Islam in India

Prayer at Nakhoda Mosque, Calcutta

The title of this post is somewhat over-general, but I did want to make certain broad points on Islam in India, as I have done in previous posts (see post of 2008.08.16 on Indonesia and 2008.11.14 on the Balkans).

India has the third largest Muslim population in the world. This is an oft-cited fact and one you’ve perhaps already heard. The Indian Subcontinent taken together has almost a third of all of the Muslims in the world, and India has just about as many Muslims as Pakistan or Bangladesh. These three countries and Indonesia are, by far, the greatest countries in terms of Muslim population–no Arab or Middle Eastern country even comes close. They are, in one sense, Islam’s center of gravity.

The history of Islam in India goes way back. Perhaps because Hindus make up the majority of India’s population and because Hinduism is by far the more ancient religion, Islam is often thought of as a relative newcomer, an alien seed taken root in the subcontinent. However, Islam is no newer to the Indian Subcontinent than it is to almost anywhere else outside of the Arab world. Parts of now Pakistan were conquered by Arab armies as early as the 8th century and parts of now India were conquered by Muslim invaders as early as the 12th century. Islam came to India as early or earlier than it came to such places as Turkey, Central Asia or West Africa.

By the time Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, arrived in India in the 16th century, Muslim rulers had been in charge in Delhi for hundreds of years, and Muslim rulers were already installed in other parts of the Subcontinent, including as far south as Golconda/Hyderabad. (post on pre-Mughal Muslim rulers of India to come)

Tombs of the Qutb Shahis of Golconda, near Hyderabad

While Islam came largely from the North (generally through conquest), it also arrived on South Indian shores (generally through trade). It is easy to think of the Delhi Sultanate or the Mughals when thinking of Muslim India, but one often forgets the significant Muslim populations of South India, some of which arose even before northern Muslim conquests as the belief washed ashore with Arab traders following the monsoon winds. Some Urdu-speaking Muslims in the North may with varying degrees of credibility associate themselves with Greater Iran/Central Asia, even going so far as to say that they are Iranian or Mongol rather than Indian, but South Indian Muslims are very much the same as their Hindu brethren–just of a different faith. (Orthodox Hinduism and harsh adherence to the caste system incentivized some Keralans to convert to Islam and Christianity.) It has been said that because of the different history, religious tension does not exist in the south as it does in the north.

Alimood Mosque near Varkala, Kerala

Sufism played a huge role in the extension of Islam in the Subcontinent. In my post of 2009.02.21 on Akbar and Fatehpur Sikri, I mentioned sufi saint Salim Chisti. Sufis played a principal role in spreading Islam throughout the subcontinent, far greater a role than direct contact with Muslim invaders from the north or Arab traders from the sea. The most famous of these is Muin-ud-din Chisti, buried in Ajmer, who hailed from now Iran and studied in Bukhara and Samarkand before arriving in now India with Mohammed of Ghor. Sufis appealed to Indians not only through personal holiness and piety, but by incorporating certain Hindu forms and practices. Sites related to sufi saints, such as the tomb of Muin-ud-din Chisti in Ajmer and the tomb of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi are by far the most venerated Muslim religious sites in India, and sufi practices such as the use of music are widespread. (Compare to the orthodoxy of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, who is said to have forbidden music altogether, for both Muslims and Hindus.)

Shrine of Khawaja Muin-ud-din Chisti, in Ajmer

Qawwali music played at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi, in the direction of the tomb

Itinerant sufis are perfect analogs of Hindu sadhus, and Indians sufis often adopt a sadhu-like form, with a different color palette (green instead of yellow or saffron).

In its expansion, Islam in the Subcontinent adopted Hindu forms and practices. Syncretism is a natural development of religion, and Islam adopted certain (relatively superficial) aspects of Hinduism in its spread across the Subcontinent. I imagine that these practices were adopted not only by sufis seeking converts but also by recent converts continuing past practices. In addition to music (which is admittedly of a totally different style than Indian Hindu music), there is the use of flowers and the importance of pilgrimage. Of course, pilgrimage exists in Islam around the world–including the all-important hajj–but it is practiced with a particular intensity in the Subcontinent. (I should note that one can see Hindus visiting Muslim sites in India, just as Muslims visit Christian sites in the Middle East.) All in all, the end result is a form of Islam that is somewhat less austere than in many other parts of the world.

Flowers for sale at the Nizamuddin Dargah

9 thoughts on “Islam in India

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