Hinduism – 3: Interaction with Muslims

Continued from Hinduism – 2: Getting to Terms with Religion

It is time now to take stock of the encounter of India with Muslims.

The first aspect that needs to be clear in our minds is whether this was an encounter between Hinduism and Islam or between Hindus and Muslims. This will make a significant difference to our understanding of subsequent events. We will argue that this was not a clash of religions, that it was an encounter of Hindus and Muslims. Of course, this encounter had an influence on both Hinduism and Islam, but the influence was indirect.

As always, this is the starting point for a conversation. We are open to alternative interpretations that are cogently argued.

Raiders or Crusaders?

Frequent and repeated interaction of Hindus in India with Muslims from Afghanistan began around 1000 AD with the raids of Mahmud of Ghazna followed by those of Mohammed of Ghor.  In 1206, the Slave Dynasty under Qutbuddin Aibak established a permanent presence in Delhi. Muslims have been in India ever since.

A number of points need to be considered in this context.

First, these were pre-modern times; there were no nation-states, agreed-upon borders, or notions of sovereignty in those days. Raids and expansionism were the norms. Alexander had marched through Persia into India in 327 BC; the Roman Empire had spread into Africa; the Byzantine Empire into the Middle East; the Arab Empire was in Spain; the Mongols were all over including in India. So there was nothing out of the ordinary about the raids from Afghanistan into India – the distance was just a few hundred miles.

Second, there is little evidence that these raids were of a nature similar to that of the First Crusade, launched by Pope Urban II in 1095, of which we have written earlier. The Pope had urged the Christians of Europe, in the name of Christianity, to march 3000 kilometers to Jerusalem to avenge alleged atrocities committed by Muslims against Christian men, women, and children. Pope Urban had launched a religious war. The modern parallel would be Osama bin Laden’s religious war against the Christian West.

There seems to be no evidence that the Afghan raids into India were inspired by some grand Islamic consensus to show non-Muslims the righteous path or to avenge atrocities against Muslims. Any such reading of the history is not compatible with the frequent conflicts between Afghans, Iranis and Turanis who were all Muslims. Babar established his dynasty by displacing an Afghan ruler. Nadir Shah and Ahmed Shah sacked Muslim kingdoms in Delhi; there is no documentation that their treatment of the residents of the city discriminated between Muslim and non-Muslims.

The Afghan raids into India can be considered analogous to a robber raiding a bank. The religion of the robber is incidental to the enterprise; the objective of the robber is to acquire the wealth, not to show the right path to the owners and staff of the bank. It is a reasonable analogy except, as mentioned earlier, that there was no law against raiding territory at that time. Raiders, who happened to be Muslims, came into India; some of them captured territory and stayed.

Indians or Colonialists?

Here we come face to face with the next important question. How do we look upon the Muslims who came from outside but stayed on in India. Were they Indians or colonialists? Once again the answer to this question will have an impact on how we understand subsequent events.

It can be argued that at some point those who stayed became inhabitants of the land. They did not owe allegiance to, or were representatives of, some external overlord; they did not direct their activities to serve the interest of a foreign power; they did not transfer wealth abroad; they did not plan on returning ‘home’ at the end of their working lives. All these characteristics militate against categorizing them as colonialists.

The Muslims who stayed were ‘new’ Indians. They were a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. Many may wish they had never arrived.  But we have to understand the events that occurred and wishes, especially intense wishes, only get in the way of that understanding. It was a commonplace in those times for people to leave one home and make a new home in some distant place without asking for permission or requesting residency status.

(An interesting aside is a reminder of the commonly accepted parallel with the much earlier arrival of the Aryans in India. We will keep this in the back of our minds because at the end of this series of posts we will try and explain why it has become necessary for some to argue that Aryans were the original inhabitants of India. When and why does it become necessary to dispute and reinterpret the past?)

With this as the background, we will explore in the next post how over time the interaction of Hindus and Muslims influenced the nature of Hinduism and Islam in India.

To be continued…

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  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 16:18h, 26 October Reply

    It is possible that Hindu perspective of that time may be quite different from what you state here. The point is we do not always align with actual fact. Early Muslims were indeed raiders but the places they raided were temples. Since they had utter disdain (one can’t expect them to have any sensitivities of modern times) for the Hindu practices therefore besides plundering the temples they must have been disrespectful also. Even though Hindus were not a monolithic religious sect during those times but a common enemy naturally polarizes the fragments. But this may be the early part of Muslims arrival. Later, however a state of equilibrium must have established, Muslims constituting one fragment of many.

