Article: Jains and Muslim iconoclasm

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.

Material responses

Enormous Digambara statues of Jinas were carved in the 15th century. The reasons are unclear but the images in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, may have been created to withstand the end of the world. Emperor Babur ordered many of the naked figures mutilated.

Mutilated figures at Gwalior
Image by geohs © CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Jains took several practical measures against Muslim assaults on religious images and buildings. For example, many stories narrate that the gods instructed people not to make bejewelled images but, rather, to use stone or brick to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Earlier writers, such as Jinaprabha-sūri, refer to images being buried in order to avoid damage by Muslims. Later writers, such as Samayasundara, also confirm that idols were concealed underground by attesting that they were reintroduced to the Jain community in the 17th century. Jains often replaced and, less frequently, recovered images that had been taken by Muslims.

Jains also produced artistic responses to Islamic iconoclasm and the associated end of the world. Most notably, in the 15th century, Digambara followers carved a series of monumental Jain images into the rock face of the Gwalior fort in Madhya Pradesh. A poet known as Raidhū oversaw the creation of the statues, which was largely financed by wealthy lay donors. Raidhū left no direct account of the motivations behind this project. However, his poetry and writings by later Jains suggest that the colossal images were designed to survive the end of the world, which was linked with the spread of Islamic power.

Incidentally, these same naked figures disconcerted the Mughal Emperor Babur in the early 16th century. He records in his Turkish memoirs that he ordered many to be mutilated.

Literary responses

Jain texts, primarily from the 14th century and later, mention some specific Muslim attacks that resulted in lost or damaged idols but tend not to dwell on these events. Jain authors most frequently note the damage and subsequent renovations at highly symbolic locations, such as Somanatha and Shatrunjaya in Gujarat. But often they do not refer to these incidents at all, preferring to describe other episodes, such as conflicts between Jain and Hindu groups and even clashes between Hindus and Muslims.

This seeming lack of concern with Islamic iconoclasm against Jains may partially reflect the overall amicable relations between the two religious groups in politics and trade. Additionally, Indian kings had desecrated the temples of their adversaries, including Jains, for centuries before the advent of Mughal rule. Thus such experiences were hardly new with the advent of Islamic dynasties on the subcontinent.

Indeed, when Jains writers do record instances of temple destruction, they almost never characterise these assaults as religious conflicts. Rather, they viewed Islamic attacks as merely one symptom of the inevitable cosmic trend towards depravity in the current corrupt age. Sometimes Jain writers even blamed such events on the carelessness of the gods in these troubled times.

Jain texts also incorporated Islamic iconoclasm into narratives that proclaimed the greatness of the Jain faith. Jinaprabha-sūri describes how images were miraculously restored, without any human intervention. In these stories, Jainism is alive and well, and Muslim temple destructions provide the perfect stage for highlighting the tradition’s ongoing prosperity.

Jain aniconism

A Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monk meditates. Meditation – dhyāna – is very important for all Jains but is one of the main methods of worship for members of the Sthānaka-vāsin sect. They reject the worship of images in favour of mental worship – bhava-pūjā

Śvetāmbara Sthānaka-vāsin monk meditating
Image by Shree Diwakar Prakashan © public domain

Some Jains formulated strong criticisms of idol worship during the height of contact with Islamic traditions. Among the Śvetāmbaras, Loṅkā Śāh led the most influential movement against using religious images. Digambara groups such as the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth also developed at this time. However, there is no proof of any direct link between strains of Islamic thought and these aniconic Jains.

In the 15th century, Jain reform movements that rejected idol worship surfaced in the Śvetāmbara tradition. Their relationship to Islamic ideas remains unclear, however. In Gujarat, Loṅkā Śāh condemned the veneration of idols as inconsistent with Jain scriptures. Many of his followers returned to standard mūrti-pūjaka practices in the 16th century, but five monks renewed Loṅkā Śāh’s criticisms in the following century. Each one founded his own monastic lineage. Today these are collectively referred to as the Sthānaka-vāsin Jains. In the 18th century, the sect of the Śvetāmbara Terāpanthin developed into a separate aniconic community.

While the timing of Loṅkā Śāh’s objections seems to coincide with the growing presence of Islam on the subcontinent, there is no evidence of specific connections. Loṅkā Śāh’s own followers did not produce written historical records until the 19th century. Only with 20th-century murti-pujak Jains, such as Jñānsundar, does the notion arise that Islamic ideas prompted Loṅkā Śāh’s suspicion of idol worship.

Additionally, Digambara movements that do not use icons, such as the Taraṇ Svāmī Panth sect, also arose in the 15th to 16th centuries. They do not have any ideological relationship to Islam, although Muslims were among the earliest followers.

Moreover, scholars have pointed out that there have been criticisms of idol worship throughout Jain history. Thus, it is perhaps not necessary to look outside the tradition to explain different opinions about the role of images. Indeed, early-modern Jain thinkers who authored texts defending image worship directed their remarks against other Jain groups. For instance, Dharma-sāgara and Yaśovijaya wrote against the practices of Loṅkā Śāh and his followers.

Later Jain reactions

Lay men and women kneel in prayer before a large idol of a Jina in a temple. The idol's plain style and downcast eyes are characteristic of Digambara images.

Lay people worship a Jina
Image by Sheetal Shah © Sheetal Shah

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jain thinkers began to address Islam directly in discussions on the use of religious images. Some connected Jain groups that disagree with idol worship to Islamic ideas. Others pointed out inconsistences between Islamic ideas and practices regarding icons.

Some mūrti-pūjak authors, such as Jñānsundar, attributed Loṅkā Śāh’s rejection of icons to Islamic influences. This suggestion also carries the implicit and deliberately unfavourable comparison of aniconic Jains to the meat-eating Muslims. All Jains are vegetarian, because of the key principle of non-violence towards living beings, so likening any group of Jains to meat-eaters is insulting.

Many Jain thinkers in the colonial and modern periods explicitly traced the origins of Muslim iconoclasm to Muhammad’s misunderstanding of the world. Bhadrankarvijay articulates this idea in the greatest detail, although several others shared it. Bhadrankarvijay argued that religious images are part of the very nature of reality, which Muhammad ignorantly opposed.

Other intellectuals provided alternative ways of undermining Christian and Islamic criticisms. For example, Kalyanvijay wrote that all religions use icons, including Christianity and Islam. Buddhi-sagar provided numerous examples of such contradictions between doctrine and practice in Islam, such as Muslim veneration of the Qur’an and the required pilgrimage to Mecca.


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