Prince Dara Shikoh was the crown prince of the Mughal Empire and son and heir of Shah Jahan, ruler of the richest country in the world and builder of the Taj Mahal. In 1655, Dara wrote a short seminal thesis in Persian called the Mingling of the Oceans. A mystic and scholar, the prince set out to discover the secret divine origins of the Sanskritic and Abrahamic religious traditions. His thesis was that at their source, the Hindu Vedanta and Islam had a common point of faith, the recognition of which would allow people of different religions to live together in harmony in the land that he was destined to rule. In the end, he lost his life and never became emperor. Worse, his great work was almost lost to history.
Yet I saw how enthusiastically Dara’s story was received at the Cosmos Club in Washington DC when members stage-read my play The Trial of Dara Shikoh for fellow members in May this year. When I noted the reaction of the audience, I thought to myself: if a white, middle-class audience in one of the most exclusive clubs of the country in the nation’s capital could respond with such positive energy to the ideas of Dara Shikoh, then it was time to introduce them to high school and undergraduate students.
There have been over 200 cases of mass killings in the US so far this year. As I sought to finish this article, I read that four people were killed in Oklahoma and, immediately after, a man shot two women and then himself outside a church in Iowa. Minorities, even children, are targeted. The classroom is no longer sacred. As a teacher, I am especially appalled. The authorities appear to be disciples of Einstein—they do the same thing again and again and expect different results. After each incident, local and national leaders expressed sorrow and emphasised security and surveillance instead of banning guns and checking the hatred. The solutions are the same that have been tried, tested and failed – and that is why we see this extraordinary number of almost daily killings. The response is more surveillance and more security. Billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man-hours wasted that have not yielded any satisfactory results. The killing proceeds with the same deadly mathematical regularity.
While not dismissing the surveillance and security method, I would suggest we add a pedagogical dimension to solving this problem. As this killing is frequently coming from pent-up hatred in young male shooters, we need to understand why this is happening and how it can be diverted before they acquire an AR-15 rifle and start shooting The shooter is growing up in an environment of hatred after 9/11. The media is constantly projecting negative images of minorities, especially Muslims and foreigners. It has reached the point that one of the first acts in office of the last president was to impose a ban on Muslims entering the United States. That ban was based on religion and was blatantly unconstitutional. While the next president removed it, it still affected a broad consensus among Americans that there was a problem with at least one minority, that is the Muslims.
Any young person growing up in America after 9/11 would be subject to a bombardment of negative images around Islam. It is not surprising therefore that Payton Gendron, who killed 10 shoppers in Buffalo, mostly African American, had his head bursting with bizarre and fabricated theories based in fake news and facts especially about Muslims according to his manifesto and recorded statements. These theories went back to the siege of Vienna and how Muslims threatened Europe, that is, white civilisation at its heart. The world in Gendron’s mind was divided into a simple binary: Muslims versus the West. In this he ignored the fact that very large numbers of the Ottoman army were Christian and the cavalry that broke the siege was led by the Muslim Tatars fighting alongside the Polish cavalry. The main enemies of the Ottomans were fellow Muslims from the Shia Safavid empire. Gendron’s assumption that the world was divided between “us” versus “them,” that is, Muslims was simply not a correct reading of history. But he was getting explicitly drawn into the disturbed world of Brenton Tarrant in New Zealand and Anders Breivik, the Norway shooter. In their minds, corrupted mythology, distorted history, and racial and religious prejudice combined in a deadly poisonous mixture of hatred. They cited contemporary Islamophobic authors and their hateful half-baked ideas as their authority. They were self-appointed crusaders fighting to prevent the extinction of the white race.
The problem is, as I have pointed out in my work, that once hatred is aroused against one community, it provokes hatred against other communities. Attacks on Muslims in the US after 9/11 were followed by attacks on Sikhs and others. African Americans were targeted mercilessly by the police and images of young men like George Floyd being tragically throttled to death – and that by a policeman — haunted the nightmares of the nation. Anti-Semitism had once again reared its ugly head and irrational attacks on the community by self-defined Nazi-type fascists had become all too common. It was becoming crazily Hobbesian.
Another characteristic that the Minglers tend to have is provoking backlash, anger, or controversy from those who do not wish to “mingle” with others so easily. Let us call such people who promote such boundaries “Anti-Minglers” or those who do not like people who are not “like us”
We have erroneously studied history as linear. The assumption is that all of society will one day be democratic, liberal and inclusive. In reality, the evidence is that it is moving equally strongly in an opposite direction with predatory leaders like Trump, Modi, Orban and Putin. The question is: will we eventually emerge having created a synthesis which presents a viable paradigm for the world to be able to live with a modicum of harmony and peace, or will aggressive “predators” squeeze inclusive “pluralist” identity out of existence? From the ideals of Adam Smith for those societies dominated by capitalist ideas and Karl Marx for those in the communist bloc we note with concern the undiluted vision of Thomas Hobbes—an all-against-all society.
I argue for a different approach. Each civilisation has produced great thinkers and practitioners of peace whose ideas would benefit communities outside their own. Their ideas in striking ways echo those of similar figures in other societies. These figures may be called, pace Dara Shikoh, the Minglers; they are out to Mingle the Oceans of civilisation.
