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Interfaith Dialogue ( 15 Oct 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Shuddhi and Tabligh: New Forms of Religious Preaching in India [Part 1]

By Yoginder Sikand,


South Asia—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh taken as a whole—is today home to almost four hundred million adherents of Islam. Islam has had a long and chequered history in this part of the world. First having made its entrance through Arab traders in the west coast of southern India, it later spread to much of the sub-continent over the several centuries of Muslim rule.

In the course of eight centuries or so, large numbers of local people came under the influence of Islam particularly through the agency of the Sufi saints belonging to various different silsilahs or orders. Not all of these necessarily became Muslim, and, it is interesting to note, of those groups that did, large numbers remained Islamized only in the most nominal sense. Thus, in many cases what were seen as Muslim superhuman agents, such as miracle-working pirs (literally, 'elders', a term used for Sufi saints), were merely incorporated into the already existing pantheon of local deities and godlings, corresponding to what Eaton calls the 'process of inclusion'.

In other cases, while, over time, Muslim superhuman agents, including not just the pirs but the Islamic God himself, displaced these indigenous deities as objects of worship, many local, 'Hinduistic' customs were still preserved and continued to be practiced, often being given a thin 'Islamic' veneer. Thus, for instance, worship at, and, in many instances, of the dargahs (tombs of Sufi saints) replaced idolatory as a functional alternative. Many of the cults associated with the dargahs incorporated many local customs such as singing, dancing, burning incense and offering sweets and flowers at the graves of the pirs, customs which had no sanction in the Islamic shariah, but which formed an integral part of local Indian modes of worship. Besides, several of their older customs, most of these indigenous convert groups also rigidly retained certain of their earlier social institutions, the most pervasive of which was caste—jati or biraderi. Islamization seems to have been far more superficial in the case of neo-Muslim groups living in far-flung rural areas than the artisan classes of the cities. This was probably because tradition tends everywhere to linger longer and to be far more deeply entrenched in static agrarian societies that are largely self-administered and have but peripheral links with the world outside, such as were most Indian villages.

Qadri attributes the only partial Islamization of the neo-Muslims to the fact that the ruling Turko-Mughal Muslim elite, the ashraf, being of foreign extraction, looked down upon the Indian converts and were not very concerned about their proper Islamization.

Indeed, it even appears that this lack of concern worked, in some cases, actually to suit the interests of the political establishment, as Eaton shows in his study of Islam in eastern Bengal.

This not only explains the lack of interest and enthusiasm shown by many Muslim kings during the several centuries of Muslim rule in India, as well as sections of the ulema attached to them, to fully and properly Islamise the nee-Muslims but also, as one writer observes, the marked reluctance on the part of several Muslim rulers to even encourage Hindus to convert to Islam. The fear that if many Hindus were to convert to Islam not only might they put forward a claim to equal treatment as fellow Muslims but, over time, might even compete with them for political power, seems, for some Muslim rulers, to have outweighed the attraction of earning religious merit in the after-life for spreading Islam.

As a result of this very partial Islamization of what, for want of a better term, can be called neo-Muslim groups (Urdu: nau Muslim aqwam) the practice of local customs not sanctioned by the sharia or Islamic law was widespread, but this did not appear as a problem that demanded immediate solution on the part of both the political authorities as well as the nau Muslims themselves. So pervasive was this admixture of local and Islamic practices that as late as the fourth decade of the present century, a leading spokesman of the Islamic reformist party Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Punjab was provoked to cry out in great anguish that:

If a Muslim of the first century of the hijra were again sent down to this earth to see the state of religious affairs in India, he would at once say that eighty per cent of the Mohammadans inhabiting India are kafirs and that they have adopted the name 'Muslim' only to gain their political ends. Otherwise, there is absolutely no difference between the Hindus and the so-called Muslims.

As long as Muslim political power remained intact in the region, there was little way that concerted efforts could be made to reincorporate these partially-Islamized nau Muslim groups back into the Hindu fold. This also seems to be one reason why the Muslim political establishment, especially under the Mughals, itself did not seem to be overly-concerned about their fuller Islamization. Things, however, underwent a radical change with the eclipse of Muslim political rule over much of the subcontinent. Under the new rulers, the British, it was now possible for organized Hindu groups to attempt to bring the nau Muslims back into their fold, in a race for numbers. It was thus at this time, starting towards the close of the nineteenth century, that reports began to appear of groups of nau Muslim being made 'Hindu'. Spearheading this campaign was a militant and aggressive Hindu group, the Arya Samaj.

