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Raksha Bandhan and the Islamic concept of Sila Rahmi (strengthening the ties of kinship)

The [true] believers are brothers [and sisters] among them. So, make peace between your brothers [and sisters] and remain mindful of God, so that you may receive mercy. (The Holy Qur'an 49:10)

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, Founding Editor, Word For Peace

The bond between a brother and a sister is unique. It is full of love, unconditional support, camaraderie, fights and friendship. The beautiful Indian festival of Raksha Bandhan seeks to strengthen the bond between brothers and sisters.

Raksha Bandhan has great significance for promoting the brotherly-sisterly relations in the Indian subcontinent. In Sanskirit, Raksha means “protection” and Bandhan implies an unshakably strong “bond”. Thus, this festival beautifully strengthens ties between brothers and sisters based on mutual protection, cooperation and cordiality.  On Raksha Bandhan, sisters tie the thread called Rakhi on her brother’s wrist. This beautiful thread is believed to protect her brother from all jinxes and hexes in life. In return, brothers take an oath that they will stand by their sisters, both in joy and grief, sorrow and celebration.

This is something which is similar to the Islamic concept of Sila Rahmi (strengthening the ties of kinship). Prophet Mohammad laid great emphasis on evolving relationship with all family members, particularly between the brothers and sisters. One of his traditions is: “Sadaqa (charity) given to the poor is virtuous, but an ordinary act. However, by giving charity to a relative (particularly brother and sister), one achieves two noble objectives: Sadaqah and Silah Rahmi (upholding the family bond).”

However, Prophet Mohammad cautioned about the sibling rivalry or envy which sometimes turns into an unfavorable form of Qat’a-e-Rahm (breaking the family ties) leading to a disastrous result. As a matter of fact, sibling rivalry is an inbuilt human emotion that turns into ethical flaw, when it involves vying for parental compassion, attention or primacy or preference over the other siblings. Such kind of envy (rashk) is an inherent and indispensable trait that can be overlooked until it takes an ugly form of jealousy (hasad) which is not healthy or positive in any way. In his word of caution, the Prophet stated: “beware of jealousy; for jealousy eats good deeds just as the fire eats wood”.

But at the same time, the Prophet is reported to have exhorted the parents to accord equal rights and compassion to their children — sons and daughters. Clearly, most sibling rivalry results from the perceived loss of equal amount of attention, compassion, love and care from the parents. It is unsettling for daughters or sons if they feel they are getting unequal amounts of attention from their parents and the other siblings are given greater care and respect than themselves. Often, too much expectation for good behavior from the elder sibling is also a cause of rivalry, as Kyla Boyse, an eminent psychologist has noted.

Conversely to the sibling rivalry, on Raksha Bandhan, brothers express their love and care for their sisters by wearing Rakhi all day long and sometimes for a week. They offer gifts in form of cash, clothes, perfumes, etc. Exchanging gifts with siblings is an amazing way to strengthen ties and reduce rivalry between siblings. Prophet said: “Exchange gifts with one another, you will create love and goodwill amongst yourselves.”

The beautiful festival of Raksha Bandhan has been celebrated with great enthusiasm and brotherly-sisterly love in our country for centuries. Many stories of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood related to this festival are also popular. These stories give us a refreshing account of the communal harmony and unity of the two different communities in modern India seek to reimagine and strengthen brotherhood and goodwill between them. At a time when the cordial relations between the majority and minority communities are adversely affected due to the polarization and political situation, there are many stories related to Raksha Bandhan festival which ignite the flame of mutual respect and understanding. One of them is as follows:

In 1905, when Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India announced the partition of Bengal, this decision tore apart the country. It was taken after discussions in a meeting between Lord Curzon and some Muslim leaders who supported the two-nation theory. In the meeting, the importance of the need for a separate country for Muslims to identify them was explained. Curzon believed that due to the large Muslim population in Assam, it should be separated from the Hindu-majority areas of West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. Thus, the order was passed in August 1905. It came into force from 16 October 1905.

The freedom fighter and poet-philosopher of India Rabindranath Tagore realized the ‘divide and rule’ intention of the British government and strongly opposed it. He resorted to the Rakhi tradition as a beautiful blend to strengthen the Hindu-Muslim ties. On his initiative, they encouraged each other to tie Rakhi in the spirit of national integration and communal harmony and brotherhood. Every Hindu was tying Rakhi to every fellow Muslim and Muslims tied Rakhis to their Hindu brothers. This historical scene, indeed, would have been quite fascinating.

As brothers and sisters, we Indian Muslims and Hindus should help each other in these trying times and never hurt our brothers and sisters on religious and communal grounds. As siblings share their pain and problems and together, they make their life easier, we can also set an example of stronger and healthy Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. Siblings can always make mistakes but still they learn from them and rectify them. We must forgive each other, on this occasion of Rakhi Purnima which symbolizes unconditional love and trust between brothers and sisters and improving their relationships if they deteriorate.

During the time of Mughal Emperor Akbar, all Hindu festivals were celebrated with great enthusiasm and without any discrimination. On the occasion of Raksha Bandhan, people sitting on high positions in his court used to tie the silk thread of Rakhi on the wrist of the emperor. Even Muslim emperors who came after Akbar continued this tradition in their rule too. Mughal emperor Shah Alam who made a Hindu woman his sister. Every year on the day of Raksha Bandhan and Bhaiya Dooj, this Hindu sister of Shah Alam would come to the court and tie a silk Rakhi studded with pearls on his wrist. In return, Shah Alam used to shower his sister with gifts. After Shah Alam’s death, his successors Akbar Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar also maintained a brotherly relationship with that woman till the end.

This is how the festival of Rakhi has been celebrated with great communal harmony even today among Hindu-Muslim brothers and sisters. Every year, on the day of Raksha Bandhan, such stories deserve special place, in which a Hindu sister, going beyond religious restrictions and conventions, ties a Rakhi to her Muslim brother and a Muslim sister prays for his long life.

This article is based on a talk given by the author, Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, an Indo-Islamic scholar and Sufi writer, and Founding Editor, Word For Peace.

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