South Asian Muslim ancestors were idolaters!

An argument that emerges now and then on this website has to do with the nature of the ancestors of Indian (South Asian) Muslims. Where they Hindus? Much hinges on semantics. The term “Hindu” after all simply meant Indian in the days of yore, so by definition, they were.

On the other hand, Hindu today denotes a set of beliefs, practices, and identities, which exists at counterpoint with the confessions of Islam, sects like Jainism and Sikhism, and the dharmic world religion of Buddhism. To say that the ancestors of Muslims were Hindus may not give the correct impression due to the fact that that implies a level of fidelity to practices and beliefs which we today recognize as Hindu. Even setting aside the fact that substantial numbers may have been adherents of counter-cultural sects such as Buddhism, many of the threads of contemporary Hinduism developed in situ in the Indian subcontinent at the same time as many regions became predominantly Muslim.

And yet I think I have come to an elegant and accurate solution to this problem: those of us of Muslim origin or belief should simply admit that we were the descendants of idolators. Whether Buddhist, caste Hindu, or animistic peasant, from a Muslim perspective all these groups are idolators.


The white liberal’s idea of an Asian American

In Vox, Asian American racism is the unfunny joke the comedy world needs to reckon with. The piece is ho-hum. It could have been written by some sort of software program, as it leverages every quasi-academic intellectual construct about Asian Americans.

What I would like to see more in the media is the voice of the Korean American Christian pastor and the Indian American tech-bro. They exist. And there are a lot more of them than there are post-colonial theorists.

(I was in a very liberal [pierced people] cafe in Austin once when they were talking about Indians…and I realized the conversation stopped as people looked sideways at me, so I get what the author is saying)


Years of Rice and Lentils

Going back twenty years I have been fascinated by “alternative history” science fiction. This is often termed “Uchronia.” If you want to explore this genre, I suggest the Uchronia website.

Probably the biggest breakout into “mainstream” science fiction of this sort of work is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. Here the “Point of Departure,” where history forks from our timeline, is the Black Death. White Christian Europeans go extinct, with small groups getting absorbed by expanding West Asian and North African Muslims. Eventually, Europe becomes one of the outposts of the Near Eastern Islamic civilization.  The world becomes defined by a “Cold War” between a Chinese-led bloc, and an Islamic-led bloc, with the Indian subcontinent, split between the two (though leaning toward the Chinese-led bloc).

The reason I’m bringing this up is that it presents a thought experiment: what if the Hindu Rajputs had managed to prevent the expansion of Turco-Muslim polities into the Indian subcontinent beyond the Sindh and parts of Punjab? If this had happened, the shock of the Mongol sweep south would probably be even more devastating for the Turco-Muslim polities of Persia and Central Asia (India being less of a fallback). One can imagine a scenario playing out where Islam and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent remain a small distinct minority, with higher concentrations in coastal areas impacted by trade. Islam would perhaps play the same role in India as it does in mainland Southeast Asia: a minority religion that serves mostly as an interface with the Indian Ocean trading network, rather than a religion of a dominant ruling class.

A more interesting question is what are the cultural ramifications of this historical fork? A comment was made on this weblog stated that to a great extent it is hard to imagine North Indian culture without Muslim (so Turkic and Persian) influence. One may disagree with this comment, but it is not a crazy assertion.

But the question of the nature of the alternative history is interesting. Because it is a way one can get at an answer as to what a reconstructed Hindu identity which genuinely strips away Islamicate accretions would look like. Something some people do aspire to…



Using my own data to test some stuff, and I notice

1) My parents are both “outliers” from the Bangladeshis collected in Dhaka. Not too surprising, as my family is from low country Comilla, and more “East Asian” than usual.

2) My father is more “steppe shifted.” This always shows up in various analyses. And, it is not surprising. His maternal grandfather was from a Bengali Brahmin family (they all converted the previous generation).

3) Weirdly, I am quite near my father on this plot. Mendelian segregation I assume. I have a 23andMe and a SNP file generated from 30x WGS, and they land on the same spot. So it’s not some artifact.


Race and religion trump class

Another month, another “Asian” grooming gang scandal. “Asian” usually, but not exclusively, seems to mean Pakistani British men.

A lot of the discussion around this issue centers on the perpetrators of the crimes. Their ethnoreligious distinctiveness. The cultural preconditions which allow for the development of these practices of abuse and exploitation as normative in certain circumstances and toward certain people (though the details differ, from what I know of South Asian communities, in general, there’s a fair amount of sexual abuse going on within the subculture that isn’t discovered because of norms of shame and concealment).

But, I want to focus on the victims. Whenever these stories surface the victims are invariably described as “troubled” and from “broken” homes. These were vulnerable children. Additionally, the powers that be did not see these girls as their girls. If gangs of Pakistani British men were abusing and raping the daughters of middle-class burghers, I am 100% sure that the police would pay immediate attention and follow-up on these cases no matter the sensitivities.

