Hindutva and the Spread of Islam in South Asia

Soon after Narendra Modi was sworn in as the Prime Minister of India, he made a statement in the Indian Parliament that Indians suffered from ‘a slave mentality due to 1200 years of oppression’ (Ghose 2014). By stretching the timeline of the alleged Indian slavery back by 1200 years, Modi fixed the defeat of the King of Sindh by the Ummayad Caliphate commander, Muhammad Bin Qasim, as its departure. However, there seems to be consensus on the historians (of both sides) that this moment in the seventh century did not necessarily start the Muslim rule in the subcontinent (Elst 2014, Suroor 2014). The statement re-emphasised the notion that Muslim rule in Medieval India was ‘foreign.’ It gained a renewed momentum since it was the country’s prime minister, saying it in the Indian parliament. This same notion continues to fuel the rendering of Indian muslims as foreign. It is safe to say that categorizing Indian Muslims as foreign also represents the official view of the Indian state through their steadfast way to institute the Citizenship Amendment Act. In this essay, I want to understand the genesis of framing Islam, and Muslims by extension, as foreign and how Islam spread through the Indian subcontinent in the medieval period. Additionally, I would also explore how modern Hinduism frames itself in reaction to Islam. This essay draws mostly from Richard Eaton’s work on the history of Islam in South Asia.

Islam in the Indian subcontinent, and especially in post-colonial India, is always seen with suspicion. Islam is characterized as incongruent with India’s civilizational ethos, which a nationalist interpretation of Indian history believes to be Hindu at its core. Thus, we see Hinduism and Islam are often read as the opposite, fixed, and monolithic categories that are at loggerheads with each other. A selective and often inaccurate representation of medieval history is used to bolster these nationalist claims. Irrespective of the availability of sources and literature that counter these claims, such narratives persist. This crisis also highlights that India’s medieval history has transformed into a site of contesting the past, and it continues to gain magnitude in the contemporary period.

In tune with these contestations, recent attempts of ‘rewriting history where chapters of the Mughal period are slated to be omitted out of school textbooks and replaced with histories of ‘Hindu’ rulers instead (Jaffrelot and Jairam 2019). Even in popular media, Muslim figures from medieval history are vilified and portrayed as savages or lusting after ‘Hindu’ women (Ayyub 2018). Social media spaces, which have become new platforms for broadcasting bigoted speech and content, terms from medieval Indian history such as Ghazwa-e-Hind, Jiziya, Shehzada etc are used to identify contemporary political processes and actors in an insulting way.

Islam and Conversion

Dr J D Woodberry, in his essay titled ‘Conversion in Islam (1992)’ gives a brief overview of conversion as imagined in Islamic theological texts. Woodberry notes that in Islamic thought, there has not been a general word for the concept of conversion. The act of conversion is rather described by terms such as islam (surrender to God), iman (faith in God), and ihtida (following the right guidance). Woodberry also adds that there is no rite of conversion in Islam either (except circumcision). The integral part of the act of conversion is the confession of faith, and that there is only one God and Muhammad is his apostle.

Woodberry makes an important distinction that conversion in Islam is a process, rather than a singular event. The process of becoming Muslim entails several phases. The first is to accept the ‘divine guidance’ where the supplicant prays to be led in the right path. This is followed by repentance, faith, submission, and vocal confession. These phases represent the change of allegiance from sin, self-centeredness, and Satan to God. Woodberry also notes that in this process, there is no terminal point since God retains the divine prerogative of forgiveness. Therefore, many Muslims identify themselves as such with a caveat that it is up to God’s will to consider them as Muslims.

Putting conversions to Islam in a historical context, Woodberry alerts us not to confuse conversion with conquest, as is often the case. He argues that the conversions took place considerably after the establishment of Muslim rule. He proposes two models of conversion to Islam, top to bottom (government to people) and bottom to top (people to government). Woodberry further states that the former model is largely observed in en-mass conversions while the latter is seen in individuals or families.

