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Historical Setting
Jul 2015

  The Near East in the Sixth century was divided between two great empires, The Byzantine or Later Roman Empire in the West and the Sasanian Empire in the East. The rivalry between Rome and Persia lasted for more than five hundred years. The Byzantine espoused Hellenistic culture, while the Sasanian looked to ancient Iranian and Semetic cultural tradition. Islam as a religion and civilization made its entry into this world with the life and career of the Prophet Muhammad ibn Abd Allah (ca. 570-632) in Western Arabia. On the eve of Islam, the religious identities in the Near East represented by Byzantine Christianity and Zoroastrianism had acquired political overtones.

The word Islam is used today with a number of different meanings. For Muslims, strictly speaking, it denotes one true faith which has existed since the creation of the world, and in this sense Adam, Moses, David, Jesus and others were all Muslims. More commonly, since the adherents of earlier phases in the sequence of revelations had survived under other names, the term Islam is restricted to the final phase, that of Muhammad and the Quran and through his own precept and practice as transmitted and recorded by subsequent generations. 

The word mosque is derived from the Arabic Masjid, which means literally a place of prostration, that is to say, where worshippers prostrate themselves or more precisely kneel before God. In the earliest Islamic period, it was hardly even a building, just a place where believers gathered together for communal prayers. These could also be performed in private houses, in public place, in the open air.  In the earliest period of Muslim conquests, prayers were held in places of worship built to serve the various religions of the conquered, and either shared or taken over by the conquerors. In this way, the Arabs first shared the site of the Church of St John in Damuscus and then replaced it with a mosque.  Centuries later, Turks transformed the cathedral of Santa Sophia in Constantinople into an imperial mosque. This was  accomplished outside the building, by mounting a crescent on the dome and adding four minarets, one at each corner, from which the muezzins could proclaim the unity of God, and the apostolate of Muhammed, and inside the building by removing Christian images and symbols, or by covering them with Quran verses and other  Islamic texts. 

Inside the mosque the two chief foci are the minbar and the mihrab. The first is a kind of raised pulpit used in the larger mosque during the Friday prayer. The mihrab is a niche in the qibla wall, showing the direction of Mecca, towards which all Muslims turn in prayer. The most familiar and characteristic outward feature of the mosque is minaret, from the top of which the muezzin summons the faithful to prayer. Mention in the Khutba, the weekly sermon, was one of the recognized token of political authority in Islam.


The Christian world into which Islam moved with rapidity was one that was far from united. The Church was divided into five apostolic sects, located in Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria. A series of controversies over the nature of Jesus' relationship to God had failed to bring all Christians under one umbrella of belief.  The resulting divisions helped Islam to spread on the European soil.

For some eleven hundred years of its more than two thousand years of existence, Constantinople had stood as the capital of the Byzantine Empire, an international city of fame, beauty, and repute, and the seat of eastern Christianity.  It had been besieged many times in its long history, but during the rule of the Byzantines, Constantinople had been captured only by western Christians.  Its fall to the invading Turks in 1453 AD signaled a dramatic change in the power relationships between Islam and Christendom.  Sultan Mohammed II, as the ruler of Constantinople, became the titular head of the Roman Empire, and the specter of a Muslim takeover of all Europe was raised anew, says Professor Bernard Lewis.


During the Muslim rule of over six centuries, thousand of temples were destroyed :old ones were not allowed to repaired and no new temple on a large scale was permitted to be built. All the temples that we know see in different parts were built during the British rule. Given below are pictures and brief write-ups of a few destroyed temples.  This is just to provide a bird eye-view of Iconoclasm in India.


The plunder of Somnath by Mahmud Ghazni in 1030 AD is known across the country. But except for some interested scholars, few know what historian Muhammad Nazim had to say: The destruction of the temple of Somnath was looked upon as the crowning glory of Islam over idolatry, and Sultan Mahmud as the champion of the Faith, received the applause of all in the Muslim world.  One poet outdid another in extolling the iconoclasm of Mahmud. Shykh Faridu'd Din Attar said that the Sultan preferred to be an idol breaker rather than an idol seller.  While rejecting the offer of the Hindus to ransom the idol of Somnath with its weight in gold, Mahmud is supposed to have said 'I am afraid that on the Day of Judgment when all the idolaters are brought into the presence of Allah, he would say:bring Adhar and Mahmud together, one was the idol maker, the other idol seller'.  Adhar or Ezra the uncle of Abraham, according to the Quran, made his living by carving idols. (The Life and Times of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, Cambridge University, 1931)

In the course of his writings, Nehru often quotes Al-Beruni. Let us see what this scholar had to say about Somnath: The linga he raised was the stone of Somnath, for soma means the moon and natha means master, so that the whole word means master of the moon. The image was destroyed by Prince Mahmud, may God be merciful to him! AH 496. He ordered the upper part to be broken and the remainder to be transported to his residence, Ghazni with all its coverings and trappings of gold, jewels, and embroidered garments. Part I of  it has been thrown into the hippodrome of the town, together with the Cakrasvamin, an idol of bronze, that had been brought from Taneshar. Another part of the idol from Somnath lies before the door of the mosque of Ghazni, on which people rub their feet to clean them from dirt and wet. (Alberuni's India by Sachau, E.C.)


