Were Muslim Rulers Iconoclasts?
By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
Much of the evidence of what Hindu nationalists claim about demolishing and desecration of temples by Muslim rulers is found in Persian sources. Now this is projected as a proof of Muslim intolerance, tyranny and despotism against Hindu subjects or the vanquished people. But it does not tell all.
We had this Babri Masjid /Ramjanambhoomi movement built around this point which caused great upheavals in Indian politics and led to bloodshed. Conceptual framework for the same was provided by History books such as Sita Ram Goel’s two-volume Hindu Temples: What Happened to them? and Prafull Goradia’s Hindu Masjids.
Between 986 and 1192 AD several invaders plundered North India and took away a lot of movable wealth. These kings included Sabuktagin and Mahmood Ghaznavi (who ruled Kabul between 998 and 1130 AD). These raids were mainly targeted at material gain. They never sought permanent rule in India.
But as Muslims established their rule they took upon two tasks:
i - State patronage of India based sufi order. Chishtia order was thus patronized by all sultanates and Muslim kings.
ii - A policy of selective temple desecration in order not to loot and finance their military machine but to delink the Hindu state patronage to temples and divinity of the kings.
We will go into the second aspect in detail. The saffron historians hide this aspect. Those temples that housed the ruling dynasty’s state deity or rashtra-devata were normally desecrated, defiled or destroyed. This was to strip the rajah of the divine legitimacy. Temples that were not so identified were left untouched.
Hindu Kings also demolished Temples
But this was not alone with Muslim conquerors. This was a custom even before Muslim armies arrived. From 6th century onwards, all deities, sanctum sanctorum, images associated with dynastic authority were considered politically vulnerable. All Hindu kings, armies, kingdoms treated their Hindu rivals the same way. Even Historian R. M. Eaton has described this as a rule of the war. He writes, ‘Hindu rulers to effectively legitimize their rule over the conquered territory resorted to temple destruction of the vanquished raja. The temples were normally looted, the presiding deity of the dynasty as every Hindu rulers had his own presiding deity’. (Ref. R. M. Eaton, Essays in Indian History, page 104)
Here are a few facts:
1089-1101 AD: King Harsha of Kashmir of the first Lohara dynasty indulged in ruthlessly looting the treasures of the temples of Bhimasai and also systematically confiscated and defiled the metallic statues of Gods by outcasts throughout the Kashmir valley in order to obtain the valuable material. He even imposed tax on the night soil.
(Ref. Kalhana, Rajataran-gini, Vol. 1, sec. 5, Motilal Banarsidas, page 113)
Between 986 and 1192 AD several invaders plundered North India and took away a lot of movable wealth. These kings included Sabuktagin and Mahmood Ghaznavi (who ruled Kabul between 998 and 1130 AD).
• 642 AD: Pallava king Narasimhavarman I looted the image of Ganesha from the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi (present day Badami in Belgaum dist.)
• 692 AD: Chalukyas invaded North India and brought back to the Deccan what would appear to be images of Ganga and Yamuna looted from defeated powers.
• 8th century AD: Bengali troops sought revenge on King Lalithaditya’s kingdom in Kashmir by destroying what they thought was an image of Vaikunta the state deity of Kashmir kingdom.
• 9th century AD: Rashtrakuta king Govinda III invaded and occupied Kanchipuram which so intimidated the King of Sri Lanka that he sent Govinda (probably Buddhist) images representing the Sinhala state.
• Rashtrakuta king Indira III not only destroyed the temple of Kalapriya at Kalpa near the Jamuna river, patronized by their deadly enemies, the Pratiharas, but they took special delight in recording the fact.
• 9th century AD: Pandyan King Srimara Srivallabha also invaded Sri Lanka and took back to his capital golden Buddha image.
• Early 10th century, Pratihara King, Hermabapala, seized solid gold image of Vishnu Vaikunta when he defeated the Sahi kings of Kangra (Himachal Pradesh)
• Early 11th century: Chola King, Rajendra I furnished his capital with images he seized from several prominent neighboring kings: Durga and Ganesha images from the Chalukyas, Bhairava, Bhairavi and Kali images from the Kalingas or Orissa as Nandi image from the Eastern Chalukyans. (Ref: David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence (ed.), Beyond Hindu and Turk, University Press of Florida, 2000.
