Since about 2006 I’ve had to write the same post again and again due to the nature of my audience: religion is not the purview of technically oriented nerds, and technically oriented nerds just don’t “get” it intuitively. This is something that is relevant to me personally, because I am myself a technically oriented nerd, and I just don’t “get” religion.
A few years ago I was asking a co-worker whey he believed in ghosts, and he stated: “because I’m human.” This is actually a good response, as all societies have the sorts of supernatural beliefs that we might categorize under beliefs about gods, spirits, and demons. This is the cognitive raw material of religion, which is a universal feature of human cultures.
A minority of people lack such intuitions. At least with any strength. I am definitely one of those. My realization that I was an atheist occurred when I was eight, as I thought for a few moments about the idea that God might not exist. At that moment I realized I did not think God existed, and, I also realized I hadn’t really thought about it before because religion was simply something I never really gave much thought to.
When I began to give more thought to religion when I was a teenager in the 1990s it was due to its cultural salience. By this, I mean two things. First, the rise of Islamic terrorism and political violence. Second, the emergence of the Christian Right in the United States. In my personal and private life, I had many conservative Christian friends and would engage them in the discussion from my atheistic vantage point.
Between 1995 and 2005 I went through a “Richard Dawkins” phase. As it happens, I met Dawkins casually in 1995 at a talk and had been reading his biology works. I was not particularly interested in his religious commentary. Rather, I read books such as Atheism: A Philosophical Justification or relevant portions of Summa Theologica. I plumbed the depths of ontological, teleological, and cosmological arguments. I engaged with the works of men such as Norman Malcolm and Richard Swinburne.
But this reading program convinced me ultimately that I had “got it all wrong.” I had recreated religion in my own image, rather than understanding what it was in its own terms. I had turned the beliefs of illiterate and unintellectual masses of people into contingency tables and model logic! Rather than understand religion, I ended up arguing with something I could comprehend on a deep level.
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. GOD of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Your GOD will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD. He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel. Grandeur of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
That fire does not burn in me, but it burns in some.
This sort of mystical fanaticism is not general or widespread, but it’s a more much important modality than quibbling over how Malcolm’s ontological proof is so much superior to St. Anselm’s. Another modality is mass rituals. What some cognitive anthropologists call “imagistic arousal”. I’ve illustrated this with Turkish dervishes. Most humans will recognize what’s going on here on some level. Dance, trance, and music, to honor the divine are pretty universal. Even among Salafis, the chanting of the Koran sells well as a replacement for conventional music.
Why is this relevant? Because mysticism, collective rituals, and the communal identity which emerges out of that, is the raison d’etre of religion, and why religions are universal and share broad family resemblances. What about theology? What about the details of scripture? These are things religious professionals care about, but religious professionals are a function of complex stratified societies that emerged over the last several thousand years. Martin Luther was historically important, but his theological obsessions were really not.
Religious professionals though are the individuals that technically oriented nerds often go to to “understand” religion. This gives us a skewed and misleading view, and it means we misunderstand large aspects of history.
For the context of this readership, this matters when it comes to the interaction between Dharmic religions and Abrahamic ones, and more precisely Hinduism and Islam. From the Muslim perspective, some are wont to say that the message of Islam is what was appealing to benighted Hindus, the egalitarianism, the simplicity of belief, the texture and richness of shariah. The Hindu will respond with the tolerance and multivalent aspects of the Dharmic tradition, which is congenial to many moderns. Some will point out that the historical Muhammad was a barbaric sexual pervert.
This is neither here nor there. Joseph Smith is a far more historical figure than Muhammad and a confirmed sexual pervert of renown and infamy. And yet modern-day Latter-Day Saints are often paragons of monogamous probity. Why? Because what Mormons do has only a weak connection to the historical origins of the religion and its theoretical beliefs (which are literally polytheistic and materialist in metaphysic!). And Mormons are a group that matured in an America of widespread literacy, mass culture, and populism. How much “theoretical Islam” do you think illiterate peasants who never left their village internalized?
To understand the impact of Muslims on the Indian subcontinent one must ignore the message for once. The sophistication of Neoplatonist Ismaili theology in comparison to Advaita is immaterial in a literal sense. What is material is the role that Turkic warriors and Sufi religious orders played in transforming the Indian religious landscape through the services and status provided.
Muslims say that Islam’s egalitarian ethos appealed to Indians, especially downtrodden groups. Some Hindus agree, arguing that most Muslims descend from Dalits, reflecting their caste/jati prejudices to dismiss Muslims not because of their beliefs but their blood lineage. What do the data say?
Historically we know of cases of Dalit and “low caste” communities converting to Islam during the 19th and 20th centuries (e.g., the proportion of Muslims in northern Kerala increased partially through the conversion of depressed castes). But on the whole, it seems to be the case that Muslims in any given region reflect the genetics of the “general population.” By this, I mean the skew does not seem to have been incredibly strong in any particular direction.