    The story probably changed in modern times. Hindus had no cultural or philosophical conflict with Muslims when they arrived apart from the normal dislike of invaders. It is the modern Hindu who grudges Muslims for coming with a powerful creed which could stand up to them culturally and philosophically and steals the thunder of their superior cultural continuity by not dissolving its separate identity and merging with it. In addition Hindus now see themselves as part of large religious sect unlike earlier times when there was no such bonding. But Muslims too have under gone a mega metamorphosis during this time. The intolerance they now exhibit is pretty scary therefore the severe reaction.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 19:27h, 26 October Reply


    Two points implicit in your comment are of great importance: First, what was the perspective at that time; and second, how has the story changed in modern times and why?

    Both these points are argued cogently by Romila Thapar in ‘Somanatha and Mahmud’ (http://www.flonnet.com/fl1608/16081210.htm) in which she claims that “Mahmud of Ghazni’s raid on the Somanatha temple in 1026 did not create a Hindu-Muslim dichotomy.”

    Romila Thapar is a very well-known historian but, of course, there are other interpretations of the raids. I guess, the temples must have been the objects of looting because they would have been the natural repositories of wealth in those times.

    The question is whether these were ‘Islamic’ raids intended to destroy scared ‘non-Islamic’ places and humiliate ‘non-Muslims’ or whether violence and the looting of wealth was rationalized in the name of religion as we have noted in the case of the First Crusade?

    There is no doubt that the end result for those who suffered because of these raids was the same but the motivation does make a difference to how we build a future on the memories of the past.

    During the same period we have Rajendra I Chola’s massive naval campaigns against the kingdom of Shrivijaya (Malaysia and Sumatra) because of conflict over trade with China (http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routes/1000_1099/index_1000_1099.html).

    These kinds of raids and campaigns by one set of people against another were the staple of those days. We can give them any color we want depending upon how we want to use the past to achieve the future that we desire. And that is where the unbiased reading of history becomes important.

    An alternative would be to forget history – whatever happened, happened – and try to figure out a way to live together now that we find ourselves sharing the same space.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 03:03h, 27 October Reply

    I don’t think Romila Thapar can be trusted with unbiased representation of history. It will be naive to believe that Muslims raiders and they were essentially raiders could not have indulged in humiliating local population. It is just not our nature. Bullying from a position of strength is our basic nature besides it was totally risk free exercise. I would agree that basically they were not Islamic raids but must have been perceived by the local population as such.

    Rajendra Chola story is quite irrelevant in this context! In fact it wouldn’t have been wrong even if they were Islamic raids! We have to judge history from the perspective of our own evolution with time.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 14:20h, 27 October Reply


    I agree that it would have been a terrible experience to be at the receiving end of a raid no matter what its motivation. We are attempting the difficult task of putting ourselves in their shoes and trying to figure out how they understood the events. The evidence is quite limited and one has to tread carefully to avoid seeing old events through new glasses. Your caution is well-advised.

    I also agree that bullying from a position of strength is common but I would not go so far as to call it our ‘basic’ nature. One would presume a statesman would see that bullying is not an effective strategy in any long term perspective. I suppose the raiders were only interested in the short-term gains but there were others who looked beyond the short term and understood that bullying was not risk free.

    Amartya Sen’s long article on Akbar in the New York Review of Books (East and West: The Reach of Reason) brings out this aspect:

    I hope that South Asians are like any other people who can make mistakes some of the time but can also see their larger interest at others. I would hate to be condemned by my genes.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 04:31h, 28 October Reply

    All I can say is that in stead of being politically correct we must face the history boldly and not feel guilty about the acts of our ancestor. The point am making simply is that raiders, once in control, tend to be brusque. Even in modern times when a police party goes with a search warrant they ransack the place with total disregard to the victim’s sensibility. You can well imagine the attitude of raiders of those times. Akbar wasn’t a typical character; he was a rarity, only one of a kind.

    Having said that, I am not saying that you are wrong, but the possibility of local population putting two and two together and treating those raids as extension of Islamic invasion is high.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 22:10h, 31 October Reply


    There is no question of taking sides and making up one’s mind before entering the discussion – that would make one an ideologue. Besides, one should not feel that one is carrying the burden of some ancestors who one is duty-bound to defend. Who really knows who my ancestors were in any case.

    I have no doubt that the raiders were cruel and brusque. What I am trying to understand is how people of the region saw each other at that time and whether the religious perspective was the dominant prism of looking at events as it is today.

    It was an age of raiding and Mahmud was the biggest raider of the time. His raids did not discriminate by religion – he raided the ismailis, the Seljuqs, the people in Balkh, and he was even contemplating raiding the caliphate in Baghdad before he died.

    When he returned from India he enlisted three Hindus as the leading generals of his army which he used to conduct raids in other places. There is no evidence that he tried to convert the non-Muslim populations that he raided.

    It is for this reason that contemporaneous accounts of the raids have such importance. Retrospective accounts can be very misleading. But as I have mentioned this is a difficult task.

