Muslims in South Asia

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Muslims in South Asia

LOCATION: Pakistan; Bangladesh; India; Sri Lanka; Nepal; Bhutan; other countries of South Asia and worldwide
POPULATION: 1.65 billion worldwide (estimate); 456 million in South Asia
LANGUAGE: Arabic (language of Islamic ritual); Urdu (South Asia)


For over one and a half billion people in the world today, there is only one God: Allah. Allah made his will known to human-kind when he revealed the holy scriptures (the Quran) to the world through his messenger Muhammad. Muhammad, who is seen as the last in a line of prophets that included Abraham and Jesus, was born around ad 570 in Mecca in the Arabian peninsula. The Arabic word Islam, literally meaning "submission," describes the religion whose followers submit to the will of Allah. One who submits to the will of Allah, as revealed by the Prophet Muhammad, is called a Muslim (or Moslem).

Islam, one of the world's great religions, spread rapidly across Arabia and then through the vast expanse of deserts and steppe lands that cuts a path across the Old World from the Atlantic Ocean to the China Sea. It spread along the maritime trade routes and caravan routes that carried the commerce of the times. Islam was first introduced into South Asia in ad 711, when an Arab naval expedition sailed to the mouth of the Indus River (now in Pakistan) to suppress piracy against Arab shipping. The most significant Muslim incursions into South Asia, however, began at the start of the 11th century, when Afghan rulers sent military expeditions into the plains of India. In 1021 the Punjab was annexed by Mahmud of Ghazni to form the eastern province of his empire. Lahore, its capital, emerged as a major center of Islamic culture, and mass conversions to Islam among the common people began at this time. By the end of the 12th century the Afghans had captured Delhi, which remained a center of Muslim power in South Asia for over 650 years. During this period of Muslim domination, large numbers of Hindus and Buddhists converted to Islam. Under Akbar (r. 1556-1605), the greatest of the Mughals, Muslims brought virtually all of the Indian subcontinent under their control. The final remnant of imperial Muslim power in India disappeared in 1858 when the last Mughal Emperor of India was exiled from Delhi by the British. However, independent states ruled by Muslims survived in the region until the middle of the 20th century.

By 1947, Muslims in South Asia numbered an estimated 100 million people, roughly 24% of the peoples of the region. With the withdrawal of the British from their Indian Empire at this time, the political boundaries of South Asia were redrawn. The Islamic state of Pakistan (later to break up into Pakistan and Bangladesh) was created. Mass movements involving as many as 10 million people saw Muslim populations flee to Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs migrated to India. This was a period of communal violence and bloodshed that saw an estimated one million people murdered because of their religion.

Pakistan, an avowed Muslim state, and India, a secular democracy—even though its population is primarily Hindu—have fought several wars since Independence. Independence itself was accompanied by a conflict that saw the Pakistani and Indian armies fighting in Kashmir, a problem that has yet to be resolved. In fact, supposed Pakistani infiltration of Indian-held territory in Kashmir led to the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, which involved air and naval units as well as ground forces in Kashmir and along the entire Indo-Pakistani border in western India. Despite heavy losses in both men and materials on both sides, the war was essentially inconclusive. Not so the next conflict in 1971, which saw Indian forces intercede in the civil war in East Pakistan, the surrender of the Pakistan military in the region, and the birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation. The summer of 1999 again saw fighting between India and Pakistan, this time over Kargil in Kashmir. Allegedly the brainchild of the Pakistani Army Commander-in-Chief, General Pervez Musharraf, the plan involved infiltration of Indian-held territory in Kashmir by Pakistani soldiers and Kashmiri militants (despite the Pakistan government and military denying any involvement). The resultant Kargil War saw Indian regulars pitted against the Pakistani Army, and it is thought that only the threat of Pakistan's newly-developed nuclear weapons prevented Indian forces from pressing home the advantage they ultimately gained on the ground in Kashmir. Later in 1999, Musharraf mounted a military coup against Pakistan's civilian government and took the reins of power, becoming president of Pakistan.


