By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
Indian Muslims are much more closely related to other Indians than they are to Arab populations in the Middle East and Central Asia, according to a series of genetic studies of Muslims from around the country. This growing body of research establishes that the spread of Islam in India was primarily a cultural fusion rather than a case of genetic inflow from “the Muslim world.” Indian Muslims are just as “Indian” as the Khatris, Kurmis, Brahmins and Thakurs amidst whom they live…….
Who are India’s Muslims? And what is Indian Islam? There are many ways to answer these questions. An increasingly popular answer is that Indian Muslims are largely the descendants of Arabs who arrived on the Indian subcontinent centuries ago. And Indian Islam is an Arabian entity that came to India with them. Both Islamists, who argue for Islam’s Wahhabisation today, and Hindutvawadis, who would rather have all Muslims go away and leave India for “Indians,” have built their politics of hatred around this answer.
But the answer is wrong, according to a series of cutting-edge genetic studies. Indian Muslims, these studies show, are much more closely related to other Indians than they are to Arab populations in the Middle East and Central Asia. This growing body of research establishes that the spread of Islam in India was primarily a cultural fusion rather than a case of genetic inflow from “the Muslim world.” Indian Muslims are just as “Indian” as the Khatris, Kurmis, Brahmins and Thakurs amidst whom they live.
Geneticist Maria C. Terreros and colleagues published a foundational study on the subject in 2007 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. They compared DNA samples of Sunni and Shia Muslims from Uttar Pradesh with other Indian samples as well as with samples of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and North East African populations and came up with a number of interesting results.
More Indian than Arabian
“Both the Sunni and Shia populations of Uttar Pradesh display a much higher affinity to indigenous Indian populations than to Middle Eastern and Central Asian groups… Taken together, the… data add support to the theory that the current Sunni and Shia communities of Uttar Pradesh in northern India are mostly descended from Hindu converts,” the authors reported. There were, however, variations between Sunnis and Shias with regard to particular DNA strains. The authors explained, “… differences between the Indo-Shia and Indo-Sunni do not signal a differential contribution of foreign mtDNA to either sect. Yet, they may be indicative of unique population dynamics with native castes and tribes.”
The 2007 study formed the basis of a number of other projects comparing the DNA of Muslims from all around India with various other Indian groups on the one hand, and with Middle Eastern and Central Asian populations on the other. They all have corroborated the results of Terreros and colleagues, while coming up with some new findings as well.
A study published in 2010 by the European Journal of Human Genetics compared DNA samples of six different groups of Indian Muslims―Sunnis and Shias from Uttar Pradesh, Shias from Andhra Pradesh, Dawoodi Bohras from Gujarat, and Dawoodi Bohras and Mappla Muslims from Tamil Nadu―with non-Muslim Indian samples, as well as samples from Pakistan, Middle East, Central Asia, East Asia and Europe.
Its key finding was that “unlike Muslim communities in China and Central Asia, which show a marked presence of Western Y chromosomes, Indian Muslims derive most of their Y chromosomes from local neighboring non-Muslim populations, suggesting a regional genetic affinity among Indian Muslim and non-Muslim populations.” It also found the Arabian marker “completely absent” in a particular gene that is widespread among all Indian Muslim populations, concluding that this was “consistent with gene flow occurring predominantly over Iran than over Arabia.”
An interesting finding of this study was that the Dawoodi Bohras constituted a separate genetic entity compared with other Indian Muslim groups, bearing close links with particular African/Arabian and Polynesian gene types. The authors said their sub-Saharan African/Arabian lineage can be linked to the “historical information that Dawoodi Bohras belong to a Shia sect of Islam that purportedly migrated to India from Yemen, an area which is known to have a considerable frequency (3%) of African mtDNA lineages.” Their Polynesian DNA lineage, meanwhile, is “in accordance with the oral history of the Dawoodi Bohras, which claims that some of their ancestors migrated to India from Thailand.