The Arya Samaj and its Conversion Movement Among the Muslims

In order to understand the conversion movement spearheaded by the Arya Samaj in its proper context a brief look at what goes by the name of 'Hinduism' is in order. 'Hinduism' is a term of recent coinage, an invention of the Orientalists. What goes by the name 'Hinduism' today is actually a collection of a baffling number of belief-systems and ritual practices, many of them fiercely opposed to each other. While, therefore, it is simply not possible to identify any tenets that are common to all those who are called 'Hindus', the term can best be understood when seen in term of its social, rather than theological, referents. Thus, the term 'Hindu' is actually applicable to every individual who belongs to one or the other 'Hindu' castes or jatis, which, when taken as a whole, represent a hierarchical and graded system, at the pinnacle of which is the priestly caste, the Brahmins. Since caste can only be obtained through birth, theoretically speaking one can only be born a Hindu, never made one. Thus, 'Hinduism', as denned by its official guardians, the orthodox Brahmins, is a strictly non-missionary religion.

Whatever may have been the orthodox Hindu position in theory in this regard, the spread of Brahminical 'Hinduism' from the 'Hindu' heartland of northern India not just to the rest of the Indian sub-continent but even to far-off Indo-China, Malaysia and Indonesia in ancient times suggests that in actual practice it has been possible for non-Hindus groups to be 'Hinduised'. Contrary to what was maintained in theory, this process of Hinduisation has actually been under way since early time.

Hinduisation and the Indian Muslims

The vast majority of the Muslim population of South Asia today are descendants of indigenous converts who, over a period of several centuries of gradual Islamization, came to recognize themselves as Muslim. Islamization as an extended process was, typically, a group phenomenon, with entire caste groups, or significantly large numbers thereof, moving over time into Islam in a body and then adopting a new Islamised or Arabised caste appellation for themselves. For Instance, the Tantis of Bihar began calling themselves with the distinctly Islamic title of Ansari following their conversion to Islam. Low caste butchers, after their Islamization had proceeded to an appreciable degree, assumed the title Quraish for themselves, the name of the clan to which the Prophet Mohammad had belonged. In these and other cases, it is important to note, the endogamous caste or jati unit which was in existence prior to conversion to Islam remained intact even after that. This is how Muslim society in India came to be characterized by the existence of a multiplicity of endogamous caste groups despite the great stress Islam lays on the fundamental unity and equality of all believers. As we shall see, it was this existence of caste among the Indian Muslim that allowed for successful efforts to be made to bring certain nau Muslim groups back into the Hindu fold.

Shuddhi and the Arya Samaj

As we have seen, in theory orthodox Hindus held that it was not possible or permissible for non-Hindus, whom they considered to be ritually impure (mkccha), to become Hindu. It was, however, the Arya Samaj, a revivalist Hindu group set up in 1875 by Dayanand Saraswati, a Gujarati Brahamin, which made a radical break with the orthodoxy in this regard. It allowed for non-'Hindus' to convert to the Arya Samaj, and, thus, to 'Hinduism' through a ritual ceremony called shuddhikaran ('purification'). On undergoing the shuddhi ceremony, Muslim and other non-'Hindus' were believed to have removed the 'pollution' that had been attached to them as a consequence of their association with the mkcchas and thus to have now become Arya 'ritually pure' or 'noble'.

Shuddhi Among the Muslims

Prior to these efforts at mass conversion of entire Muslim castes starting in the first decade of the twentieth century, there had been isolated instances of individual Muslim undergoing the Arya shuddhi ceremony. Most of these early Muslim accessions to 'Hinduism' via the Arya Samaj were, however, cases of Hindu converts to Islam reconverting to their former religion and being accepted back into the fold of the caste to which they had previously belonged. In due course, shuddhi efforts were extended from this category of people first to those whose ancestors had been Hindus at one time and had later changed their religion, and then, later, to non-Hindus with no Hindu-ancestry at all. The first instance of a born Muslim being converted to Hinduism by the Arya Samaj was reported in 1877, when Dayanand Saraswati performed the shuddhi of a Muslim man from Dehra Dun, a small town in northern India, giving him the Hindu name of 'Alakhdhari'.

