In a remarkable 13th-century document, a Sufi writer records his epiphany on the Prophet Muhammad granting permission for music in India. Quoting a cryptic statement from the Prophet (“I feel the breath of the Merciful coming from Yemen”), he speculates that the “Yemen” in question is not just the region of the Arabian Peninsula, but possibly also the popular Indian raga of the same name. These days, such an innocuous interpretation, linking the founder of Islam to the music of North India, is certain to incite accusations of blasphemy, and perhaps even calls for assassination, in many Muslim populations.
But that would have been uncontroversial, even commonplace, for much of the last millennium, the centuries in which India was the world’s busiest crossroads, receiving and transmitting cultural influences between East and West, the north and the south. Artists and thinkers of that time, as India complacently welcomed a polyphony of identities, were oblivious to the religious and gender distinctions so much invoked today. For example, the 14th century Sufi poet Amir Khusrau wrote qawwali, a poetic form derived from Arabic chants, using a female character and images derived from the worship of the Hindu god Krishna. Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, India’s most influential yogi in the 19th century, not only practiced both Islam and Christianity; he spent many years dressing up and imagining himself to be a woman.
Such ingenious creativity helped pre-modern South Asians build a syncretic and broadly pluralistic society. But today it would be stigmatized in Pakistan, the “land of the pure” created 75 years ago this week as the homeland of the subcontinent’s Muslim population. Meanwhile, in India, founded at the same time on a promise of secular democracy, a Hindu supremacist regime wants to purify the country’s inescapably impure past, erasing all traces of “non-Hindu” influences, including the Taj Mahal, without most famous doubt in the country. monument.
In many ways, the binary constructs of “Indian” and “Pakistani” embody the sorry logic of the event that 75 years ago split British-ruled India in two: partition, along with mass killings, rapes and dispossession. Botched products of British imperialist shenanigans – and fierce struggles for personal power between leaders of the anti-imperialist movement – the new nations were locked from birth in military conflict; their ruthless “identity politics” today range from intellectual forgeries in history textbooks to the lynching of religious minorities.
Their 75-year political history – marked by several wars, arms races, anti-minority pogroms, authoritarian rule and minimal protections for the poor and weak – causes above all despair and apprehension. As Pakistan nears economic collapse, Indian fantasies of becoming a superpower are crumbling amid shriveled growth and ecological calamity. Demagogues from both nuclear-armed countries are treacherously exploiting the resulting anger and disaffection. While claiming to deliver on the broken promises of modernity, they mobilize the thwarted energies of individual and collective aggrandizement in a mass politics of fear and loathing.
The hopes for a survivable present and a viable future depend very much on how we understand our heritage – the long, deep and still living past of the Indian subcontinent. Violence and brutality are hardly unknown to him: cities are ransacked, massacres and rapes are perpetrated on ordinary people, places of worship desecrated. Yet it would be a manifest mistake to hold up the desiccated present of India and Pakistan as proof of progress in history, and to scorn their common past as barbaric or backward. For there are millennial traditions in the subcontinent that continue to exemplify coexistence, compassion and even love – in short, all major human values that have disappeared from modern ideologies of race, religion, ethnicity , nation and civilization.
Moreover, this pre-modern South Asian past, in which individuals had multiple overlapping identities, is not dead; it’s not even the past. It throbs vigorously in the hearts and souls of hundreds of millions of us, appearing unexpectedly in our daily lives, lingering in our words, our food, our clothes, our customs, our songs.
Our popular religions and cultures, which millions of design still practice, have never been defined by political oppositions as narrow and modern in essence as ‘Hindu’ versus ‘Muslim’. In the Pakistani town of Sehwan, devotees of the dargāh of the 13th century Sufi saint La’l Shabāz Qalandar still perform rituals of amorous mysticism dating back to the ancient Shiva temple that once stood on the very site. Even young urban South Asians, radicalized by WhatsApp and YouTube videos, are quickly shedding their flashy nationalist identities when confronted with narratives that offer a deeper, richer existence. A barrage of Islamophobic Bollywood films have indoctrinated tens of millions of Indians into hatred of Muslims and Pakistanis. Yet Pasoori, a recent song by Ali Sethi that celebrates syncretic identities, has become one of India’s biggest musical hits ever, including among people unfamiliar with its Punjabi and Urdu idioms.
These are not isolated examples. Growing up in countries periodically at war with each other, we, the authors of this essay, have actively sought out contemporary writers, artists and musicians across the border. When Pakistani artists such as Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum popularized the ghazal form, they had no more fans than in India. There was an outpouring of grief in Pakistan when singer Lata Mangeshkar, ‘the nightingale of India’, died earlier this year at the age of 92.
Today, barriers to travel and cultural exchange between India and Pakistan continue to rise. Stepping into the breach, popular culture and the art of the South Asian diaspora have taken to invigorating the shared experience of Indians and Pakistanis: in the new Ms Marvel television series, the heroine is a Pakistani Muslim teenager from New Jersey, and the storyline revolves around the collective trauma of partition, turning the pain of Hindus and Muslims into a universally relatable tragedy.
No other long-running conflict, whether between North Korea and South Korea or between Israel and Palestine, offers such examples of deep affinities across fiercely policed borders. Nowhere else in the world do the emotional and philosophical capacities generously flourishing in inner lives over the centuries continue to overturn the modern political ultimatum to conform to a brutally monolithic identity.
As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of partition, it is abundantly clear to us that politics in India and Pakistan is doomed to continue to forge a history of intractable enmity between Hindus and Muslims. It is also clear that any reasonable hope for peace between these two nuclear powers cannot rest on a single political and economic breakthrough. We can only avoid a doomsday scenario if we recognize and nurture, or at least do not waste, the linked cultural and spiritual heritage of the two countries. The great truth he repeatedly stresses – of the plural and interdependent nature of human identity – is the best medicine for our spitefully polarized worlds.
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