By Rosemary Abraham, New Age Islam
31 May 2022
Islam in South Asia Has Had a Complicated, Colourful, and Oftentimes Tumultuous History
1. Throughout the region’s history, the relationship between Islam and Hinduism has been fraught with strife.
2. Muslim merchants were permitted to settle down in South India, build mosques, and marry Indian women.
3. Indians that converted to Islam were largely peasants from ethnic and religious minorities, not Hindu elites.
4. Indians of all faiths coexist with a passion for religious diversity and pride in cultural and national identity.
From the beginning, Islam in South Asia has had a complicated, colourful, and oftentimes tumultuous history. As of 2010, the subcontinent is home to 507.3 million Muslims, dwarfing the population of Muslims in other regions (such as the Middle East and South-East Asia) significantly. This research article will focus upon evolving perceptions of Islam in India across three eras: early, classical, and contemporary. In discussing the changing perceptions of Islam (primarily by Hindus) across these periods, this article will also emphasise the significance of Islam in Indian history. Muslims comprise the most populous religious minority in India (14.2% of the population). Throughout the region’s history, the relationship between Islam and Hinduism (the dominant faith in the region) has been fraught with strife. Nowhere is this more evident than in contemporary India, decades after the partition which divided the subcontinent into a majority-Muslim north (Pakistan, and later Bangladesh) and a majority-Hindu – albeit constitutionally secular – south (India), with tensions rising due to the Islamophobic policies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
2.1. Early Islam in India: Arab Merchants and Northern Invaders
The first mosques in India were built within the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, in the early days of Islam. The oldest functional mosque in India, the Cheraman Juma Mosque in Kerala, is believed to have been built in 629 CE – according to legend, the mosque was constructed at the behest of a Hindu king who witnessed the splitting of the moon. He asked visiting Arab merchants about the nature of the event and journeyed to Mecca to meet the Prophet Muhammad and convert to Islam; however, he died in Oman, before he could make the journey home. Though many scholars contest the credibility of this oral tradition due to disagreements about the identity of the king and the time during which he lived, the Muslims of the region continue to attribute the roots of their faith to this historic event. One element of the legend which resonates with historical evidence is the presence of Arab traders on the Malabar coast– whether the legend of the Muslim convert king was true or not, it is irrefutable that Arab traders who settled on India’s western coast were significant vehicles of cultural exchange in the region. They were well-regarded by Indians on the Malabar Coast for their annual visits during the monsoon, when they would bring dates and other exotic goods.Later, as Islam spread throughout the Arab world, Muslim merchants were permitted to settle down in South India, build mosques, and marry Indian women.
However, in the north of the subcontinent, the perception of Muslims shifted dramatically from merchant to invader in 712 CE, when Sindh (the region for which India came to be named) was conquered by Muhammad ibn Qasim, a military commander from the Umayyad Caliphate. The desire of the caliphate to expand into India may have been based in hadith, as was referred to in the Book of Jihad. Thawban, the liberated slave of Muhammad, claimed: "The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: 'there are two groups of my Ummah whom Allah will free from the Fire: The group that invades India, and the group that will be with 'Isa bin Maryam, peace be upon him.'" Hindu resistance to forceful conversion was strong, and in the following centuries perceptions of Muslims became overwhelmingly negative as rulers such as Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030 CE) expanded their territory – destroying temples, cities, and idols. Islamophobic arguments made by Hindu nationalists in contemporary India call back to some of these historical events, citing them as evidence of the ‘invasive’ nature of Islam in contrast to native Hinduism.
Though stories of forced conversion and invasion dominate the cultural consciousness in recollections of early Islam in India, so too exist positive experiences – a significant example of this is the intellectual and spiritual dimension of Hindu-Muslim relations in the early years of Islam. Under the rule of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansurin the 8th century CE, Sanskrit texts written by Hindu scholars concerning science, mathematics and astronomy were translated to Arabic and housed in Baghdad. The translation of Sanskrit texts heralded the beginning of a mass migration of scholars from Muslim-ruled regions (Persia, Afghanistan, Western and Central Asia) to India, among whom were the Sufi mystics who contributed greatly to the peaceful conversion of many Indians to Islam.
2.2. Classical Islam in India: Caste, Eclecticism, and Religious Tolerance
One major motivator for conversion was caste. Social mobility in Hindu societies was greatly restricted by the caste system, under which many Hindus were considered Dalits, or Untouchables – shunned by the rest of society, they were allocated the lowliest tasks, such as handling corpses, butchering animals, and tanning leather. Islam, to many, was an egalitarian faith which promised the opportunity to escape from the grim reality of the caste system. Even as many Hindus (oftentimes upper caste) shunned the new faith, others turned to it for liberation from the system. However, conversion did not free Muslims from caste-based discrimination; it instead added another dimension to the existing system. As a result, caste and compulsion (the typical theories put forth in discussions of conversion to Islam during the classical era) cannot be considered the sole motivators of conversion.
The theory of Islam as the “religion of the sword”, as was explored previously, is deeply flawed – rate of conversion to Islam in Indiawas far more significant at the outermost regions of Muslim India, where military influence was weaker (Eastern Bengal and Western Punjab). This conflicts with the theory that the prospect of death (or the appeal of political patronage) was the primary motivator for conversion, for the likelihood of these consequences was greatly diminished given the distance of these regions from the heart of the empire, Delhi. Moreover, those that converted were largely peasants from ethnic and religious minorities, not Hindu elites. These communities, which were not affected by caste, and who absorbed elements of Islam into their existing spiritual practices, were drawn to the faith by the teachings of local saints – Sufi mystics, who made their teachings more accessible to the wider populace by using local faiths and traditions.