Mass Shuddhi Among the Muslims

The Aryas do not seem to have met with much success in converting many individual Muslims to their camp. One major factor that inhibited such conversions was that if an individual Muslim were to go over to the Arya fold, he would be left a complete social orphan. His relations with his Muslim family would be totally cut off. What would be equally distressing for him would be that he would discover that even after conversion to Hinduism, not just the sanatani Hindus, but even many Aryas themselves, would refuse to entertain even the most basic of social relations, such as inter-dining and inter-marriage, with him, considering his Muslim antecedents as having somehow rendered him 'impure' for the rest of his life. On the part of the Aryas this was because though in public they 'tended to project themselves as radicals', at home and at biraderi meetings, 'they behaved like most of the traditionalists and conservatives, fearing the wrath of the caste biraderi'.

Clearly, then, the only way that the nau Muslims could be brought into the 'Hindu' fold in large numbers would be, the Aryas soon realized, to aim at converting entire nau Muslim groups so that even after undergoing shuddhi the converts could maintain their social ties with one another. Considerations of caste now dictated that the focus of the shuddhi campaign should be on encouraging mass conversions of whole nau Muslim groups rather than of individual Muslims. This strategy was facilitated by the fact that, as we have noted, the gradual and incomplete process of Islamization of local groups during the centuries of Muslim rule had resulted in the existence of a number of endogamous nau Muslim jatis. Having converted to Islam, these jatis, for the most part, had been relegated by the Hindus to a status similar to that of the low-caste Shudras and untouchables, and un-touchability was strictly practiced against all of them, no matter what their original caste status had been prior to their conversion to Islam. The Arya approach was to seek to bring these castes back into the Hindu fold by promising to restore to them the caste status that their Hindu ancestors had enjoyed before they had gone over to Islam. Interestingly, this went directly against their own avowed principle of fiercely opposing caste as it was conventionally understood. The tempting offer of restoring the caste status and privileges that had been enjoyed by their Hindu ancestors would obviously seem to have appeared particularly attractive for Muslim groups of high caste extraction. Many among the lower castes had taken to Islam in order to escape high caste oppression, few of them, if any, would, naturally warmly welcome the prospect of re-entering the Hindu fold and regaining their former status of untouchables. The Aryas were probably aware of this. This possibly explains why their early shuddhi efforts among the Muslims were, in the main, to be aimed at those Muslim castes which were, or, at least claimed to be, of high caste Hindu origin.

The First Stage of Mass Conversions

According to a Muslim leader who was to go on to play an important role in opposing the shuddhi movement, ever since its very inception the Arya Samaj had aimed at the conversion of the Indian Muslims to Hinduism. As a prelude to the actual launching of this missionary drive, towards the end of the nineteenth century Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the Hindu ruler of the largely Muslim state of Kashmir is said to have commissioned the preparing of a 21-volume Hindu encyclopedia by the name of Ranbir Karit Prayaschit Mahanibandh ('Ranbir's Great Essay on Repentance'), which argued the case and suggested appropriate strategies for the mass conversion of all the nau-Muslim aqwam (neo-Muslim communities) of India to 'Hinduism'. This book, it was alleged, had been secretly circulated among leading Hindus so that the Muslims remained unaware of the plot.

The first actual attempts at mass shuddhi are said to have been made in March 1908 at Deeg in the Bharatpur State in eastern Rajputana. The Aryas are said to have received the active cooperation of many local Hindus in this endeavor—'village record-keepers, teachers, postmen and ordinary village shop-keepers—in short, all people (i.e. all local 'Hindus') were involved in this effort'. They reportedly went about, 'poisoning the minds of the ignorant and simple village Muslims, telling them that their ancestors had been forcibly converted to Islam by the Muslim kings'."

The Arya missionaries are, however, said to have been successfully beaten back by the intervention of several Islamic groups, in particular, the Anjuman Hidayatul Islam of Delhi, and the local Rajput Muslims were thereby saved from renouncing their religion. This temporary defeat apparently did not cause the Aryas to lose hope for they are said to have continued to make sporadic efforts at the shuddhi of Muslim Rajputs in the districts of Etawah, Kanpur, Meerut and Manipuri in the western United Provinces Here, too, they are said to have been thwarted in their efforts by Islamic groups.

