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OnIslam.net

Indian Muslims: Past and Present (Part I)

History of Islam in India
By Hady Ali and Mohamed Mostafa
History Researchers
IndianMuslimsPast-and-Present
Muslims treated Hindus with care, and many Muslim rulers exerted effort bringing them closer and employing them in good positions. (Reuters)
Indian Muslims: Past and Present

More than thirteen centuries ago, Muslims started their military campaigns towards India to quell Indian pirates who attacked Arab trade vessels, and to attack the ruler of Sindh who assisted the Persians against Muslims in the Battle of Qadisiyyah (16 AH/637 AD). Other campaigns ensued, until the first organized Muslim conquest took place with the Umayyad campaign of Mohamed bin Al-Qasim Al-Thaqafi on Sindh and Punjab (92 AH/710 AD), which he undertook as a revenge against the king of Sindh who sheltered pirates attacking Muslim ships. His campaign initiated Muslim movement into, and settlement in, India.

Political upheavals had a negative impact on Muslim presence in Sindh, which made some Hindu rulers see an opportunity to quell Muslim rule by initiating a campaign on the Indian city of Sindan, and they captured its Muslim governor and killed him.

The entry of Turkic peoples into Islam gave an impetus for the Muslim conquests, which reached its peak with Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (387-421 AH/997-1031 AD) — the founder of the Ghaznavid Empire that covered most of today's Afghanistan — who undertook many campaigns against kings in India. The organized conquest of North India took place during the Ghurid dynasty of Afghanistan leading to the establishment of a Muslim sultanate with Delhi as its capital.

Following the Ghurids, several sultanates ruled India:

  • The Mamluk dynasty: founded by Qutbuddin Aybak (602-607 AH/1206-1210 AD), a Mamluk for the Ghurids who defended Delhi against Hindu rulers, and who was succeeded by many strong figures, most famously Ghiyasuddin Balban who pushed back a Mongol campaign.
  • The Khilji dynasty (689 AH/1290 AD): the most famous ruler of whom was Alauddin (695-715 AH/1295-1316 AD) who faced the Mongols and quelled Hindu campaigns, and whose death signaled the end of the Khiljis.
  • The Tughlaq dynasty: founded by Sultan Ghazi Tughlaq (720 AH/1321 AD), who was known for military skill and defeated the Mongols 29 times. His son Mohamed succeeded him and invested in Indian construction, arts, and science, but was a military fail, which led eventually to the his fall against Tamerlane who occupied Delhi in 801 AH/1297AD. India was then divided into several dynasties until the Mughals united most of it in the 10th century AH/16th AD.

Indian Civilization under Muslims

A main reason for Hindus embracing Islam was the desire to escape the Hindu caste system. Another reason was the conflict between Hindus and Buddhists, where the latter usually assisted Muslims against the former.

Al-Jahiz — a well-known Arab Muslim scholar — mentioned Indians as part of four well-known peoples of his times, next to Arabs, Persians, and Europeans, something which indicates that Arabs respected Indians and their civilization well.

Arabs translated Indian works from Sanskrit in Astronomy and Mathematics, most famously the Sindhind book (siddhānta) in Astronomy. Indian medicine as well was appreciated by Muslims caliphs who invited doctors from India to heal them and translated many books.

At one point, Minke, an Indian doctor, was the Chief Sanskrit translator of the famous House of Wisdom. Likewise, Ibn Dihn, another Indian doctor, was appointed head of Dar Al-Shifa Hospital in Baghdad. Historians and geographers also worked on India, as Al-Istakhri and Ibn Battuta, something which Gustave Le Bon praised Muslims for.

The Muslim presence in India enhanced the progress and transmission of culture. For example, several hospitals were built in the reign of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, and medicine was offered in it for free. Madrasas were established and more attention was given to the Indian women and their educational rights. The Sultans also were keen on justice, for example, Ghiyasuddin Balban founded Dar Al-Amn for the needy and established an advanced postal system. Rulers paid attention to agriculture and peasants as well, assisted Indian trade, which benefited many, and built famous structures and mosques.