Muslims in South Asia today number around 456 million people, with Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh representing the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th most populous Muslim states in the world. Of these, almost two-thirds live in the two Muslim states in the region. Pakistan, in the west of the subcontinent, has 154.5 million Muslims, while Bangladesh, in the east, has a population of 127.3 million Muslims.

Although only 13.4% of India's population is Muslim according to the 2001 Census, the total number of Muslims in India today is estimated at 154.5 million, third in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. Muslims in India are concentrated in the areas adjacent to Pakistan and Bangladesh, on the plains of the Ganges Valley, and in the interior of the Deccan. The Moplahs, a Muslim community descended from Arab traders who settled the area in the 7th century ad, are found along the coast of Kerala and also in Lakshadweep, an island group in the Indian Ocean that is Indian territory.

Muslim minorities are found in the remaining countries of South Asia, but in total numbers these communities are quite small. In Sri Lanka, Muslims make up 7.5% of the population, or about 1.8 million people. These include both Sri Lankan Moors (descendants of Arab seafarers) and Ma-lays from Southeast Asia. Nepal has roughly 900,000 Muslims (3.8% of the population), located mainly in the southern lowland belt. In Bhutan, Muslims number around 91,000 (5% of the population).


Arabic is the language used for ritual throughout the Islamic world. Outside the Arabic-speaking countries, ritual passages are memorized for the purposes of worship. This is the case in South Asia, where Muslims generally speak the language of their region, community, or cultural group. Thus Muslims in Pakistan speak Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, or one of the numerous other languages current in the country. In India, Muslims speak Urdu or regional languages such as Malayalam or Tamil. Most Bangladeshi Muslims are Bengali speakers.

If there is one language associated with Muslims in South Asia, that language is Urdu. Urdu, which means "language of the camp," is an Indo-Iranian language that evolved, during centuries of Muslim rule, from the Hindi vernacular spoken in the region of Delhi. It contains numerous Persian and Arabic words and is written in the Perso-Arabic script. In the 18th and 19th centuries it replaced Persian as the language of the upper classes and of administration in northern India. During the early decades of the 20th century, it came to be seen as a symbol of Muslim culture. Figures concerning the number of Urdu speakers in South Asia are unreliable. Estimates vary from 130 to 270 million speakers around the world, though perhaps an estimate of around 60 million individuals speaking Urdu as a first language across northern areas of the Indian subcontinent is reasonable. Urdu is not identified with any specific ethnic group or community, although in Pakistan it is associated with muhajirs, Muslim immigrants from India. In Bangladesh also, Urdu is the language of immigrants from India. Urdu has been adopted as the national language of Pakistan. In India, Urdu is recognized as an official language. Urdu is associated with a tradition of literature and poetry in South Asia that extends back to the 14th century.


A strictly monotheistic religion such as Islam does not allow much room for the development of myth and legend. However, commentators on the Quran trying to fill in the details of Muhammad's life inevitably wove strands of myth and legend into their works. Thus Muhammad, his relatives, and almost every person mentioned in the Quran are all associated with legends and miraculous deeds. On his death, for example, Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven mounted on the winged horse Buraq and accompanied by the angel Gabriel.

In addition to beliefs that are common to the entire Muslim community, Islam, as it spread out of Arabia, developed regional mythological traditions. These often focused on the lives of the Sufimystics, who played such an important role in converting the peoples of South Asia to Islam. The poetical works of the Sufis also blended classical Muslim motifs with popular legends in the folk traditions of Punjabi-, Sindhi-, and Bengali-speaking areas of South Asia.


Islam originated with Muhammad. When Muhammad was about 40 years of age, an angel came to him in a vision and told him he was chosen to be the messenger of God. At frequent intervals until his death, he received further revelations that he believed came directly from God. These were gathered together and written down into a book called the Quran around ad 650. Because the Quran is literally the word of Allah, it is the unalterable source of authority for all matters relating to Islam.

