Indian Muslims: Past and Present

History of Islam in India

By Hady Ali and Mohamed Mostafa
History Researchers

More than thirteen centuries ago, Muslims started their military campaigns towards India to quell Indian pirates who attacked Arab trade vessels, and to attack the ruler of Sindh who assisted the Persians against Muslims in the Battle of Qadisiyyah (16 AH/637 AD). Other campaigns ensued, until the first organized Muslim conquest took place with the Umayyad campaign of Mohamed bin Al-Qasim Al-Thaqafi on Sindh and Punjab (92 AH/710 AD), which he undertook as a revenge against the king of Sindh who sheltered pirates attacking Muslim ships. His campaign initiated Muslim movement into, and settlement in, India.

Political upheavals had a negative impact on Muslim presence in Sindh, which made some Hindu rulers see an opportunity to quell Muslim rule by initiating a campaign on the Indian city of Sindan, and they captured its Muslim governor and killed him.

The entry of Turkic peoples into Islam gave an impetus for the Muslim conquests, which reached its peak with Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (387-421 AH/997-1031 AD) — the founder of the Ghaznavid Empire that covered most of today's Afghanistan — who undertook many campaigns against kings in India. The organized conquest of North India took place during the Ghurid dynasty of Afghanistan leading to the establishment of a Muslim sultanate with Delhi as its capital.

Following the Ghurids, several sultanates ruled India:

  • The Mamluk dynasty: founded by Qutbuddin Aybak (602-607 AH/1206-1210 AD), a Mamluk for the Ghurids who defended Delhi against Hindu rulers, and who was succeeded by many strong figures, most famously Ghiyasuddin Balban who pushed back a Mongol campaign.
  • The Khilji dynasty (689 AH/1290 AD): the most famous ruler of whom was Alauddin (695-715 AH/1295-1316 AD) who faced the Mongols and quelled Hindu campaigns, and whose death signaled the end of the Khiljis.
  • The Tughlaq dynasty: founded by Sultan Ghazi Tughlaq (720 AH/1321 AD), who was known for military skill and defeated the Mongols 29 times. His son Mohamed succeeded him and invested in Indian construction, arts, and science, but was a military fail, which led eventually to the his fall against Tamerlane who occupied Delhi in 801 AH/1297AD. India was then divided into several dynasties until the Mughals united most of it in the 10th century AH/16th AD.

Indian Civilization under Muslims

A main reason for Hindus embracing Islam was the desire to escape the Hindu caste system. Another reason was the conflict between Hindus and Buddhists, where the latter usually assisted Muslims against the former.

Al-Jahiz — a well-known Arab Muslim scholar — mentioned Indians as part of four well-known peoples of his times, next to Arabs, Persians, and Europeans, something which indicates that Arabs respected Indians and their civilization well.

Arabs translated Indian works from Sanskrit in Astronomy and Mathematics, most famously the Sindhind book (siddhānta) in Astronomy. Indian medicine as well was appreciated by Muslims caliphs who invited doctors from India to heal them and translated many books.

At one point, Minke, an Indian doctor, was the Chief Sanskrit translator of the famous House of Wisdom. Likewise, Ibn Dihn, another Indian doctor, was appointed head of Dar Al-Shifa Hospital in Baghdad. Historians and geographers also worked on India, as Al-Istakhri and Ibn Battuta, something which Gustave Le Bon praised Muslims for.

The Muslim presence in India enhanced the progress and transmission of culture. For example, several hospitals were built in the reign of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, and medicine was offered in it for free. Madrasas were established and more attention was given to the Indian women and their educational rights. The Sultans also were keen on justice, for example, Ghiyasuddin Balban founded Dar Al-Amn for the needy and established an advanced postal system. Rulers paid attention to agriculture and peasants as well, assisted Indian trade, which benefited many, and built famous structures and mosques.

The Spread of Islam in India

Despite the Military nature of Muslim rule in India, the spread of Islam did not depend on campaigns as much as educational policies, which brought Muslim scholars from different parts of the Muslim world to India to teach Quran and Muslim studies. Ibn Battuta refers to Kuttabs and Madrasas in the city of Hennur where boys and girls used to learn Quran. He praises the women specifically for their knowledge of the Quran. Sultans presented gifts and scholarships for whoever showed interest in Islam and/or embraced it.

A main reason for Hindus embracing Islam was the desire to escape the Hindu caste system. Another reason was the conflict between Hindus and Buddhists, where the latter usually received Muslim assistance against the former.

For example, the Jat people, who suffered Hindu oppression, joined the army of Mohamed Ibn Al-Qasim, and other tribes as well welcomed Muslim rule. Mahruk Ibn Raiq, one of the kings of Sindh, wrote to his Arab governor asking for the teachings of Islam to be explained to him in Sindhi.

