Study Guide

Beneath a Marble Sky Philosophical Viewpoints: Hinduism vs. Islam

By John Shors

Philosophical Viewpoints: Hinduism vs. Islam

"You'd better be more careful with your pets. I wouldn't like to step on them." I started to speak, but Dara continued, "After all, Hindus believe we can be reincarnated into such creatures."

I failed to see how I might become a cricket, but remained silent. Dara knew much more about such subjects. (1.18)

Dara loooooooves Hinduism, and we can't blame him. On one level, Hindu belief advocates kindness, compassion, and adherence to the Golden Rule through the idea that you can be reincarnated in many forms. After all, if you think you might be an insect one day, you'll definitely think twice the next time you go to stomp on one. Who knows who or what that insect was in a past life?

Hindus and Muslims bustled about, for under Father's rule the Red Fort sheltered both sets of people. Though we Muslims ruled Hindustan, we comprised a minority of the populace. Our position was somewhat precarious. As Father often maintained, only by treating Hindus with respect could we retain control. (1.43)

"Somewhat precarious" is an understatement. The hold Jahanara's father has over peace in Hindustan is a tense hold, because not everyone feels the same way about the right of people to practice different religions. (*cough* Aurangzeb *cough*)

Dara started to make a sweeping gesture but, sighing, let his hands drop. To me, he seemed serious for his age. But then, so did I to my friends. "Hinduism," he said, "even if my view is unusual among Muslims, is a beautiful religion. I love its gods, its karma. But I don't agree with the Hindu belief in the caste system. Why should someone with lighter skin be held above the rest, or a merchant be worth more than a laborer?"

"I suppose it allows them some sort of order."

"Impartial laws, Jahanara, create order. Not discrimination."

"But are we so different? Are you and a boy working in the fields considered equals?"

"I know," he admitted, nodding slowly. (3.26-30)

These guys have some pretty deep conversations about religion at a very young age. These are questions that are still largely unanswered to this day, so what hope do a bunch of kids have in understanding these things? On the other hand, wow, it's pretty cool that these kids are educated and developed enough to actually formulate these questions.

Some ten centuries before, during the ninth month of the lunar year, a caravan trader named Muhammad wandered the desert near Mecca while pondering his faith. One night the angel Gabriel whispered to him that he had been chosen to receive the words of Allah. In the following days, Muhammad found himself speaking the verses that were later transcribed into the Qur'an.

Since the Prophet Muhammad's enlightenment, Muslims have always celebrated Ramadan by forgoing any sort of indulgence. For instance, we renounce food and drink from dawn until dusk for the entire month. Allah, we knew through Muhammad's words in the Qur'an, expected this sacrifice. Fasting, He said, made us appreciate the poor's suffering, as well as learn the peace that accompanies spiritual devotion.

And so I fasted and healed in my room. I recited one-thirtieth of the Qur'an each day until I finished the scripture. By the end of Ramadan, celebrated with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, I was fully recovered. While Muslims throughout Agra hung lanterns and decorations from their homes, and dressed in their finest clothes, I ate dates with Father and watched our city sparkle through the night. (8.6-8)

If the idea behind Ramadan is that it's a special time that will help Muslim believers better understand suffering, then this particular year, Jahanara has got it down.

Early in the afternoon we came across a man burning his wife's body next to the river. Hindus often burnt loved ones' corpses in this manner, since they believed that only once the body was ashes did the soul no longer feel an attachment to the body. Such an uncoupling was necessary for the soul's progress to be unhindered, a passage which began when the ashes were cast into the Ganges. Within its sacred waters the journey toward reincarnation continued—unless the deceased had amassed enough positive karma over numerous lifetimes so that the soul was finally released from the wheel of rebirth. (9.86)

We love these little tidbits that Shors planted throughout the novel that teach us just how beautiful the Hindu and Muslim religions can be. It's particularly nice as a counterbalance to the times when things get nasty in the name of religious extremism and prejudice.

"Buried all your gold, sister?" I started to speak, but he motioned for my silence. "The Sacred Text says, 'Surely God does not love the ungrateful who disbelieve.'"

Dara hurried to my defense. "The Qur'an says much. It also asks, 'Do you see the one who repudiates religion? He is the one who rebuffs the orphan and does not encourage feeding the poor. So woe to those who pray without paying attention to their prayers.'"

Aurangzeb's face tightened, for he was a zealot and, like all such followers, believed the Qur'an was his instrument alone. "Take care," he warned, "that you know of what you speak."

Father, aware of the mounting hostility between his sons, cleared his throat. "We all know the Qur'an well enough. If you both wish to recite its verses, you should stand and face Mecca." When neither son responded, Father pretended to swat their words away. (10.127-130)

Oof. This is a great example of how religious texts can be manipulated to mean different things to different people and therefore be used to justify some pretty terrible things. Good thing that doesn't happen anymore. Oh. Wait…

And Allah smiled at me, for only one of my workers died in the full cycle of the moon, the poor man crushed to a pulp when a stone block fell atop him. He was Hindu, and therefore we didn't bury his body as if he were Muslim, but burned it. (11.70)

Although we found the turn of phrase a little funny (this guy's terrible death was Allah smiling at you, Jahanara?), this is also a great example of how Jahanara was considerate of other's beliefs. Since the worker was Hindu, it would've been a disaster to be buried, because imagine the soul having to stick around in a body that broken. Yikes.

These warriors inhabited the Thar Desert, a wasteland far removed from Agra that had long been home to clans of Hindu warriors comprising the Rajput kingdoms.

Like the Deccans, the Rajputs warred against us for independence and were some of the fiercest fighters in Hindustan. They never fled an engagement and fought to the death wearing crimson-colored robes—they believed red was the color of holiness. If defeat was imminent, Rajput warriors swallowed opium and charged their enemies. Their wives and children subsequently performed the rite of jauhar, burning themselves alive rather than being captured and dishonored by their foes. (18.6-7)

Unfortunately, religion is often used as a vehicle for people to take extreme measures. This, we think, counts as one of those times. One more example of people making religion mean what they want it to…

We did encounter a camel-driven convoy of merchants and their wagons, as well as a group of pilgrims on their way to Mecca. We wished them well, for it is every Muslim's duty to visit the holy shrine once in his life. The pilgrimage represents that religion is a journey, and also unites travelers by their mutual suffering. Most Muslims trek to Mecca, yet those in power—including Father, alas—often can never set time aside for the long trip. (19.8)

Hmmm…Aurangzeb's pretty devout…yet we can't remember him taking the trip to Mecca…Could it be that at the end of the day, Aurangzeb cares more about power than about religion? Is religion in some ways just a tool for him to gain more power?

Temples and mosques are magical things. When you build them, there is a sense of peace that seeps from the rocks. All creation, in my opinion, is thus. I felt the same peace when Arjumand slipped from my womb. I swam in such peace at the Taj Mahal. And even our little shrines at the sea caused more than one tear to dampen my face.

Perhaps this peace stems from the knowledge that you're leaving something upon this Earth. (25.10)

Among other things, religions deal with questions about the afterlife and time eternal. What is it about humans that makes them want to live forever? Why is feeling like she's left something on this earth so soothing to Jahanara?