Muhammad began his ministry around ad 610, and gathered around him a group of followers who accepted his teachings. However, the rich merchants of Mecca saw the new religion as a threat to the political and social stability of the city. They persecuted Muslims and eventually forced Muhammad to seek refuge elsewhere. In ad 622, Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca for Medina, an oasis city some 350 km (217 mi) to the north. This event is known as the hijrah ("emigration") and marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. The year ad 622 in the Western calendar is AH 1 (Anno Hegirae, or the Year of the Hegira) in Muslim history.

The new religion combined contemporary Arab beliefs with elements of Judaism and Christianity. The veneration of stones and the keeping of many wives (polygyny) were Arab customs of the time. The monotheism (belief in one God) of Islam appears to have its origins in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. The banning of usury (lending money for interest), of gambling, and of the use of human images in mosques also appears to be borrowed from Judaism or Christianity. Some Muslim practices, such as circumcision and avoidance of pork, were traditional among many peoples in the Middle East.

The basic beliefs of Muslims are set out in the "Five Pillars of Islam": 1) the profession of faith (shahadah); 2) frequent prayer; 3) the obligatory religious tax (zakat); 4) fasting during the month of Ramadan; and 5) pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj). All those who perform the tasks set out in the Five Pillars are members of the Muslim community, no matter what their nationality, caste, or color.

The profession of faith requires that one make a commitment to Islam. At least once in one's lifetime the following words have to be said with a full understanding of their meaning: "There is no God but God [Allah]; Muhammad is the prophet of God." Muslims are also expected to participate in congregational prayers five times a day. In towns all over South Asia, the muezzin in the mosques can be heard calling the faithful to prayer (nowadays the use of microphones and loudspeakers is common). After washing themselves, members of the congregation stand in rows behind the prayer leader (imam), facing Mecca. In South Asia, Muslims face towards the west. As the prayers are said, the congregation performs a series of movements involving standing, kneeling, and touching the head to the ground. The words "God is Great" accompany each change of posture. Friday is a day when special prayers are offered at mosques.

The religious tax (zakat) was originally intended to be collected by the state to be used for the poor. This has become largely a matter of voluntary contributions to charity, though Pakistan recently introduced a zakat tax on savings accounts.

The fourth pillar requires that Muslims fast between daybreak and sunset during the month of Ramadan. Eating, drinking, smoking, and even sexual activity are forbidden during daylight hours, although a light meal can be taken after sunset. It is also customary to make charitable offerings to the poor at this time. The end of Ramadan is celebrated by the festival of Id ul-Fitr.

The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam. It is the duty of every Muslim, if healthy and able to bear the expense, to make the journey to Mecca once in his or her lifetime. In Mecca, the pilgrim participates in various rituals, including walking around the Kabah, the shrine that contains the sacred Black Stone, and kissing the Black Stone itself. The pilgrimage ends with the sacrificial offerings of animals at Mina. Muslims who make the pilgrimage to Mecca are entitled to wear the coveted green turban as a sign that they have fulfilled this duty. For many Muslims in South Asia, completing the Hajj to Mecca is a lifelong ambition.

In its early years, Islam experienced divisions that saw the emergence of several sects and subsects. The most important split occurred at the end of the 7th century over the question of succession to the caliphate. Sunnis claimed that the caliph, the head of the Muslim community, should be elected. Shias, or Shi'ites, held that the caliph should be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. The majority of South Asian Muslims are Sunnis, though there are significant Shia minorities in the region. In Pakistan, some 25% of the population are Shias, belonging mostly to the Ismaili and Ashariya sects. The Ahmadiya sect originated in the Punjab in the late 19th century and today forms a minority group in Pakistan. The Shias are represented in India by the Khoja and Bohra communities of Gujarat. Sizable Shia communities are found in Indian cities such as Bombay, Hyderabad, and Lucknow.

