Indian Muslims & Their Long-Standing Connection To Diwali

Muslims in India celebrating Diwali
Muslims in India celebrating DiwaliQuore; Patrika

Lights. Camera. More lights. More camera. That is Diwali for a lot of us living in the metropolis of India. We do our performative rummaging through history to remind ourselves, every year, of the victorious return from exile of Lord Ram to Ayodhya.

But for many others, this commemorates togetherness, celebration and a history of community that we struggle to preserve. The pandemic has only served to make our desperation for the same even greater. As we stay locked inside our houses, still awaiting our return to normalcy (or what is left of it), we are compelled to reflect over what these moments of togetherness mean to us.

Indian households are lit up with Diyas (lamps)

The Indian history of unity and secularity has been legendary, to say the least, and so we must expect the impending fall of it to be equally catastrophic. As many of us turn into what Sadat Hasan Manto allegorized as the Dog of Titval, it may just be a good time to reflect on our past of not only inter-religious tolerance, but also of inter-religious acceptance, integration and mutual respect.

Let us then assuage our fears of a potential fascist takeover by reminding ourselves of the role that Indian Muslims have played in India’s celebration of Diwali.

The history of Hindu-Muslim rivalry is undoubtedly fraught, and is often traced back to the British administration being the apostle of divisive politics in the country.

However, Hindu-Muslim fraternity can actually be traced back to the era of monarchs and empires. The British were the proprietors of the enmity as it exists today, but not the forgers of the long history between the two.

The often vilified Muhammad bin Tughlaq was actually the first Mughal emperor to celebrate a Hindu festival inside his court. He ruled Delhi from 1324 to 1351, and the celebration of Hindu festivals is believed to have been organized by his Hindu wives.

This tradition was carried down through following generations. For instance, Akbar is known to have insisted on Diwali being celebrated as a grand festival. In fact, the Rang Mahal in the Red Fort was the designated centre for the royal celebrations of Diwali, or Jashn-e-Chiraghan (festival of lights) as Diwali was called back then.

Emperor Akbar did this out of respect and love for his Hindu subjects, an act which would not have been looked upon too kindly if it were to happen today. It would be bastardized, propagandized to make it appear as the Muslim king’s attempts at turning a Hindu festival into something more palatable to Muslims.

Rang Mahal at the Red Fort, India

Emperor Akbar was also believed to have begun the tradition of giving sweets as Diwali greetings. The celebratory thaali (plate) that welcomed guests to the royal palace for Diwali included all sweets like Ghevar, Petha, Kheer, Peda, Jalebi, Phirni and Shahitukda.

On Diwali, the Ramayana was read in court, and performed through a play depicting Lord Ram’s return to Ayodhya. As noted by his biographer, Abu’lFazl, in Ain-i-Akbari this tradition significantly strengthened Akbar’s empire.

The tradition of celebrating Diwali in the Mughal royal court was carried down through the generations, right until the last of the Mughal emperors Bahadur Shah Zafar. He would organize theatrical performances around the theme of Diwali to be performed at the Red Fort, as well as Lakshmi Pujan which was open to the public.

In contemporary India, Indian Muslims are as much a part of Diwali as Indian Hindus. This is evidenced through instances like the lighting up of Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai as well as decorations and diyas adorning the Hazrat Nizammudin Dargah in Delhi.

The dargah of Baba HazratMaqbool Hussein Madani near Shanivar Wada, Pune, has an incredibly interesting history of celebrating Diwali. Twenty years ago, a Hindu family in the vicinity of the Dargah had requested permission to light a candle at the Dargah.

As it often happens with traditions, other people gradually began to follow suit. Now, every year, residents of Shanivar Wada collect money to buy diyas and decorations to light up this Dargah which was constructed in the 13th century.

The lighting of diyas on Diwali at Kammruddin Shah's Dargah, Rajasthan

Kammruddin Shah’s Dargah in Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, also shares a similar story full of intrigue. Around 250 years ago, Sufi saint Kammruddin Shah and Hindu saint Chanchalnathji used to meet in a cave that connected the Dargah and Chanchalnathji’s Aashram.

It is to honour this 250-year old story of friendship, that the Hindu and Muslim residents light diyas and fireworks together at the Dargah, keeping the sentiment of Hindu-Muslim unity alive.

Joy and celebration cannot be a communal issue. And, god knows, we all need a good dose of dopamine to keep us hopeful for the future and all that it has the potential for.

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