In short, the temples were the sites where royal authority was challenged before the arrival of Muslim Turks in India. This generally happened with early Muslim rulers. But this practice declined after Muslims began to wrest territories and rule from the territories held by their preceding Muslim rulers.
Some more facts can be noted
• In many cases the temple desecration was never recorded.
• Between 1192 AD and 1729 AD, 89 instances of temple desecration are found recorded in the Indian history. Their historicity appears reasonably certain.
• Most such acts were undertaken by military officers.
• They happened mostly along the moving frontiers of conquests.
• These acts were never directed at people but at the enemy king and the image that incarnated and displayed his state deity.
But this attitude changed once these conquered land were integrated into the Muslim kingdoms. Then the religious properties were left unmolested. Some instances of patronage of temples:
1. Mohammad Ibne Kasim is quoted to have said: Temples shall be unto us like the churches of Christian, Synagogues of Jews and fire temples of Magians.
(Ref. William Jackson A.V., (ed) History of India, Vol. 5, The Grolier Society, London, Baroda edition 1907, page 12).
2. Muhammad bin Tughlaq appointed Muslim officials to repair Siva temple in Kalyana in Bidar district in 1326 thereby facilitating resumption of normal worship.
3. Sultan Shahabuddin Tughlaq (1355-73) rebuked his Brahaman minister for having suggested melting down Hindu and Buddhist images in his kingdom as a means of obtaining quick cash.
4. Sikandar Lodhi (1489-1517), was advised in these words by Muslim jurists : It is not lawful to lay waste ancient idol temples and it does not rest with you to prohibit ablution in a reservoir which has been customary from ancient times.
5. In Mughal rule, Akbar allowed high ranking Rajput officers in his service to build their own monumental temples in the provinces to which they were posted.
6. Between 1590 and 1735, Mughal officials repeatedly oversaw and on occasion even initiated the renewal of Orissa’s cult, that of Jagannath in Puri. By sitting under a canopied chariot which accompanying the cult’s annual car festival, Shah Jehan’s officials ritually demonstrated that it was the Mughal emperor operating through the appointed officers (mansabdar), who was the temple’s and hence God’s representative.
7. Aurangzeb (1656-1707) ordered the local officials in Benares to protect the temples and Brahman temple functionaries. (Ref. Firman ordering mansabdar Abulhasan in Benares dt. Feb. 28, 1659, quoted by the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Page 689-90, 1911)
8. Sikandar Lodhi (1489-1517) received information that a lot of Hindus had gathered at Kurukshetra and were raising a lot of ruckus there. He wanted to demolish the temple and kill all the Hindus there. He sought advice from the ulema. Malikul Ulama Abdullah issued an edict: It is anti-sharia to demolish a traditional place of worship of Hindus (dhimmis) and discontinue the convention of bathing at the ghat or a pond. Sikandar flew into rage and warned him of dire consequences. Abdullah said: He did not fear anyone and the life and death are in the hands of the Almighty Allah. At this Sikandar gave up the idea.(Ref. Sheikh Mohammad Ikram quotes Syed Ameer Ali from Islamic culture)
Muhammad bin Tughlaq appointed Muslim officials to repair Siva temple in Kalyana in Bidar district in 1326 thereby facilitating resumption of normal worship.
Mahmood Ghaznavi and Bamiyan Buddhas
Mahmood Ghaznavi ruled Afghanistan from Ghazni. He led 11 army expeditions between 1001 and 1055 AH on Hindustan and is accused of desecrating and demolishing temples. If indeed Mahmood’s objective was iconoclasm, he could have turned his ire against Bamiyan Buddhas which stood for nearly 2000 years in Bamiyan. He did not touch them. It could be asked as to why a confirmed ‘iconoclast’ merely passed by the Buddhas.
Mosques were also not spared
It was not merely temples but even mosques were not spared if the Muslim emperors suspected their edifices being used for purposes other than worship. Aurangzeb ordered the demolition of Jama Masjid of Golconda after sacking the Qutb Shahi kingdom in 1687 to get access to treasure that lay beneath the mosque floor.
It will be less than fair to attribute desecration or defiling of religious places to bigotry and hatred. It owed much to the customs of the age whereby vanquished kings had to be divested of the religious halo and authority. Rulers, Hindu or Muslims, followed the practice regardless of their own religious beliefs.
(For feedback: debumkmyths @yahoo.co.in)
Courtesy: Islamic Voice, May 2006
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