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Muslim versus Islamic

By Nadeem Farooq Paracha

Over 95 percent of Pakistanis are Muslim. They have been an overwhelming majority here since Pakistan’s inception on the 14th of August, 1947. Pakistan was carved out from India as a separate country. By 1947, India had been under British colonial rule for almost a hundred years. Before the British finally departed they decided to split the Indian subcontinent into two parts.

Regions with a Muslim majority (but noteworthy Hindu minorities) became Pakistan, and the Hindu-majority areas (with significant Muslim minorities) became India. The Muslim-majority province of East Bengal became part of Pakistan as well (East Pakistan). Like the rest of Pakistan (then known as West Pakistan) East Pakistan too had a Muslim majority, but it had an overwhelming ethnic Bengali population. West Pakistan on the other hand was a more ethnically diverse region. Its prominent ethnic groups included Punjabis, Sindhis, Pashtuns, Baloch and thousands of Muslim migrants (Mohajirs) who had poured in from areas that had become part of post-colonial India. The East Pakistan region was over 2,000 km from West Pakistan. The vast territory that became India lay between the two wings.


Hindus were an almost absolute majority in India before the first Muslim incursions in the region in the 8th century. But these invasions were restricted to what today is the Sindh province of Pakistan. They were led by the armies of the Arab Umayyad Empire. The Muslim minority of India grew significantly during the long Muslim rule in the region from the early 13th till the mid-19th centuries. But Hinduism – rather its many forms – remained the region’s majority religion. Other ancient religions of the region such as Buddhism and Jainism too continued to exist but the number of their adherents progressively declined. India’s religious diversity was further bolstered by the emergence of Sikhism in the late 15th century and the arrival of Christianity from the 16th century onwards.

Most Muslim rulers who ruled India did not overtly impose Islamic laws or initiate any large-scale projects to convert Hindus to Islam. Almost all the major Muslim dynasties which governed India during this period had Central Asian, Persian and Turkic ancestries. Violence between Hindus and Muslims was rare.

But in no way was India a diverse religious Utopia. The Hindus remained to be treated as second-class citizens and there were incidents in which Muslim kings demolished Hindu places of worship. However, this was not always an act of faith. M.A. Qureshi in Memories of Two Failures wrote that It was mostly done to punish the inhabitants of a town or a village that had risen in revolt. Interestingly, even when a Muslim marauder – such as the 11th-century Afghan warrior Mahmud of Ghazni – repeatedly invaded India and destroyed Hindu temples, he mostly did so to loot them of their jewels and gold.

C.E. Bosworth wrote in Ghaznavid Military Organization that Mahmud’s armies also included Hindus recruited from India. But some Muslim rulers did attempt to impose stringent laws and policies in the name of Islam – most prominently the last major Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb (1658-1707 CE). Many of his religious policies sowed the seeds of future ‘communal violence’ between the Hindus and the Muslims of India. According to A Rieck’s hefty history of South Asia’s Shia Muslims, Shias of Pakistan: An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority, Aurangzeb’s actions in this regard also dialed up tensions between the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects when he tried to root out (what he believed) were certain Shia customs that the Mughals (who were Sunni Muslims) had adopted.

Aurangzeb’s rule was long but it was marred by some major revolts by the Sikhs, and the Hindu Rajput and Maratha castes, so much so, that soon after his death, the once powerful Mughal Empire began to weaken and crumble until it was completely abolished by the British in 1857 CE. Till Aurangzeb, Muslim rule in India was just that: Muslim. It was never ‘Islamic,’ as such. Though largely tilted in favor of the Muslims of India and employing Islamic scholars as religious advisors, its disposition towards Islam was, in fact, influenced by the more esoteric strands of the faith, such as Sufism; and, more so, by sheer political pragmatism.

Islam in India had arrived on horsebacks, but it was the Sufi saints who were its main instruments of persuasion; men who lived among the masses and preached to the people of all faiths a strand of Islam that was populist, sufficiently flexible and vernacular in nature.

There is thus enough space for one to argue that Muslim rule in India began to dither and erode once its political and social complexion began to transform from being Muslim to ‘Islamic.’ Being Muslim in this context meant being pragmatic, inclusive and keeping the ulema from overtly influencing religious policies. The Mughals thus managed to hold vast swaths of land populated by millions of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs (of various ethnicities and castes).

On the streets the rulers allowed an inclusive strand of Islam to cross-breed and take a more integrated shape. This is one reason why the Mughals overtly patronised Sufi saints. The saints became these rulers’ face of Islam which they exhibited to India’s Hindus and Muslims alike.

The Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605 CE) is a prime example. His attempt to expand the appeal of the Mughal Muslim ethos was rather blatant. In 1582 CE he tried to formulate a syncretic idea of a universal set of beliefs by fusing together ‘the best elements’ of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Christianity. After Akbar’s death, some Islamic scholars began to claim that Akbar had blasphemed by trying to create his own religious cult. This accusation had initially come from an Islamic scholar active in Akbar’s court. His name was Ahmad Sirhindi. He had been sidelined by Akbar during his intellectual tussles with the emperor’s grand vizier Abul Fazal, who had defended and promoted the Emperor’s idea of formulating a more inclusive and universal Muslim ethos. Even though to this day, some Islamic scholars and historians claim that this was an attempt to create a whole new religion, it really wasn’t.

Aurangzeb’s actions also dialled up tensions between the Sunni and Shia Muslim sects when he tried to root out (what he believed) were certain Shia customs that the Mughals (who were Sunni Muslims) had adopted
Sirhindi claimed that Akbar had tried to create a new religion called Din-e-Illahi. The truth is that this term only appeared after Akbar’s death. Akbar never called it that. The term was coined by Abul Fazal after Akbar had passed away. As one of Pakistan’s leading revisionist historians Dr. Mubarak Ali put it, the act of trying to formulate an all-inclusive Muslim ethos by Akbar was an extension of the emperor’s policy of co-opting the Hindus into the wider universe of Mughal India and expanding his appeal across the large Hindu population of the country. This was an act of sheer political pragmatism by a Muslim emperor ruling over a Hindu majority.

Dr. Ali wrote that Akbar never called it Din-e-Illahi nor presented it as a religion. The confusion about what it comprised was largely proliferated by the faulty translations of Abul Fazal’s writings by the British in the 19th century.

A number of economic, political and social reasons triggered the fall of Muslim rule in India. But one won’t be exaggerating by suggesting that Aurangzeb’s departure from the religious policies of the previous Mughals also played a role in not only slowly strangulating Muslim rule in India from within but also in creating religious and sectarian schisms that still haunt the region.

Many of his intransigent policies gradually dismantled the carefully constructed edifice of the Mughal Muslim ethos. This triggered violent revolts by the Sikhs and the Hindu Marathas and brought the historical tensions between India’s Sunni and Shia Muslims out into the open.

South Asia is not a very homogenous place. In fact, even today, both India and Pakistan, despite their respective Hindu and Muslim majorities, are segmented by a number of ethnic groups, sects, sub-sects, castes, languages and indigenous cultures. Medieval Muslim rulers of India understood this well. There are still a number of theories trying to answer just why Aurangzeb would so radically depart from the tested policies of the previous Mughals.

Aurangzeb’s active proclivity towards religion was more of a reaction. In his bid to come to power and replace his ailing father, Shah Jehan, Aurangzeb’s chief opponent in this regard was his elder brother, Dara Shikoh.

Dara was deeply impressed by the policies and spiritual disposition of his great-grandfather, Akbar. More of a scholar than a warrior, Dara studied Muslim and Hindu scriptures and was also an ardent follower of Sufi Islam which had been the prominent religious conviction of the Mughal court.

Sufism was also the main folk-religion of the common Muslims of India. When Dara was defeated by Aurangzeb, and then captured, he was immediately executed. A group of clerics and ulema who had risen in prominence by siding with Aurangzeb, declared Dara to be an apostate.

During much of Muslim rule in India, the ulema had only been allowed to play a nominal role in the workings of the government. But as Muslim rule receded, the ulema took upon themselves the right to address the resultant concerns of India’s Muslims. The ulema insisted on explaining the decline of the Mughal Empire as something which took place due to the deterioration of ‘true Islam’ and the inclusive policies of the Mughals, which, according to the ulema, strengthened the Hindus and the Sikhs.

In a 1997 essay, the brilliant sociologist Hamza Alavi wrote that this tendency emerged with full force during the Khilafat Movment (1919-1924). The politicised ulema were not only antagonistic towards the British, they exhibited hostility towards South Asian Muslims who were contemporary extensions of the Mughal Muslim ethos. These included those who led the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

For example, whereas Jinnah and his comrades had explained Pakistan as a Muslim-majority state, their religious opponents described it as an ‘Islamic state.’ The tussle between the two tendencies is still alive.

(Courtesy: Friday Times, Lahore)