The willingness of Sufi saints to adapt themselves to their new environment and intermingle with people of different backgrounds played a significant role in encouraging Indians to embrace Islam. Sufis went on to establish Dargahs in India – these shrines were built in honour of revered figures in the Sufi community, such as saints or dervishes, and as places they continue to be respected to the current day not for the people that they commemorate, but the people that they unite. In India, Dargahs have become unique locations of interfaith connections visited during pilgrimages by both Muslims and Hindus. One of the most famous of these is the Ajmer Sharif Dargah, where a 13th-century Iranian saint and philosopher, Moinuddin Chishti, is entombed.
Beyond Sufi mysticism, there were various other elements of Islam which served to consolidate its position as a major faith in India during the classical era. The lengthy reign of the Mughal Empire, the most well-known example of Muslim rule in India, has long been attributed to a policy of religious tolerancewhich enabled Hindus and people of other faiths to participate in the empire on an equal basis with Muslims. The most famously liberal of these Muslim rulers was Akbar the Great, who not only expanded the empire as a military commander but also acted as a patron of the arts and furthered his cause of religious unity through the propagation of a syncretic religion, Dīn-i-Ilāhī, the “Religion of God”, which merged what he considered to be the ‘best’ elements of Islam, Hinduism, and even Zoroastrianism and Christianity. The longevity of the Mughal Empire is often attributed to the foundation he established with his pluralistic policies and his willingness to connect with the empire’s non-Muslim subjects, similarly to the Sufi saints.
2.3. Islam in Contemporary India: Partition, Hindutva, and Identity
The most significant event in modern historical recounts of India is oftentimes not independence from the British Raj, but Partition – the division of the subcontinent into a Muslim north and a majority-Hindu (but constitutionally secular) south. Partition is a source of both trauma and animosity amongst Indians and Pakistanis, with the experience itself having displaced 14.5 million people within four years. The ensuing violence and chaos killed between 0.5 and 2 million people, from a range of backgrounds and identities. The Pew Research Centre found that many Muslims in India view Partition as being detrimental to their relationships with Hindus, whereas a similar percentage of Hindus claims the opposite. This religious divide in perceptions of the past is a significant element that influences attitudes towards Islam in India.
The lines between religious and national tensions have blurred in the years following independence, particularly as the BJP (a right-wing political party centred around Hindutva ideology) ascended to power in India’s central government. Politicians from the BJP are known to appeal to a sense of Hindu nationalism by characterising Pakistanis and Bangladeshis as terrorists and Indian Muslims as inherently anti-Indian and prone to radicalisation. The Hindutva political ideology espouses a united identity – a singular cultural, religious, and national identity – to which ‘true’ Indians adhere. This ideology necessitates the imagining of an ‘Other’, an antithesis to the ‘true Indian’.
In most cases this other is an ‘Islamic invader’, as characterised by many proponents of the Hindutva ideology. Oftentimes this image of Islam as an invading, alien faith is perpetuated by right-wing Indian media – the public outcry over the Hindutva conspiracy of ‘love jihad’ is just one example amongst many in modern India, further entrenched by the Islamophobic actions and policies of the dominant BJP. This is a fear commonly used to justify extra-legal acts of violence and aggression towards Muslims, and to enact controlling policies which deliberately target Muslim communities – take, for instance, banning of hijab in Karnataka collegesor the exclusion of Muslims from the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019.The latter incited significant protests amongst Indians (primarily Muslim), who feared that they would be stripped of their citizenship and disenfranchised – resulting in violent backlash from the government and right-wing nationalists. The political unrest in the wake of the Act created an environment especially hostile to Muslims, and many BJP leaders spoke out against the protesters; decrying them as “Pakistani hooligans” and, in one instance, leading a chant urging people to “shoot the traitors”.
Fear of the religious ‘other’ and the conflation of religious identity with national identity are two major factors in negative impressions of Muslims in India, as has been explored so far. Such sentiments are deeply entrenched in Indian society, and impact even elements as mundane as peoples’ preferences for neighbours (36% of Hindus would not be willing to accept a Muslim as a neighbour). However, as with any other era in history, there exist several sides to perceptions of Muslims in modern India.
There appears to be a unique intermingling in modern Indian society, where a desire for religious segregation (expressed amongst Indians of all faiths) coexists with a passion for religious diversity and pride in cultural and national identity. Take, for instance, the Hindu and Sikh inhabitants of Massanian, who continue to maintain the mosque and graveyard left behind by fleeing Muslims during Partition, and the shared cultural practices and beliefs of Indians across faith (77% of Muslims in India believe in karma, and 7% of Hindus celebrate Eid). These examples simultaneously consolidate and defy the predominant ideals of religious tolerance and segregation.
It is beyond evident that the interaction of place, time, and faith has had a significant influence on the rise and spread of Islam in India. The identities and experiences of Indian Muslims are multi-dimensional, with a long history of conflict and connection with the hegemonic faith in the region, Hinduism. Where a desire for religious segregation exists, it is often mutual – and yet, those who strive to achieve this vision simultaneously devote themselves to the ideals of religious pluralism and freedom that were expressed by Akbar the Great centuries ago. Though there are many who consider ‘Indian’ and ‘Muslim’ to be mutually exclusive identities, history suggests that the two are deeply intertwined.
Rosemary Abraham is an Education student currently aspiring to teach English and History to secondary school students. She is especially passionate about the potential of education to bridge divides and empower students of diverse backgrounds and identities.
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