What has Islam done to India

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The following is to be outlined when and by which means the religion proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century AD came to India. How were Muslims able to assert themselves far away from the Arab region, which is widely regarded as the Islamic core countries, or what specifically did their coexistence with the followers of other religious communities look like?

Arrival and spread of Islam

The spread of Islam on the subcontinent is often described in connection with a violent intrusion by Muslim conquerors (cf. Renz 1977: 651).

The extensive military equality of the local peoples, but also the numerical inferiority, should allow the Arab troops, led by Muhammad ibn al-Qasim, to advance deeper into the 711 AD in what is today Sindh and along the Indus into parts of the Punjab Have prevented subcontinent. Individual conquered areas could only be held temporarily, and initially only the area of ​​the lower Indus remained under Islamic influence.

At about the same time, Muslim seafarers and traders reached the south west coast with their sailing boats - areas in what is now Kerala. There, Islam did not spread in connection with military expansion. The descendants of these Arab seafarers are considered to be one of the oldest Muslim groups on the subcontinent under the names of Moplahs / Mapillas.

Islam, which originally originated from the Arabian Peninsula, was carried to South Asia by non-Arabs to a much greater extent in the following centuries: Muslim conquerors came from Central Asia (Turkic peoples), Afghanistan and Persia in particular via the passes in the northwest.

In the wake of these peoples, various Islamic currents, including mysticism, and sects reached India. In a process that went on for several centuries, Islam merged with the predominant religious practices and local customs that are grouped under the term Hinduism. Above all, the spirituality, tolerance and wisdom of scholars (e.g. Al-Beruni in the 11th century) and mystics (Sufis like Muinuddin Chishti in the 12th century) 1 caused many people to turn to Islam.

In the east, in Bengal, this process began with clearly syncretistic features in the 13th century. There, too, the mystically oriented Sufism played a significant role, which was often spread by traveling Sufi masters and orders.

Thus it becomes clear that the spread of Islam in India took place in a far more varied manner than the abbreviated descriptions of "violent conversions" by locals suggest.

Socio-religious facets

The outlined development should in no way hide the fact that the rulers of the Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1526) or the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) used the north-western passes - especially the Khaiber Pass from Afghanistan - to gain access to the subcontinent by force. There various dynasties exercised their power over six centuries in large parts of the north, i.e. in today's Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and for a long time also over large parts of central India (the Deccan).

These rulers had family connections to West and Central Asia and hardly spoke Indian dialects. Overall, they advocated an exchange or a mixture with the local population and culture to varying degrees, which, however, tended to be less valued (Schimmel 1984; Weiß [et al.] 1996: 2ff). Yet they adopted, or were at least heavily influenced by, local achievements - mathematical, astrological, and architectural, for example.

Like the Arabs in Sindh before, the Sultans of Delhi and later the Mughal rulers largely refrained from converting or killing native non-Muslims, i.e. Hindus and followers of other religious groups. According to the orthodox interpretation of Islamic legal sources, they were entitled to do so because the majority of the natives were not people of the book (Arabic: ahl al-kitab), i.e. they did not belong to any monotheistic religion. Strictly speaking, with their many gods, they were exemplary of the polytheism and idolatry rejected in the Koran. In this respect, they should have been viewed as unbelievers (Arabic: kafir). Above all, the numerical inferiority of the invaders should have been a plausible reason for a more peaceful approach. The early Muslim rulers imposed a tax on people of different faiths (Arabic: jizya), who were thus classified as "protected persons" (Arabic: dhimmis) and were not considered kafir. 2 Due to different (religious and) political views, the rulers sometimes proceeded in completely opposite ways when dealing with local non-Muslims. This was also reflected again and again in their arguments among themselves.

A cultural fusion between rulers and ruled remained an exception in the early period (Weiß [et al.] 1996). While the village culture remained largely untouched by Islam, cities in particular were shaped by the new religion. There, only Persian- or Arabic-speaking Muslims operated the administrative apparatus. Hindus who accepted Islam also mostly settled in cities, where they continued to live in their communities, separated from the socially better off immigrants and their descendants (Schimmel 1984, Weiß 1996).

The change of denomination to Islam was for many centuries more socially justified, whereby the acceptance of the new religion was by no means synonymous with social equality vis-à-vis the invaders. The conversion proved to be economically promising under Muslim rulers. In addition, in view of the hierarchical social system of Hinduism, the ideal of equality of all believers was especially attractive for lower cast Hindus (Ahmed 1997).

Fundamental social changes took place especially in northern India with the beginning of the Mughal rule. The abolition of the jizya (under Akbar) and the opening of the administrative apparatus to non-Muslims led to a strong rapprochement between all religious communities (Singh 1990). The classification of this period as the beginning of a correlation between majority and minority is nevertheless controversial. The majority of today's scientific literature assumes that the religious communities increasingly complemented and conceptualized one another. At least in part, they therefore formed a cultural and very "complex ensemble" (cf. Malik 2000).

Even the upper class was by no means exclusively Muslim at this time. On the contrary, due to the increasing size of the Islamic sphere of influence (which at least reached from Kabul to the borders of today's Burma), the Muslim rulers were dependent on cooperation with non-Muslims. Hindus were also increasingly employed as ministers, advisers, and military and administrative decision-makers. This shows that the frequently used terminology of a "Muslim era" is misleading in several ways, as it fails to identify important historical facts.

