By | Devdutt Pattanaik | Indian Author
People often challenge me to write on Islamic mythology. These ‘challengers’ don’t realise is that Wikipedia already has an entry called Islamic mythology. And in academic circles, people speak of Islamic, Christian and Judaic mythology as freely as they talk about Greek, Egyptian and Norse mythology. This ‘challenge’ is based on 19th century definitions (myth is fiction, religion and science are true), and not 21st century definitions (myth is cultural truth of a people, indifferent to evidence). This old definition is popular in Hindutva circles, and many cult gurus propagate this in order to manufacture victimhood as part of the ‘Hindus are under threat’ discourse.
Yes, in the 19th century, Hinduism was disdainfully referred to as mythology, owing to its polytheistic beliefs, while monotheistic beliefs qualified as religion. So Hinduism was classified with Greek beliefs. Christianity alone qualified as religion. Not all monotheisms were seen as religions. Europeans and Americans saw the Jewish faith was the ‘Old Testament’, hence outdated, and the Islamic faith as heathen, as Islam did not see sex as sin, and so did not value asceticism.
The oft-used phrase ‘Judeo-Christian’ mythology, acknowledging common roots, is a very recent one. It was first used by Europeans and Americans only after the World War II in a spirit of apology and appeasement, horrified by the silence of the papacy over the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazis, who were Christians (a fact rarely advertised today). And the adjective ‘Abrahamic’ was used for myths only after the Gulf War, so about 20 years ago. Until late 20th century, any attempt to point to the common foundation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and trace if further back to ancient Mesopotamian, Persian and Egyptian mythologies, would lead to uproar. But no more — in a world that values science, and is familiar with poststructuralism, every faith is seen as creating a worldview through stories. Christianity and Islam are no exceptions.
In the 21st century, all theism is considered as myths, as God is not a measurable concept. If God is myth, then messenger of God (prophet) is also myth. But myth is not falsehood — it is collective fiction that enables collaboration. Just as Hindu mythology creates Hindu community, Islamic mythology creates Islamic community. Secular mythologies create secular communities. Mythologies are the key to community building. Myths serve as social glue. As Indians, it is surprising how little we know of Islam, even though one of the oldest mosque in the world is in Kerala.
Why is that? We have wide exposure to Ramayana and Mahabharata, and even to tales from Bible, thanks to missionary schools and the Gideon’s Bible found in most hotel rooms, and to Hollywood films like Ten Commandments and Passion of the Christ.
But what about Islamic myths? Doordarshan tried to produce a serial on biblical stories in 1992, but it was opposed by Kashmiri militant groups and the government stopped the telecast. The government then argued, they were respecting the Islamic ways that forbids depictions of God’s creations and his prophets in art, it was seen by many as appeasement politics — indulging and even encouraging puritanical militant Islamic groups over educated liberal Muslims! An opportunity to familiarise Indians with Islam was lost.
Militant puritanical Islam forbids music and dance, and yet Bollywood thrives on talented Muslim musicians, dancers and actors. Muslim empires such as Ottomans of Turkey, Safavids of Persia and Mughals of India did patronise Islamic art between 15th and 18th centuries, and even allowed depiction of stories narrated in Quran and Hadith. So clearly, Islam has a liberal side that governments have chosen to ignore, thus giving excessive power to the militant religious leaders.
Few Indians know the Nabi-Vamsa, stories of prophets, composed in 17th century Bengal or the CiraPuranam, based on life of the prophet, also composed in 17th century Tamil Nadu. Exposure to these stories would have familiarised Indians to the alternate worldview that came to India 1,400 years ago — a worldview based on one life rather than rebirth, where messengers of God told humans how to live, and heaven is reserved for the faithful and law abiding.
The idea that all are equal before the law comes from Islamic culture, and influences the ‘idea of India’, where Constitution takes the place of God’s commandments.
There is much similarity between Hindu and Islamic mythology. Both speak of brothers who fight constantly over property. Hindu mythology describes the conflicts between Devas and Asuras, Nagas and Garudas, Vali and Sugriva as well as Pandavas and Kauravas). Islamic mythology speaks of fraternal rivalry between Qabil and Habil (Cain and Abel), Isaac and Ismael, and Jacob (Yakub) and Esau. Such battles over inheritance remind us that despite difference in cultures and religions, we are all human.