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Was Dara Shukoh an apostate?

Vinod Kumar


"As I did not look at this infidel's face in his lifetime, I do not wish to do so now." Aurangzeb is reported to have remarked when decapitated head of Dara Shukoh
was presented to satisfy him that no fraud or substitution had taken place. On Aurangzeb's order Dara's "corpse was placed on an elephant, paraded through the streets of the city a second time, and then buried in a vault under the dome of the tomb of Humayun, without the customary washing and dressing of the body."

Before his decapitation, such was the hatred of Aurangzeb towards his brother that after his capture, Dara Shukoh and his son were paraded through the streets of Delhi dressed in tattered clothes and seated on a miserable-looking female elephant.

Dara Shukoh was executed not only on the charge of heresy and infidelity, but also for the crime of calling Hinduism and Islam 'twin brothers'.

The charge of Dara's heresy and infidelity mostly stems from his dealings with the Brahminical and Islamic thought, his original work Majma'-ul-Bahrain (The Mingling of Two Oceans) and his translation of fifty Upanishads, Sirr-i Akbar (The Great Secret).

However, there is nothing in Dara's Sufistic career to suggest that at any time he had renounced Islam. He was (along with his sister Jahan Ara) a Qadiri Sufi, believer in the Wahdat al-Wujud (Unity of Being) school of Sufism and a disciple of Sufi Mulla-Shah.

After his discourses with Baba Lal and other Hindu saints, yogis and ascetics, Dara Shukoh had come to believe that there was one and the same Absolute who was merely expressed in different forms in different religions. This was really nothing new. Similar ideas had previously been developed by Ibn 'Arabi. It seems Dara was not familiar with the earlier comparison of the Nath terminology and Dvaidadavaitita-vilakshanvada and terminology of sufism and Wahdat Al-Wujud in Shaikh Gangohi's Rushdnama. However, he worked independently on the same topic and in 1654-55 wrote the Majma'u'l-bahrain (Mixing of the Two Oceans). Dara drew parallels between the Hindu mystic and Islamic sufi terminology and was convinced that apart from verbal differences, the understanding of Reality of the two systems was essentially the same. He justified his conclusions on his interpretation of the 'Light Verse' in the Qur'an (24:35)

Dara Shukoh divided the prophets in three categories and regarded the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad who he thought harmoniously blended the Absolute and the determined, the Colorless and the colored, and the Near and the distant was the "comprehensive prophethood".

According to Dara Shukoh, only such saints who combined Prophet Muhammad's tasbih (immanence) with tanzih (absolute transcendence) were perfect. In this category he included the first four caliphs, Hasan and Hussein, a number of Prophet Muhammad's companions and a host of sufis including his pir Mulla-Shah. Only one Hindu saint -- Baba Lal Bairagi -- was included in his list of "perfect saints". Even Kabir did not make the grade.

His other work Sirr-i-Akbar (The Great Secret) was the translation of fifty Upanishads. Study of the Upanishads satisfied Dara Shukoh's intellectual curiosity in a way all other works had failed to do. He regarded them as fountainhead of Tawhid (Wahdat al-Wujud). He correlated them with the Qur'an and thought the latter to be commentary on them. He believed the Upanishads were the secret books mentioned in the Qur'an (LVI, 77-80)

That (this) is indeed a noble Qur'an

In a book kept hidden

Which none toucheth save the purified,

A revelation from the Lord of the Worlds.

With the support of the Qur'anic verses that many earlier sufis had also argued that the ancient Indians had been recipient of the Divine revelation but Dara Shukoh asserted that the four Vedas were also Divinely revealed books and he regarded the "study of the Upanishads as the highest form of worship".

The Majma'u'l Bahrain was Dara Shukoh's most important work and was singled out by the Ulema as a justification for accusing Dara Shukoh of calling infidelity and Islam as 'twin-brothers' and condemning him to death.

Did Dara Shukoh really call Hinduism and Islam as 'twin-brothers' or did he ever apostasize from Islam?

Rizvi maintains that "the work itself lies within the ideological framework of Ibn 'Arabi's teachings and asserts that the stage of universality and perfection was reserved for Prophet Muhammad, and that tanzih was harmoniously blended with tasbih only by his successors and the Muslims sufis, to whom alone were addressed the following words in the Qur'an:

Ye are the best community that hath been raised up for mankind. (3: 110) "

In all his works there is no evidence of Dara Shukoh having renounced Islam or regarding Hinduism, independently on its own, as equal to Islam. His assertion of the Divine nature of the Vedas and the greatness of the Upanishads, he justifies only with the support of Qur'anic verses.

