The Non-violent Face of Islam

In 2011, at an exhibition titled “The Buddhist Heritage of Pakistan: Art of Gandhara” held at the Asia Society Museum, New York, a sequence of ‘carved narrative panels depicting episodes from the life of Buddha’ were displayed. These reminded me of ‘carved narratives’ appearing on tiny steatite seals discovered from Moen jo Daro. Some of these too depict episodes from a civilization long dead. One of these show a deity standing amidst pipal (banyan) leaves next to a submissive human figure, while images of seven females carved at the bottom of the seal watch the ritual. There are seals depicting a human figure combating two tigers, these have been compared to human-lion and human-bull contest scenes found in ancient art in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In his recent writings, Jonathan Mark Kenoyer offers a more logical interpretation to these scenes. According to him the myth of a hero who could grapple with two ferocious animals is probably a story with deep roots extending to the Paleolithic and may have been widespread throughout West and South Asia. Each region probably used familiar animals to represent specific concepts of nature and conflict between various spiritual forces.

There is yet another seal engraved with a three-faced deity, crowned with a pair of horns, seated in a yoga posture and surrounded by animals. This image led Sir John Marshall to consider the deity to be a primordial version of Shiva, the Hindu God; Shiva is also known as Bhutanatha and Pashupati, the Lord of animals. More relevant here is Marshall’s observation of the deer motif of the Shiva seal and its comparison to the deer beneath the throne of Buddha that symbolizes the Deer Park where he gave his first sermon.

On the surface these samples from Indus Valley Civilization may not suggest a direct link with Buddhism, at the most they can be considered precursors of the form of story telling that evolved in the Gandhara tradition of narrating Buddha’s story.

However, Sir Mortimer Wheeler had once hoped that the stupa that crowns the site of Moen jo Daro might have been built on an ancient temple. Ernst Mackay, another archaeologist who excavated the site, had similar thoughts. According to him a sacred place continues to be used for a sacred purpose even by new occupants of a different religion. The ancient temple beneath the stupa was never found but a whole city marked with non-violent traits was unearthed. And beyond the City and through the mists of time exists a template of non-violent temperament in the region. It is this template which is primary where Indus Valley Civilization, Buddhism, Jainism, Bhaktism had befitted well and where Sufism can reign supreme. Not too far back in times it was logical for Mahatama Gandhi’s non-violent movement to succeed here. In the absence of tangible evidence this is how we can rely on logic to draw some answers.

After all it was the absence of war related evidence-weapons, military barracks, prisons-that led the archaeologists to label Indus Civilization as the most non-violent ancient civilization. If there was a war it was ‘between various spiritual forces’ represented by human-animal conflict motif engraved by the ancient scribes from Nile to Indus. The Sufi concept to strive for perfection is not much different from the concept of achieving nirvana in the non-violent religions; both are versions of an inward war to conquer evil within; both are fought on spiritual realms rooted in Indus Valley Civilization and beyond in the settlements buried deep and lost in time. Archaeologists are not allowed to dig Moen jo Daro but they are vigorously working on Harappa and few other important Indus sites in Pakistan and India. At the moment they may not be able to reconstruct fully the ideology of ancient Indus but they cannot deny its non-violent traits, perhaps it is time to study past traits in present times. There are numerous examples of survival and continuity of Indus tradition in the region.

Amidst the many scattered remnants of peace -1500 or so Indus sites, more than a million shrines, many Jain temples and Buddhist stupas- are also records of smaller stupas. Listed in British records as votive stupas they have vanished without leaving any trace. These were usually located around the larger stupas, two of these dated between 800-1200 CE, near Bhanbhore are recorded in the 1919 report of the Archaeological Survey of India “the importance of the discovery of these smaller stupas lies in their worship by the modern inhabitants of Sindh.” although the worshippers by that time were Sindhi Hindus of Vani community but the British officials strongly felt that the two ‘bleak…curious monuments were at one time Buddhist Stupas.’ This may or may not have surprised the British officials but this has been the natural response throughout history; devotees flocking to the sacred places even when the labels change from Buddhism to Hinduism to Islam. Today at the shrines of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Pakistan and Nizamudin Auliya’s in India, Hindu devotees can be found in considerable numbers.

Saints, dead or alive, Muslims or non-Muslims, have been messengers and custodians of peace throughout the history of the region. The areas away from militant Islam still rings with the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif, Bulleh Shah, Rehman Baba and many others. This face of Pakistani Islam is easily distinguishable from the Deobandi Islam that came from India after the Partition. Sufi Islam also continues to remain distinct from the new militant Islam which matches the Deobandi philosophy taught in the madrasas of the North West regions of Pakistan. I must emphasize that Sufi Islam is not a sect of Islam it is just the mystical aspect of Islam. Mysticism is much older than Sufi Islam and had been prevalent in the pre-Islamic religions. Its long history makes it deep-rooted and strong, stronger than the bombs. Destruction by Talibans will make no difference even if all the physical remains of peace, Islamic and pre-Islamic, are eradicated from the face of the region, the non-violent spirit will survive and it may even fly and nestle in regions afar.

In the pre-Islamic days there was a Buddhist sage Padmasambhava from Uddiyana, an ancient town located in Swat, Pakistan. He had gone to Tibet to preach Buddhism where he came to be known as Guru Rinpoche. The seed of Buddhism that he planted in Tibet sprouted and spread to Mongolia, Bhutan and surrounding regions. After the departure of Dalai Lama from Tibet it was exposed to the world and became popular in the West, even in the most opulent and most worldly of all the institutions, the Hollywood. At this juncture of the history of non-violence another narrative awaits to be carved.

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