Many folds of the faith

South Asian Islam's varied and multiple forms.

India's Islamic Traditions (711-1750)

Richard M Eaton, ed.

OUP, New Delhi, 2002

pp 439,1NR 650

Islam in the Subcontinent: Muslims in a Plural Society

by Mushiral Hasan

Manohar, New Delhi, 2002

pp 530, INR 995

ISBN 81 7304 451 1

Muslims of the Subcontinent account for one of the largest Islamic populations in the world, and yet it is striking how little has been written about them. Southasianists tend to focus on Hinduism and Hindu communities, while many Islamic scholars view Southasian Muslims as marginal or peripheral to the study of Islam. Why this is unfortunate is that some of the most interesting and creative approaches to Islam have emerged from among its Southasian adherents.

Fortunately, there is now a slowly growing corpus of studies on Southasian Islam, and these two books are welcome additions, with each tackling historical periods that roughly overlap in the 18th century. In India's Islamic Traditions, a collection of essays edited by University of Arizona scholar Richard M Eaton, the contributors trace Islam's history in Southasia from the religion's origins in the eighth century up to the time of the Delhi sultanate.

Southasia's contact with Islam dates back almost to the time of the Prophet Muhammad; according to legend, disciples of the prophet landed on the Malabar coast in peninsular India not long after Muhammad's death. The Punjabi Baba Rattan of Bhatinda is said to have been a companion of the prophet, and the legendary Raja Perumal Cheruman of Kerala is said to have travelled to Madina and accepted Islam there at his hands. Whatever the truth of these claims, India's association with Islam is ancient, and Southasian Muslims today account for the single largest group of Muslims in the world.

Given Islam's long history in the region and the great internal diversity of populations, the immense variety of Islamic expression is hardly surprising. Perhaps to a greater degree than in other parts of the world, Islam took on different forms here, adapting to a variety of local cultural contexts and environments. It is with this fascinating variety of forms of Islam as a lived religion that Eaton's timely and well-researched collection is principally concerned.

Southasia, with its large, and, for want of a more appropriate term, 'Hindu' majority, posed particular challenges to early Muslim jurists, for neither the Qur'an nor the Hadith provides clear guidance for deciding the precise legal status of 'Hinduism'. Ultimately, however, the majority of the Hanafi Sunni 'ulama accepted the Hindus as akin to the 'people of the book' (Jews and Christians) and granted them the status of dhimmi or 'protected citizens'. This did not, however, put an end to the ambiguity inherent in the ways in which Hindus and Muslims viewed each other. As Aziz Ahmad notes in his incisive piece within the book, Hindus and Muslims created diverse constructions of each other in the epics that they composed. Within the different versions of the same events, they did not uniformly construct 'Hindus' and 'Muslims' as inveterate enemies.

For one thing, in medieval epic and counter-epic narratives Muslims were generally described by the ethnic title of 'Turk' and its derivatives, and rarely as 'Muslims', thus suggesting that, at least as many Hindus saw it, the differences between them were ethnic rather than religious per se. Further, in several epics the boundaries between 'Hindus' and 'Muslims' were blurred. Sometimes a 'Turk' was depicted as fighting alongside a group of 'Hindus' against another group of 'Turks', and vice versa.

Challenging the notion gaining ground that medieval Hindus and Muslims necessarily saw themselves as inherent foes, Yohannan Friedman's essay argues that within the broader Muslim fold there was a diverse range of opinions on Hinduism and its followers. Thus, while some 'ulama saw Hindus as unbelievers to be offered the choice of Islam or death, there were others who insisted that they should be granted dhimmi status on payment of jizya, in return for which they were exempted from military service and guaranteed protection of life, faith and property.  Many Sufis, such as Dara Shikoh, Miyan Mir and Mirza Mazhar, went even beyond that and traced parallels between Hinduism and Islam, arguing that figures held in reverence by many Hindus, such as Ram and Krishna, were possibly prophets sent by the god of Abraham.

Sufi bridges
This process of reconciliation, of bringing Hindus and Muslims closer to each other on the basis of beliefs held in common, was advanced furthest by many Sufis and Bhakti saints, as Eleanor Zelliot shows in her contribution on the dialogue between the Turk and the Brahmin as depicted by the medieval Maharashtrian bhagat Eknath. Aditya Behl highlights this remarkable side of the medieval Hindu-Muslim encounter in his absorbing account of Hindavi Sufi romances, showing how noted Sufi writers freely used concepts and terms from within the 'Hindu' tradition, although often investing them with a new meaning, in order to make their message more intelligible to a largely Hindu audience.

Such creative borrowing and use of local motifs was thus an integral part of the literature that many Sufis produced in different parts of Southasia, as is highlighted in Ishaq Khan's study of the Muslim Rishis in Kashmir, Toney Stewart's essay on Sufism in Bengal, Ali Asani's contribution on the mystical poetry of the Isma'ili Satpanthi Muslims, and Vasudha Narayanan's piece on Tamil biographies of the prophet, all included in this volume.

Owing principally to the Sufi-Bhakti movements, then, differences between Hindus and Muslims were not as sharp as might be imagined from a perusal of, for instance, the works of orthodox Brahmin scholars or the fatwa literature produced by the 'ulama associated with the royal courts. As Cynthia Talbot's essay suggests, in pre-British India, notions of community identity were much more fuzzy and overlapping than what we imagine today, with numerous communities existing side-by-side in remarkable tolerance. Talbot argues that the notion of Hindus and Muslims as constituting two monolithic pan-Indian communities is a very modern one, and owes principally to British colonialists and the efforts of the Hindu and Muslim elites. A pre-modern Muslim or Hindu generally saw himself or herself not so much as a member of a singular pan-Indian community than as a member of a particular biradari or caste and linguistic group which often cut across doctrinal divides.

