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Mind

Is Shah Rukh Khan a Hindu?

By Razib KhanAugust 16, 2009 2:57 AM

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I hear that a Muslim Bollywood star was detained at an American airport, Shah Rukh Khan (there is some confusion here, and a possibility that this is a publicity stunt related to a film about profiling which he is promoting). Out of curiosity I checked out Khan’s bio on Wikipedia, and found out this interesting datum:

Shah Rukh Khan, born into a Muslim family, is married to a Hindu and his children follow both religions. At home, next to idols of Hindu gods he has the Koran. The most important thing is that “the children should know about the value of God”.

In this YouTube video Khan asserts his belief in Allah, while reiterating the dual religious identity of his children. These sorts of details made me wonder though, is Khan really basically a form of Hindu in today’s world? I say in today’s world because it seems likely that before the modern period in South Asia the lines between Hindus and Muslims were somewhat more blurred than they are now, and that in particular Ismailism served as something of a liminal identity for many. This thesis suggests that Hussaini Brahmins and Satpanth Ismailis are remnants of a richer and more diverse pre-modern tradition. It may be that these were marginalized first by Sunni persecution of syncretistic groups under Aurangzeb, who reflected a Muslim ideology where there were clear and distinct lines separating unbelievers and believers, and no room for Ismaili heretics in the second camp. Later the British bureaucratically driven classifications of native groups and Hindu revivalism in response to reformist Islam and Christian prosyletization forced further “sorting” out groups with hybrid identities. If this is correct the Meos of northwest India, who are separating into explicitly Muslim and Hindu classes, illustrate how exogenous pressures drive this dynamic. If the story above is correct many groups who are Hindu today in northern India might have had a “semi-Muslim” past insofar as their identities were more fluid. The preservation of some rituals, custom and beliefs of Muslim provenance among some castes is a recollection of this past. The converse may be true of Muslims, but there is an asymmetry which makes this less notable: modern Islam tends to enforce a rather narrower set of norms than Hinduism upon its believers. So while a wide range of beliefs and practices flourish under the umbrella of Hinduism today, and is accepted as expected, modern Islam has been subject to several “reformist” movements since 1800 which are transnational and cultural in character which have marginalized local identities in favor of a universal set of norms. What occurred in India during the later period of Muslim rule prefigured this, as Sunni reformist sects attempted to eliminate deviation from their espoused orthodoxy, and in the case of Ismailis were forcibly converted them to Sunni Islam with the power of the state. As a side effect naturally liminal groups with a more Hindu identity would emphasize their Hinduism precisely to avoid the persecution which Ismailis were subject to because of their status as Muslim heretics. So one story of modernity is homogenization and universal norms. Shah Rukh Khan is an example of the reverse through cosmopolitanism. My title derives from the fact that the latitudinarian religious sentiments of Khan, who places the Koran next to a Hindu idol, and praises Allah along with Ganesh. This broad tolerance and acceptance of the numerous specific expressions of religious sentiment is in many ways a hallmark of modern Hinduism as a religion, and contradictory to the main thrust of modern Islam. I suspect many Muslims would view placing a Koran next to a Hindu idol as verging on the sacrilege. Yet Shah Rukh Khan views himself as a Muslim, and if you are not a Muslim who are you to say he is not by his own lights? Note Some of the speculations in the post above derive from Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia.

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