The following are just some of the names on our list of Minglers. Students reading about Socrates will also be introduced to Greek culture and Greek society. The same is true in learning about Confucius and Chinese culture. Learning about Asoka, we introduce students to one of the great rulers of history who embraced Buddhism and spread ideas of non-violence, compassion and justice throughout his empire. Reading about Guru Nanak Dev Ji will introduce them to the great Sikh faith and its emphasis on service to the community and compassion for all. Another key figure for them to know about is Rabbi Maimonides which will introduce them not only to Judaic learning but also Judaic culture and philosophy. Rumi and Ibn Arabi, the mystic philosophers of love, are already known to many, but a little more knowledge of their lives and times will make students aware of the philosophers, scientists and artists who lived then in the Golden Age of Islam.
What makes a Mingler special?
Where do the Minglers get their powers from? They certainly seem to be touched by the breath of the divine in wanting to improve the lot of humanity. They have charisma or divine grace. (For one of the most analytic and insightful analysis of charisma in the context of leadership see Max Weber.) So extraordinary is their charisma that in their lifetime they are hailed as divine beings such as Jesus or great souls like Mahatma Gandhi. They touch individuals in a society in a deeply personal and profound manner. They provide human compassion and reinforce the message of love in their own way. The promote generosity, kindness, and the inherent worth of every life. Each one of them has gifts that are apparent, whether it is the power to reason like Socrates or make music like John Lennon, but it is their innate humanity that enables them to carry over their gifts into their role as Minglers.
Another characteristic that the Minglers tend to have is provoking backlash, anger, or controversy from those who do not wish to “mingle” with others so easily. Let us call such people who promote such boundaries “Anti-Minglers” or those who do not like people who are not “like us.” In the extreme, this position leads to the separation of people, deportation, or killing. Such actions are often driven by feelings and emotions of hatred. No one, prince or philosopher, is immune; Socrates, Dara and Martin Luther King Jr. lost their lives to the hatred in their own community. No society, whether ancient Greek or modern American, escaped the intolerance that took the lives of these extraordinary figures.
These are ideas of humanness, acceptance of others, the good life, emphasis on knowledge and justice and are all contained as much in the writings of Plato and Confucius as in those of Jefferson and Franklin; of course, we need to understand the cultural context within which they operated. And because there is such a strong link between the Enlightenment ideas and the great philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam, we have a direct link in the chain that connects us to the past, even though it is a past that takes us via Andalusia and not necessarily London or Paris
Payton Gendron, the killer of Buffalo, I thought to myself, was the same age and even looked like most of my students enrolled year after year to take my classes on Islam. They are bright, curious and wanting to learn. They also tell me that they have been taught little or nothing about foreign cultures. So, the great civilizations of India, China and the world of Islam mean little to them. They know virtually nothing about Islam except what they learn from the media which is mostly negative—Muslims are misogynist, bloodthirsty barbarians out to destroy Western civilisation. The students are honest enough to express regret at this gap in their education. This is where I believe the teaching of the Minglers needs to start, so that future students graduating from high school are not tempted to pick up a gun and start shooting at anyone who looks different to them because they believe they are defending their civilization or race from extinction.
The left or liberals accuse the right wing in the US of promoting the “Great Replacement Theory,” supporting white supremacists and the idea that the country faces an unchecked immigration invasion. Media figures like Tucker Carlson of Fox News mischievously add fuel to the fire by exaggerating such ideas. Their basic argument is the fear in the majority of the white population that they would be outnumbered by non-white peoples and eventually lose all their privileges and position in society. There is some demographic validity to the argument but little philosophic or sociological evidence. No groups representing minority communities in the US wish to reverse the social order in order to inflict pain and humiliation on the white majority population.
The situation in the world’s oldest democracy is dire. But the world’s biggest democracy is in trouble too. In a devastating interview on a recent episode of the popular Karan Thapar show, Arundhati Roy declared that India would be breaking up if it continued to murder and brutalize its minorities. She also made the point that India is in this predicament precisely because its traditional liberal elites have sat on the fence and allowed the extremists to take over the narrative and influence mainstream society. Apart from a few honorable and courageous souls, it is a barren landscape of depressing stories of lynching, rape, murder, and every sign of what the experts whose profession it is to write about these matters declare is a nation well along the route to genocide (see for example the work of Gregory Stanton, president of Genocide Watch). The spirit of mingling barely flickers in India today. Among the most vocal and prominent commentators for an inclusive and tolerant India are Roy and Dr. Shashi Tharoor. It is no coincidence either that perhaps the most authoritative biography of Dara Shikoh is written recently by Suprya Gandhi, the great-granddaughter of the Mahatma and a professor at Yale.
Muslim nations too desperately need to introduce the Minglers in their curricula. In Pakistan, for example, children are not taught about Hinduism and Sikhism and are exposed to stereotypes and caricature. Pakistani children need to learn more about Asoka and Mahatma Gandhi, just as Indian children need to learn about Allama Iqbal and Quaid-i-Azam, Mr. Jinnah. Other Muslim nations more or less face the same situation. Arab nations would benefit learning about Rabbi Maimonides, the Rambam, and Israeli children about Rumi, Ibn Arabi and Dara Shikoh.
The good news is that those elements worth preserving in democracy which really are the core legacy of the Enlightenment are also elements to be found in the philosophy of the Minglers. These are ideas of humanness, acceptance of others, the good life, emphasis on knowledge and justice and are all contained as much in the writings of Plato and Confucius as in those of Jefferson and Franklin; of course, we need to understand the cultural context within which they operated. And because there is such a strong link between the Enlightenment ideas and the great philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam, we have a direct link in the chain that connects us to the past, even though it is a past that takes us via Andalusia and not necessarily London or Paris. Our task is to share this history so that it becomes widely known and perhaps acts to mitigate the global violence based in hatred and ignorance.