In Search of Roots

Indic Islam

Himanshu Roy

The meaning of the word Indic has been changing from territorial to cultural to religious. It was used by the Greeks for the residents staying across the river Sindhu. Herodotus called them Indons which primarily denoted territoriality. In course of time, its use was enlarged to include the large parts of contemporary Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. It became cultural and religious.

This paper explores the journey of political-Arabic Islam in India, and the role of social process that transformed it into Indic Islam. It delineates, in the outline, the main features of the trajectory which, essentially, are three: (a) Muslim monarchs in India were politically and religiously sovereign, were not dictated by the Arabic-Persian monarchs or by the mullahs, local included. Along with the local nobility, the Muslim elite of the foreign origin (Turks, Persians, Arabs, Uzbeks) constituted only 2-3 percent of the Muslim population; (b) they had contemptuous attitude towards the local residents but it was restrained due to the fear of possible local revolts who had enjoyed large degree of freedom in their time and space[1]; and (c) the Indian dalits and the Other Backward Castes (the Arjal and the Ajlaf) who had converted to Islam constituted the majority of the Muslim population (95% approx) and continued with their hereditary castes' role of performing professional social services in the villages and towns. Islam, thus, was 'casteised' and substan-tively Indianised.[2] The non- Indic part that crept into their culture after the conversion was to imitate cultural practices of the Arabic—Persian elite who had felt superior, prided itself of being non-Indic and looked at the Indic residents, Arjal and Ajlaf Muslims included, contemptuously.

The political Islam entered into India in eighth century AD through the invasion of Mohhamad-Bin Kasim in Sindh. It travelled to Punjab, Delhi and in other parts of India subsequently. Since then, to till 1858 when the monarchy was abolished, the Muslim monarchs through their rule for one thousand years enacted two major changes which the pre-political Arab Muslim traders in India were not able to do: it created separate religious identities, did not fuse with the local religions, and second, it impacted local culture, language, literature and administration, and brought in new technology, food and enriched India with diversity. In course of its expansion to new territories, it gradually, however, became Indic not only because of its political compromises that it did or due to the social-cultural modifications it underwent over the centuries which facilitated its transition but because it was subsumed by the liberality of the Indic civilisation which has been accommodative, flexible, tolerant and open to new ideas; or at, worst, as critics have argued it had been indifferent, insular to the new developments which enabled the new immigrants to subsist and grow. In both the cases, however, the Indic was not swamped over by Arabic-Islam which had originated and expanded with the idea of revealed knowledge primarily applied and accepted through propagation and conversion in form of one book, one god, one religion, and of its world views treating others as jahil, lacking wisdom, knowledge and consciousness; in other words, those who were not imbued with it were ignorant and needed to be brought out of jahiliya[3]; also, it subtly sent a message of pre-eminence of Islam and Prophet.

Here, two pertinent points emerge which need to be explained: one, why Indic civilisation has been liberal with wide degree of freedom contextualise in time and space, and second, why Islamic precepts were not acceptable to the majority of Indic residents despite its message of equality preached for one thousand years in a graded society with practice of untouchability. Both the points, interestingly are inter-related; the first answers the second that is being open to new ideas, the opportunity of livelihood, and the freedom of development kept the Indic residents at a distance from Islam which propagated a fixed idea and ways of life. It resulted into fewer acceptance/conversion (in terms of percentage) of it (Islam) in the Indic region. Secondly, the message of equality of Islam was not new to this region; it was also observed in practice that despite this message of equality the elite among the Muslims who were mainly Ashraf, that too outsiders, practised the same untouchability with the Arjal and Ajlaf (local converts) which was contrary to their preaching. This dichotomy in practise and precepts weakened the acceptance of Islam resulting into the major percentage of Indic population remaining non-Islamic including that of untouchables. A look at the territory of Aurangzeb's kingdom which broadly resembled Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India reflect that the Muslim majority regions were much less. Even among the estimated population of seventeen crore during the regime there was hardly four crore population of Muslims which reflect a limited success of Islam in Indic region[4]. The visible contemporary Muslim population is more due to its rate of population growth rather than due to the result of acceptance of and conversion to Islam.

Let's now come to first point. Indic civilisation, and its reflection in thought, has been accommodative due to availability of opportunity for survival, livelihood and growth in different fields and in different forms in the vast expanse of its territory. Even the worst form of existence—slavery and untouchability—was comparatively better here than Europe; or their percentage was meagre. The hereditary caste system of different professional groups or placing the immigrants into it was to compensate the shortfall of labour and also to continue with constant supply of labour.[5] The local converts to Islam continued with their professions which remained hereditary. The social gap between the Ashraf and the Arjal-Ajlaf or between the different professional castes, therefore, continued.

The different castes in Indic region had their customary land holdings which acted as bulwark against theocracy and episcopal order as their cultivable requirements and their services, their methods of production necessitated their individual freedom in routine existence despite inscriptive and graded social structure and their related differential social customary laws.[6] The diffused landholdings and 'sack of potatoes' kinds of existence had generated wide number of local sects among them opposing each other; or , at best, these sects had a loose federated relations. This had its impact on Islam and Christianity which despite a Caliphate or Pope could not develop a pan-Indic episcopal order. The localities and their autonomy, on the contrary, had better impact on the residents which was reflected in their degree of individuality as well as in collective freedom.

