Islamic Tolerance: Amir Khusraw and Pluralism

Amir Khusraw

Amir Khusraw

About Islamic Tolerance: Amīr Khusraw and Pluralism, published by Routledge in 2010:

Although pluralism and religious tolerance are most often associated today with Western Enlightenment thinkers, the roots of these ideologies stretch back to non-Western and pre-modern societies, including many under Muslim rule. This book explores the development of pluralism in Islam in South Asia through the work of the poet, historian and musician Amir Khusraw and sheds new light on how Islam developed its own culture of tolerance.

Countering stereotypes of Islam as intrinsically intolerant, the book provides a better understanding of how rhetorics of pluralism develop, which may aid in identifying and encouraging such discourses in the present. Khusraw, a practicing Muslim who showed great affection toward Hindus and used much indigenous imagery in his poetry, is an ideal figure through whom to explore these issues. Addressing issues of ethnicity, religion and gender in the early medieval period, Alyssa Gabbay demonstrates the pre-modern precedents for pluralism, conveying the broad sweep of Perso-Islamicate culture and the profound transformations it underwent in medieval South Asia.

Accurately depicting the paradoxicality and jaggedness involved in the development of its composite culture, this book will have great relevance to scholars and students of Islam in South Asia, gender, religious pluralism, and Perisan literature.

From the Preface:

Why a book on Amīr Khusraw, the great medieval Indian poet, historian, musician, and Sufi? There are many answers, but the most pointed one is this: Khusraw was and still is a towering figure in South Asia who deserves to be better known in the West. Chiefly, he deserves to be known for his promotion of what I am calling in this book a “language of tolerance.”

Born in the small town of Patiyāli in northern India to mixed parentage in 1253, Khusraw consciously or unconsciously strove throughout his seventy-two years to unite peoples and concepts that normally stood far apart. That he did this while maintaining a healthy affection for the status quo helps him to embody the complicated manner in which ideologies of pluralism and tolerance develop. And that he wrote in an intensely personal style, in which emotions of love, indignation, insecurity, and pride still seem to rise, like steam, from his words, helps collapse the geographical, chronological, and cultural distances between him and his contemporary readers.

It is no surprise, then, that Khusraw is still adored in Pakistan and India, where people revere him as a saint. Men, women, and children of all faiths seek his intercession at his ornately decorated gravesite in New Delhi. Qawwāls, ecstatic singers of devotional Sufi lyrics, play music attributed to him on the stringed instrument he is said to have invented, the sitar. And scholars laud him as an exemplar of ecumenism capable of bringing together Muslims and Hindus as few others can. I believe that, given the opportunity to become better acquainted with Khusraw, Westerners will feel the same admiration for the poet that he inspires in the East.

Introducing Khusraw and his ideas to a wider audience is, then, one reason I have written this book, for despite highly-regarded previous studies, the poet remains largely unknown in the West. A closely related factor is that, as someone profoundly interested in pluralism in Islamicate societies, I feel strongly that more in-depth treatment of this topic is needed. In particular, we require works that help to counter stereotypes of Islam as intrinsically intolerant and correct the widespread, Western-centric association of the development of religious tolerance solely with Enlightenment thinkers. Although Muslim South Asia is not now and never has been an exemplar of ethnic or religious harmony, India’s Delhi Sultanate period, as seen through the prism of Khusraw’s works, offers sufficient examples of pluralistic thinking to compel a reevaluation of this important subject.

(Copyright Alyssa Gabbay)

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