Another genetic study published in 2009 in the journal Human Biology suggested that “the regional phylogenetic assessment divulges the genetic proximity of Shia and Sunni Muslims to some of their geographically close Hindu religious populations, the Yadav and the Jat. This is also evident from the population differentiation test, in which both Muslim populations did not vary significantly from the Yadav and the Teli.” The authors also noted that “we did not observe any genetic affinity with either the homelands of the Islamic invaders (i.e., Arabia and Iran) or any other regions of the world included in the analyses.” That said, the study did find “genetic contribution from Iran” in both Sunni and Shia populations of Indian Muslims.
Debunking a False Dichotomy
Together, these studies have some wide-ranging implications. One, Muslims in India are just as Indian as Chaturvedis, Khatris, Kurmis, Reddys, Jats, Yadavs and Telis―and just about as little “Arabian” as any of them. This finding belies almost a century-old notion that Indian Muslims are somehow more “Muslim” and less “Indian.” From the time of the Khilafat Movement of the 1920s, sections of India’s Muslim as well as non-Muslim leadership have constructed and proliferated this idea. It has served their political ends well. Even the “two-nation theory,” which led to the creation of Pakistan, germinated from this notion of some inherent, irreconcilable distinction between them.
But these studies show that India’s Muslims and non-Muslims are cut from the same cloth. They are the same breed of people, drawing primarily from the same genetic pool. How different, then, could they be? Of course, they have theological and cultural differences as they follow different religions. But then, various kinds of social and cultural differences are also to be seen among people from different parts of the country, irrespective of religion. There is no reason to make such superficial differences more important than the deep-seated similarities among them. So the idea that India’s Muslims and non-Muslims are inherently and irreconcilably distinct is little more than hogwash, perpetrated and preserved by people with political objectives from both sides and with no basis in reality.
The second significant implication of these studies is that there aren’t any substantial genetic differences among Sunnis and Shias either. Every now and then, the Muslim religious and political leadership attempts to drive a sectarian wedge within the Muslim community. But that, again, is nothing more than a political attempt to divide people by building imaginary walls where none exist. The Middle Eastern Shia-Sunni divide does have a racial/ethnic element built into it: while Arabs are predominantly Sunnis, Iranians are Shias. In fact, Iran’s turn to Shia Islam centuries ago was itself a political move by the Safavid kings to differentiate themselves from neigbbouring Arabs. But these differences have no meaning in India.
Third, the only “Muslim” genetic link that Indian Muslims have is with Iranians, which is to be expected as the Iranians themselves are an “Indo-European” race. And this link is common to both Sunnis and Shias in India. This finding should make people who want to change Indian Islam to make it fit the “Arabian model,” a process commonly referred to as Wahhabisation, stop and think. It should force a reconceptualisation of what Islam means to India and to Indian Muslims. Far from being an influx of Muslim Arabs, Islam in India came as a change in people’s views on how to think about life, death and divinity, and how to lead their lives and prepare for what lies thereafter. Naturally, this change occurred within their existing sets of beliefs on these matters, leading to the creation of a unique way of thinking that is at once Islamic and Indian.
This historical process is well-known, and genetic studies reconfirm this process. That means any attempt to take Islam in India “back” to its “Arabian roots” is ridiculous and nonsensical. It cannot be taken back because it never came from there. It’s an Indian entity, which took roots and blossomed in this country, and therefore carries the spiritual and cultural markers of Indian civilisation. Trying to Wahhabise Indian Islam can only mean uprooting Indian Islam and killing it in the process. It is nothing more than a means to serve the political ends of those who espouse and endorse such Wahhabisation.
Indian Muslims are just as Indian as anyone else. And Indian Islam is as much Indian as it is Islamic. We will forget these essential characteristics of who we are at our own peril.
Saif Shahin, a regular columnist for New Age Islam, is a doctoral research scholar in political communication at the University of Texas at Austin, U.S.