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Kabir – The Apostle of Hindu-Muslim Unity

Kabir – The Apostle of Hindu-Muslim Unity
Item Code: NAC710
Author: Muhammad Hedayetullah
Publisher: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788120833739
Pages: 361
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.5 Inch X 5.5 Inch
weight of the book: 450 gms
Back of the Book

The author of this carefully researched and balanced study has performed a service for students of religion and social history.

...The book is a significant contribution to an understanding of the complexities of Indian religious history.
STANLEYE. BRUSH University of Bridgeport, The Muslim World July/October 1984

The main objective of this readable and well- documented book is not so much to present new information about the great Indian preacher of mutual understanding, as to reinterpret the information already available on him in order to show in what circumstances he tried to resolve the historical tensions extant between Hindus and Muslims. It must be welcomed because it not only offers a well-arranged and lucid interpretation of all the more or less known facts, but primarily seeks to thoroughly re-evaluate the real foundations of the Hindu-Muslim relationship. In this sense, the work is very timely.


The fundamental fact that must immediately impress itself on every observer of religious life in India is the existence of two great religious communities in the sub-continent, Islam and Hinduism. These two have been juxtaposed in a position of rivalry for the commitment of the Indian population since the major advent of the Muslims into the sub-continent in the 11th century. So important has the confrontation between them been that for many historians and ideologues in recent times it has stood out as the single most important factor contributing to the modern formation of the region. To nationalist historians and writers on both sides the emergence of two states, India and Pakistan, in the area in 1947, after almost a century of political debate and struggle that was complicated by the presence of British colonial authority, has seemed the logical and almost inevitable outcome of this confrontation.

If through the centuries on the Hindu side there has appeared a greater capability to accommodate alien and irruptive religious modes within its structure, this has normally been at the price of Hinduizing these alien influences and absorbing them within a wider framework that ultimately robs them of their identity; while on the Islamic side adoption of local customs and mixture with local populations in the various areas where Islam penetrated, both outside India as well as inside, have never been able to break down the Muslim sense of being a separate community, the best of communities. In the early days of the confrontation of the two groups on Indian soil the sense of difference was exacerbated by the superior social position of Muslims as the conquering ruling power; in more recent times this obstacle to a sense of unity among all the inhabitants of the area has been replaced by the fear of domination of one community over the other and the struggle for relative advantage in a post-colonial autonomous society. Though there has undoubtedly been some meeting and intermingling of the two communities, especially at the level of the life of common people, the great distinction yet remains. To many it appears not only that a fundamental accommodation will never take place but even that none should be sought for.

The present volume rejects and attacks this commonly held view of Indian history by arguing not only that accommodation between the two communities is possible but that it actually occurred in a significant way in mediaeval India with the rise of bhakti religion. The principal focus of the volume is the study of one representative of this type of religious outlook, Kabir, the founder and patron of the continuing group known as the Kabir Panthis. Kabir is not studied for himself alone, however, but as an instance of a wider and fundamentally important process, that of Hindu-Muslim interaction. The key to Kabir’s life and thought, according to Professor Hedayetullah, is his refusal to be bound by the symbol system of a particular religious community and his insistence upon penetrating beyond the superficial expressions of piety to the experience that lies behind.

This approach prevented him in his poetry from characterizing himself as either a Hindu or a Muslim, and led him instead to claim to be a worshipper of both Rama and of Allah. In Kabir’s eyes the name attached to the deity whom one worships is only a linguistic convenience; the matter of substance is that there is but a single God with whom the worshipper should seek a relationship of intimate love. Such a relationship constitutes the heart of true religion and necessarily lifts one above the limits of any sectarian or community identification into the realm of the spirit. Kabir thus is presented as perhaps the unique leader in the sub-continent’s long and chequered history to have brought the two most basic religious outlooks found there into a position of mutual adaptation and interaction. Professor Hedayetullah is at pains to emphasize that lie believes this adaptation and interaction to have been mutual and not one- sided only, with each religion exerting a profound influence on the life and practice of the other. The adaptation is worthy of study and of enduring significance precisely because it did occur in the sphere of religion, and despite the glaring and basic differences between Islam and Hinduism. Although much greater attention is given to showing the possible channels of Islamic influence on mediaeval Hinduism than vice versa, the broad argument is made that each group affected and influenced the other in ways that transformed the other and made the Indian scene different because of their mutual contact. Bhakti and Kabir as its greatest representative are depicted as the children of the Hindu-Muslim marriage.

