Kabir in his time, and ours


Kabir wearing a turban adorned with a peacock feather. PHOTO/YouTube screen grab

The notion that God is one entity with different names in India is Kabir’s singular legacy – one the Hindutva camp is now trying to demolish.

Long before Kabir’s time (c. 1440-c.1518), with Islam’s arrival in India, two religions with contrary concepts of God and forms of prayer stood face to face. If Islam stood for the singularity of God, tauhid, Hinduism was teeming with legends of 330 million gods and goddesses even as the population practicing it would probably be under a hundred million.

Hinduism, in fact, comprised several strands, including monotheism as well as a very strong strand of atheism, unthinkable in Christianity or Islam as doctrines. The forms of worship for Muslims was a single one; these abounded in Hinduism. Islam came in through various doors: through the battlefields, Sufi dargahs and at the hands of traders. If its arrival at the point of the sword clearly created divisive tensions at the social level, the Sufis tended to soften these tensions through an alternate version of their faith.

However, even as interactions and some give-and-take of ideas, especially between the Sufis and the Nathpanthis did occur, the two competing identities of God – Allah and Ishwar – remained intact with this rivalry percolating down to their followers. It was Kabir’s genius that sought a resolution of this conflict. If the problem was extremely complex, Kabir’s solution was marked by a matching simplicity. He gave tauhid a very simple Indian version.

Tauhid, the Arabic term for the singularity of God or monotheism, the basic premise of Islam, had led to extensive discussions within the Muslim community. No one questioned either the existence or the singularity of God, but discussion followed on whether human beings can be held answerable for their deeds if all they do is pre-ordained for them by God; or whether Time had been created by God or was eternal; even the legitimacy of prophethood was questioned.

Al-Ghazzali, however, with enormous erudition at his command, closed all doors to dissent and firmly placed the faith beyond all manner of discussion. But then, some doors were opened again with Ibn al-Arabi proposing that while God’s singularity is given, He can be perceived and approached in multiple forms: wahdat al-wujud, the unity in multiplicity formula that we in India are so fond of repeating. In the 12th century a group in Morocco calling itself al-Muwahiddun (believers in tauhid) created a movement to purify Islam of its pre- and anti-Islamic elements and led to the establishment of a state which lasted over a century.

However, all these discussions, elaborations and movements were confined within the fold of Islam. Kabir broke out of this fold and took tauhid beyond the boundaries of denominational religions. But first, what are Kabir’s bona fides as an interpreter of tauhid?

Abu’l Fazl, medieval India’s tallest historian and intellectual mentions Kabir as a Muwahidd, says that he had unfolded life’s hidden “meaning” – a Sufi trope referring to life’s real spiritual meaning above the daily routine – and had given up the worldly rituals. Abu’l Fazl’s junior contemporary, Abdul Haqq Muhaddis, an orthodox scholar, tells a delightful story: his father asked his own father whether this renowned Kabir was a Hindu or a Muslim. His father said Kabir was neither a Hindu nor a Muslim but a Muwahidd. The son asked him what is a Muwahidd? The father replied “You are too young to understand; you will when you grow up”.

Noticeable is the fact that Kabir was recognised as a Muwahidd both in the liberal Muslim circles in medieval India, of which Abu’l Fazl is the most shining symbol as well as in orthodox circles and both emphasised that Kabir’s Muwahidd status went beyond the bounds of Islam and Hinduism. What did Kabir do to earn this distinction?

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