Hinduism – 5: Impacts of Interactions with Muslims

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Continued from Hinduism – 4: Early Interactions with Muslims

In an earlier post in this series we identified two defining characteristics of Hinduism – its localized religious practice and political organization and its universal and rigid social stratification. In this post we discuss how these two characteristics shaped the interaction with Muslims and how the practices of Hinduism were affected as a result.

First, on the social front, it seems reasonable to argue that the diversity of practice and localization of political organization of Hinduism in India made it relatively easy for outsiders to establish a base both physically and socially. An external force had only to overcome a local ruler to establish its presence. There was no all-India perception of an assault on Hinduism that could lead all the local forces to unite against an external enemy – such a response, had it been possible, would have been enough to deter any raider given the sheer disproportion in numbers.

Socially, the outsiders could have been viewed as just another caste, or a variant of one, with its own set of gods and rituals and could have been thus absorbed in the accommodating embrace of Hinduism’s tolerance. While there were numerous battles in India at that time, we hardly have any evidence of wars characterized as being between religions or of forced conversions of Hindus by Muslims.

In the same vein, Hinduism’s openness to other views must have provided a fertile ground for the Sufis who came along with the Muslim invaders. When their message appealed to Hindus, it was adopted and hence there was the widespread emergence of syncretic sects that seem so incredible today. (An aspect of this phenomenon was captured in an earlier post, Hindu-Muslim or Muslim-Hindu.)

The rigid social hierarchy in Hinduism must have provided a fertile base for conversions to Islam to enable the lowest strata in society to escape the burdens of social exclusion. Thus, over time, the majority of Muslims in India were actually comprised of lower caste Hindus who had converted to Islam. And given the adaptability of their original religious practices, the new must not really have been all that new for them – the existence of Hindu-Muslims and Muslim-Hindus mentioned above proves this point.

Further, since the Muslim traders and invaders that stayed in India must have been predominantly males, they must have married local women and so second generation Muslims must have been mostly of mixed parentage. This has been documented in the previous post in this series in the case of the early traders where the majority of Mapillas on the Malabar Coast were the offspring of Arab sailors and local women.

The peculiar and very unique nature of social relations in the India of that time has to be understood correctly if we are to make sense of the relative absence of conflict in the processes documented above without romanticizing it. Sunil Khilnani provides the most insightful description in his book, The Idea of India: Indian society “was sanctioned by denser criteria of lineage, caste and religion, and it operated by strict rules of exclusion. Religious conflict was restrained by distinctive methods: not, as later nationalists fondly like to suppose, on the basis of a genuinely ‘composite’ culture founded on an active and mutual respect among practitioners of different religions, but on routine indifference, a back-to-back neglect, which on occasions like religious festivals could be bloodily dispensed with.” [p.115]

Second, on the intellectual front, the Muslims of the earlier period were traders and those after Mahmud were warriors, religious scholars, or artists. The presence of Muslim scientists is conspicuous by its absence and if any did arrive, they did not do so with any new scientific worldview. In fact, as documented in the previous post in this series, Muslim rulers in Baghdad had been borrowing heavily from Indian scholarship.

It would seem reasonable to conclude from this that Muslims did not initiate any process of scientific enquiry in India – worrying about the nature of the Hindu religion or attempting to understand the difference between various castes or counting the adherents of each or of the speakers of various religions for instrumental reasons. It is important to keep this in mind to contrast with the scientific attitude and apparatus of the post-Enlightenment British who came to India later. The Muslims fought (often amongst themselves) and made alliances (military and marital) with local rulers as needed to maintain and extend their presence. Their governance model – kingship – was the same. There was no attempt to enlighten or civilize a nation seen as benighted, no pretension of being superior, and no allegiance to a remote motherland that was the fount of culture or wisdom. The Muslims were Indians – of another variety, to be sure, but Indians nonetheless.

Muslims were not shy of following their own religion but just added it to the many other religions and sects of India and, by and large, left others to follow their own practices in the exclusionary manner that was typical of India at that time. Whether this was due to pragmatism in the face of the numerical disproportion or some other reason, we cannot say. There were theological debates that are recorded but Akbar’s much lauded attempt at further cementing relations was aimed less at reducing communal conflict and more to soften the exclusions that were characteristic of Indian society. The Bhakti movement epitomized by Kabir (whom both Hindus and Muslims claimed as their own) should also perhaps be seen in the same light.

The bottom line seems to be that the interaction of Muslims with Hindus in India had, up to the time of the arrival of the British, virtually no impact on the philosophy or practices of Hinduism as a religion or on the worldview of Hindus about themselves. There was conversion of a significant number of Hindus to Islam but without recourse to the kinds of methods associated with the Spaniards and Portuguese in South America where indigenous populations were marginalized. On the contrary, the social and religious mixing gave rise to the phenomenon of syncretic faiths.

It could only have been such a process of mixing,  mutual accommodation and osmosis that could have yielded the incredibly beautiful heritage of North Indian classical music, the composite architecture of the Red Fort, the fine art of the Pahari miniature, the sweet rhythms of the Hindustani language, the intricate thought patterns of Sabk-e Hindi poetry, and the universal appeal of Bollywood.  

When we are overwhelmed by beautiful music we know in our hearts that it is not Hindu music or Muslim music – it is Indian music. And that music, if we are prepared to listen, embodies a history and carries a message more powerful than any that can be found in contemporary discussions or books of facts. It is not that people have not tried, but it is very difficult to rewrite music or art or architecture and to erase the evidence to which they testify.

A lot changed with the arrival of the post-Enlightenment British and we will pick up that thread in subsequent posts.

To be continued… 

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  • Aakar
    Posted at 04:04h, 31 December Reply

    this definition of Hinduism – universal social structure and local practice – is the best I’ve come across.

  • Antuna Hindu
    Posted at 13:38h, 02 February Reply

    I agree with the above. It’s hard to find a good definition of Hinduism (not a religion). I’ve read somewhere that it could be called a familyt of religions, but that definition does not encompass the social aspect of it. I find these articles really helpful, thank you.

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