This volume thus presents Kabir as the first overt proclaimer of Hindu-Muslim unity, a unity that is achieved by the assumption of both outlooks into a higher religious reality. The net effect of his teaching was to break down the barriers of Islamic theological dogmatism on the one hand and the barriers of 1-lindu social exclusivism and caste discrimination on the other. Unlike other observers who describe Kabir as a syncretism who attempted to combine fundamentally incompatible teachings into a single system in an arbitrary and undigested fashion, Professor Hedayetullah holds that Kabir brought the two points of view into an integral relationship in his system of thought by refusing both completely to denounce or completely to uphold either. Instead, from a higher perspective he sought to demonstrate that both possess the elements of genuine religiousness and that by focusing the attention upon these elements the way is opened to a kind of piety which transcends their differences.

The assumption which underlies this argument for the actual mutual accommodation of Islam and Hinduism is that of the fundamental similarity of mysticism in all religious contexts, temporal, historical and geographical. Professor Hedayetullah takes for granted the universal homogeneity of mysticism, which as he rightly says is professed by many eminent scholars, without entering into a detailed discussion of this difficult subject. Kabir was essentially a mystic who developed a piety centering upon love of the deity. His mysticism provided the categories that allowed him to draw Hinduism and Islam within the bounds of a single system. Because Islam had already developed sophisticated mystical experience, theory, and practice before its decisive entrance into the sub-continent, those elements were present in the Islamic background which provided positive affinity with Hindu mystical systems that date from prehistory.

The result in leaders such as Ramananda and Kabir was a neo-religious approach, bhakti, having something of the heritage of both Hindu and Islamic mystical piety in its ancestry. So far as Kabir is concerned, therefore, the key to his thinking and his achievement is to be found in Sufism and its relationship, in terms of similarity or difference, with the various types of mysticism seen in the Hindu community. Not surprisingly a great deal of the present volume is taken up with the description of 5Ufisxn and the lives of its great exemplars both inside India and outside. The necessity to establish the fundamental similarities that form the key premise of Professor Hedayetullah’s argument has led him very far afield from the strict history of mediaeval India and has immensely complicated his task. The judgment that one may reach concerning his success in capturing the heart of a phenomenon, Sufism, which is far from having been adequately studied, is likely to influence the reader’s attitude towards the argument of the book as a whole. One must, however, applaud his courage in tackling a subject that has defied the best efforts of so many others.

In spite of the central place that mysticism occupies in the mutual influence and interaction of Hinduism and Islam, Professor Hedayetullah is also insistent that the interaction and influence he is seeking to document extend to other realms of religious life as well. It is not only the hi-shard Sufis, he tells us, who were able to accommodate themselves to the views of Hindus and vice versa and to provide the ground for a synthesizing effort such as Kabir’s. The modification is also alleged to have occurred in what may be called the “orthodox” segments of the two communities. Professor Hedayetullah does not develop this provocative assertion or provide as much documentation as one would like to support it. It would seem, however, a vital point if the general thesis of Hindu-Muslim accommodation, both its possibility and its actuality, is to be sustained. Hopefully in some future work Professor Hedayetullah will share his insights ‘into this matter with the scholarly public.

This book which reviews the life and achievements of an important mediaeval religious figure whose influence continues down to our own day is very much to be welcomed. Not only does it offer an interpretation of the work and life of Kabir, thus making a substantial contribution to our knowledge of the history of religions, but more importantly it invites a renewed consideration of the religious foundations of the Hindu-Muslim relationship and of the operative elements in that relationship. The thrust of its argument in interesting both because it goes against the grain of most contemporary opinion and because, could the argument be conclusively proven, it offers a possible approach to the solution of a problem that has brought untold misery to the Indian sub-continent. The author has earned our gratitude for bringing these matters to our attention for setting the stage for further debate.


The interaction between Hindu and Muslim ideas in India took place over a period of several centuries. The two cultures met on various levels, such as intellectual, commercial, political and religious. On each of these levels, the two religions influenced each other, sometimes peripherally, sometimes deeply. The most important of these levels for this study was the religious. In spite of their very basic differences, the two traditions were forced by circumstances into some kind of interaction even on the orthodox level. However, the point at which the two religious traditions had something in common was mysitcism, and both traditions produced non-orthodox mytsics who could hardly be distinguished from one another. The system which expresses the culmination of their interaction is called Bhakti Mysticism.

The interaction of Hindu-Muslim ideas through bhakti mysticism produced a number of great mystics in India during the medieval period. The characteristic feature of these bhakti mystics was that by no orthodox criterion could they be identified as purely Hindu or Muslim. They were the whole-hearted sadhakas of One God; they found no distinction between man and man, such as Hindu and Muslim; and they considered so- called religious observances, rites and ceremonies as useless for actual spiritual progress. In short, the type of bhakti mysticism which these sadhakas formulated and propagated was a simple region of devotion (bhakti) to God which required no outward performance of what are called religious duties, but need only a pure heart and a sense of absolute surrender to a God. As these bhaktas considered themselves whole earth lovers of God, the essence of their religion was love for God.

