Why Indian Muslims are in India not of India

By Razib Khan 33 Comments

Reading Seshat History of the Axial Age chapters on India was a bit unsatisfying due to a lack of detail. But if you are looking for high-level historiography, it’s not a bad volume. It’s most definitely a good “sourcebook” on the literature.

Because of its general and cross-cultural focus, I began considering why Indian Muslims seem so immiscible. This is, in contrast to various other groups that moved into India. One might bring up “Scythians”, but more appropriate I think might be the Ahom of Assam. They were originally Buddhists of a sort, but eventually, they became Hindu, though they retain some Buddhist rituals.

So what’s the difference? Clearly one simple difference is that Buddhism and Hinduism are both Dharmic, so the barriers between the two traditions are lower and the boundary more fluid than between Islam and Dharmic traditions. This obvious in Sri Lanka, and also in Myanmar, where the remaining Indians of Hindu origin have mostly switched their religious affiliation to Buddhism, and in Thailand, where there are native Brahmins who perform rituals at the royal court.

But I think there’s a bigger difference: India was a land of opportunity for Muslims from West and Central Asia. The constant stream of officials, soldiers, and religious eminences mean that attempts to synthesize and assimilate Indian Muslims in the same way possible with earlier peoples were going to run into the counter-force of immigrants and transplants who would constantly demanding that Indian Muslims conform to world normative Islamic practices and beliefs. One illustration of this is the role of the Naqshbandi order in demanding that Muslim rulers not stray and that Hindus and Muslims should not mix excessively.

The only work that addresses the possibility of assimilation and synthesis in detail that I know of is Dominique-Sila Khan’s Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia. In the wake of the mass migration of Muslim Turks and Afghans under the Delhi Sultanate, a large number of Indians became Muslim, of various sorts. But with the decay of the Delhi Sultanate, and the decentralization of power and rule, Dominique-Sila Khan outlines her thesis that many Muslim and Hindu groups experimented with beliefs and practices which were synthetic, creating liminal identities. With the rise of the Mughal Empire and its integrative tendency, as well its excellent connections to the “Islamic international,” the liminal groups were forced into more standard and distinct confessional identities.

One unsurprising aspect of this is that demands for orthodoxy from the Sunni Muslims hit various Shia groups, in particular, ghulat sects among the Ismailis, particularly hard. Though forced conversions of Hindus no doubt occurred, we know for a fact that there was a systematic campaign to convert whole groups of Ismailis in regions such as Gujarat to Sunni Islam. These campaigns were on the whole successful.

Can we test my hypothesis that exogenous interaction and contact explain the relative lack of assimilation of Muslims into the Indian-Hindu identity? Yes. But not with India. Rather, there were multiple instances in China where small Muslim groups lost contact with the “outside world” (that is, Muslims in Central Asia). These groups at the elite levels became strongly influenced by Confucianism, and at the popular level took elements resembling Pure Land Buddhism. Though some Muslims were absorbed into Chinese folk religious milieu, the heterodox sects never became a new religion on the Chinese scene. Why? Because periodically contact would be reestablished with Muslims from Central Asia (again, the Naqshbandi order played a big role here), and deviations would be purged.

There is a final example that illustrates what happens to distinctive religions when they are totally isolated. In the early 17th-century, Japan banned Christianity and isolated itself from the rest of the world. But small groups of Catholic Christians maintained their identity in secret. These “Hidden Christians” were rediscovered in the 19th-century. The majority became conventional Catholics…but a minority remained “Hidden Christians”, and had taken on many elements of Japanese folk religion, as well as Pure Land Buddhism.

Can Islam than ever be indigenized in South Asia? Ask the Persians how easy it is to take Arabicity out of Islam…

Update: I suggest in the comments below that the foreign dominance among South Asia’s Muslim elites served to prevent the conversion of native elites.

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33 Replies to “Why Indian Muslims are in India not of India”

  1. Do you think a good comparison group might be Christians of Kerala?

    They have maintained a distinct identity (may be helped by colonization in the last half millenium) but some of their practices do have a strong Hindu influence.