Conversion, Woodberry writes further, involves military conquest, then political control, followed by the creation of ‘Islamic ambience’ through the institutionalization of Islam which eventually leads to conversion. He further breaks the last step of conversion into two parts, accommodation and reform, which are neither inevitable nor reversible. Islam, he says, has repeatedly been accommodated to the religious beliefs and practices of the indigenous populations. This is a crucial point because often Islam has been portrayed as a monolithic set of practices and piety and the manner in which conversion to Islam occurred in medieval India would testify to the aspect of accommodation and reform in Islam. These aspects relate to what Clifford Geertz has called the ‘model of’ and ‘model for’ aspects of religious understanding. In the accommodation phase, people’s previous beliefs and practices remain a ‘model of’ the real world while in the reform phase, formal Islam is a ‘model for’ the real world. This also highlights the gradual nature of submission and evolution of faith of an Islamic subject. Richard Eaton has called this process accretion where newly converts add new forms of worship on the existing ones.

However, Woodberry also records that force as a means of conversion was rarely used. In India, there were fewer conversions in the areas where Muslim rule was strongest. Traders, Woodberry notes, were one of the important agents of peaceful expansion as Islam became a transregional religion operating in a network that the traders could benefit from. It was difficult to get loans for non-muslims and itinerant traders could find people who they could trust on the basis of shared values. Apart from the traders, Woodberry mentions that saints and Sufis were important agents of peaceful conversion to Islam. They founded centres for teaching and social services in conquered regions and played an important role in attracting the masses towards Islam (Woodberry 1992).

Islamic Conversion In the Indian Subcontinent

The conversion to Islam that happened in the Indian subcontinent from the medieval period could be broadly categorized into the ‘top to bottom’ model proposed by Woodberry. The military conquest of India led to the creation of an Islamic ambience by the immigrant Muslim population and the development of Islamic institutions, often with governmental support. Richard Eaton outlines four popular notions about Islam’s spread in India that have held sway in popular retellings of India’s Islamization and argue that all four of them are inadequate in explaining the growth of Islam in India. They are the immigration theory, the religion of sword theory, the religion of patronate theory, and lastly, the religion of social liberation theory (Eaton 1993).

The Immigration Theory, Eaton outlines, views that the bulk of India’s Muslims are descendants of other Muslims who had migrated overland from the Iranian plateau or sailed across the Arabian Sea. Eaton does not entirely discount the contribution of this theory towards the growth of Islam in India, however, he feels it does not explain the mass adoption of Islam in Bengal for instance.

The second theory, i.e. the Religion of Sword thesis, emphasizes on the role of military force in the diffusion of Islam in the Indian subcontinent. This is perhaps the oldest theory of Islam’s growth in India and elsewhere. Several orientalists accounts from the early modern period have written in synchronization with this theory. The colonial historiography has rested on similar tropes in explaining Islam’s spread in India. However, scholars have argued that such interpretations often fail to define what they mean by force or conversion. They rather uncritically presume that society will change its religious identity due to force. There is no detailed analysis of how ‘force’ operates in theoretical and practical terms in this formulation. Scholars attribute this confusion to the narrow reading of Persian sources where the term Islamic conquest is taken rather literally. The submission to Islam meant not to the Islamic faith but to the military arm of the Indo-Muslim state.

Another reason Eaton provides to highlight the inadequacy of this theory is its incongruence with the religious geography of South Asia. If Islamization had been a function of military or political force, it would have been safe to assume that a higher density of the Muslim population would’ve been in areas exposed intensively and for a longer period to the rule by Muslim dynasties. Instead, a higher number of conversions happened in areas where rule by Muslim rulers was the weakest, and where force couldn’t have exerted any significant influence, Eastern Bengal for instance. Alternatively, the Muslim population was significantly low in the Northern Indian part of Delhi and Agra where Muslim rule was present strongly and for the longest time. Scholars have even suggested that, in some cases, the proximity of Muslim political power actually hindered the cause of Islamic conversions rather than promoting it.