Islamic mysticism, called Sufism in Western literature, played a significant role in the spread of Islam in South Asia. Wandering Sufiascetics brought Islam to the common people and are held to be responsible for mass conversions in the region. Sufisaints and their poetry and music are particularly important in the cultural traditions of the Punjabis, Sindhis, and Bengalis. Sufishrines are major centers of pilgrimage for Muslims in South Asia.


The Muslim New Year begins with the sighting of the new moon in the month of Muharram. This month is associated with the period of mourning Shias observe for the martyrdom of Hussein, Muhammad's grandson, on the 10th day of Muharram in the year ad 61 (ad 680). Observances continue over 10 days, with the last day marked by processions with ta'zias, wooden towers decorated with tinsel, colored paper, and flowers that are meant to represent Hussein's mausoleum. The use of these towers is a particularly Indian tradition. Young men in the procession, stripped to the waist, will beat themselves with whips or even cut themselves with knives and razor blades in a ritual of mourning for Hussein.

Id ul-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. It begins with the sighting of the new moon. People make the prescribed offering of alms to the poor then proceed to the 'idgah (a special place of worship for the Id festivals) or the mosque for prayers. At the end of prayers, members of the congregation embrace and salute each other by saying, "Id Mubarak" ("Blessed Feast"). The rest of the day is taken up with giving gifts to children, visiting relatives and friends, and entertaining guests. Id ul-Adha, known in South Asia as Bakr-Id, is celebrated in the last month of the Muslim year during the time of the Hajj. Muslims throughout the world sacrifice animals (goats, sheep, camels) at the time that pilgrims to Mecca are performing the sacrifice at Mina. The Feast of Sacrifice commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son, Ishmael, to God.

Whereas Muharram and the Ids are celebrated throughout the Muslim world, South Asian Muslims have festive days linked to the veneration of Sufisaints. These are celebrated at the shrine (dargah) where the saint is buried and may last several days. The annual urs (literally "wedding" because the Sufibelieves at death his or her soul is united or wedded to Allah) festival commemorates the death anniversary of the saint. Worshipers file before the tomb in the mausoleum; they say prayers and offer money, incense, flowers, sweets, and sometimes a chaddar, a decorated cloth used as a covering for the tomb. The Quran is read in its entirety, and qawwalis are sung through the night. Free food is distributed to the poor. The most important urs in all South Asia is that of Khawaja Mu'inud-din Chishti, a 12th-century Sufisaint, held at Ajmer in India's Rajasthan State. As many as 300,000 people attend this annual festival.


In their rites of passage, Muslims in South Asia follow the outlines prescribed by Islamic law (the Shariah), but they often combine these rites with local customs. At the birth of a baby, a mullah (Muslim priest) or a family elder repeats the Call to Prayer (azan) into the baby's right ear and a similar prayer into its left ear. On the seventh day after birth, or soon thereafter, the head-shaving ceremony is performed, often accompanied by the sacrifice of sheep or goats. At this time, the child is usually named as well. Some names are common throughout the Muslim world. Children may be named after the Prophet or his family (e.g., Muhammad, Ali, Hussein) or after the prophets (Ishmael, Ibrahim, Yusuf). Some common Muslim names have the prefix "abd" (servant), as in Abdullah, the servant of Allah. There are, however, certain local South Asian traditions followed in naming children. The names of revered saints or shrines might be used, as in Sabir Bakhsh or Qalandar Bakhsh. Bakhsh means "bestower of gifts," and the first part of the name refers to a local saint. In southern parts of the country, last names such as Desai, Patel, or Majumdar that denote the occupation or office held by one's forefathers are common to both Muslims and Hindus. In Kashmir, last names such as Pandit that are specifically Hindu names may be used by Muslims.