    For example, you’d find small street side temples dedicated to Mary. I don’t know if such structures exist in mainland Christendom.

    So their status seems to be somewhere between Muslims and Ahoms.

    1. I think the Christians of Kerala are an interesting case, though their story seems to be repeated without evidence.

      They didn’t seem to have formed a strong identity as Christians until the arrival of the Portuguese, for example, and were really don’t have any physical remains of their pre 1600s cultus.

    2. The only similarity the Mallu Christians have with anything remotely Hindu is only with Mallu Hindus. Outside of that they have none.

      Similar to some of the Bangladeshi culture being influenced by Bengali hindu culture, but thats it.

    3. @Prats
      “For example, you’d find small street side temples dedicated to Mary. I don’t know if such structures exist in mainland Christendom”

      Italy is full of small street-side shrines dedicated to Mary and other saints. Greece too. It’s a Catholic/Orthodox thing.
      Protestant cultures though are very much against the use of icons and saint veneration.

  2. Good question.
    In the late 20th/21 st centuries , Islamic ‘revivalism’ has been helped by petrodollors, liberal/leftist alliance with Islamists who get political and diplomatic cover from the former.

  3. Razib,

    I think you have covered many of the reasons why Islam has been relatively immiscible in South Asia. One reason that may not have been explicitly stated is that there was continuity in Islamic rule/domination in much of Northern India for ~ 800 years. The Scythians, Kushanas and the Huns did invade and rule in India, but this was short lived domination.

    The comparison with China is not valid for the reason above. Muslim rule was on the margins of Han China, and never assumed center stage. China traded with the Islamic world and was never ruled by an Islamic power.

    Mongol depredations almost dealt a death blow to Islam in the Middle East, but Islam eventually put out the fire from the steppes. South Asia was spared the worst Mongol attacks till Timur descended on India.

    There was a window during which the Delhi Sultanate was on the decline and Babar was yet to appear on the scene. Unfortunately, during this period there was no major Indian (Hindu?) power that was powerful enough to overthrow Muslim rule in Delhi and assert its power against Afghan and Mughal challengers to come. Hemu – a general under the Suri dynasty – was the last possible contender for this role. One forgets how tenuous was Mughal hold on India during Humayun’s rule.

    Few other points. Firstly, Central Asia was always the source of horses for India’s cavalry armies. This supply was controlled by Islamic powers and went through the Afghanistan. Afghans remained contenders for power in Delhi till Akbar established himself. This dependence must have impacted local Indian powers in Northern India. The South had access to horses via seaborne trade.

    Secondly, South Asia remained a backwater when it came to military technology. Over and over again, “Indian” armies were defeated on the approaches to Delhi – at Panipat and other locales – because of superior tactics and equipment. These Indian armies were both Hindu and a mix of Islamic and Hindu.

    Lastly, India’s fractured polity guaranteed that there was no coherent response and a general attempt to overthrow Islamic rule. This pattern continued into the British domination of India. But that is an entire topic in of itself.

    1. “There was a window during which the Delhi Sultanate was on the decline and Babar was yet to appear on the scene. Unfortunately, during this period there was no major Indian (Hindu?) power that was powerful enough to overthrow Muslim rule in Delhi”

      There was a power which did defeat the Sultanate and would have won had it in turn not been defeated by Babar. That was Rana Sanga. Before Babar , Rana and Sultanate (and its allies of UP,Malwa and Gujarat) had fought battles and Rana had won.

      “Lastly, India’s fractured polity guaranteed that there was no coherent response and a general attempt to overthrow Islamic rule.”

      I used to think on those lines, but not any more. I think the fractured Indian polity in a way helped India not become Iran. Iran under the Sassanids got defeated in few crucial battles and that was it. That could have been the fate of any centralized North Indian power as well.