I think it is fine and important to highlight the subculture that fosters this sort of behavior through their assumptions about the sexual nature of non-South Asian women (e.g., I have had it explained to me by several men of Indian subcontinental origin whose tastes were toward the prurient that “our women are pure”). But these cases also illustrate stark class divides and the total lack of concern and interest by the bureaucratic and public service class toward individuals from the lower class.


Being different is not bad

Having read a fair portion of Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, I can state now that it’s a book worth reading. The author, Rajiv Malhorta, expresses a distinctively Indian religio-cultural view coherently, clearly, and with a substantial foundation of scholarship.

In this way, I would suggest that Malhorta’s work is analogous to Tariq Ramadan’s exposition of a conservative Muslim world-view that is aware of, and engages with, Western values and traditions.

The main difference is that Ramadan’s work is more academic, which makes sense since he is trained as a classical European intellectual. In contrast, the main nagging issue I have with Malhotra’s work so far is that he regularly imputes elements of Western American Protestant culture and civilization to the Abrahamic traditions writ large. This makes sense since Malhotra’s biography suggests much of his adult life was in the United States. But whenever he writes “Judeo-Christian” about 75% of the time it makes more sense to write “American Protestant”, since that is really what the term is pointing to.

I assume that in the broad conclusions Malhotra and I come down on different positions. But the outlines of the methods and arguments he uses are quite familiar and intelligible, and that’s a nice change from other things that I have read.


An early modern Pax Islamica

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal has been in my “stack” for a while. It’s a short and academically-oriented work. What’s great about this book is that it is cross-cultural and comparative. I don’t know about you, but these sorts of narrative frames make recall and retention far easier for me. The integration of facts with other facts means that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts evaluated alone. In this, it has similarities with Strange Parallels: Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830.

The title itself is informative. These were Islamic polities in a self-conscious manner. The Ottoman Sultan emerged out of a parvenue lineage on the western Anatolian frontier whose claim to rule was based on their status as ghazis. Warriors of the faith. Their Mandate was confirmed through victory. The Safavids had religious charisma before they were temporally powerful. They were hereditary leaders of a Sufi order (their adoption of Shia Islam was a relatively late event). Finally, the Mughals were arguably the least religiously inflected of the three early modern dynasties, despite their appeal to the ghazi ethos.

Rather, the Mughals were notable because of their lineage, which was the most prestigious of the three. The Timurids descended from Timur, obviously, but more importantly, they descended on their maternal side from Genghis Khan. Though Genghis Khan was a pagan, whose scions destroyed much of the Islamic civilization of the Near East (and killed the last Abbassid Caliphs), the raw power and impact of the conqueror was such that he cast a shadow over the whole Turco-Persian world.

The key issue here is that these were dynasties of the Turco-Persian world, more or less. These were not states of the Islamic Arab world, though the Ottomans eventually absorbed much of that world in their later expansionary phase. Nor were they states of the Far East, or even Inner Asia. Despite all their other antecedents,* these dynasties were of Turkic provenance, and yet their entry into Islam was associated with their entry into Persianate culture.

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal takes a chronological tack in that it explores the origins of the three polities as far back as 1000 A.D., and also addresses thematic elements (e.g., architecture, poetry, and economics). Because of the thematic component it is not a work that needs to be read in sequence chapter by chapter, though perhaps doing so would allow for full appreciation.

One thing that jumps out is that in many ways the Safavid Iranian regime is an outlier in many ways. This is obviously true in regards to religion. The Safavids began as a vaguely Sunni but very Sufi religious order in eastern Anatolia. But by 1500 they were promoting arguably ghulat forms of Shia Islam, before settling down on mainstream Ithna Ashari beliefs. It is to this period that connections between Iran, a term that they resurrected, and the Shia cities of Iraq and the Shia regions of Lebanon, were established. It is during this period that Iran was forcibly converted from a mostly Sunni cultural region with Shia pockets to a Shia domain.

The Safavid domains corresponded roughly to what we now know as the Iranian nation-state (Mesopotamia was part of the Safavid domains for a few decades here and there). Despite early attempts at expansion into their Anatolian homelands, rebuffed by the muscular Ottoman military machine, the Safavids were preoccupied with internal concerns. The religious transformation of a whole region through coercion expended a great deal of capital. The early Ottoman state before 1500, and the Mughal domains for its entirety, was different from the Safavids insofar as the ruling military elite were of a different religious identity from the majority whom they ruled (Christians and Hindus respectively).

