Q. I have many Hindu friends and I've always wondered to what extent it is okay to take part in their religious festivals. The term 'idol worship' is used so loosely that I don't quite understand what it means anymore in the Islamic context. From what I know of Hinduism, it preaches the existence of one God, and 'idols' are mere reminders of His different divine qualities. No Hindu I've talked to views an idol as God, is it still idol worship then?

The more traditional view (which my family holds) is that it is wrong to even enter a temple, leave alone participation in a puja. As such I have always stayed away from the religious aspect of their festivals, but I can't help feeling that that is disrespectful towards the very people I love and care for. If I were to visit a temple, or bow before a deity, it would be out of respect for my friends' religious beliefs, and a way for me to take part in their celebration; in no way do I take it to mean an act of worship myself. Is it still wrong then? Where does one draw the line?

I am very confused about this topic and would really appreciate some guidance here. I believe Islam teaches us to live harmoniously with all kinds of people, but instances like this make me think we Muslims are creating barriers around us in the name of Islam. I would like to believe that religions essentially teach the same thing and don't contradict each other.

I searched your website for related material, but I didn't find anything that quite answers this question specifically.

A. The question you asked is a very well-timed one, in recognition of the darkness that is so pervasive nowadays. As someone who studied and TEACHES about Hinduism, I have my personal approach, which I can and will defend as outlined in this response. Sadly, because of people's (both Muslim and non-Muslim) ignorance and malice, I have to issue advice based on consideration of those two factors as well. What we call Hinduism is a misnomer, cast upon thousands of different paths by a colonizer who could not understand how the followers of so many different paths could function in peace, unlike the murder and mass slaughter such encounters brought in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Middle East. The colonizers therefore categorized these people by a geographical name: Hindus -- those from India -- from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean.

When we see Hindu practices, we often impose OUTSIDE understandings on them. We also often judge from the incorrect interpretations we get from others, maybe even from some who say they are "Hindus." What many describe as an "idol" is an avatar, a symbolic representation of the divine. The basis of the theology, in general, is based on monotheism. I have often told students that the Nirguna Brahman philosophy and Advaita are all expressions of monotheism and monism. Many scholars (and I support them) are of the view that the "idolators" referred to in the Qur'an are specifically those of the Prophet's time, and therefore the term ought to be restricted to them. This is because they believed those idols were actually gods. Afterwards, the contacts that we have with others -- and in seeing their "idols" -- we have to be sure that they are indeed worshipped as idols. For if they are, that would mean that the Qur'an is incorrect in stating "and unto each nation we have sent a messenger." That means we ought to see them as people who have a message and a way we do NOT know about.

As such, my view is that you may attend the commemorations. When it comes to participation, that becomes a bit problematic. Your heart is sincere, and obviously God recognizes such sincerity. But rituals are not only about God, there is the societal dimension. Will some Muslims spread rumors that you are idol worshipping? Will some Hindus use you as an example of a Muslim who believes Islam is garbage and that you have accepted another path? Those are issues for YOU to consider. Perhaps it is best that in your visit to the temple, you let them know that by being there, you revere their place. Eat the food, make the arti, but be careful about bowing to the Murtis. You may tell your hosts that as a non-Hindu, some aspects you will not observe. Again this is up to YOU. And you may explain that in your interpretation, as is found in theirs too among the arya samaj, no avatars are needed as the contact with God is direct, without any imagery. You are a wonderful example of pluralism, may God bless you and grant you the strength to stand up for what you believe.

Posted July 24, 2017