The Spread of Islam in India

Despite the Military nature of Muslim rule in India, the spread of Islam did not depend on campaigns as much as educational policies, which brought Muslim scholars from different parts of the Muslim world to India to teach Quran and Muslim studies. Ibn Battuta refers to Kuttabs and Madrasas in the city of Hennur where boys and girls used to learn Quran. He praises the women specifically for their knowledge of the Quran. Sultans presented gifts and scholarships for whoever showed interest in Islam and/or embraced it.

A main reason for Hindus embracing Islam was the desire to escape the Hindu caste system. Another reason was the conflict between Hindus and Buddhists, where the latter usually received Muslim assistance against the former.

For example, the Jat people, who suffered Hindu oppression, joined the army of Mohamed Ibn Al-Qasim, and other tribes as well welcomed Muslim rule. Mahruk Ibn Raiq, one of the kings of Sindh, wrote to his Arab governor asking for the teachings of Islam to be explained to him in Sindhi.

British Historian Thomas Arnold says: “The humiliation Hindus of inferior status suffered others of higher one, and their irreversible position in society, encouraged them to embrace Islam where they had a free space to be, and where no such harsh distinctions and caste system existed.”

 

Muslims treated Hindus with care, and many Muslim rulers exerted effort bringing them closer and employing them in good positions. Hindus continued practicing their faith freely, no one interfering in their abstaining from cow meat, and denial of widows’ rights to remarriage.

Some rulers even allowed Sati — tradition whereby a wife gets cremated after her husband’s death — yet it was abolished by Firuz Tughlaq. Dar Al-Amn, mentioned earlier, was a destination for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and many Hindus praised justice of Muslim rulers, as Mohamed Ibn Tughlaq.

The military side of the Muslim rule of India, thus, tied up to the threats posed on India by pirates, foreign invasions, and those Hindu princes who wanted to maintain their social superiority.

The Mughals and the British

Two tendencies developed amongst Muslims then. The first was reformist, represented by darul uloom of Deoband, and entailed going back to Quran and Sunna, and the second was led by Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh University, and worked to spread western education amongst Muslims.

The Mughal era was one of prosperity and peace in India, despite wars with the Hindu Rajputs. The Muslim Mughal sultans protected Hindus, their temples, and their rights and traditions.

The Mughal era also witnessed the ascendance of the British, who established the East India Company to control resources in India. The British military conquest started in 1764 after the battle of Buxar, which made the sultan a nominal figure with no real power. In 1857, Hindus and Muslims staged the Indian Rebellion, which started with Lord Canning declaring Bahadur Shah the last of the Mughal sultans, with no one after him to hold this title.

A main trigger for such rebellion was that Indian soldiers were forced to use new cartridges that are wrapped in paper greased with cow and pig fat — which they had to open by mouth —, forbidden for Muslims and Hindus.

Other main reasons for resentment against the British was their policies that aimed at crashing the Indian economically, imposition of foreign education, Christian missionaries.

British colonialism opened a new era for Hindu-Muslim relations in India. The British intended on marginalizing Muslims after their role in the rebellion that Britain successfully crushed. Lord Ellenborough, India’s governor, was convinced India’s Muslims are Britain’s main enemy, as he clearly said: “The Muslim element in India is Britain’s bitter enemy; the British policy should aim at favoring Hindus and use their help get rid of the danger that is threatening Britain in India.”

British policy was a catastrophe for Muslim communities, as they lost almost 95 percent of their land, and were marginalized in the country’s curricula that tailored to deride Muslims and their belief. Literacy among Muslims dropped to 20 percent of the population in 50 years after being 100 percent, and they were largely excluded from posts in the government. Communal clashes took place between Muslims on one side and Hindus and Sikhs on the other because of their involvement with the British in their discriminatory policies against Muslims.

Two tendencies developed amongst Muslims then. The first was reformist, represented by Dar Al-Uloom of Deoband, and entailed going back to Qur’an and Sunnah. The second was led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh University (1857), which was aimed at spreading Western education amongst Muslims and the propagation of the belief in the inevitability of separation between Hindus and Muslims. Khan refused the ideas of the Indian Congress and Muslims’ joining it, and he called for an independent Muslim body, thus establishing All-India Muslim Educational Conference, from which the Muslim League was born that propagated the idea of establishing a separate state for Muslims.

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Hady Ali is an award-winning Assistant Lecturer of History with a Master's thesis on the Muslim-Crusade conflict in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Mohamed Mostafa is a history researcher working on his Master's thesis in Islamic political thought.

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