The third theory that is popularly used to explain the Islamization of India is what Eaton calls the Religion of Patronage theory. It rests on a notion that Indians in the premodern period converted to Islam in order to receive extra-religious favors from the ruling class, such as tax reliefs, promotions in the bureaucracy etc. This theory has been favored by secular social scientists that emphasize religion as a dependent variable on some other non-religious agency. There have been several instances where the upper castes have declared themselves Muslims to escape imprisonment for non-payment of revenue, or to retain control over ancestral land. There have also been groups that assimilated much Islamic culture but did not necessarily convert. Even this theory does not necessarily explain the popular acceptance of Islam away from the centers of Muslim patronage, in areas such as Bengal and Punjab, and among the peasant cultivators, not among urban elites.

The fourth theory advanced to explain the rise of Islam in India is what Eaton terms interpreting Islam as the Religion of Social Liberation. This theory frames Islam as a religion that the oppressed castes in the Hindu social order converted in order to escape from the tyranny of Brahmanism. Eaton notes that there is, however, no evidence to support this theory. Premodern Muslim intellectuals did not propagate Islam as the religion of social equality in contrast with Hindu inequality. The differentiation was rather based on Islam being a monotheistic religion as opposed to Hinduism, which was a polytheistic religion. That Islam fosters social equality, Eaton argues, is a notion from the post-enlightenment period and the legacy of the French revolution among nineteenth-century Muslim reformers. Moreover, conversion to Islam did not necessarily improve the rank of the new converts and hierarchies determined by birth continued as they were in their previous Hindu life. Also, the initial communities that converted to Islam were either dominant communities such as Jats, or indigenous communities in Eastern Bengal, who had little exposure to the Brahminic culture. Departing from these popular notions of the spread of Islam in India, Eaton has charted out three distinct processes to explain the same in Punjab province, Eastern Bengal, and Deccan.

Baba Farid and spread of Islam in Punjab

In his essay “The Political and Religious Authority of the Shrine of Baba Farid” (2003), Eaton delves deeper into the spread of Islam in the northwestern provinces of the Indian subcontinent. Islam proclaims its moral authority on being the ‘word of God’ as the God revealed Himself in a book. This facet, Eaton notes, is in contrast to the ethical dispositions of Hindu-Buddhist doctrines which are based on the principles of karma. Since it was a religion with the word of God at its core, Eaton asks, how did the non-lettered, non-Arabic speaking masses get familiar with ideas inscribed in Islamic theology? Eaton emphasizes that the shrines and tombs of Islamic saints were responsible for conveying the message of Islam to the masses. These shrines, Eaton argues, displayed theatre-styled and in microcosm, the moral order of the Islamic macrocosm. These shrines have had economic, political, and social significance with the masses who frequented them but at its core, they were religious. Through their rituals, these shrines made Islam accessible to non-lettered masses which allowed them to participate in the visible manifestation of the divine order. The spirit of the saint was considered to be closer to God in comparison to an ordinary devotee and hence they had acquired a higher status.

The shrine of Shaikh Farid al-Don Ganj-i Shakar (d. AD 1265), popularly known as Baba Farid, is located in Pakpattan, known in the ancient period as Ajodhan. Located on the banks of the Sutlej river, Ajodhan was an important trading port. Eaton writes that Ajodhan was exposed to the brunt of Turkish migration and the invasion of India from the tenth century. Baba Farid established himself in Ajodhan amidst the transformation of Punjab’s cities from Hindu to Turkish-Islamic orientation. Baba Farid’s devotional practice rested on two forms of praxis. He had initiated men into the Chisti order, who lived an ascetic life and were committed to trading the Sufi path to God. The other, and more popular form of his praxis was handing out amulets (tawidh) to common masses, who considered these amulets as protection against evil, a blessing for good fortune etc. This attracted huge crowds at the Baba Farid’s convent to receive the amulets.

After Baba Farid’s death, he was succeeded by his son, who set a pattern of religious leadership at the shrine, which included institutionalizing certain rituals at the shrine to mark the passing of diwan, or the spiritual successorship of the shrine. These included the tying of the turban (dastar bandi) that indicated formal inheritance of Baba Farid’s spiritual authority, the singing of qawwali, the establishing of a public kitchen, and the opening of southern doors for common people to pass through the shrine’s sanctum sanctorum.