The Mapffla Revolt

Towards the close of the second decade of the twentieth century Hindu—Muslim communal tensions seem to have lessened considerably in the wake of efforts between Hindu and Muslim politicians for a united struggle against the British. As a result, the Aryas had to lie low and no major shuddhi activity is reported from this period. This does not necessarily mean, however, that in the eyes of the Muslims, the Aryas had decided to finally wind up once and for all their shuddhi campaign. According to one Muslim writer, this period was, in fact, put to good use by the Aryas by doing serious ground work, preparing the soil for shuddhi in the western districts of the United Provinces and the princely State of Bharatpur where a large community of Rajput neo-Muslims of high Hindu warrior-caste extraction, the Malkanas, lived.

The all-too-brief period of Hindu-Muslim unity came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of what is commonly referred to as the Moplah Revolt in 1921. The Moplahs, or more properly, the Mapillas, were an impoverished Muslim peasant community living in the districts of Malabar in the deep south of India. Cruel oppression at the hands of their high caste Hindu landlords had forced them to rise up in violent revolt, in the course of which scores of people are said to have been killed. It was also alleged that several Hindus had been forcibly converted to Islam by the Mapillas, though the actual number of such cases was greatly contested. Whatever else its consequences may have been, the Mapilla Revolt, as the Hindus saw it, had driven the last nail into the coffin of Hindu-Muslim unity. Communal tensions and violence between Hindus and Muslims, which, during the course of the Khilafat and non-cooperation movements, had significantly declined suddenly reached new and unprecedented heights all over the country, especially in the north. A spate of communal riots broke out, in which many people lost their lives.

The heightened communal tension in the wake of the Mapilla Revolt provided a golden opportunity to the Arya missionaries to spring back into action. Team of Arya shuddhi activities were rushed to Malabar to reconvert to the Hindu fold those Hindus whom the Mapillas had allegedly converted to Islam by force. What was particularly significant was that the Sanatani or orthodox Hindus, who, till then, had stiffly opposed the Aryas for shuddhi, holding conversion and re-conversion to be as impermissible in Hinduism, actually actively cooperated with them in bringing these allegedly forced converts back to Hinduism. The campaign, which had remained fairly dormant for several years, now once again emerged as the single most crucial issue around which the Aryas sought to rouse Hindu public opinion and mobilize the Hindu masses.

The Second Stage of Mass Conversions

Before the momentum and zeal generated all over the country by the shuddhi efforts in Malabar could die out, the Aryas decided to resume shuddhi activities in the north, this time among the but nominally Muslim Malkana Rajput caste, among whom, as we have seen, they had been preparing the ground for shuddhi over the past decade and a half.

Efforts to convert the Malkanas to Hinduism began in the first decade of the present century, when shuddhi sabhas (shuddhi agencies) were set up at several places in the western districts of the United Provinces by two Hindu activists, Pundit Bhoj Dutt Sharma and Chowdhry Raj Bhaj Dutt. By 1910, the Rajput Sabha claimed to have converted some 1000 Malkanas to Hinduism in the districts of Harrdoi, Shahjehanpur and Mainpuri. The Sabha was, however, wound up in 1911 as the momentum for shuddhi was lost with the onset of a brief period of Hindu-Muslim cooperation. It was only in the 1920s that the dramatic mass conversions of entire Malkana villages to Hinduism commenced. On 30 August 1922, soon after the Aryas and Sanatania had started the shuddhi of the allegedly forcibly converted Hindus in Malabar, a meeting of Hindu Rajputs, under the auspices of the Kshatriya Upakarini Sabha (Kshatriya Upliftment Society), was held at Allahabad under the presidentship of Raja Sir Rampal Singh of Benaras. At this meeting a resolution was passed supporting the general principle that all allegedly forced Hindu converts to Islam and other religions be accepted back into the Hindu community. Four months later, on 29 December 1922, the same Sabha under the presidentship of Raja Lt Durga Narain Singh of the Rewa State, passed another resolution, this time approving the re-conversion of the Malkana Rajputs to Hinduism, with the Hindu Rajputs pledging to establish full social relations with them if they were to do so. Two days later, yet another resolution, to broadly the same effect, was also passed.

