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Posted by on Nov 29, 2008 in Society, War | 0 comments

Mumbai’s Jewish and Muslim Heritage

Until two decades ago the highly cosmopolitan Mumbai (or Bombay) stood as a shining example of the peaceful co-existence between Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Parsis or any other religions and sects. I doubt that the centuries-old traditions would vanish in the wake of a tragedy unleashed by a few hot-headed and misguided/brain-washed young people this week.

A 500-year-old Muslim mosque and dargah in Mumbai (photo above) attracts 40,000 believers every Thursday and Friday, a majority of them Hindus. India and Pakistan are dotted with such inter-denominational Sufi shrines about whom rarely anyone writes or talks about.

These are among the common binding forces cherished by the poor and suffering people who have lived peacefully in South Asia for centuries despite the greed/myopia of many of their rulers. (See an interesting NYT story here…)

Mumbai’s Haji Ali dargah was built in 1431 by a wealthy Muslim merchant and saint named Haji Ali who renounced all his worldly possessions before making a pilgrimage to Mecca.

I am thankful to Holly of TMV for sending to me a moving article from Time Out Mumbai newspaper. The author, Naresh Fernandes, writes: “Jews have lived in India for thousands of years, perhaps arriving on a mission from the court of King Solomon to trade in ‘elephant’s tooth, peacocks and apes’.

“India’s ancient Jewish history, evidence of the country’s tolerance for people of all faiths, has long been a source of pride for us. But an even greater cause for satisfaction has been the fact that Indian Jews have never faced persecution.

“To the contrary, Indian Jews have flourished, and nowhere is that more evident than in Mumbai. Some of the city’s best-known landmarks, including Flora Fountain, the hub of the city’s Fort business district, have been built with donations from Jewish philanthropists who grew prosperous on trade and manufacturing.

“Most notable among them were the Sasoons, a family from Iraq. Their name is etched in plaques in at least four schools, a magnificent library, a dockyard, and at least two of the city’s nine synagogues. To read the full article please click here….

Now Mumbai’s great history: During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the city became the world’s chief cotton trading market, resulting in a boom in the economy and subsequently enhancing the city’s stature.

“Artifacts found near Kandivali in northern Mumbai indicate that these islands had been inhabited since the Stone Age. Documented evidence of human habitation dates back to 250 BC, when it was known as Heptanesia (Ptolemy) (Ancient Greek: A Cluster of Seven Islands). In the 3rd century BC, the islands formed part of the Maurya Empire, ruled by the Buddhist emperor, Ashoka…

“In 1534, the Portuguese appropriated the islands from Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. They were ceded to Charles II of England in 1661, as dowry for Catherine de Braganza. These islands, were in turn leased to the British East India Company in 1668 for a sum of £10 per annum. The company found the deep harbour on the east coast of the islands to be ideal for setting up their first port in the sub-continent.

“The Gateway of India was built to commemorate the arrival in India, on 2 December 1911, of King George V and Queen Mary and was completed on 4 December, 1924. (And around this place the violence and terror occurred this week in its tragic fury).

“From 1817 onwards, the city was reshaped with large civil engineering projects aimed at merging all the islands in the archipelago into a single amalgamated mass. This project, known as the Hornby Vellard, was completed by 1845, and resulted in the total area swelling to 438 km².

“In 1853, India’s first passenger railway line was established, connecting Mumbai to the town of Thane. More here…

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty was born in 1141 and died in 1230 CE, also known as Gharib Nawaz, is the most famous Sufi saint of the Chishti Order of South Asia. Apart from millions of Hindus, even Pakistan’s high and mighty visit this shrine whenever they are in India. More here….

For an historical perspective on Sufism please click here….

Excerpts: “As any student of world history may note, civilization typically comes to a grinding halt wherever the writ of a revealed religion runs supreme. For any civilization to blossom, there has to be a certain intellectual and cultural space that is relatively free from dogma and hidebound traditions.

“In the earliest examples of the Islamic courts, particularly during the reign of the Abbasids in Baghdad, there was an informal separation of church and state and Arab civilization was able to make important gains , drawing inputs from a variety of eclectic sources – both indigenous and external (such as Indian and Mediterranean).

“But even as many Sufi scholars staunchly affirmed their loyalty to the Quran and Shari’at law, others used Sufism as a means of escaping the patriarchal weight and authority of Islam.

“Some of the earliest of the Sufi scholars were women such as Rabia (9th C) and Nuri (10th C) – who both emphasized worldly renunciation and suggested that spiritual salvation lay in discovering the ‘god’ within. In their rejection of orthodox rituals and the domination of the conservative clergy, they shared a certain commonality with some of their Hindu or Buddhist predecessors.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: TMV International Columnist Swaraaj Chauhan is a veteran New Delhi journalist who lives in India.]