      But a fractured Indian polity meant that more and more wars for comparatively smaller pieces of land which sapped the invader energy as well. Babar and Humayun’s whole life went claiming and re claiming their empire.

      1. Saurav,

        You are right, I forgot about Rana Sanga who came before Hemu. Once again, the Mughal artillery was a decisive factor in the battle against Babar.

        Fractured polity may have helped in that there was no single center of power, but it also prevented any unified response such as building of the Great Wall or the Grand Canal. India boasts nothing of the scale that was built in China because there were few opportunities to harness the resources that were available in South Asia.

        In many ways, China was even more isolated than South Asia, but somehow numerous innovations in the military sphere came out of China – gunpowder, rocketry, siege machinery, etc, etc. Seems like the Chinese civilization was better at converting ideas and concepts into practical applications. India despite advances in astronomy, mathematics, etc., failed to apply these in practical engineering terms. [I know I am going off topic here!]

        1. Well u are talking about 2 separate things. In terms of infrastructure i think that even smaller polity like Vijaynagar etc did have enough resources to do mega stuff. Same is true when India had Centralized polity like Mauryas and Gupta. The absence of mega structure might mean lack of interest/use rather than resources.

          The 2nd thing is despite all the innovations and stuff and almost always facing a smaller power, China has faced military reverses and has been conquered. The same innovations were actually used much more efficiently by China’s conqueror (Mongol use of gunpowder) rather than Chinese themselves.

      1. I stand corrected. I should have said Mongols almost dealt a death blow to Islamic power structures in the Middle East.

  4. “Can Islam than ever be indigenized in South Asia? As the Persians how easy it is to take Arabicity out of Islam”

    Islam is indegenized (enough) in Pak and Bangladesh. That’s like 35 percent of the land and pops.

    You cant ever make an Arab free Islam. (Behind all the Turkish and Iranian boast , deep down they know that too). Just like you can never make an Indian free Hinduism.

  5. For Persians its easy to get rid rid of Arabic culture because most of modern day Iran is majority Muslim (Shia ) and also islam after the end of caliphate was infused with Persian culture and absorbed into central and south Asia with the formation of sultanates and mughal empire (in india) . I think what would’ve happened if all the subcontinent converted to islam, will there be a reason to save its Hindu past or just think of india as an extension of central Asian/persianate world.
    Right know what is happening as Kushal Mehra said “both sides are afraid of each other” i.e each wanting to preserve its own high culture. Then comes Razib point is it because the two ideologies are contrasting ? Or is it another case.
    I think that there are overlap in hinduism and islam for example Bhakti workship is similar to sufism ( the framework that is) amd There are adherents of Sai Baba who are both hindus and muslims.
    For what I can say from my experience (in Delhi) the people really doesn’t care that much and delhi people follow the true mughal syncretic culture as they visit shrines etc and Sher-o-Shayari is very poular among my population. May the culture for the new generation will be totally different who knows?
    The modern day Muslim will stay connected to
    Arabia/Persia because they is a competing ideology that is Dharmic/native.
    What is the solution ?
    Don’t associate Urdu/Hindustani language, culture etc to a particular religion and treat it as our own.
    The only reason some people deny Urdu language is because of Pakistan.

  6. No wonder the Zoroastrians of Central Asia and Sogdia incorporated Hindu elements into their religion, and even seemed to worship Hindu deities. Not even the Parsis in India were so Hinduised in their theology, probably because of their contacts with Iran (those ‘rivayats’, etc).

    1. Cyrus, what Iranian what we today would call Dharmic or Hindu 5,000 years ago? I think it was. Suspect this is why ancient Zorastrian sampradayas still retain many ancient elements of other Darshanas.

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      Razib,

      This is extremely well written. This is something I rarely say about articles.

      ++++++++++++++++++++++++
      “Ahom of Assam. They were originally Buddhists of a sort, but eventually, they became Hindu, though they retain some Buddhist rituals.”