The resolutions passed by the Sabha provided the stimulus needed by the Aryas to extend their shuddhi campaign to the Malkana areas. On 13 August 1923, Swami Shraddhanand, a fiery Aryt missionary who was to emerge as the main guiding force behind the Arya's shuddhi campaign, was invited by the representatives of several Hindu caste Sabhas to a meeting at Agra to discuss the issue of the conversion of the Malkanas to Hinduism. Eighty persons from various Hindu groups, including Aryas, Sanatanis, Sikhs and Jains, attended this meeting. All of them agreed that the shuddhi of the Malkanas should be undertaken and that work in this direction should commence right away. An organization was formed for this purpose under the presidentship of Shraddhanand and was given the name of Bharatiya Hindu Shuddhi Sabha (All-India Hindu Shuddhi Council).

Shuddhi work began in a major way among the Malkanas in 1923. Shraddhanand made frantic appeals to the Hindu public for money and volunteers. The Hindu response all over the country is said to have been overwhelming. In its editorial of 4 May 1927, by which time shuddhi had reached its peak, the Tribune remarked that, 'The shuddhi... propaganda is no longer the exclusive concern of the Arya Samaj: an overwhelming majority of the Hindus are now identified (with it).' By the end of 1927, by when the conversion drive in the Malkana belt seems finally to have come to a halt, about 163,000 Malkanas are said to have been converted to Hinduism.

With the Malkanas having been brought into the Hindu fold, the Aryas and the Sanatanis now began training their eyes on other similar neo-Muslim groups, hoping to extend the shuddhi campaign to them as well. Some work in this direction was started among the Muslim Jats and Gujjars of the Punjab and the western districts of the United Provinces, and these efforts seem to have met with some success. Appeals were then issued to target virtually all the Muslims of India for shuddhi. At a public rally at Lahore, Shraddhanand, in a fiery speech, exhorted the Hindus to bring back to Hinduism 65 million Indian Muslims.


Swami Bhaskarteerth, deputy to the Shankaracharya of the Sharada Peeth, one of the seven pontiffs of the Sanatanis, went even beyond that and declared that, barring a few hundred thousand Indian Muslims whose ancestors had come to India from Afghanistan and Baluchistan', the rest of the Muslims of India were descendants of Hindu converts and that, therefore, they should all be made Hindu once again.17



1. The earliest presence of Muslims in India can probably be traced to the southernmost state of Kerala, with which the Arabs had close trading links from pre-Islamic times. The first recorded settling of Muslims in India dates back to the invasion of Sind by the Arabs under Muhammad bin Qasim in 711 C.E., less than a century after the Prophet's death. There is, however, little doubt that there were Muslim colonies in both north as well as south India before this. Dwight Baker, Accessions to Islam in India, Hyderabad: Henry Marryn Institute of Islamic Studies, and Madras: Church Growth Research Centre, 1987, p. 1.

2.  Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier (1204-1760), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p. 269.

3.  S. C. Misra, 'Indigenization and Islamization in Muslim Society in India', in S. T. Lokhandwala, editor, India and Contemporary Islam, p. 369.

4. Arshad-ul Qadri, Tablighi Jama'at ka Tarikhijaiza (Urdu) (An Historical Analysis of the Tablighi Jam'at), p. 50.

5.  Eaton, op. cit., pp. 178-179.

6.  Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 444.

7.  Chaudhri Afzal Haq, Pakistan and Un-touchability, Lahore: Maktaba-i-Urdu, 1941, p. 21.

8. For Details, see Y. Sikand, and M. Katju, "Mass Conversion to Hinduism Among Indian Muslims", Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XXIX, No. 34, 20 August, 1994.

9.  R. K. Ghai, Shuddhi Movement in India: A Study of its Socio-political Dimensions, New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers, 1990, p. 158.

10.  Ghulam Bhik Nairang, Ghubar-i-Ufuq, Delhi: Almas Press, 1925, p. 7.

11. Nairang, op. cit., p. 10.

12.  G. R. Thursby, Hindu-Muslim Relations in British India: A Study of Controversy, Conflict and Communal Movements in Northern India 1923-28, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975, p. 16.

13. Ibid., p. 146.

14. Ibid., p. 151.

15. J. F. Seunarine, Reconversion to Hinduism through Suddhi, Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1977, p. 37.

16. Nairang, op. cit., p. 49.

17. Nairang, op. cit., p. 58.

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