This applies equally to the representation and interpretation of battles between Muslim rulers and Hindu princes. Such disputes took place at least as often as those between Muslim princes and Hindu rulers. This reveals above all power-political and non-religious motives (Singh 1990). Accordingly, it is instructive that up until the 13th century the word Muslim was hardly used in the religious sense, but was decisive for differentiating between groups of origin and language groups (Wieland 2000; also Randeria 1996).

At this time, the religious influence of the Sufis and their various orders was formative. One of the most important representatives is Muinuddin Chisti, whose tomb in Ajmer still attracts believers from various religious groups and countries. The Sufi ideas often overlapped with Hindu currents (bhakti) of that time in their pronounced conceptions of the transience of matter, their ascetic ethics and their mystical self-denial and devotion (love) to God. The adoption of customs such as the worship of Islamic saints by Hindus or the adherence to temple visits by new Muslims made it difficult to define religious dividing lines. Popular religious conceptions could not be sharply delimited from one another - local customs and traditions were increasingly complementing one another. 3

In addition, the individual religious groups are not homogeneous, but rather were and are shaped by internal differentiation then as now. Social relationships, such as exercising the same professions or social position, were therefore more important than religious similarities.

Syncretisms still exist today and in the discourse on the role of the second Mughal ruler Akbar (1542-1605) led to questioning his Islamic identity. 4 Incidentally, this is also one of the reasons why India was never recognized as a "Muslim area" (Arabic: dar ul-islam) from the Arab point of view (Malik 1997).

Later Mughal rulers (especially Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb) more or less reflected on an "Islamic orthodoxy". That is why the two rulers are still the subject of numerous discussions and disputes among historians, religious legal scholars and politicians. The rule of Akbar, for example, is interpreted as being much more "Hindu-friendly" than that of the last great Mughal ruler Aurangzeb (1618-1707). This still means that the policies of these rulers are not only interpreted in retrospect as opposing, but that their interpretation is often the cause of political dissent between Muslims and non-Muslims and - nationalistically charged - even between India and Pakistan.

This brief historical account should not obscure the fact that violence between followers of different religious groups already took place in the 14th century (Jaffrelot 1996). Therefore, against the background of the clashes between Hindus and Muslims over the past 150 years, Jaffrelot speaks of an "old size" in the sense of a structural fact.

Although the religious symbolism often concealed a search for legitimacy for claims to rule by the powerful, these conflicts, some of them over 700 years ago, already refer to the central recourse to religion as a means of mobilization. A particularly striking example is the destruction of a Shiva temple by Mahmud of Ghazni 5 (from Ghazni, in today's Afghanistan). In the 13th century, he robbed India with his troops in a total of 17 raids over many years (Gandhi 2000: 4). The golden temple treasures of Somnath on the Saurashtra peninsula in what is now the state of Gujarat were certainly a great attraction for Ghazni to plunder the temple there (Ahmed 1997: 35f). Nonetheless, this act is assessed today by the Hindu nationalist side exclusively in a religious context and repeatedly serves as a prime example of Muslim misdeeds. In doing so, the fact that Hindu rulers undertook similar raids is often deliberately ignored. 6

Although these conflicts mostly had tangible economic causes, they were even then placed in religious contexts with different intentions (cf. Wieland 2000: 144). The split between the religious groups was mostly due to a few less tolerant but influential minorities in both communities who ultimately prevailed politically and ideologically.


[1] The Sufi saint, venerated at his tomb as Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (also Chishty) in Ajmer, West India, is also known under the name Gharib Nawaz (protector of the poor).

[2] Similarly, the Zoroastrians (Parsis), who were subject to Christianity in Persia from 640 onwards, were legally equated as "writers", Christians and Jews, and lived as dhimmis at least temporarily unmolested.

[3] During the Mughal period, religious behavior was not based on the standards of Sharia law, which was more a conceptual ideal. Rather, the socio-religious hierarchy consisted of religious behavior [‘proper behavior’ (Arabic: adab)], or in the upper and lower classes (ashraf and ajlaf). The hierarchical understanding was based more on a moral conceptual model of the center and its periphery, in which people who did not practice religion properly or regularly were nevertheless interpreted as Muslim brothers (Falasch 2004).

[4] In his philosophical and religious occupation in search of a "true" faith, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar did not shut himself off from other religions. From today's point of view, his behavior, which can be described as free-thinking, earned him allegations from the orthodox Muslim side of having fallen away from Islam. His religious definition (Din-i-Elahi) remained after his attempt to make these beliefs public, but ultimately his private beliefs. Nevertheless, his religious tolerance and the approximate equality of Muslims and Hindus are considered to be the main means of stabilizing the Mughal empire.

[5] The name of the same name for a Pakistani medium-range missile is therefore particularly precarious in this context. In the arms race between the two neighboring countries, the naming of the competing means of mass destruction is anyway characterized by a semi-historical metaphor or pseudo-religiosity.

[6] "Incidentally, many Hindu rulers also did the same with temples in enemy-territory long before the Muslims had emerged as a political challenge to these kingdoms. Subhatavarman, the Parmana ruler (1193-1210 AD), attacked Gujarat and plundered a large number of Jain temples at Dabhoi and Cambay. Harsha, ruler of Kashmir, […] plundered all the temples in his own kingdom barring four in order to replenish his treasury, and not a word of protest was uttered. And when he needed still more money and enhanced the amount of tribute due from his subordinate feudal lords he was dragged down the streets of Srinagar and was done to death "(Mukhia 1993: 34).

This article belongs to the focus: Islam in South Asia.


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