      I would say that many people simultaneously belonged to and were influenced by many Darshanas 2500 years ago. Almost all Hindu Darshanas were heavily influenced by the Buddhist Darshana and are at least partly Buddhist. Many claim that Gaudapaada, Govinda and Shankaracharya were Buddhists. And they are right from a certain point of view.

      The Ahom Sampradaya was influenced by many Darshanas and other Sampradayas. These influences waxed and waned because the Ahom are a living tradition and culture. The Ahom were and remain Buddhist unless they publicly claim they are not.

      I don’t know what other Darshanas or Sampradayas influenced the Ahom because I don’t know enough about the Ahom.

      “but eventually, they became Hindu”

      I don’t understand what this means. “Hindu” is a meaningless overly broad imprecise dummy variable that includes over 1,000 religions and tells us very little. It is like saying they eventually became homosapien syncratic. I would understand if someone said that the Ahom eventually chose to incorporated aspects of the following Darshanas or Sampradayas. But would that make them any less Buddhist? Can’t they be Buddhist and be influenced by other Darshanas too?

      In India this is not a meaningful distinction because legally Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists are regarded as Hindus. Plus do the Ahom have Tibetan Buddhist roots? If so, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhists publicly say that they are Sanathana Dharma.

  7. I used to think on those lines, but not any more. I think the fractured Indian polity in a way helped India not become Iran. Iran under the Sassanids got defeated in few crucial battles and that was it. That could have been the fate of any centralized North Indian power as well.

    when the local iranian gentry started converting in large numbers in the 9th and early 10th century it was over. there were still zoroastrian kings in the north until the middle of the 9th-century. not enough strategic depth?

    1. One aspect on this topic we haven’t touched on was the civilizational vigor of Zoroastrianism vs. Hinduism during early Islamic conquest.

      I’ve read Zoroastrianism was dying in Iran just before the birth of Islam, with many people actually estranged from the faith, with only priests (its their job) and political leaders (for imperial clout) taking it seriously. Christianity was on the rise, but hadn’t had enough time to take off before Islam arrived.

      Contrast that with Hinduism which was arguably in its prime, in the post-Gupta period where it had finally conquered and assimilated most of the Buddhists/Jains (both physically and ideologically).

      There could be some parallels in Iran with Pakistan. The old faiths largely dilapidated (Zoroastrianism and Buddhism), with the new ones ascendant but not yet dominant (Christianity and Hinduism), before Islam washes over them and consolidates an opportune situation.

      1. I’ve read Zoroastrianism was dying in Iran just before the birth of Islam, with many people actually estranged from the faith, with only priests (its their job) and political leaders (for imperial clout) taking it seriously. Christianity was on the rise, but hadn’t had enough time to take off before Islam arrived.

        i have read this. i’m skeptical. the reason is simple: most people in iran remained non-muslim until 900 AD at the earliest. and, for this period, what really matters are elites. the sub-elites remained zoroastrian for several centuries. how do we know this? you can look at biographies, but a quantitative way is to look at mentioned names. his skews to elites, but what you see this:

        1) iranian names
        2) larger and larger minority of arab names that are generally found in new converts
        3) eventually, a resurgence of iranian names at some level once arab names become overwhelming

        what happened is once most iranian elites were muslim, they didn’t need to prove their muslimness through very arab names.

        the estimates suggest that the tipping point occurred btwn 900 and 1000 AD.

        also, christianity was actually quite vigorous. as you know persian christianity made it into the steppe, and was a common religion of turco-mongol people up until the time of genghis khan. hulegu’s mother and extended family were persian (nestorian) christians. yazdegerd iii was buried by a christian bishop.

        i think perceptions of vigor or lack thereof are probably post-hoc.

        There could be some parallels in Iran with Pakistan. The old faiths largely dilapidated (Zoroastrianism and Buddhism), with the new ones ascendant but not yet dominant (Christianity and Hinduism), before Islam washes over them and consolidates an opportune situation.

        buddhism was not much of a presence in iran proper (modern iran), but was quite vigorous in afghanistan and turan. as you must know from reading me, there is a fair amount of evidence that elements of islamic practice which arose during the abbassid pereiod (madrassas, deep hadith learning) come through central asian buddhists.