Circumcision (sunnat) is a ritual that every male Muslim undergoes. The operation was normally performed by a barber, although today it is increasingly done in the hospital immediately after birth. Although the ceremonies associated with circumcision vary throughout the region, the rite is seen by many to be an initiation into the Muslim community.

Physical puberty is not marked by any special ceremonies. From this time, however, both boys and girls are expected to observe the customs set out in religious law. The education of both sexes in social and religious practices begins at an early age and is initiated by the Bismillah ceremony soon after a child is able to speak and understand things. Older children receive more formal religious instruction. In some Muslim communities, girls reaching puberty adopt purdah and are generally secluded from the company of males who are not close family members.

Burial rites follow the rules laid down in the Shariah, although local customs and traditions sometimes result in regional variations. Immediately after death, the body is ritually bathed and wrapped in a white shroud in preparation for burial. Mourners, led by a priest, say prayers over the corpse, which is then taken in procession to the graveyard. The body is buried with its face turned towards Mecca. Various ceremonies are performed for the deceased, lasting a minimum of 40 days and as long as a year after the time of death.


The most common greeting of Muslims in South Asia, and the world over, is "Salaam alaikum" ("Peace be with you"), often accompanied by a gesture in which the hand is touched first to the chest, then to the forehead. The correct reply to this is the sentence, "Wa alaikum as Salaam" ("And also unto you"). In the towns of northern India, especially in Lucknow, the secular phrase, "Adab arz" ("I pay my respects to you") is common. Less formally, men shake hands and friends embrace each other. "Sahib" and "Begum" are the Muslim equivalents of "Mr." and "Mrs."


Muslim lifestyles in South Asia vary according to factors such as occupation, social status, and regional cultural traditions. For example, the Bohras were a Hindu trading caste who converted to Islam. They remain a prosperous, mercantile community in the towns and cities of western India. The agricultural laborer or peasant farmer in rural Bangladesh, by contrast, has quite a different existence. Muslims living in cities in India tend to gather in distinct neighborhoods. In rural areas, although Muslims may be found in mixed-caste settlements, it is more common to find villages in which the entire population is Muslim.


Despite the doctrine of equality taught by Islam, Muslim society in South Asia shows the caste structure that is typical of other South Asian communities. Though it does not have the religious dimensions of the Hindu caste system, it does influence social and economic relations. The highest-ranked Muslim groups (ashraf) include the Sayyid, Shaikh, Mughal, and Pathan, who trace their ancestry to the Muslim invaders who conquered South Asia. Ranked next are Muslim Rajputs, followed by the occupational castes, and then the lowest group, the Muslim sweepers.

Caste groups marry within their own castes, although the specific details of kinship systems and marriage tend to follow regional patterns. For example, Muslim society in South Asia is patrilineal and patrilocal, yet the Moplah community of South India is matrilineal and matrilocal like their Hindu neighbors. Under Islamic law, marriage is a legal contract (nikah) and should be an austere and simple affair. Local customs, such as dancing, the use of music, telling bawdy jokes, and ceremonial visits paid by the bride and the groom to each other's houses, are often followed. Marriages are arranged and a dowry given to the bride by her parents. Islamic law allows up to four wives, although monogamy is usually the rule. Divorce is also permitted.


The salwar, loose baggy trousers, along with the kurta, a long tunic-like shirt, is the common form of dress for Muslim men in South Asia. In rural areas, the salwar may be replaced by a tahmat, a length of cotton wrapped around the lower body like a sarong. A variety of headgear is worn, from different styles of turbans to round cotton caps. On formal occasions, the kurta is replaced among the upper classes by an achkan or serwani, a long tunic-like coat that buttons up to the neck. Women commonly wear the salwar, kamiz, and dupatta (scarf), or the sārī. Orthodox women in purdah cover themselves from head to foot in the tent-like burqa when they go out in public.

There is, however, an infinite variety of dress styles in South Asia that identifies the individual as a Pathan, a Punjabi, a Bengali, or a Sri Lankan. Regional dress is more a facet of regional culture than of religion.


