No matter what happened in history, the sober and principled position has always been that desecration and destruction of a place of worship, belonging to other religions, is an abomination for which there could be no theological reasoning or normative justification in Islam. The Quran, very unequivocally, affirms, “Had God not been repelling some people by means of some others, the monasteries, the churches, the synagogues and the mosques, where God’s name is abundantly remembered, would have been demolished” (22:40).
As the tide of Islamic conquests surged, the standing orders for the armies used to be, “Do not spread corruption in the earth. Do not kill any animal. Do not cut down a fruit-bearing tree. Do not demolish a place of worship. Do not kill any children, old people or women” (Muwatta, Imam Malik). That these guidelines were more honoured in the breach than the observance is an irony which soon gave rise to the cult of But-Shikan, the iconoclastic warrior, who smashed idols and demolished temples. If this trend has been a paradox, the contradiction should be acknowledged and resolved. But, if the same has been the linear and logical unfolding of the precepts of Islam, reconstruction and reformulation of Islamic thought could no longer be delayed.
Could a mosque be built with ill acquired money or on an illegally occupied site, much less the one where a house of worship belonging to another religion stood? There is a consensus that it would be sinful and that such a structure couldn’t be consecrated as a mosque. This is a well laid principle which is exemplified in the prophetic precedent and how the Rashidun, Rightly Guided, caliphs conducted themselves. When Prophet Muhammad migrated to Medina, though he could have built a mosque at whichever place he liked, he not only declined the offer of the site gratis, but paid over and above the going rate for the land. There is no historical report that he converted a synagogue in Medina into a mosque even after the Jewish tribes were expelled or exterminated after successive battles. The second caliph, Hazrat Umar, in his covenant with the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem, declared, “Their churches will not be occupied, demolished, or reduced in number. Their churches and crucifixes will not be desecrated and neither anything else of their property. They will not be coerced to abandon their religion and none of them will be harmed” (Tareekh Al-Tabari).
All this notwithstanding, if the poet Iqbal could still have no qualms in singing, “Di azaneń kabhi Europe ke kalisaoń meiń (we called azan in the churches of Europe), it shows that Islam as an imperial ideology had diverged widely from its pristine spirituality.
Living memories of past wrongs
When the dispute around Babri Masjid erupted, the Hindu claim that the mosque was built upon a razed temple was contested by the Muslims who said that there was no clear evidence that a temple existed there. The presumption underlying this argument was that if a temple existed on the site, the mosque would become void, and the Muslims would stop contesting the Hindu claim. Eventually, the Supreme Court decided the case in favour of the Hindus on the basis of archaeological evidence that underneath the mosque was a structure whose architecture was distinctly indigenous and non-Islamic.
The Muslim argument with regard to Babri Masjid that it wasn’t built over a Hindu temple was fraught with implications for such mosques as were incontrovertibly built over demolished temples. Literary evidence from the contemporary chronicles are corroborated by architectural proofs lying in plain sight. The rear wall of Gyanvapi Masjid — a telltale name for a mosque — is one such smoking gun.
However, such structures are secure in their present status so long as the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 remains on the statute. This law guards a place of worship, as it existed on the day of India’s independence, against any conversion. The sole exception to it, Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid, is a bygone issue now.
Be that as it may, if a structure is known to be raised over a destroyed temple, could it become a mosque according to the Sharia or the Islamic law? The answer is an unequivocal and emphatic ‘No!’ So, why should a Muslim cling on to such a non-mosque, and add more bad blood to an already embittered situation? True, the wrongs of history can’t be righted. But every past is not dead. Some continue to live in the present. A living monument of the wrongs of the past would have to be addressed if bad memories are sincerely sought to be buried.
Renunciation to reconciliation
One can’t be held accountable for what their ancestors did in the past, but what if the later generations continue to hold on to the same ideals which impelled their forefathers into committing the wrongs whose redressal is sought today? The question acquires an added poignancy if the said ancestors were not the biological progenitors but mere ideological predecessors. Renouncing one’s real and genetic ancestry in favour of a fictitious and ideological lineage may have the romanticism of idealism, but like all idealisms, it too takes its toll.
A tangible loss for an ideological gain has been the bargain which Indian Muslims have considered profitable. Narrative and worldview are powerful forces. If history is ploughed into political narrative and the making of identity, then one must be prepared to own, disown, embrace and reject the past accordingly. Glorying in one’s natural or adopted ancestors’ accomplishments is understandable, but it has its flip side. It also places on one’s shoulders the onus of the adopted ancestors’ crimes. Insofar as the present generation is willing to glory in a group identity and accept its accomplishments as an extension of the self, they expose themselves to the crimes associated with that group identity as well. It is on this premise that the Quran bases its polemics with the Jews in words like, “O’ Beni Israel, remember My blessings wherewith I favoured you…” (2:40,47).
Denial and defence of the past wrongs is dishonesty. Honesty is the best policy; and, honesty lies in admitting the good, the bad and the ugly of the past.
Truth is a prerequisite for reconciliation. Admission of, contrition over, and wherever possible, redressal of what happened in the past is key to reconciliation.
Act 42 of 1991 is a generous law. The Muslims can best reciprocate this generosity by adhering to the Quranic morality in this regard.
According to al-Baladhuri’s 9th century historical work, Futuh al-Buldan, Umayyad ruler Al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik (705-15 CE6) had annexed a church’s land to a mosque in Damascus. When Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (717-20 CE) became the caliph, he demolished that portion of the mosque and returned the property to the church.
Ibn Khaldun Bharati is a student of Islam and looks at Islamic history from an Indian perspective. He tweets at @IbnKhaldunIndic. Views are personal.