  • Kamlesh Nahata
    Posted at 03:24h, 04 February Reply

    Now, how relevant it is to talk about the dominant prism of acts is very much questionable. If we try to fit our thoughts too much into strict boundaries of causality, the intervening acts and thus forming corresponding perceptions may be lost. Agreed that the intention was plundering, but raiders are no saintly-robbers. It doesn’t take too much of a moral jump to be disrespectful to people, on the grounds of religion, knowing for a fact that temples are a place of reverence. A group with intention to steal, if of different faith, will not hitch at causing moral/religious infliction. And exactly, this is what the Hindus perceived it to be. Not necessarily a religious war, but something which doesn’t preclude that from being a part of motive.

    An interesting exercise would be to consider a scenario where instead of muslims, what if, the invaders had been from a religion already prevalent in the then-India.

    An aside:
    I presume that, in pre-independence times, any friction between the muslims and hindus must have consolidated a view that muslims were invaders and are outsiders. But, post independence the view is that muslims don’t belong here (Obviously, they do, as much as, any other non-muslim Indian does ). They belong to a different nation altogether vis-a-vis Pakistan. Its weird/natural for people, if they dislike something/someone for whatever mentality, to attribute a cause at convenience. I agree that the cause for partition must have been due to friction of some form, but what is interesting to note is the resulting entanglement in views about the people of other religion ( hindus in pakistan and muslims in india ) in respective countries.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 18:53h, 04 February Reply

    Kamlesh, I would like to understand some points in your comments better. You wrote: “And exactly, this is what the Hindus perceived it to be.” We don’t really know that for sure, do we? To be sure we need accounts that were written at the time the events occurred. The only research along those lines is by Professor Romilla Thapar mentioned in one of the comments above and that does not confirm that the incidents were seen in religious terms at that time.

    This can seem surprising but it is common for people to view the past using the worldview of the present. But this worldview can be completely misleading in many cases. That is the main point that Professor Thapar tries to prove.

    As we have mentioned in the post, raids across territories were common in those days when there were no international borders or notions of sovereignty. And, with reference to your hypothetical question, I am sure that various Indian communities were also raiding each other’s territories (recall the epic battles in Hindu religious texts). We do know that the Afghans and the Persians raided Mughal territories which suggests that religion was not a factor that decided who was going to raid whom.

    There are many complexities regarding the Partition. Hindus and Muslims had lived together for over a 1000 years so why was it that only at a certain point in the 19th century did a movement for separation arise? We cannot assume that any friction must have consolidated the view that Muslims were invaders. After all there were conflicts within Hindus between Dravidians and Aryans that did not have similar implications. And there are inter-caste frictions to this day. Is violence against Christians a result of their being seen as invaders?

    A minor point: Pakistan cannot be characterized as a nation. It is a country comprised of a number of nations that are not having an easy time existing together.

    The question we have to study is the following: Why did religion become such an major divisive issue in British India only at a certain point in time?

    And why is religion such a major issue in India today when India is a secular country?

    My point is that religious tensions are very acute today. This makes us see all of history in the mirror of this antagonism. And that might cause us to misread history.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 18:46h, 12 December Reply

    I think the issue many modern day Hindus have is not so much with the fact of these raids, and their possible motivations, but the reality that many Muslims have a very positive view of them.

    I personally think that the positive Muslim attitudes towards these raids is a recent phenomenon, initiated by colonial education and policies. But such ideas have persisted and taken a life of its own, and now even seemingly liberal Muslims, assume such a position in the background.

    I dont think the bulk of Muslims in India through history have seen such raids in a positive light. Waris Shah, a figure much more relevant to the lived realities of Indian (esp. Punjabi Muslims), said about Abdali,
    “Khada pita lahe da, te baki Ahmed Shahe da!”

    In this context, it can be pointed out that Shah Waliullah, a member of the Delhi Muslim elite had reportedly invited Abdali to attack India, to counter Maratha threats to Mughal power. But in Indian Muslim history, such figures although politically influential for a while, have nowhere near the relevance of Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah.

    In some sense, colonialism and the Pakistan movement provided the structure for the Waliullah type Delhi/UP Muslim elite, who historically had little impact on the mass Muslims, to use them as a bulwark. After the Pakistan movement succeeded, the Pakistani state (education curriculum, army recruitment as prestige employment) provided the structure for this political control to be translated into a broader identity transformation.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:19h, 15 December

      Vikram: I have a problem with impressionistic generalizations – how many Hindus and how many Muslims? 5%, 10%, 50%, 90%? How does one know? What’s your sample size?

      Both religious chauvinism and religious victimhood are attributes not to be admired. Those who subscribe to the exercise of reason can acknowledge that they exist but not try and justify them.

      Regarding Abdali and the Marhattas, one has to be cautious. No serious history of the time sees these as religious conflicts. At a time when an empire was crumbling various factions and their allies were in contention with each other. No coalition was drawn exclusively along religious lines.

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