By the fourteenth century, smaller memorial shrines for Baba Farid were being instituted throughout the countryside of central Punjab. Eaton argues that this signified that the spiritual authority of Baba Farid had been established over the land, similar to the establishment of political authority. The shrine had received patronage from Tughalq’s court and later by Mughals. The shrine and the Mughal state formed a symbiotic relationship with the shrine playing an important role in bringing pastoralist communities into farming. These pastoralists were primarily Jats who were moving up from Sindh to Multan. They were not yet integrated into the Hindu society and were considered lowly by successive rulers in the premodern period. However, by the end of the sixteenth century, Jats had risen in status as the dominant zamindar castes. Many of the Jats had converted to Islam and claimed that they have been converted by Baba Farid and his contemporaries. The shrine patronized them and integrated them into a wider ambit of socio political influence, including their participation in the Sultanate and Mughal courts without necessarily being subservient to the authorities in Delhi.

Eaton concludes by saying that the Chishti brotherhood of Sufis was historically the first great order of Sufis in India. The shrines of Baba Farid in Pakpattan, Nizam al-Din Auliya in Delhi, Muin al-Din Chishti in Ajmer became the first Muslim holy places within India. The founding and rise of Baba Farid’s shrine rendered a local manifestation of a larger cultural world of Islam and made it available for local groups, thereby enabling them to transcend their local microcosm. These forms have later been criticized as contemptible by nineteenth and twentieth-century Muslim reformers. For instance, Maulana Thanwi’s Bihishti Zewar vigorously opposed the entire culture of shrines and saints and more importantly, the claims of being the intermediate between Man and God. The reformists have since sought to replace the moral authority of Islam from the shrine to the Book as the only legitimate source.

Sufi Folk Literature and Islam in Deccan

If the Islamic spiritual world was made available in Punjab through Sufi shrines, it was through folk literature that, Eaton argues, Islamic ideas became popular in Deccan. Deploying indigenous themes and imagery, these short poems written in Dakhani helped to popularise Sufi and Islamic precepts (Eaton 2000). This poetry was associated with household chores performed by women. The corpus of such folk poetry has been classified into chakki-nama (songs sung while grinding grains), charaka-nama (songs sung while spinning the thread), lun-nama (lullabies), shadi-nama (songs sung during marriage), suhaga-nama (married woman’s songs). The Sufi saints used the structure and form of pre-existing traditions of such songs and infused them with elements of Sufi doctrine. These poetic repertoires were popular among women not only due to their reliance on chores but also because it contained imagery central to them, such as female love and its manifestations.

The role of Sufi folk literature in the growth of Islam in Deccan is related to the phenomenon of Pir worship and devotionalism at the Pir tombs. In addition to popularizing the teachings of Islam, the Sufi Saints also inscribed themselves as the mediators between God and the people. Eaton records that a sizable non-elite constituency clustered around famous Pirs, believing in their miraculous powers and their ability to interact with God. Eaton notes that the initial women devotees that were attracted towards the Sufis in the seventeenth century could probably be those living on the fringes of Hindu society. These could include widows as well as women who sought to be blessed with children since dargahs have been quite strongly linked with fertility.

However, Eaton indicates that the spread of Islamic ideas through folk literature and the central role that women played in this phenomenon should neither be confused with the conversion to Islam, nor the Sufis should be considered as missionaries, citing the origin of these categories in modern Christian movements in India. The Bijapur Sufis made no attempts to gain non-Muslim followers though they did attract members of oppressed caste communities. The Sufi folk literature is primarily concerned with committing its readers to a Pir, the diffusion of Islamic ideas is rather incidental. In tune with Woodberry’s formulation of conversion as a process and not as an event, Eaton argues that the popular understanding of the term conversion may be inadequate to capture the gradual process of Islamic acculturation or the becoming in Islam.