When I have looked at the paternal lineages of putative “Syeds” (descendants of the Prophet Muhammed’s lineage), a surprisingly large number carry R1a1a, which is not the Y chromosomal haplogroup of the Quraysh (there are exceptions, Ali Rizvi carries the Quraysh haplogroup!). Some of these individuals, who presumed they had ashraf (West Asian) ancestry, seem to be substantially steppe-enriched for the region where they are from. The inference then is that in some cases “high caste” Hindus were conferred false Syed status after their conversion to Islam, so as to maintain their high rank within the new religion.
That being said, the “average Muslim” seems to be a Sudra/OBC. Outside of a few rare exceptions in the far northwest of the subcontinent signatures of West Asian ancestry are exceedingly rare. Contrast this with the Mongolian ancestry in 8 million Afghan Hazaras (about ~10% of Central Asians carry the Borgijin haplogroup).
Muslims argue that the egalitarianism of their message appealed to the depressed castes, but the average Muslim seems sampled out of the whole distribution of Hindus, and some “ashraf” Muslims look suspiciously like Brahmins or are part-Brahmin genetically. Clearly there is the kernel of egalitarianism in the message of Islam, but the chasm between this core ideal and the elaborated practice was enormous.
Another hypothesis Hindus present is mass genocide and terror resulting in massive conversion (or demographic replacement, though the above refutes that). There is genocide, and there is genocide. Frank McLynn’s biography of Genghis Khan gives a good overview of the demographic and ecological footprint of the Mongol conquests. Not only did the mass die-off across much of Eurasia result in “nature healing,” but the genetics of much of the region was re-patterned.
First, I want to note that before the invention of automatic rifles and industrialization genocide was often more a matter of disease and famine than death by the sword. It is simply not physically possible to kill as many people as the Mongols are reputed to have killed with arrows and swords. What really happened is farmers driven off their lands, nomads whose stock was killed, and the city-dwellers driven out of their homes, starved to death in a precarious Malthusian world (burning down cities would be an industrial genocide method available in urban areas dominated by wood-construction).
Second, genocide is often accompanied by rape and later intermarriage. In a pre-modern world genuine “folk migrations” were arduous undertakings, and not conducive to lightning strikes. Rather, on the Eurasian steppe, the all-male military Warband was a common cultural feature, invented and deployed many times across. many peoples (traditionally, Mongol women tended the home flocks). The genetic data so far suggests that the gene-flow of steppe ancestry was mostly male-mediated. Even non-nomadic migrations, such as that of the Parsis or Bene Israel Jews to India, were male-mediated (Parsis are ~25% Gujurati, with no distinctive Indian Y chromosomes, but ~50% distinctive Indian mtDNA; Bene Israel are 75% Gujurati, and overwhelmingly Indian mtDNA).
The conclusion from this is that the magnitude of the killing of Indians by the Turkic Muslims was not exceptional within India. Unless you presume the Turk were congenitally repulsed at the thought of raping Indian women, or, they were celibates. The main caveat I would offer is that Iranian and Turanian Muslim observers comment that the cities of Afghanistan were “filled with blacks” (Indians) in the late 900s and early 1000s. The genetic impact seems minimal, indicating to me that this follows the pre-modern template of many slave populations not reproducing themselves. The rise of Islamic polities seems to have supercharged the African slave-trade, so I think it is reasonable to posit that the genocidal impact of the Indian slave trade was qualitatively different with the rise of the Islamic empires, who were more efficient and effective at “suctioning” human chattel out of the subcontinent.
So why did 35% of Indian subcontinentals become Muslim? I have written extensively elsewhere on this topic, so I will not explore it in detail. The question is not why some became Muslim, but why most did not become Muslim. In contrast to the primitivism exposited by Salafis and the reduction of the religion to the Koran presumed by some non-Muslims, the religion emerged out of a complex sophisticated civilization. The Ummayyad Caliphate was a post-Roman successor polity. Islam offers up an excellent legitimizing ideology, as is clear in its rapid spread without conquest in much of Africa and in Inner Asia (the northern reach of Islam into Siberia has been obscured by the spread of Russians and Orthodox Christianity after 1600).
Islam’s lack of total success in South Asia is likely telling us that there were legitimating ideologies that were already present, and attractive. Islam’s success in northwest and northeast South Asia may suggest weaker legitimating ideologies in those regions, or, the stronger demographic shock of West Asian Muslims (though East Asian Turkic ancestry is far thinner in Pakistani samples than in places like Iran, it is detectable in a way it is not in India proper or Bangladesh).
Today, with widespread literacy and mass communication, there is a strong communal identity of belief and practice. For Muslims, this is partially a function of “reform” during the early modern period. But really, the reform entailed the spread of elite Muslim practices and beliefs to the masses. Muslim elites always adhered to the shariah, which was focused on the lifestyle of urban elites. In contrast, rural peasant Muslims were by definition often “not good Muslims” because their economic mode of production may not have aligned with shariah (e.g., peasant deployment of female labor does not dovetail with traditional Islamic elite norms of female modesty and isolation). An analogy here to “Sanskritization” seems pretty obvious, or the reform of Christianity after the Reformation, which demoticized many beliefs and practices previously the purview of the elite.
To understand the way the shape of the present came about, one must understand the genealogy of the past. This was a fundamentally different time. But even in the present, the hyper-rational nerd is not the modal human. The hyper-rational nerd is just the modal human on comment boards.