Looking Back at the Festival of Festivals: The Idea of Indian Islam

Idea of India Part 7

By Harish Alagappa, Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


The first Muslim ruler to conquer a subcontinent kingdom was a general of the Umayyad Caliphate called Mohammad Bin Qasim. Bin Qasim took Sindh and Multan with a force of over six thousand cavalry riders brought from Syria, and another six thousand mounted camel troops brought in from the Makran desert in modern-day Balochistan. He is remembered today in Pakistan as the first Pakistani, a title retroactively given to him by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who claimed that the Pakistan movement began the day Qasim first set foot on the subcontinent.

For the next thousand years after Mohammad Bin Qasim, Muslim kingdoms dominated India. It is a familiar narrative throughout history: a foreign conqueror brings a foreign religion, which then takes over the land. This happened with Islam in the Middle East and Africa, and with Christianity in the Americas and Africa. Yet, India, somehow, turned the tables. While the Islam of the Middle East was always strict, austere, and authoritarian, Indian Islam grew out of a synthesis of Persian, Central Asian, and Hindu cultures. While there were some Indian Muslim kings, religious leaders and thinkers who advocated for the institution of a stricter interpretation of Islam, most of India’s Muslim kings found themselves adopting the habits of the very people they were meant to be ruling.

Akbar the Great, the Mughal Emperor of India during the second half of the 16th century CE, earned that epithet for his numerous military victories, his skill at diplomacy, and his patronage of learning and the arts. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about him though, was that he was quite possibly the first Mughal emperor who identified himself as Indian. His grandfather, Babur, founded the Mughal Empire in a weakened and fractured India after losing his own central Asian kingdom. Babur’s biography is disparaging of his new dominion, complaining about many things, including the lack of ice water in the plains of Northern India. Akbar, meanwhile, proclaimed a kinship with the people of India and identified himself as one of them. Whether he genuinely believed this or did it to cement his popularity with the people, it showed that Islam had now become a part of India.

Akbar’s great-grandson, Dara Shikoh, was ready to take this synthesis of Islamic and Indian culture to the next level. Born to Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, the queen for whom the Taj Mahal was built, Dara Shikoh was an erudite, intellectually gifted and curious prince. He appeared to have been very interested in building upon India’s existing tradition of religious pluralism and heterodoxy, to create a culture where all religions could flourish. He had friendly relations with the seventh Holy Guru of the Sikhs and had started the project of translating the Upanishads, commentaries on the Vedas that had themselves become venerated as holy books. At the age of 27, he was appointed heir-apparent by his father.


Dara Shikoh speaking to Sufi wise men


However, when his father fell ill, Dara Shikoh’s younger brother Muhiuddin marched upon the capital to proclaim himself the new Mughal emperor. Dara Shikoh met him in battle and lost. Dara Shikoh, his only wife (it is said he was so devoted to her that he never married another, despite being allowed to by his faith), and their children were killed. His brother Muhiuddin laid Dara Shikoh’s severed head before their ailing father. When Emperor Shah Jahan died, Muhiuddin took control unopposed and changed his name to Aurangzeb. The next forty years saw Aurangzeb impose his fundamentalist zealotry across the country, destroying Akbar and Dara Shikoh’s dream of a unified Indian culture that incorporated elements of all Indian religions, including Islam.

The Idea of Indian Islam is an interpretation of the faith that adheres to the intent of the philosophy laid out by the Prophet Mohammad, without incorporating the fundamentalism and strictness of the Arab interpretation of the same idea. Despite the harm done by people such as Aurangzeb and others like him since, Islam in India continued on its path of accepting pluralism in faith. In 1947, India was partitioned. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was ostensibly set up as a counterbalance to the modern-day Republic of India, since it was presumed that India would become a country run exclusively by and for Hindus. Yet, more Muslims live in India than in Pakistan today, and while relations between Hindus and Muslims in India have experienced a lot of strain, they have steadfastly refused to buckle.

Currently, Europe and the United States are finding themselves in the grip of a wave of Islamophobia and are taking questionable political decisions as a consequence. In such an environment of fear, mistrust, and xenophobia, the traditions of Islam in India and the way Islamic and earlier Hindu culture have intermingled to create a new pan-religious Indian identity could show the way for a hopefully more unified future.


© Harish Alagappa 2016. All rights reserved.


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