Muslim food in South Asia reflects broad dietary traditions that are determined by factors like geographical location, climate, and local agricultural conditions. Thus, for Muslims in the north and west, wheat and other grains are the staple. In the wetter regions of the subcontinent, rice forms the basis of every meal. Even within these wheat and rice belts, there are regional variations in cuisine. There are, however, some food customs that are prescribed by religion. Pork is considered unclean and is never eaten by Muslims. Muslims are nonvegetarians and will eat the flesh of goat, sheep, and other animals. However, Muslims will only consume halal meat, i.e., the flesh of animals slaughtered by having the throat cut and drained of blood. For many Muslims, the cost of meat is prohibitive, and it does not form a regular part of their diet. Beef is not eaten by Indian Muslims in deference to Hindu feelings concerning the sanctity of cattle. Beef and buffalo-meat are available in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Alcohol is forbidden to Muslims by their religion, though many are lax in keeping this taboo.

In the northern areas of the subcontinent one finds the "Mughal" style of cooking. This emerged from the royal kitchens of the Mughal Emperors of India and uses a blend of herbs and spices rather than the hot spices of regular Indian cuisine. Mughal food includes a selection of meats and poultry served in sauces or cooked in yogurt; tandoori dishes baked in a hot, clay oven; flat breads; and rice dishes.

Muslims use no utensils, consuming food with their hands. Only the right hand touches food because, like all other peoples in the region, the left hand is used for personal ablutions. Unlike other groups, Muslims often take food from communal platters rather than from individual plates.


Muslims form part of a broader social community and share in the educational characteristics of the general populations of South Asia. For example, low literacy rates in Pakistan (49.7%) or Bangladesh (43.1%) result in part from the rural nature of the population and the role children play in the agricultural economy. By contrast, Muslims in Sri Lanka show the same high levels of literacy as the population at large (90.1%). There are certain features that can be attributed to religion. The Muslim tendency to keep girls at home after puberty, for example, results in an imbalance of the sexes in secondary and higher education. This is also seen in lower literacy rates for women than for men.

Muslim institutions of religious education known as madrasas are found in most countries in South Asia and provide an alternative to state-run educational systems. Madrasas in Pakistan have been accused of promoting radical Islam and are seen as recruiting grounds for extremist terrorists.

Education opportunities for Muslims vary considerably throughout South Asia. The reform of Muslim education, in particular bridging the gap between "religious" and "worldly" knowledge, has been one of the main focuses of the efforts of a range of South Asian Muslim reformists and revivalists over the past century. Major problems in the countries of South Asia have been the focus on the "religious" and the general neglect of schools. In Pakistan, for example, even though federal government assists in curriculum development, accreditation and some financing of research, public education lies in the baili-wick of the provincial governments. There are reports of public schools that receive no books, no supplies, and no subsidies from the government. Thousands more are "ghost schools" that exist only on paper, to line the pockets of phantom teachers and administrators. By contrast, in the Indian state of Kerala, educationalists estimate that almost all Muslim children are in school, at least up to the 10th standard, numbers that compare well to that of other communities. Even though numerous small madrasas exist throughout the region, South Asia can still boast of institutions of higher education such as Aligarh Muslim University in India, the University of Karachi and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).


Islam has made significant contributions to South Asian civilization during the 1,000 years it has been present on the subcontinent. Muslims in India achieved their greatest accomplishments under the Mughal emperors, and Akbar ranks among the great figures of India's past. He united virtually the entire continent under his rule, effected administrative reforms to run his huge empire smoothly, raised many Hindus to positions of high office in his government, and was a great patron of the arts. However, the Mughal Empire is but one thread of Islam in the tapestry of India's history. Urdu poetic traditions, Mughal miniature painting, Indo-Islamic architecture culminating in the Taj Mahal, the impact of the Sufisaints on Hinduism, and the custom of purdah are to name but a few Muslim elements in Indian culture and life. The heritage of Islam in South Asia is to be seen in areas as diverse as language and literature, art and architecture, science and medicine, dress, food, and social customs.

