the inspiring scholarly career of al-Bīrūnī.[21]

You can find out more about R. David Coolidge here.


[1] Ghulam Haider Aasi, Muslim Understanding of Other Religions: A Study of Ibn Ḥazm’s Kitāb al-Faṣl Fī al-Milal Wa al-Ahwāʾ Wa al-Niḥal (New Delhi: Adam Publishers, 2007), 195–7.

[2] Thomas R. Trautmann, India: Brief History of a Civilization, Second Edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 65–147.

[3] Noémie Verdon, “Cartography and Cultural Encounter: Conceptualization of al-Hind by Arabic and Persian Writers from the 9th to 11th Centuries CE,” in Negotiating Cultural Identity: Landscapes in Early Medieval South Asian History, ed. Himanshu Prabha Ray (New Delhi: Routledge, 2015), 30–59.

[4] Kemal Ataman, “Re-Reading al-Bīrūnī’s India: A Case for Intercultural Understanding,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 16, no. 2 (2005): 141–154.

[5] Shankar Nair, Translating Wisdom: Hindu-Muslim Intellectual Interaction in Early Modern South Asia (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020), 117.

[6] Carl W. Ernst, “Muslim Studies of Hinduism? A Reconsideration of Arabic and Persian Translations from Indian Languages,” Iranian Studies 26, no. 2 (2003): 173–95.

[7] Audrey Truschke, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 101–41.

[8] Sher Ali Tareen, “Translating the ‘Other’: Early-Modern Muslim Understandings of Hinduism,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 27, no. 3 (2017): 436–460.

[9] Supriya Gandhi, The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).

[10] Barbara Daly Metcalf, “Madrasas and Minorities in Secular India,” in Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education, ed. Robert W. Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 87–106.

[11] Muhammad Akram, “God-Realisation through Multiple Religions? A Study into Religious Experiences of Sri Ramakrishna,” Islamic Studies 56, no. 1–2 (2017): 31–52.

[12] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[13] Robert J. Zydenbos, “The Significance of Indian Religions for the Science of Religion,” in Einheit Der Wirlichkeiten. Festschrift Anlasslich Des 60. Geburtstags von Michael von Bruck. (Munch: Manya Verlag, 2009), 319–338.

[14] Dheen Mohamed, “Towards an Islamic Theology of Hindu-Muslim Relations,” The Muslim World 107, no. 2 (2017): 156–169.

[15] Hamid Algar, “’Allāma Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn Ṭabāṭabāʾī: Philosopher, Exegete, and Gnostic,” Journal of Islamic Studies (2006): 1–26.

[16] Akif Manaf J., Chand Kazi & Chaitanya: Muslim-Vaishnava Unification, Unity in Diversity (Vrindavan: Traveling Sankirtan Party, 2012), 74–8.

[17] Kathryn Lofton, “Religious History as Religious Studies,” Religion 42, no. 3 (July 1, 2012): 383–394.

[18] Philip Goldberg, American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation – How Indian Spirituality Changed the West (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010).

[19] Nicole Karapanagiotis, Branding Bhakti: Krishna Consciousness and the Makeover of a Movement (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 2021).

[20] Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst, “A Muslim Bhagavadgītā: ’Abd al-Rahman Chishti’s Interpretive Translation and Its Implications,” Journal of South Asian Religious History 1 (2015): 1–29.

[21] R. David Coolidge, “Dharma of Bhakti, Dharma of Mlecchas: Muslim Engagement with Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism as a Living Tradition,” Journal of Dharma Studies 3, no. 1 (2020): 121–130.

Published Date: November 3, 2022
Topics: Hinduism
Category: Islam and Hinduism