Article: Jains and Muslim iconoclasm

Contributed by Audrey Truschke

Iconoclasm, literally 'image-breaking' in Greek, is hostility towards religious objects, often resulting in their destruction. Muslims periodically damaged Jain idols and temples in India, usually for either commercial or political reasons. Enmity did not characterise overall relations between the two communities, and other Indian religious groups also practised temple destruction at times. Nonetheless, Islamicate iconoclastic ideas and behaviours were a repeated feature of encounters between Jains and Muslims.

Raids by Central Asian Muslims on the wealth of India started in the eighth century. These early Muslim attacks targeted both Hindu and Jain temples, particularly in Gujarat, over the next several hundred years. Reconstructing these events can be difficult because Jain texts often do not dwell on such attacks. Scholars estimate that temple destructions were far less frequent than often assumed by contemporary writers.

Reactions to such experiences differed among Jains. Many believed that violence and suffering were signs of the overall moral deterioration to be expected in the present cycle of time. Others treated episodes of destruction as an opportunity to prove Jainism's resilience in the face of danger. Only from the 19th century onwards does evidence emerge that Jains began to think of Muslim iconoclasm as springing from specifically Islamic principles.

Complexities of Islamic iconoclasm

Violent and ideological iconoclasms were recurring features of encounters between Jains and Muslims, yet a few comments are helpful to avoid misunderstandings. Muslims practised iconoclasm for a mix of reasons that often had little to do with religious values. Moreover, while Muslims damaged Indian religious images and buildings periodically, the scope and frequency of such attacks remain unclear. Last, the variety of Islamic thought and practices undermines any simplistic notion that Islam required the destruction of Indian sacred objects.

First, iconoclasm was not always or even primarily inspired by Islamic religious ideology. Rather Muslim rulers and communities practised iconoclasm for complex political, social and commercial reasons. Thus, while attacks on Jain and Hindu temples are often described in the language of religious conflict in Islamicate sources, they are best understood in their specific historical contexts.

Additionally, much of the data regarding Muslim iconoclastic activities towards Jains has yet to be properly analysed. Both scholarly and popular writers have long exaggerated the frequency of Islamic destructions of Indian temples. In 2000 Richard Eaton published a careful study of alleged Muslim demolitions of Hindu temples and settled on a notably low number of confirmed events. Nobody has yet made a parallel effort regarding Jain places of worship. Thus the prevalence of Muslim attacks on Jain temples remains uncertain.

Last, Islam is an incredibly diverse tradition, and many of its followers lack the staunch rejection of idol worship that is often falsely assumed to pervade the entire religion. Unsurprisingly, then, many Muslims who interacted with Jain individuals or communities raised no objections to the worship of images. In one instance, Akbar and Jahangir are even reported to have participated in idol worship at a Jain ceremony. Some Muslims also expressed fascination at the power attributed to Jain images and the devotion of Jain worshippers.

Harming religious images

The huge statue of Bāhubali at Shravana Belgola is anointed with a succession of holy substances in the 2006 'great head-anointing ceremony’ – mahā-mastakābhiṣeka.

Bahubali anointed
Image by unknown © Institute of Jainology

Beginning in the eighth century, Muslims conducted numerous raids on South Asian centres of wealth. These activities impacted Jains from the start, with the 782 sack of Vallabhi in Gujarat, which had been a hub of Jain intellectual culture.

Evidence that such incursions included Jain houses of worship surfaces only in the 11th century when the Ghaznavids started targeting Jain temples in Gujarat. These raids were largely motivated by financial gain, and Muslims simultaneously sacked temples devoted to Hindu deities. They sometimes championed their success by removing religious idols and displaying them in their Central Asian homelands, in modern-day Afghanistan.

As Islamicate rule became more entrenched in South Asia, assaults on temples continued, often for political reasons. In some cases, regional officials were involved in destructive activities, and Jains later appealed to Muslim governors and rulers for restoration funds. For instance, Khalji soldiers damaged some temples at Shatrunjaya in 1313, which were repaired with the joint support of a merchant from Patan, Gujarat, and the local Khalji governor. In 1645, while governor of Gujarat, Prince Aurangzeb desecrated a temple dedicated to Pārśvanātha or Lord Pārśva, the 23rd Jina. His father, Shah Jahan, later returned the temple to Jain control.

In South India, Islamic officials occasionally banned Jains from acts of idol-veneration. For example, they blocked the anointing of the large statue of Bāhubali at Shravana Belagola in Karnataka in the 17th century.

Jain reactions

This 17th-century manuscript painting illustrates the elements of the armies of the Bhavanavāsin. Dancers and musicians entertain the king on campaign while the others are always ready to fight for their master and to serve him.

Armies of the Bhavanavāsin gods
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jain traditions offered numerous material and cultural responses to Muslim iconoclasm. They responded practically by changing the materials used to carve religious icons. They also produced monumental statues intended to withstand the inevitable apocalypse of this cycle of time, which was being brought about by Islamic attacks.

Jains also cultivated a myriad of literary responses. Many Jain thinkers pass over instances of violent iconoclasm in pre-modern texts and instead focus on other topics. Others interpreted iconoclastic episodes according to Jain concepts of regressive time or as an opportunity to showcase the durability of their faith.

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