The greatest of all these mystics, who were products of an movement engendered by the interaction of the two faiths, was Kabir of Banares, North India. Kabir occupies a unique position in the history of Indian national heroes, for he is one the few figures to emerge from the history of Indian religion during the medieval period. Kabir’s greatness lies primarily in his sustained efforts to unite the Hindus and the Muslims who had been antagonistic to one another for centuries. Kabir came to realise that the quarrels between Hindus and the Muslims were based fundamentally on religion. And it was religious prejudice and bias which prevented the two communities from developing a sense of unity and harmony, even though they were living together in the same society.

Therefore, in order to achieve his mission, Kabir overtly denounced both Hinduism and Islam. According to him, the traditional form of Hinduism as well as of Islam was only a creation of Hindus and Muslims themselves, for, he maintained, the One God, Allah or Rama, has created only one human race without making any distinction between man and man. Correlative to this basic idea, Kabir argued that since there is One God, regardless of the different names used for Him, and one human race, there could not be many religions. By breaking down all denominational differences based on religion, Kabir tried to formulate a new religion, rather a new piety or a new spirituality, consisting of good elements from both Hinduism and Islam. That religion, primarily based on bhakti, Kabir hoped would be acceptable to both Hindus and Muslims.

In connection with Kabir’s mission, the most significant point to remember is that in his striving to unite the Hindus and the Muslims under the fold of one religion, he consistently kept himself above all religious denominations. In this, he never identified himself as a Hindu or as a Muslim. The only available evidence of his identification His that of a “weaver of Benares.” Thus, having kept himself above the level of Hindu- Muslim religious categories, Kabir found himself justified in denouncing both Hinduism and Islam with equal severity. He maintained perfect neutrality and showed no soft heart or preference to either religion. Kabir’s distaste for sectarianism can also be seen in the fact that, unlike many bhaktas, he refused to organise any sect of his own followers. His understanding of one human race and a universal brotherhood of human beings prompted him not only to reject and denounce the Hindu caste system, and all sectarianism that was fostered by either Hindus or the Muslims, but also to refuse to constitute a sect of his own followers.

Kabir’s effort to unite the Hindus and the Muslims on one religio-social platform was crowned with success, at least during lifetime. But immediately after his death, his followers split up into two separate camps — Hindu and Muslim — thus pulling down the entire structure for which Kabir had struggled so hard. The Kabir-panthis quickly departed from the ideals of Kabir. The Kabir-panthis built up their own sectarian tradition in spite of Kabir’s warnings, and produced a galaxy of literature in the name of Kabir. The history of the Kabir-panthis falls outside the scope of this work.

In spite of his good intentions, Kabir was misunderstood by people both during his lifetime and after his death. His strange ideas puzzled people at home and created enemies outside. His mother and his wife rebuked him for his involvement in matters of religion, which, they thought, was the business of Brahmans and Mullahs. Being a member of a Muslim family, his utterance of the name of the Hindu God, Rama, embarastied his parents and his wife.

Outside his family, the Brahmans and the Mullahs raised a hue and cry against Kabir’s ideas. First of all, his denunciation of the sanctified position claimed by those so-called guardians of religion engendered open hostility against him. Second, both Hindu and Muslim religious personages found it impossible to tolerate the authority of a low-caste man like Kabir speaking on religious matters. Third, Kabir’s overt1rejection of both traditional Hinduism and Islam, his preaching of the idea of one religion for the people of India, and his ignoring the distinction that is implied by names like Allah arid Rama, were considered sacrilege by orthodox Hindus and Muslims. According to the legends, these enemies tried to get him renalised by the Muslim administration of that time.

When Kabir died his Muslim and Hindu followers quarreled over his corpse and have continued to quarrel ever since. As ii result the history of his life has been greatly distorted, with the record being so obscured that some writers have even doubted the existence of Kabir. Others, while not hesitating to accept the fact that Kabir was an actual human being, find it difficult to agree on what his true teaching was. Some of these writers try to treat Kabir as a Hindu, while others attempt to see him exclusively as a Muslim Sufi.

Where are we to find reliable information concerning Kabir’s life and teaching? To begin with, the Bijak (invoice) is taken as the treasure house for Kabir’s teaching. However, it must be admitted that even Bijak does not contain even’ word of Kabir. It was compiled by his disciples long after his death. Naturally, the possibility of additions to Kabir’s original sayings cannot be ruled out completely. Although facts and legends are mixed up through the ages, it is not altogether impossible to sift the genuine sayings of Kabir from the apocryphal within the Bijak. By a study of Kabir’s sayings as recorded in the Bijak, we are able to see that there is a kind of single line of thought, though it is far from being logically consistent.