        Contrast that with Hinduism which was arguably in its prime, in the post-Gupta period where it had finally conquered and assimilated most of the Buddhists/Jains (both physically and ideologically).

        this is wrong i think. 1) a general point is that hinduism did a lot of things after the guptas (sankara, devotionalism, which goes into the medieval period) 2) jains in particular were still major players down to 1000 AD. the palas in bengal were still doing their thing as buddhists in the centuries befeore. though i think #2 is more viable.

    2. not enough strategic depth?

      I am not sure how much strategic depth would have required. Yes there were Zoroastrian kings, but considering the land mass Arabs conquered the Zoroastrians ruled only pieces. Even the central asian Zorastrian kings had converted. That was already the border of Zorastrian-ship anyway.

      Contrasting that to India , by the time we had the first long term muslim rule south of Vindhyas it was already 1300s and all.

  8. Islam is indegenized (enough) in Pak and Bangladesh. That’s like 35 percent of the land and pops.

    sort of. i don’t want to over-do external influences, since deobandi started in india, but again, it was part of the ‘sunni international.’

    of late lots of external influences are reshaping muslim practice in these two countries. sometimes it doesn’t stick (i had an uncle who was promoting maliki style prayer stances 20 years ago after a visit to the middle east but gave up).

    1. “Islam is indegenized (enough) in Pak and Bangladesh. That’s like 35 percent of the land and pops.”

      Razib, between Pakistan and Bangladesh would you agree that Bangladesh is significantly more indigenized?

      That is certainly the impression of Indian Bengalis and Indian resident Bangladeshi immigrants. [I think that non Bengali Indians know little about Bangladesh and are not interested. I find this sad. 🙁 ]

      The Deobondi recognize, respect and have a close relationship with the Chistie, including the head of the global Chistie order, Diwan Sahib.

      The BJP and Narendra Modi have good relations and collaboration with large parts of the Indian Deobondi order.

      The Indian Deobondi have large subgroups that are considerably more moderate and more Muraqabah influenced than Deobondi in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I would be curious to learn how moderate the Bangladeshi Deobondi are compared to Indian Deobondi.

      Obviously many Indian Deobondi are conservative by Indian muslim standards. But Indian muslims as a whole are very liberal and Muraqabah by global muslim standards.

  9. Razib, between Pakistan and Bangladesh would you agree that Bangladesh is significantly more indigenized?

    bangladeshis retain bengali script. common literary culture with hindu bengalis. also there is less stupid pretense of arab or persian ancestry. it’s natural that there would be less cant in this way.

    Obviously many Indian Deobondi are conservative by Indian muslim standards. But Indian muslims as a whole are very liberal and Muraqabah by global muslim standards.

    yeah idk. some of the indian muslims and their religion seems very hindu when i read about it. but i’m coming at it from the perspective of someone whose family has a lot of imams and sufis from the hanafi tradition. muslim and hindu are different and you don’t mix the two.

    i’m atheist, you can do whatever. just not sure how pervasive this is.

  10. the fundamental issue re: india vs. iran is that in iran the elites became muslim and indigenously so by 1000 AD. the samanids were self-consciously persian, and self-consciously muslim.

    in south asia the elites continued to look to west asia. a look at sayyid (descended from muhammad) Y in south asia shows that a lot were probably upper caste hindus. so they kept their status and changed their mythology. the constant infusion of turco-afghan-persian outsiders may have blocked indigenization of islam.

    counter-intuitively this continued foreignness of the elite may have prevented indian elites from becoming muslim, since they’d have to ‘turn turk.’ in contrast, by 1000 AD in iran you didn’t become arab if you became muslim (in parts of the levant and iraq it seems islamicization and arabicization were very closely related; note that christian minorities of significant size lasted pretty late or are still around).