British Historian Thomas Arnold says: “The humiliation Hindus of inferior status suffered others of higher one, and their irreversible position in society, encouraged them to embrace Islam where they had a free space to be, and where no such harsh distinctions and caste system existed.”

Muslims treated Hindus with care, and many Muslim rulers exerted effort bringing them closer and employing them in good positions. Hindus continued practicing their faith freely, no one interfering in their abstaining from cow meat, and denial of widows’ rights to remarriage.

Some rulers even allowed Sati — tradition whereby a wife gets cremated after her husband’s death — yet it was abolished by Firuz Tughlaq. Dar Al-Amn, mentioned earlier, was a destination for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and many Hindus praised justice of Muslim rulers, as Mohamed Ibn Tughlaq.

The military side of the Muslim rule of India, thus, tied up to the threats posed on India by pirates, foreign invasions, and those Hindu princes who wanted to maintain their social superiority.

The Mughals and the British

Two tendencies developed amongst Muslims then. The first was reformist, represented by darul uloom of Deoband, and entailed going back to Quran and Sunna, and the second was led by Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh University, and worked to spread western education amongst Muslims.

The Mughal era was one of prosperity and peace in India, despite wars with the Hindu Rajputs. The Muslim Mughal sultans protected Hindus, their temples, and their rights and traditions.

The Mughal era also witnessed the ascendance of the British, who established the East India Company to control resources in India. The British military conquest started in 1764 after the battle of Buxar, which made the sultan a nominal figure with no real power. In 1857, Hindus and Muslims staged the Indian Rebellion, which started with Lord Canning declaring Bahadur Shah the last of the Mughal sultans, with no one after him to hold this title.

A main trigger for such rebellion was that Indian soldiers were forced to use new cartridges that are wrapped in paper greased with cow and pig fat — which they had to open by mouth —, forbidden for Muslims and Hindus.

Other main reasons for resentment against the British was their policies that aimed at crashing the Indian economically, imposition of foreign education, Christian missionaries.

British colonialism opened a new era for Hindu-Muslim relations in India. The British intended on marginalizing Muslims after their role in the rebellion that Britain successfully crushed. Lord Ellenborough, India’s governor, was convinced India’s Muslims are Britain’s main enemy, as he clearly said: “The Muslim element in India is Britain’s bitter enemy; the British policy should aim at favoring Hindus and use their help get rid of the danger that is threatening Britain in India.”

British policy was a catastrophe for Muslim communities, as they lost almost 95 percent of their land, and were marginalized in the country’s curricula that tailored to deride Muslims and their belief. Literacy among Muslims dropped to 20 percent of the population in 50 years after being 100 percent, and they were largely excluded from posts in the government. Communal clashes took place between Muslims on one side and Hindus and Sikhs on the other because of their involvement with the British in their discriminatory policies against Muslims.

Two tendencies developed amongst Muslims then. The first was reformist, represented by Dar Al-Uloom of Deoband, and entailed going back to Qur’an and Sunnah. The second was led by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh University (1857), which was aimed at spreading Western education amongst Muslims and the propagation of the belief in the inevitability of separation between Hindus and Muslims. Khan refused the ideas of the Indian Congress and Muslims’ joining it, and he called for an independent Muslim body, thus establishing All-India Muslim Educational Conference, from which the Muslim League was born that propagated the idea of establishing a separate state for Muslims.

The Congress was founded in 1885 with the support of the British who saw it can be a unifying force for Indians regardless their religions, and thought they can understand and know the Indian public through it to suppress any chance for violent uprisings against them. However, the rise of Hindu nationalism was a main factor in the crystallization of the idea of a separate state for Muslims.

The 1920s was the peak of cohesion between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. Gandhi had succeeded in convincing the Khilafat society of India to join the Congress, and other Muslim parties followed. The first conference took place in 1920, and the society put forward its vision for an independent India. However, with fears of Hindu domination, the Muslim League parted ways with the Congress along with some Muslim Congress members, leaving Abul Kalam Azad, and his group, as the main Muslim figure remaining.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah assumed leadership of the League in 1936, adopting the idea of a separate Muslim state, and with the Congress dominating after elections in 1937, having a separate state became inevitable for the League. On March 21, 1940, the declaration of Lahore was issued calling for a Muslim state, and it became the basic doctrine of the League.

Partition and the Rise of the Hindu Right

Hindu nationalists believe that India will be consistent as an idea if defined synonymously with Hinduism. Hindutva is the distinguishing trait of Indians, according to them, with Muslims being a threat to it as a foreign element.

The partition of India was a paramount event in the history of India’s Muslims, as Hindus blamed the League for the partition, and the rest of Indian Muslims left suffering through communal clashes, killings, and discrimination at the hands of Hindu extremists like the Mahasabha. Deaths from both sides reached 1 million according to some accounts, with Delhi witnessing the largest share in violence against Muslims. Gandhi himself mentioned attacks on 137 mosques in Delhi from Hindu and Sikh extremists, and putting idols inside them.