In his Safinatu 'l-aulia, Dara gives glimpse of his Sunni orthodoxy. He had never denied the Prophethood or finality of the Prophet Muhammad , and as stated above, regarded Prophet Muhammad as the "perfect prophet". He had never denied the validity of the revelations of the Qur'an. He was also convinced of the superiority of the first four Caliphs and graded them in the order they became Caliphs.

He was a Qadiri sufi and believed in the superiority of the Qadiriya order started by Shaikh 'Abdu'l-Qadir Jilani who he believed had received its rules directly from the Prophet.

Dara Shukoh was conscious of his own scholarship and combined his personal spiritual interests to vindicate the universality of the Qur'anic worldview and to show how monotheism was echoed in classical Vedic and philosophical texts. He does not present the translation of the Upanishads as a means of religious syncretism of the Islamic and Hindu communities but claims that these are themselves Islamic texts as witnessed in the Qur'an and bearing witness to true and untarnished monotheism.

Dara Shukoh begins the preface of Sirr-I Akbar by celebrating God and the revelations of the Qur'an, as well as paying tributes to his Qadiri preceptors. It is his "devotion to the Qur'an and a desire to more perfectly comprehend Tawhid that Dara is first drawn to the investigation of non-Islamic religious traditions." In closing, he turns to the Qur'an again "for an omen of God's blessing on his project". More than half of the text of his preface of his translation is devoted to hope that it will be "perceived as an orthodox mantle of commentator."

What Dara Shukoh was claiming was that like the Qur'anic revelations were an extension and completion of the Biblical revelations in the same way these were also an extension of the revelations of the Vedas. And as Biblical revelations stand superseded by the Qur'an so do the Vedic revelations. In claiming that the secret revelations mentioned in the Qur'an were the Upanishads, he clearly implied that the Qur'an is simply a continuation of the earlier revelations. In asserting the perfection of prophethood of Prophet Muhammad, he was also implying the perfection of revelations in the Qur'an. The Hindus were essentially Muslims, only they were not aware of this -- a secret that he had unraveled.

Implications of such a scenario are far reaching as can be seen from the recent sermon by Shaykh Salih Bin-Muhammad Al Talib in a Saudi mosque.

In his sermon in the Holy mosque in Mecca, Shaykh Al Talib said

"Is it not time the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] pondered and acknowledged that Islam is a continuation of the messages that came before it and that it is the religion that God has chosen for the whole of mankind?"

He continued: "From the time of Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, until the Day of Judgment, God will not accept any other religion or creed," the imam says and cites the Qur'anic verse: "If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be accepted of him; and in the Hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost."

Dara Shukoh had extended the concept the "People of the Book" to the Hindus also.

In Dara Shukoh's case more was in play than just his views on the Vedas and the Upanishads. Aurangzeb's animosity to Dara and the struggle for the throne was no hidden secret but it was as much the Mullahs who ultimately decided his fate. And Dara's contempt of the Mullahs was a foregone conclusion.

Ridiculing the Mullahs he had written:

Paradise is only at a place where no Mulla lives,
Where no uproar or clamor from a Mulla is heard,
May the world rid itself of the terror of a Mulla.
May none pay heed to his fatwa
In a city where Mulla dwells,
No wise man is ever found.

While on this subject, I also might add.

Many Muslim commentators assert had Dara Shukoh succeeded to the Mughal throne, Islam would have disappeared from India. This may actually be a false conclusion. Accession of orthodox Aurangzeb to the Mughal throne and his Islamic zealotry, probably caused more harm to the cause of Islam in India. His re-imposition of jiziya, decree to demolish Hindu temples, political and economic conversions and generally harsh measures against the Hindus caused widespread resentment against the Mughal rule which ultimately resulted in the empire's disintegration.

Rizvi thinks "political fear and economic incentives during the reigns of Shahjahan and Aurangzeb had little effect on Islamic proselytization. Nevertheless between the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries conversion of Hindus to Islam did occur on a considerable scale, due to successful prosyletizing techniques used by the new sufic orders and because of social factors inherent in the fresh wave of urbanization then taking place."

Though it is purely a matter of speculation today but it cannot be ruled out, given the nature of Hindu thought, it is quite possible that the approach adopted by Dara Shukoh might have proved to be more fatal to Hinduism than the harsh measures adopted by Aurangzeb. Once converted to Islam, the mild approach of Dara would have faded into oblivion, and India today might been just a larger version of Pakistan.

To conclude, there is no evidence of Dara Shukoh having renounced Islam or calling Islam and Hinduism as 'twin-brothers'. Dara Shukoh was a Qadiri sufi in the Sunni tradition of orthodox Islam. He also regarded himself as wearer of mantle of Orthodox Sunni Islam. It is quite ironic the orthodox Mullahs led by Aurangzeb, in their zealotry, killed the golden goose that might have laid the golden egg of Islamic India.