In contrast, the Ottomans did not attempt to forcibly reshape the culture of their vast domains. The millet system established subordinate roles for non-Muslims, while Ottoman hegemony over their 16th-century conquests in Arab lands did not disrupt native elites (the Mameluke Sultanate was conquered, but the Mamelukes remained Egypt’s ruling caste for centuries under the Ottomans). Within Anatolia and parts of Rumelia a process of assimilation of Greeks, Macedonians, and Armenians, to a “Turkish” identity occurred organically through conversion to Islam. Over the centuries the cosmopolitan tastes of the early Sultans, who spoke Persian at court and styled themselves, successors of the Roman Emperors, gave way to a classical Ottoman identity as leaders of the Muslim world who nevertheless had their own linguistic identity.

The Mughals, though just to the east of Safavid Iran, were a polity characterized by extremely different concerns and resources. Mughal controlled India was the second most populous polity in the world after Ming China. It dwarfed Safavid Persia, even the Ottoman Empire. The Timurids conquered a civilization, or perhaps more accurately a coalition of civilizations. Unlike the Ottomans and to a lesser extent Safavids the Mughals did not create “slave” armies and “slave” bureaucracies. The native resources of India’s people were such that this was not necessary (the argument in regards to labor also is often used to explain why slavery was never popular in China). Hindu Rajputs served in the Mughals in military roles, while groups such as Kayasthas served them in civilian roles.

But the Mughal story is not simply one of “going native.” The Ottomans and Safavids relied on “slave” armies due to the fact that these were often more loyal to the regime than regional or tribal levies. The Mughals opened up India to vast numbers of Turkic warriors and Persian literati. These two groups were regime loyalists because like slaves they lacked local roots.

As Persia become more Shia, many of these foreigners who arrived in India were Shia, but there were also broader connections to the Hanafi Sunni world, as far afield as the Ottoman domains. For example, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb patronized the compilation of a series of religious codes, which apparently became quite well known and popular in Ottoman Anatolia.

It is often said that Indian Islam became rooted in the soil of the subcontinent and took upon syncretistic aspects. This is true as far as it goes, but it seems clear to me that the integration of the Mughal ruling class into Turco-Persian culture served as a major check upon this process. The Mughal Emperor Akbar clearly exhibited a tendency toward synthesis and innovation in his religious thought, but his views did not win the day. Rather, it is notable that The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal reinforces the contention that each successive Mughal Emperor from Akbar, to Jahangir, to Shah Jahan, and finally Aurangzeb, adhered more closely to West Asian normative Islam.

A distinctive aspect of the Mughal polity is that it assimilated and promoted individuals who were ethnocultural distinct from the core ruling elite. In fact, arguably very disparate groups were all bound together as part of the core ruling elite. In particular, the Rajput generals who served the Mughals. This is in contrast with the Ottoman and Safavid cases, where conversion of the slave to Islam entailed eventual ethnic assimilation. The problem with Aurangzeb, despite his military victories, is that he began aggressively espousing a more West Asian style of ideological assimilating, coaxing and coercing Hindu military elites into Islam. The Mughal equipoise was broken, and while Safavid Iran gave way to polities which inherited all its major features (the Zand and Qajar regimes), and the Ottomans persisted in their long decline, Mughal India quickly shattered in the 18th-century, to leave behind a broad cultural influence.

More generally The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal illustrates that a ruling elites with a similar ethos can span multiple polities. Despite the religious distinctiveness of the Safavids, which became more clear over time, the three early modern Muslim polities fostered trade and intellectual exchange. Large colonies of Indian merchants were resident in Isfahan (from which they eventually sojourned to Astrakhan and eventually Moscow).

As noted in The Idea of the Muslim World Indian Muslims after the fall of the Mughal Empire had a major influence on Islam in what became Turkey. In Bernard Lewis’ oeuvre there is discussion about the West’s rise and its supremacy over the world of Islam, and the psychological shock that that entailed. But what about the Maratha captivity of the Mughals and how they shaped the confusion of Indian Muslims?

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal illustrates that cross-cultural and cross-national civilizational affinities and ties are quite common. Today many view the West as sui generis. In some ways that are true, in magnitude, and scope. But around the year 1500, a group of Turkic tribesmen had conquered remnants of Byzantium, the Persian Empire, and India. In the ensuing centuries, they transformed these regions, and were themselves transformed. Today to be Persian and to be Shia are almost synonymous (Tajiks tend to be Sunni of course). But this was the consequence of Turkic tribesman. Today Anatolia is mostly Turkish speaking, but that is due to centuries of cultural assimilation. Finally, many elements of Indian culture are hard to imagine without the Mughal period.

* The Safavids had Greek and Kurdish origins as well, though in their early period the Turkic ethnic component was most important. Similarly, the Timurids had recent Mongol ancestry, but their primary identity was with the Turco-Persian world. Finally, the early period of the Ottomans is obscure, but it is hard to imagine that these Anatolian Turks did not absorb some of the “substrate” elements. Mehmet the Conqueror had a Christian, possibly European, mother.