Growth of Peasantry and Islam in Bengal

If Sufi shrines in Punjab and Sufi folk literature in Deccan that were responsible for the growth of Islam in these respective regions, Eaton attributes the growth of peasantry as a phenomenon that catalysed the same in Bengal. Eaton refers to this process, in his book ‘Rise of Islam in East Bengal’ (1993) as a holistic transformation of Bengali society, economy, culture, and land. The gradual eastward movement of Bengal’s river system and the deposition of rich silt made possible the cultivation of wet rice, which catalysed the prosperity of East Bengal. This process intensified after the late sixteenth century and the availability of wider fields for agriculture that were made available after clearing virgin forests.

The eastward movement of the river delta led to diminishing levels of fresh water and silt in the western region and gradually became moribund. Cities and habitations were abandoned on the banks of rivers in the Western portion of Bengal and stagnant water caused diseases that severely affected the local population. However, in the east, the silt from the Ganges was deposited over a greater area during annual flooding. This was also the time when Bengal was politically integrated with the Mughal empire. These two factors not only intensified the cultivation along larger rivers but also an extension of cultivation into interior parts of East Bengal that were previously not cultivated. This resulted in Eastern Bengal attaining levels of agricultural and demographic growth. Eaton provides sources from the Mughal administrative apparatus that signify this change where the revenue demand from the eastern provinces almost doubled while a decline was observed in the western provinces. The main crop that was cultivated here was wet rice, which is a labour-intensive crop, and thus entailed the migration of people into the eastern province. Eaton notes that during this period in Eastern Bengal, the land fertility, rice cultivation and population density grew at a faster rate than in the west. This was also the time where Bengal’s growth as a major maritime trade port put it in the circuit of global trade networks more prominently.

This time of prosperity in East Bengal coincided with the earliest appearance of a Bengali Muslim peasantry. Eaton cites two reasons for the same. Firstly, prior to the advent of the Mughals, the masses in eastern Bengal were not yet firmly integrated into a Hindu social order. Thus, when the growth of Islam did occur in this region, its population did not move from a Hindu to Muslim identity. Instead, the communities of eastern Bengal were saturated with local forest cults that worshipped female deities. Secondly, the clearing for forests and land reclamation in the eastern delta was linked with the activities of Muslim holy men (pir). Some of these men entered into popular memory as mythico-historical figures and their lives came to be cited as metaphors for the expansion of both religion and agriculture. Eaton writes that they have endured because their careers captured a complex historical process whereby a land originally forested and habited by non-Muslims became cultivable and predominantly Muslim. Eaton cites examples of epic poems and biographies written in the early modern period such as the biography of Shah Jalal Mujarrad and the epic Candi Mangala where these references of East Bengal’s transformation from pre-Islam and pre-agrarian society to an Islamic and an agrarian economy.

Eaton is cautious of not resting entirely on the depictions in popular memory and literature but also examines corresponding administrative records dating to the seventeenth centuries. These records also provide evidence of Muslim pirs opening up the cleared forest for rice cultivation. As a condition for sustaining the Mughal support, these men were also required to build a mosque of bamboo and thatching, thus establishing the earliest Muslim institutions in these forested areas. Eaton writes about a late sixteenth century Bengali biography of Prophet Muhammad and other prophets of Islam, Nabi-Bangsa, where the patriarch Abraham is characterized as somebody born and raised in a forest and traveled to Palestine where he attracted tribes from nearby lands, mobilised local labour to cut down the forest and built a holy place for offering prayers to God. This juxtaposing of Abraham’s life on the careers of the holy men who mobilized labor to cultivate the agriculturally rich eastern delta regions indicates how Islam was intrinsically imagined and linked to their lives.

Having traced an overview of the spread of Islam in the Indian subcontinent over three distinct regions through Eaton’s scholarship, few things can be noted. Not only do they dispel the popular notions of the ‘invasion’ of Islam but also hint towards a localised form of Islam mediated by figures such as Sufi saints and holy men. Secondly, drawing from both Woodberry and Eaton, one can safely conclude that the ‘conversion’ is a continuing process and as stated earlier by Eaton, cannot be understood in the same ways that we understand it in the context of the nineteenth-century Christian missionary movements.

