For those of us who live culturally suspended between America and India, the surface differences between these two multicultural democracies gradually become less noticeable than the fundamental similarities. Every generation of Americans sees itself as “invaded” by a rush of exotic and vaguely threatening immigrants—Irish, Germans, Slavs, Latinos, Asians, in more or less chronological order—and conveniently forgets that they themselves are descendents of formerly hated immigrants. In India, the invasions were literal, not metaphorical. The subcontinent’s rich resources and geographical vulnerability made it a frequent target of military conquest. But India’s rich and profound culture eventually seduced and triumphed over its conquerors, who both embraced and changed the culture of their new home. Today, all “pure” Indians are descendants of someone who once invaded the country and conquered it. Even the Hindu caste system was an unsuccessful attempt of the Aryan conquerors to keep their distance from the “native” Indians of their time—so unsuccessful that it is now thought of as being purely Indian by those who want to drive out Muslim “invaders” who have been in India for 700 years.
There is only one weapon that open-minded Indians and Americans have against the Pat Buchanans and Bal Thackerays who preach hatred in the name of “purity”—the truth. Americans need to be reminded that without people with names like De Niro, Yamaguchi, Bernstein, and Santana, America would never have become a great country. Indians need to be reminded that it is their cultural diversity that gives them the potential to be the next great superpower, and that suppressing the contributions of non-Hindu Indians is not purification, but cultural self-mutilation. Unfortunately, false statements like “Muslims have made no contributions to Indian culture.” don’t need evidence if they are repeated often enough by skillful propagandists. But fortunately, there are Indians on the job (and on the Internet) who are reminding their fellow Indians of the rich complexities of their heritage. One of their central focal points is a website run by Indian filmmaker Yousuf Saeed and dedicated to the great 13th-century Indian Muslim Amir Khusro (often transliterated Khusrau or Khosrau).

Saeed’s website (www.angelfire.com/sd/urdumedia/) deals mainly with Khusro’s diverse literary accomplishments, which include lengthy epics and historical works, lyric poetry that is still used as text for ghazals, khayal, and qawwali, and even whimsical riddles and untranslatable puns. Khusro was equally eloquent in both Persian and Hindavi, the ancestor of modern Hindi. In fact, some say that he helped to create Hindavi by combining Persian with the local language of the time. But his contributions to Hindustani music were probably even more important, although they are harder to trace because of the ephemeral nature of improvised musical performances.

Genuine accomplishments inevitably give birth to legends, and after several generations it becomes difficult to tell which is which. Despite popular legends, Khusro did not invent the tabla or the sitar. The latter was probably invented by another man of the same name (also referred to as Khusro Khan) who lived several hundred years later. Amir Khusro’s important contributions to qawwali have caused certain sources to say he invented it (or perhaps an earlier form called qual), but there are also texts which imply that some form of qawwali existed before Khusro was born. Although khayal owes a great deal to his combining of Persian ornaments and scales with traditional Indian forms like dhrupad, it probably did not exist in its present form during his lifetime. He probably invented tarana, (the improvised singing of the syllables “dhin ta na deri na”), which is an important part of modern khayal performances. But it is unlikely that he invented it on the fly during a musical duel with the great South Indian vocalist Gopal Nayak, as tradition reports. There are also numerous ragas still performed today, including Sazgiri, Bahar, and Shahana, which are attributed to him not only by tradition, but because they are recognizable combinations of Persian scales and Indian ragas.

Perhaps Khusro’s greatest importance today, however, is as an exemplar of a Muslim who was both deeply devout and spiritually tolerant. He was devoted to his pir (Muslim spiritual teacher), the great Sufi Nizamuddin Aulia. When Khusro heard of Nizamuddin’s death, he went into deep mourning, died within six months, and was buried beside him. But for Khusro, devotion to Islam implied an acceptance and respect for all forms of religion. Self-righteous attachment to a particular tradition was seen as a kind of idolatry that glorified appearance over essence. He expressed this attitude in poetic lines like “I am a pagan and a worshipper of love, The creed (of Muslims) I do not need; Every vein of mine has become taut like a wire, The (Brahman’s) girdle I do not need.” The point of these paradoxical lines is that direct contact with the one God makes all rituals and doctrines unnecessary.

Khusro also began the tradition of Indian Muslims celebrating the spring festival Basant Panchami. Nizamuddin Aulia had been grieving over the death of his nephew when Khusro encountered some girls who were celebrating this Hindu spring festival. Khusro joined them by dressing in yellow, carrying mustard flowers, and singing religious songs. He then led the procession to his teacher, who smiled for the first time in months when he saw them. Since then Muslims and Hindus have celebrated this ritual together in Delhi. Today Yousuf Saeed and the Communicators Collective has expanded and revitalized this tradition by producing cultural and artistic festivals that celebrate this ideal of peaceful co-existence between the two religions. Perhaps the pluralism of great Indian Sufis like Khusro and Nizamuddin could be the remedy for the intolerant fundamentalism that currently infects Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. It would not be the first time that India has provided spiritual inspiration to the rest of the world.

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.