If numerous Sufis and Bhakti saints carried forward inter-religious dialogue at the level of everyday life, some rulers, too, took a keen interest in the project, often for political reasons. Iqtidar Alam Khan discusses, for example, the religious policy of the Mughal emperor Akbar, arguing against the view that Akbar intended to formulate a new religion of his own. Rather, he suggests, Akbar's religious experiments must be seen in the wider context of debates over the notion of revelation and its universality in Islam, issues with which many Sufis were also concerned. Further, he argues, Akbar's syncretistic faith, Din-i Ilahi, must also be understood against the backdrop of intricate Mughal court politics and as an effort on the part of the emperor to consolidate his support base among the Rajputs.

Discussing the religious policies of the emperor Aurangzeb, who is often contrasted with Akbar, Satish Chandra makes a similar plea, stressing the need to understand Aurangzeb's policies vis-à-vis the Hindus in a more nuanced and balanced manner, as calculated to serve his own political interests rather than as reflecting a visceral anti-Hindu hostility. We need to remind ourselves that if Aurangzeb is said to have destroyed numerous Hindu shrines, a number of Muslim shrines and Shi'a mosques met with the same fate at his hands. If a number of Hindus were slain by him, so too were a number of Muslims, including his own brother and Sufi, Dara Shikoh, and the renowned Sufi of Delhi, Sarmad Shahid.

Overall, as Peter Hardy argues in his essay on the general characteristics of Muslim court historiography, one must not take the accounts of the religious policies of the emperors of Delhi as provided in the medieval Persian chronicles as always presenting historical fact. He stresses that the medieval chroniclers, lavishly patronised by the emperors, often deliberately exaggerated their patrons' supposed dedication to Islam and their harshness towards the Hindus in order to provide them with more exalted claims to 'Islamic' legitimacy. In actual fact, however, most of the sultans cared little for the prescriptions of the shari'ah in their own personal lives, and thus can hardly be said to have been the ideal Muslims that their hagiographies present them to be.

The road to division
The rise of British power in the 18th century, the eclipse of Mughal authority in the 19th century and the sectarian-driven politics of the 20th century provide the historical backdrop of Jamia Millia Islamia historian Mushirul Hasan's Islam in the Subcontinent: Muslims in a Plural Society. The book opens with a discussion of Muslim life in British India, addressing the varying responses of different Muslim groups to foreign domination. Since the British had come to power by displacing the Muslim Mughals, it was but natural, as Hasan shows, that many Muslims viewed the British and the new forms of knowledge that they brought with them as threatening the integrity and authority of Islam. Yet there were other voices advocating a critical and creative approach to modern knowledge, believing in the compatibility of Islam with facets of modernity.

Despite the immense diversity within the broader Muslim fold, as well as among Hindus, Hasan argues that the British, for their own purposes, deliberately stressed the myth of Hindus and Muslims as two monolithic communities, neatly separated from, and therefore opposed to, each other. Besides promoting Hindu-Muslim strife, this meant that dissenting voices within each of the communities so defined were often stifled. This did not, however, necessarily prohibit the emergence or sustainability of existing alternative understandings of faith and identity. Indeed, as Hasan's study of the Shi'a-Sunni conflict in colonial Lucknow suggests, British rule provided new avenues for the articulation of intra-Muslim differences, which had existed earlier in non-violent forms. The same could be said of the rivalries between new groups such as the Ahl-i Hadith, Deobandis and Barelwis, all of which emerged during the period of British rule.

As one might expect of a book surveying Muslim responses to religious pluralism in India, several of Hasan's essays consider the diverse Muslim perspectives on Hindu-Muslim relations and, linked to that, the issue of Indian versus Muslim nationalism. The essay on the ideology and political career of the noted Khilafatist leader Maulana Muhammad Ali shows, for instance, how involvement in pan-Islamic causes could actually go hand-in-hand with concern for Hindu-Muslim unity and joint collaboration against the British in the struggle for a free India. But, as Hasan also shows, the forces of division overtook attempts to bring Hindus and Muslims together in a single post-Raj polity. As his sections on the Muslim mass contact campaign and the local roots of the Pakistan movement suggest, the conflicting interests of both the Hindu as well as Muslim elites sabotaged efforts at reconciliation and understanding, culminating, finally, in the blood-soaked partition of 1947.

The remaining essays of Islam in the Subcontinent provide a general survey of Muslims in post-1947 India. Hasan shows how partition, which was ostensibly a means of protecting Muslims in areas where they were a minority, actually spelt doom for the millions of Muslims who remained behind in India as a vulnerable, marginalised population. Partition provided Muslims remaining in India neither succour nor solace, but rather a magnification of their woes. Writing on the Moradabad 'riot' of 1980, Hasan shows how since then increasingly aggressive Hindu right-wing groups, abetted by sections of the administration, having heaped havoc on Muslims, have been driving them further into ghettos.

Indian Muslims' escape from peril, Hasan suggests, lies not in cutting themselves off from the 'other' society, but instead in seeking a dialogue with it, for their lives and interests are inextricably linked to the rest of India's people. The author suggests that this requires a revision of traditional understandings of the 'other' as well as reform within the community. It also requires a joint struggle of Hindus, Muslims and others against all forms of religious intolerance and communal antagonism to create an India at peace with its diversity.

At a time when Hindu-Muslim antagonisms, taking recourse to carefully constructed myths about each other as historical rivals ever since their first encounter, are causing such devastation in our lives, these books serve a very important instructional purpose. The publishers must consider rendering them into Hindi, Urdu and other local languages, minus the academic verbiage, so that their messages might reach a wider audience where it truly matters.

~Yoginder Sikand is a researcher of Islamic history and a freelance writer based in Banglore.

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