ETHNONYMS: Mahommedan, Mohammedan, Moslem, Musulman

Three countries in South Asia are among the largest Muslim nations: Bangladesh has about 98 million Muslims, India about 95 million, and Pakistan about 107 million. The entire subcontinental total can be estimated in 1989 as Including about 301 million Muslims.

The first Muslims to reach this area from Arabia came in A . D . 711, but while there were several other Muslim incursions from Persia and central Asia too in the succeeding 1,000 years it must not be thought that the huge numbers of Muslims living in the subcontinent today are all the descendants of invaders. The great majority of them are descendants of Hindus who were converted to Islam in the Middle Ages. This is important, for it goes some way toward explaining why the Islam of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is culturally different from and rather more tolerant of heterodoxy than the Islam of Arabia or Iran. While South Asian Muslims are in general orthodox believers, mostly of the Sunni sect (the party of Abu-Bakr), those aspects of their daily lives not Directly related to religion tend to be more like the cultural practices of their Hindu neighbors than of their coreligionists in the Near East. And their languages are those of the regions where they liveā€”Bengali, Urdu, etc.ā€”not Arabic or Persian. Classical Arabic is studied, of course, by everyone who reads the Quran, for this holy book is not used in translation anywhere in South Asia.

South Asian Islamic religious practices are in no essentials different from those of Arabia or Iraq. Tradition states that Islam is built on five things: testimony that there is no god but Allah and that Mohammed is his apostle; prayer five times daily; giving alms for the poor ( zakāt ); pilgrimage to Mecca ( hajj ); and fasting during the month of Ramadan. All this is fundamental in South Asia; but other aspects of Muslim society there are distinctively Indian. Even in those statesā€”preeminently the Mogul Empire (1526-1858)ā€”that were ruled and administered by Muslims in the past, the majority of the population always remained Hindu: they could hardly be offered the orthodox choice of conversion or death. Nor could these people be excluded from the army, the administration, education, or literature and other arts. Instead they commonly played their parts in what was always a multi-religious society.

This can still be seen in microcosm in the innumerable villages having both Hindu and Muslim castes (perhaps with Sikhs or Christians too). The different religious communities share a common modus vivendi that allows them to interact with each other socially and economically while following their distinct religious practices separately.

Islam is an egalitarian religion in the sense that all believers are equal before God. But against this it may be argued that, from an outsider's point of view, Muslim women suffer certain disabilitiesā€”restrictions of freedom of movement, freedom of choice in marriage, freedom to divorce a spouse with the ease that men can, and freedom to become educated and pursue careers. Yet these strictures hold true also for all other non-Muslim communities of South Asia, with the Modern exceptions of Christian and Parsi women. Muslims themselves see purdah and other restrictions placed on female activities as protective and thus in the best interests of the women themselves.

Despite the doctrine of equality and brotherhood in Islam, one finds that Muslim society in South Asia is in fact different from that of the Near East in one crucial respect, the existence of a caste hierarchy. Such divisions no doubt have persisted from the earlier Hindu caste society. Even the four-part varna categories of Hindu society are roughly paralleled among the Muslims. Thus the highest category includes four castes of Near Eastern origin: Sayyid, Shaikh, Mughal, and Pathan. Below them rank the Muslim Rajputs who will not marry above or below their own rank in Muslim society. Third is a group of occupational castes who again marry only people of equal rank. At the bottom of the hierarchy are Muslim sweepers, people whose ancestry presumably traces back to Hindu Untouchables. Even in Pakistan, where very few Hindus exist today, this caste-organized sort of society is still the model.

Perhaps no case emphasizes the Indianness of Muslim society more than that of the Mapillas (Moplahs) of northern Kerala. For while in Arab lands the family is patrilocal and Indeed patriarchal, here is a case of a Muslim caste which, like neighboring Hindu castes, is both matrilineal and matrilocal. Something similar is to be found on the Laccadive (Lakshadweep) Islands too. Elsewhere in South Asia patriliny and patrilocality are the Muslim norm. Parallel-cousin marriage is practiced widely and is also found among Muslims of the Near East and North Africa. But cross-cousin marriage, so common among Hindus of southern India, is also widespread among the Muslims, although many take a spouse who is not a close relative at all.