The second source for information concerning Kabir’s life and teaching is the Adi Granth, the religious scripture of Sikhism. The sayings of Kabir occupy a considerable portion of this scripture. The status given to Kabir’s sayings in the Adi Granth (or the Granth Sahib) is taken as a testimony to the authenticity of his sayings. However, as in the case of the Bijak, some additions and modifications can also be expected in the Adi Granth. A small number of Kabir’s sayings are found both in the Bijak and in the Adi Granth, with slight difference in phrasing. This discrepancy is probably due to two oral traditions which served as kernel for the formation of the two scriptures.

In addition to these contemporary and near contemporary sources, the One Hundred Poems of Kabir by Rabindranath Tagore also provides some reflections of Kabir’s teaching. Besides these, some information regarding Kabir’s life and teaching can be gleaned from secular sources. These evidences are carefully collected in the Indian National Biography Series and other standard history books. In this work we will rely on both the scriptural and the secular sources. A careful stud of all information as collected from these sources will help to form a fairly correct view about Kabir’s life and teaching.

On the basis of this historical information, we hope to find some keys by which to reinterpret Kabir’s sayings in the light of their historical perspective. Our main objective will be not Mc) much to give new information as to reinterpret the informa11011 already at our disposal and to argue that Kabir’s thought was the product of the interaction of Hindu. Muslim ideas in bhakti mysticism. Secondly, we wish to show how Kabir tried to bind the Hindus and the Muslims together with a single religio-social rope and thereby resolve the historical tension extant between them. We will argue that in order to achieve this goal he consistently kept himself above Hindu- Muslim sectarian identification.


Foreword by Prof. C.J. Adams vii
Preface xiii
Introduction xix
List of Abbreviations xxv
I. History of the Interaction of Hindu-Muslim Ideas 1
A. The Background of Interaction 1, B. The Nature of Interaction 9, Contacts between India and Islam – (a) Intellectual 11, (b) Commercial 13, (c) Political 18.
II. The Interaction of Hindu-Muslim Ideas on the mystical Level 27
Islamic Mysticism (Sufism) 28, Sufis and Indian ideas 33, Sufi missionary activity 44, Intermarriage as a source of interaction 52, Interaction through language 58, Sufism and Gita 64.
III. Interaction through Bhakti Mysticism 68
Etymology of the terms Bhakti and Anpu 68, Definitions of Bhakti 71, External Influence on the Bhakti Movement 76, The Saivites of the South 81, The Lingayata System 88, The Siddhars 97, The Vaisnavites of the South 99, Ramanuja’s Bhakti 103, The Doctrine of Prapatti 112, Bhakti in the Bhagavatapurana 114, Namdev 115, Sri Chaitanya 120, Guru Nanak 122, Ramananda 127.
IV. The Life of Kabir 132
The Source 132, A. The Bijak 133, B. The Adi Granth 138, C. One Hundred Poems of Kabir of Rabindranath Tagore 142, Kabir’s Life Sketch 152, Legends of Kabir’s Birth 157, Legend of Babir’s Naming 162, Problem of Kabir’s Date 165, Kabir’s Early Life 167, Kabir refused Circumcision 168, Kabir’s family Life 172, Kabir’s relation with Hinduism 178, Kabir’s relation with Islam 180, Kabir’s attitude to Saints 184, Kabir faces opposition 185, Kabir’s relation with Sikandar Ludhi 186, Kabir’s Death 189.
V. The Teaching of Kabir 197
Kabir’s spiritual awakening 200, Kabir’s concept of God 203, Kabir’s Concept of one Humanity 208, Kabir’s Concept 0f Sabda 211, Kabir and Philosophy 214, Kabir’s view of Karma and Samsara 219, Kabir’s Concept of Maya 221, Kabir’s Concept of Bhakti 224, Dhikr (Remembrance 0f God) 226, Kabir’s Concept of Purity of Heart 229, Kabir’s Love relation with God 231, Kabir’s Concept of Prapatti Aslama 33, Kabir’s Concept of Karma and Qadr (fate) 233, Kabir’s Concept of Guru-Pir 237, Kabir’s sense of Humility 241, Kabir’s Concept of the transitory Nature of the World 243, Kabir’s Concept of Death 245, Kabir’s Moral and Ethical Teaching 247, Kabir’s Concept of Final Goal 250, Kabir’s Concept of Poverty 256, Kabir’s Concept of Jivanmukta 258, Kabir’s attitude to Hinduism 260, Satire on Hindu Rituals and Asceticism 260, Anti-Yoga- and-Yogi Satires 262, Anti-Bathing and Pilgrimage Satires 264, Idolatry denounced 265, Sectarianism condemned 268, Caste System rejected 269, Incarnation denounced 272, Sati rejected 274, Anti Brahman Satires 274, Animal Sacrifice denounced 278, Kabir’s attitude to Islam 279, Muslim Ceremonies rejected 282, Kabir’s denunciation of Hindu- Muslim Rites and Scriptures 287.
Conclusion 292
Bibliography 303

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