A Muslim cleric in India has stirred up a controversy by referring to Hindu deity Shiva as the first of the many prophets of Allah.
Mufti Mohammad Ilyas Qasmi, leader of Jamiat Ulema Hind, also said he backed the view that "every Indian is a Hindu," a line adopted by the RSS, the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
"We Indian Muslims are followers of Islam. We believe in 'Allah', but we are, traditionally, 'Hindus'," the leader of Jamiat Ulema Hind, an organisation of Islamic scholars, said.
Qasmi has been propagating Hindu-Muslim unity in Ayodhya, the site of a disputed 16th century mosque that was pulled down by Hindu fanatics in 1992.
The cleric elaborated that Muslims were also followers of Sanatan Dharma and "have no reservations in accepting that Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati were part of the series of a lakh and twenty four thousand [124,000] prophets sent to Earth with a mission to establish humanity, true religion and God's rule in the world."
Sanatan Dharma essentially means eternal duty or religion that has no beginning or a founder, but the word has been interpreted differently.
Denunciations were quick to come.
The group's secretary, Hafiz Irfan, chose to call it Qasmi's personal views. "There were, indeed, a series of one lakh twenty four thousand prophets sent by Allah to Earth. Lord Rama, Lord Krishna or Lord Shiva may be one of them, but none of this finds mention in the holy Quran. Only God is the creator, not his messengers."
Maulana Khalid Rasheed Firangi Mahali, a prominent cleric from the central Indian city of Lucknow, said Islam respected all religions but did not suggest anywhere that Lord Shiva was a prophet.
More vociferous opposition came from nonagenarian Hashim Ansari, who has been in the foreground of the ongoing Ayodhya shrine dispute. Calling the claim ridiculous, he said, "Clerics like him read the Quran but don't understand or follow it at all. In any case, Muslims don't regard the Jamiat as 'ulema'."
Mufti Mukarram Ahmed, Imam of Fatehpuri Masjid, also rejected the claim. "What he has said, is totally wrong and unacceptable. It's nowhere written in our holy book. This could be his political statement," Mukarram said. "We rever[e] only the 'nabis' (Prophets) mentioned in the Quran," he added.
Vice-president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and much-respected Shia cleric Maulana Kalbe Sadiq said: "This Maulana should first learn the basics of both Hinduism and Islam. Clerics should not make such irresponsible statements about religion."
On the other hand, the chief priest of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Mahant Satyendra Das, welcomed the statement. "Maulana Iliyas is right. This should be welcomed by Muslims, too. It will bring us together like brothers."
Another Hindu priest claimed that the cleric's statements are backed by the scriptures and mythology.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief, Mohan Bhagwat, raised a furore last year over his comment that all Indians are culturally Hindus since Hindutva is a way of life and Hindus could be of any religion.