India’s leaders, most importantly Jawaharlal Nehru, did their best to overcome these communal tensions before and throughout independence. The 1950 constitution adopted secularism and religious rights for all, leading to a period of peace and tolerance. This tolerance, however, was threatened with the rise of the far Hindu Right which considers secularism nothing other than an appeasement for Muslims. Instead, the Hindu Right proposes Hinduism as a national identity for India.

RSS is the main Hindu organization representing this ideology, founded in 1925 by Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, who had assumed several posts in the Congress before leaving it due to his disappointment with failing to meet extreme Hindu ideals, with Gandhi’s leadership of the party, and with Muslims’ activities within it. He founded the RSS to raise Hindu youth, and achieve progress for India as a mainly Hindu nation.

Hindu nationalists believe that India will be consistent as an idea if defined synonymously with Hinduism. Hindutva (which means Hindu culture), is the distinguishing trait of Indians, according to them, with Muslims being a threat to it as a foreign element. Hindu nationalists practiced discrimination against other religions, especially Muslims, and always put obstacles in the way of integrating them completely within Indian society.

The Babri Mosque and the Escalation of Violence

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the rise of the Hindu Right, leading the Hindu nationalist BJP –political arm of the RSS- to win the elections in 1998, and form a government during 1998-2004, something which led to the escalation of communal tension according to many analysts. 

In 1984, the Global Hindu Council created a panel lead by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) organization to liberate the birthplace of God Rama and build a temple commemorating him, replacing the Babri Mosque. As response, 2 years later Muslims founded a panel for Babri Mosque to protest the Hindu panel and its goals.

In 1989 the BJP and VHP escalated in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital, putting the first building block for the Rama temple close to the mosque. With the electoral victory of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh in 1991, part of the mosque was demolished, and in 1992 it was completely brought down by Hindu extremists. A series of clashes took place killing 3000 people mostly Muslims, and leaving thousands injured.

In 2002, clashes renewed in Gujarat due to the killing of VHP members (one of whom was a member of the coalition government) during an attack on a train by people who were claimed to be Muslims. The clashes left 2000 dead. Till this day clashes take place, but not as bloody as the ones that shook Gujarat in 2002.

Indian Muslims and Marginalization

India’s Muslims have been suffering from marginalization, especially after the rise of the Hindu Right. Despite the fact that the Indian constitution guarantees equality between all of India’s citizens, a feeling of discrimination is prevalent amongst Indian Muslims, something which was reported by the Sachar committee in 2005 to the Indian government. The Sachar committee, created by the government to study the social and economic conditions of the Muslim community, pointed to a very low Muslim socio-economic condition, with their development indices being the lowest across India, compared to other minorities (e.g. literacy, school enrollment, employment in the bureaucracy, police, banks and public sector, etc.), and a level of poverty that is the highest. One of the important findings of the committee was the fact that the percentage of Indian Muslims employed in the bureaucracy is much less than their percentage of India’s population and that Muslims are increasingly feeling threatened by a Hindu-dominated society.

Besides, Muslims often feel they are looked at as agents for Pakistan and conspirators against their own country, especially when it comes to Jammu and Kashmir, one of the most important places where Muslims are suffering, and where some Muslims identify with Pakistan. BBC’s Jill McGivering reported in Delhi in 2002: “Many Muslims see they are being criminalized, as well as feeling isolated in India’s society.”

Indian Muslims feel pressure to always prove they are loyal to India not to Pakistan, and as Aftab Taiyab, a cricket fan, says: “Whenever there is a cricket match between India and Pakistan - they always think we're supporting Pakistan and not India. Why so? We're as much Indian as they are.” Dr. Mukarram Ahmed Mufti, Imam at Fatehpuri mosque, says: “When the tension escalates then this type of question comes more frequently - such as 'Do you support Pakistan?'… 'You're going to have a war, what's your opinion about this?’... I will always support India, why will I support Pakistan? This is our motherland.”[1]

Finally, “India-Partition-Independence”, an important book written by India’s former minister for external affairs Jaswant Singh, who broke away from the BJP, describes the conditions of Muslims as “neglected” and “deprived”. “Look into the eyes of the Muslims who live in India and if you truly see the pain with which they live, to which land do they belong? We treat them as aliens...without doubt Muslims have paid the price of Partition. They could have been significantly stronger in a united India...of course Pakistan and Bangladesh won't like what I am saying”, Jaswant Singh said ahead of the release of his book in 2009.

[1] Jill McGivering. “India’s Muslims Feel Backlash.” BBC News 6 June 2002. Web. 16 April 2014


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