Hindus as victims and the genesis of Hindutva

Through Eaton’s work, we have traced the demographic shift in the Indian subcontinent that happened through a steady process of Islamization. The region constituted one-fourth of the world’s Muslim population. The findings of the population census of the 1870s gave a statistical sense of the demographic distribution in British India. Hindus in regions of Punjab and Bengal realized that they are in a minority, contrary to their commonly held assumption of a majority. The sense of Hindus as a minority, and hence can be a possible victim of a majoritarian Muslim rule, can be located in the colonial period.

The Bengali intellectuals were among the first to complain about humiliations under both Muslim and British governments. The Bengali men were portrayed as effeminate who could not resist the British conquest of Bengal. In United Provinces (UP), the Hindu-Muslim rivalry for government employment and over the use of choice of the script for administrative purposes triggered communal identity formation between Hindus and Muslims. The stereotyping of Muslims as rapists, killer of cows, and destructors of temples also began in the literary discourse. In the Bombay province, Brahmin leaders like Tilak started the vernacular press in the late nineteenth century. Tilak also began public celebrations of Hindu gods to counter as well as discourage Hindu participation in Islamic festivals such Muharram. He also started a festival celebrating the medieval Maratha King Shivaji and rendered him into a Hindu icon who rebelled against Muslim oppression. Another figure from the Bombay Province, crucial in constructing the modern Hindu identity is Vinayak Sawarkar. Sawarkar was critical of preoccupation among Indian Muslims with contemporary events in the Middle East. He also questioned the patriotism of Muslims who looked towards the Arab world for their spiritual history and guidance. His book, ‘Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?’ (1923) is one of the key influential texts in the Hindutva movement. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was started by Savarkar’s admirers in 1925 and since then has been the locus of the Hindutva movement in India. The RSS began mobilising Hindu youth and engaged them in body-strengthening and paramilitary activities. They viewed Muslims as a threat to Hindu society. One of its underlying aims was to consolidate Hindus into a singular, homogenous identity by suturing together its many castes and sects (McLane 2010).

The construction of modern Hindu identity through the arms of RSS and its consolidation has repeatedly emphasized the Indian Muslims as ‘foreign’. This notion was initially articulated in the writings of Savarkar where he defines a Hindu as a political category. Savarkar argued that a Hindu is one who considers India to be his motherland, the land of his ancestors, and his holy land. Therefore, in Savarkar’s terms, the Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs can be clubbed under the Hindu political identity but that space is not afforded to the Christians and Muslims of India (Tharoor 2018). But as Eaton’s work has demonstrated, the history of Islamization in India is complex and cannot be reduced to a singular explanation of ‘foreign’ invasion. Moreover, the myth of a homogeneous Hindu community is sustained predominantly by creating the Muslims as the bigger enemy, where Muslims cannot be situated into the Hindutva imagination of India.

Historically, there has been a steady fabrication of a Muslim demographic takeover in India, despite Hindus being a demographic majority. Arjun Appadurai, in his essay ‘Fear of Small Numbers’ (2006), calls this phenomenon the ‘anxiety of incompleteness’, wherein the majority is concerned in closing the rather small gap between its majority status and total national ethnic purity. In Appadurai’s terms, such identities become a ‘predatory identity’ that defines itself only by the extinction of the ‘other’ i.e. in this case, the Muslim.

This persistent othering and repeated attempts of ascribing foreignness to Indian Muslims have had a multidimensional effect on the post-independent society. India currently is witnessing a renewed vigour towards anti-Muslim politics with the RSS backed government in power. The anti-Muslim sentiment is at the brink of getting institutionalised through the dangerous provisions of the CAA where Muslims have been singularly targeted. What is concerning is that the consensus-building towards limiting the sovereign rights of Indian Muslims draws its pedigree from medieval history where the present times are seen as an opportunity to settle past hurts and defeats, the veracity and scale of which is dubious and far from any methodological inquiry into the period’s history.

Reads old newspapers and researches on Goan History.

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