The Muslim monarchs enjoyed absolute, secular, sovereign political power; it was indivisible, unencroa-ched. The mullahs had their own autonomous domain. The Shariat was applicable only on the Muslims who had accepted it. The demand to apply it on all was rejected by the monarchs.[7] The fear of Hindu revolts and the absence of Muslim support haunted the Muslim monarchs. The absence of homogenised Muslim block and the sectarian conflicts among the Muslims had worsened their situation.

In order to rule, expand and stabilise their regimes, they had co-opted the local elites in their structure as subordinate partners which facilitated their acceptance in public sphere. The arrival and expansion of Sufi culture in Indic region, which had emerged in Persia from below, further helped them. The expansion of it was with the tacit understanding of the ruling elite to deflect possible popular rebellion, if any. The culture of the non-Indic Muslim elites also, in the meanwhile, had begun to percolate downwards in course of time. Its language, literature, architecture, food, clothes, manners were being imitated by different sections of society. But it was Sufi, to repeat, which really abridged (partly) the chasm between the elite (Arabic-Persians) and the subaltern (Indic Arjal-Ajlaf) sections of society which, as earlier said, had also facilitated the wider popularisation of Islam. It created the condition of social acceptance of Islam consensually. The dominance of elite was socially accepted and the regime had the legitimacy. Sufi also abridged the gulf between the neighbours in the localities who had converted to Islam and who had not. The conversion had abruptly brought about a new social-religious hiatus. This abridgement was used by elite through few median points of commonality with the Ashraf and Arjal particularly after 1857 when the Ashraf felt bereft of political power. Not willing to be subordinate partner to the Hindu elite they sought political parity with them on religious premise once the electoral process began. Initially when the Congress had begun to demand the application of electoral process they had opposed it. Subsequently, they, the Muslim elites, sought parity through separate electorate.

The constant inflow of the immigrants and the changing composition of Muslim elite[8] throughout the Sultanate-Mughal period had kept the attitudes of ruling class contemptuous towards the Indic residents. The power of the sword and the establishment of political sovereign was the premise on which this attitude had emerged and consolidated. It had become, really moderate only in the 18th century which continued till first half of the nineteenth century. In the meanwhile, there also began to emerge a modern cultural political elite led by Rammohan Roy demanding civil rights for Indic subjects from the colonial government. Subsequently, since 1876, under the leadership of Surendra Nath Banerjee, it acquired political nature demanding political rights. Sayed Ahmad Khan had witnessed these developments closely and had felt the loss of power of the traditional Muslim political elite. With the consolidation of the modern political elite as pan-Indic segment, since the formation of the Congress and the beginning of the electoral process, the political opposition of the Muslim elite also grew in intensity against the Congress which was viewed as Hindu organisation. The struggle for political dominance by the Muslim elite moved it further away from the holistic composite nationalism; it was more towards fragmentary sectarian nationalism. Sayed Ahmad Khan had openly resisted the joining of Muslims in the Congress.[9] He had argued that the Muslims were the separate Kaum (Nation) who must have equal representation at par with Hindus. The principle of one man one vote was to lead to Hindu dominance due to their numerical preponderance and will adversely impact the power relations. It was explicitly posited that Mahommadans can never accept Hindus as their rulers and that "they are ready to sacrifice themselves for that glory which they still inherit from their forefathers who were erstwhile rulers of India... we are those who have ruled India for six or seven hundred years… Our nation is of the blood of those whom made not only the Arabia, but Asia and Europe, too trembled. It is our nation (Kaum) which conquered with its sword the whole of India, all though its people were all of one religion".[10] Such kinds of views were forthcoming even in the first decade of the twentieth century which subsequently led to the formation of the Muslim League and the partition of India.

It is interesting to note here a dichotomous social process: that Islam among the Indons became substan-tively Indic but simultaneously it also motivated Muslims to look towards Arabia for spiritual succor and the Muslim brotherhood. In the process, it set a fragmentary trend among them for an idealised past premised on the Arab rule. It was contrary to the idea of caliph who had disapproved the invasion of India in 636AD on the premise "that India was a land where there was perfect freedom for the practice and propagation of Islam".[11 ]

References :
[This paper was presented at a workshop on Indic Thought in DDU College, University of Delhi on 16-17 May, 2018.]
1.      See Muzaffar Alam, The Languages of Political Islam in India, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2004, Chap 5, p.190; also, see Ramvilas Sharma, Marx aur Pichhare Hue Samaj (Hindi), Rajkamal, New Delhi, 1986 and Bhartiye Itihas or Aitihasik Bhutikwaad, Hindi Directorate, University of Delhi, 1992.
2.      Imitiaz Ahemad (ed), Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims In India, Manohar, New Delhi, 1993.
3.      See Muzaffar Alam, op.cit. p. 19.
4.      See K S Lal, Growth of Muslim Population In Medieval India, Social Science Research, Delhi, 1973.
5.      For detail, See Himanshu Roy, "Contextualizing Dalit Mobility", Frontier, Vol. 42. No 10-13, Sep 20-Oct 17 2009, p.64.
6.      For detail, See Himanshu Roy, Secularism and its Colonial Legacy In India, Manak, Delhi 2009, Preface.
7.      See Himanshu Roy and Muzaffar Alam, "Zia Barani: Good Sultan and Ideal Polity" in Himanshu Roy and M P Singh (eds) Indian Political Thought, Pearson, Delhi, 2017, p.81
8.      Irfan Habib, Essays in Indian History, Tulika, New Delhi 1995, p.86.
9.      A M Zaidi, Evolution of Muslim Political Thought In India, Michiko & Panjathan, New Delhi, 1975,p.25.
10.   Ibid. p.42.
11.   Ibid. p.25.

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018