The legacy of Islamic civilization is evident throughout the land, and most visibly so in the architecture of the Taj Mahal and many dozens of other Mogul monuments. Islamic science and medicine left their mark too, in a land where both disciplines were already well developed hundreds of years Before the birth of Mohammed. At four points in northern India, including New Delhi, one can still see the huge astronomical observatories ( jantar mantar ) that Muslim scholars under the Maharaja Jai Singh II erected early in the eighteenth century. Even more pervasive was Arab-Persian medical knowledge, still widely in use as the Unani ("Greek") school of medicine. Large professional armies were introduced by the state. Mogul law and administration, first developed in India in the sixteenth century on the basis of four already established schools of Muslim jurisprudence, served as the basis for the British administration of India too. Persian was indeed the language of law courts and the civil service early in the British period. Painting, jewelry, calligraphy, and other minor arts were introduced by Persians and Turks. North Indian cuisine owes much to its Persian ingredients and methods of preparation. Muslim female dress has been widely adopted by Hindu women, for example in Punjab and Rajasthan.

Even in the religious sphere it is evident that Islamic mysticism (i.e., Sufism) had a wide impact on Hindu faith and literature: a medieval sect seeking immediate experience of God rather than academic understanding, Sufism in north India affected the rise of Hindu bhakti (devotional) cults and the special worship of Krishna. Poetry, in the hands of such great Indian masters as Kabir (1440-1518), brought mystic insights from Sufism to the attention of a wide Hindu and Muslim public. Historical writing too was something that the Ghorid Turks introduced to India, starting a tradition that continued through the Mogul historians to the British, French, and South Asian historians of modern times. Sanskrit, Tamil, and other literatures that long predated the Muslim impact never managed to produce a tradition of historical writing that was distinct from epic poetry.

No theological originality marked the Islam of medieval India. Aside from the politic fiction of regarding Hindus as "people of the Book" (and thus, like Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, as eligible for the status of "protected unbelievers"), Muslim rulers and teachers propounded nothing in India that would have seemed out of place to the Sunni faithful in the Near East. Peter Hardy has succinctly summarized the ten fundamentals of Islamic belief as introduced to India;

1. God is One, without partners.

2. He is utterly transcendent, possessing no form and escaping all definition.

3. He is the Almighty Creator.

4. He knows and ordains everything that is.

5. God is all-powerful and in whatever he ordains, he cannot be unjust (that is, human concepts of justice and injustice cannot be applied to him).

6. The Quran is eternal.

7. Obedience to God is binding upon man because he so decreed it through his prophets.

8. Belief in the Prophet's divine mission is obligatory upon all.

9. Belief in the Day of Judgment is obligatory as revealed by the Prophet.

10. Belief in the excellence of the Prophet's companions and the first four caliphs is required by authentic tradition.

See also Mappila ; Mogul ; Sayyid ; Sheikh


Ahmad, Aziz, ed. (1969). An Intellectual History of Islam in India. Islamic Surveys, no. 7. Edinburgh: University Press.

Ahmad, Imtiaz, ed. (1973). Caste and Social Stratification among Muslims in India. New Delhi: Manohar Publications. 2nd ed. 1978.

Ahmad, Imtiaz, ed. (1981). Ritual and Religion among Muslims in India. New Delhi: Manohar Publications.

Basham, A. L. (1975). A Cultural History of India. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Eglar, Zekiye (1960). A Punjabi Village in Pakistan. New York and London: Columbia University Press.

Hardy, Peter (1958). "Part Four: Islam in Medieval India." In Sources of Indian Tradition, edited by William de Bary et al, 367-528. New York and London: Columbia University Press.

Qadir, Abdul (1937). "The Cultural Influences of Islam." In The Legacy of India, edited by G. T. Garratt, 287-304. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Titus, Murray T. (1959). Islam in India and Pakistan. Calcutta: YMCA Publishing House.

Zaehner, R. C. (1969). Hindu and Muslim Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books.


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