The richly jeweled idols taken from the pagan temples were transferred to Agra and there placed beneath the steps leading to the Nawab Begum Sahib's mosque, in order that they might ever be pressed under foot by the true believers. The city's name was changed to Islamabad. Can you guess the name of this unfortunate place? We can tell you who published those words.  He was Vincent A. Smith ICE, CIE, the famous historian.

In his Mathura: A District Memoir, Growse, District Collector in the 19th Century, has recorded his exhaustive survey and research about Brajbhoomi.He was so overhelmed by the vandalism that visited the area repeatedly, that he wrote feelingly, although his home was in far away England. To Quote: thanks to Muhammadan intolerance, there is not a single building of any antiquity either in the city itself or its environs.  Its most famous temple that, dedicated to Kesava Deva (Krishna)- was destroyed in 1669, the eleventh year of the reign of the iconoclast Aurangzeb (Alamgir was also his name). The mosque (idgah) erected on its ruins is a building of little architectural value. Mahmud Ghazni was, the first iconoclast to vandalise Mathura.  

That was in 1017 AD about which Growse wrote: If any one wished to construct a building equal to it, he would not be able to do so without expending a hundred million dinars, and the work would occupy two hundred years, even though the most able and experienced workmen were employed. Orders were given that all the temples should be burnt with naphtha and fire and levelled with the ground. The city was given up to plunder for twenty days. Among the spoils are said to have been five great idols of pure gold with eyes of rubies and adornments of other precious stones, together with a vast number of smaller silver images, which, when broken up, formed a load for more than a hundred camels. The total value of the spoils has been estimated at three millions of rupees: while the number of Hindus carried away into captivity exceeded 5,000.


The Adina or Friday mosque is situated on National Highway No.34 between Raigunj in West Dinajpur district of West Bengal and Malda.  At first glimpse, the dual colour of the edifice walls strikes the visitor.  The first ten feet immediately above the ground are grey in colour because of stone tiles.  The upper 12 feet comprise of red brick work.  Evidently, the current mosque was superimposed on an earlier building.

Hardly had one walked a few steps after entering the main gate, when one noticed, on the wall outside, distinct remnants of Hindus deities. They are carved on solid stone which on the outside mingles quite naturally with the tile work of the same stone. One stone slab displays Ganesh by the side of his consort. There are several others including the crests of doorways at the entrance of the northern as well the eastern face.  Inside the mosque, the stone work is equally convincing that the original building was a temple.

The steps leading up to the pulpit have fallen down, and, on turning over one of the steps one finds a line of Hindu sculpture of very fine and bold execution. This stone is 4 feet in length, and apparently formed part of a frieze. The main ornament is a line of circular panels 7/1/4 inches in diameter, formed by continuous intersecting lotus stalks. There are five complete panels, and two half-panels which have been cut through. These two contain portions of an elephant and a rhinoceros. In the complete panels there are (1) a cow and calf; (2) human figures broken; (3) a goose; (4) a man and woman, and a crocodile; (5) two elephants. The carving is deep, and the whole has been polished.  In the niche itself, the two side pillars which support the cusped arch are also pickings from Hindu temples.


The Europeans should clearly understand that this spirit of Mohammedanism is unchangeable, and that, if by any mischance, India should again come into the possession of men of this creed, all the churches and colleges and all the Mission institutions, would not be worth a week's purchase. So wrote Reverend Mathew Atmore Sherring. (Benaras: The Sacred City of The Hindus, 1868).

He was so upset at the vandalism he saw in Benares that he could not help speaking out: The diminutive size of nearly all the temples in India except for the south that exist is another powerful testimony to the stringency of the Mohammedan rule. It seems clear, that, for the most part, the emperors forbade the Hindus to build spacious temples, and suffered them to erect only small structures, of the size of cages, for their idols, and these of no pretensions to beauty.  The consequence is, that the Hindus of the present day, blindly following the example of their predecessors of two centuries ago, commonly build their religious edifices of same dwarfish size as formerly. These observations speak volumes for the trauma that the Hindu psyche has suffered as a result of the impact of Islam.

All the temples built during the Mohammaden rule in Benares had to be diminutive in size.  It transpires that the demolition of temples was not inspired merely by a hatred for idolatory or by greed for loot. It was also deiven by a desire to humiliate the Hindus. Or, else, how does one explain that the masjid built by Aurangzeb  had to be bang next to the Gyan Vapi or the well of knowledge.

The new temple was built in 1780 at the behest of Rani Ahilyabai Holkar long after Aurangzeb's desecration.



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