    1. I agree with this but its a chicken and egg issue.

      Did continuous inflow from the Middle-East into India prevent indiginization of Islam,or; was continuous inflow from the Middle-East a response to Islam not indiginizing in India?

      1. well the inflow was cuz india was rich and the muslim rules trusted foreigners more than natives. you saw the same in china with mongols who brought all the muslims to help out. but yeah, this is gnarly.

  11. people keep asking above about kerala xtians. they seem part-way to what i’m talking about. but not really. here’s why: the kerala christians looked to middle eastern religious leaders. first, it was the church of persia. later it was the jacobite church of syria. today many are with rome.

    perhaps a good example for hindus are chams and balinese. they are hindu without being indian. but what if there was more contact with india? they would be more indian. western converts to hinduism become in some sense indian because that’s the cultural makeup of hinduism today. at some point in the future enough western hindus might make their own culture…

    1. Yeah to be fair, the only “indigenous” Christians in any mass numbers are the tribal Christians of central India. Almost all others (Goa, S-Indian and North East) are “western” facing in that sense.

      On the whole Hinduism minus Indian , i am skeptical.

      1. the only “indigenous” Christians in any mass numbers are the tribal Christians of central India.

        this doesn’t make sense to me. aren’t these christians usually converted by missionaries?

        1. They are. But they still follow a mix of tribal animism-Christian with lot of tree worship and stuff. Or in other words not sufficiently Christian-ized. It was true of north east as well but not anymore.

          To give u a stat, all the other regions which I mentioned has their state govts provide subsidy for travel to Rome , Jerusalem or some other Christian specific sop. Only region which doesn’t have it is central India where the Christian tribals concerns and demand are more on tribal lines than religious ones

          1. They are. But they still follow a mix of tribal animism-Christian with lot of tree worship and stuff. Or in other words not sufficiently Christian-ized. It was true of north east as well but not anymore.

            the pattern for christianizing regions (e.g., africa) is for this to change over time, as indigenizing patterns give way to ‘world-normative’ practices. if not, i’d argue that it is a syncretistic ‘new religion’ (that happens too).

  12. “You cant ever make an Arab free Islam. (Behind all the Turkish and Iranian boast , deep down they know that too).”

    very true. even the oft-quoted ghulat sects ultimately venerate ali and his progeny, and not some pre-islamic iranian figures. to me that is bowing to arabs in another way. a true indigenous islam would be integrating local pagan religious figures into itself.

    isn’t the whole “ahle-bayt” fetish of iranians, and all shia muslims in general, basically an attempt to be more arabs than arabs themselves? (we are bigger muslims than you because we love muhammad’s family more than you do.)

    in other words, this is basically the limit of indigenization of islam. islam’s core dna prevents its true indigenization. its uncompromising and unforgiving stance towards shirk ensures this.

    1. Don;t think one needs to dissect it that much to reach the conclusion. When the Arabs squeeze the “Hajj pilgrimage” balls pretty much all ethnicities fall in line.

  13. isn’t the whole “ahle-bayt” fetish of iranians, and all shia muslims in general, basically an attempt to be more arabs than arabs themselves? (we are bigger muslims than you because we love muhammad’s family more than you do.)

    the persians became mosly shia under the turkic safavids, and forcibly so. before that persians were mostly sunni. shia islam was stronger in old regions where arabs had settled, and i think among some of the turkic groups. IOW, connection of shia islam with persian identity is a feature of the last 350 years or so (dating the completed conversion to 1650 or so).

    When the Arabs squeeze the “Hajj pilgrimage” balls pretty much all ethnicities fall in line.

    your knowledge of most things you comment on is superficial. i think there is something to be said for the arabness of islam, but please note that it is well known that until the rise of oil money arabs qua arabs had been kind of marginal to the development of islam after the decline and fall of the abbassids. the great indo-islamic empires of the early modern period were the ottomans (turks), safavids (persianized turks), and the mughals (persianized turks in india).

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