There is also a less positive aspect to the Muslim presence in the Indian subcontinent. Islam contributed to the virtual destruction of Buddhism in the land of its birth. Also, the historical legacy of conflict between Muslims and Hindus continues to find expression in the territorial fragmentation and communal violence of South Asia today.


Religion plays little role in determining the occupation of South Asian Muslims, who engage in activities ranging from agriculture to nuclear science. The occupational structure in rural society shows the caste hierarchy so typical of South Asia. The upper-class groups are mainly involved in agriculture. Ranked beneath them are the "clean" occupational groups, including the service castes and artisans such as goldsmiths, weavers, and stoneworkers. On the lowest rung of the ladder are the "unclean" menial groups.


No popular or spectator sports are specifically associated with Muslims in South Asia.


Muslims throughout South Asia have access to the modern entertainment and recreational facilities of the general populations among which they live. Poetry readings and performances of qawwalis are popular among educated urban Muslims.


Folk arts and crafts in South Asia are activities associated with particular occupational castes in specific regions, rather than with religion. For instance, the marble workers around Agra are descendants of stonemasons who were brought to the area by Shah Jehan to build the Taj Mahal. Today, they continue to produce the semiprecious stone-inlay work that graces the Taj itself. The designs are Muslim, the workers are Muslim, but this could hardly be called a Muslim craft. The Patua of Bengal are a Muslim caste that paints pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses for the local population. All that can be said is that across South Asia there are Muslim artisans engaged in carpet-making, weaving, painting, stone-masonry, and the numerous other arts and crafts that form part of the rich folk tradition of the Indian subcontinent.


Among the many challenges faced by Muslims in South Asia are those related to the general social and economic character of the region. The bulk of the population, both Muslim and non-Muslim, live off the land. They face the problems of subsistence cultivators in any developing country—low productivity, land fragmentation, poverty, and illiteracy. Rates of population growth are high, and low standards of living are compounded by high population densities and pressure on available resources. Bangladesh, in particular, ranks among the lowest of the developing countries in many demographic and socioeconomic categories.

South Asian Muslims also face problems unique to their own countries. In Pakistan, for instance, certain Muslim sects are subject to discrimination from others in the Muslim community. Conflict between Sindhis (native Pakistanis) and muhajirs (Muslim immigrants from India) has resulted in violence and a breakdown of law and order, especially in the southern city of Karachi. Kashmir continues to be a problem for both Pakistan and India. Pakistan is also undergoing a political upheaval, with the assassination in December 2007 of Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People Party (PPP), and the ouster of the Musharraf government in the general election held early in 2008.

Indian Muslims are faced with social and economic discrimination. Increasing hostility from Hindu fundamentalists and the rise of Hindu political parties threaten the secular nature of India and the position of the country's Muslim minorities, although the last President of the country, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, belonged to the Muslim community. The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which controls six state governments and is involved in a ruling coalition in another six, is a Hindu fundamentalist party that promotes "Hindutva" (Hinduness). It was involved in the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh State) by Hindus in 1992, and the subsequent violence and bloodshed that left hundreds of Muslims (and Hindus) dead across northern India. The BJP, with Narendra Modi as Chief Minister, formed the state government of Gujarat when hundreds of Muslims were killed after the burning of a train containing Hindu pilgrims at Godhra in 2002. Modi was accused of standing by and doing nothing while Hindus killed Muslims in revenge for the train burning. Communal and sectarian conflict remains one of the most widespread problems facing Muslims in South Asia today.

In Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the problems facing Muslims are somewhat different. In Sri Lanka, Muslims are caught up in the civil war between the Sri Lankan government, which is primarily Buddhist, and the Tamil Tigers, Hindu rebels who want a homeland for Tamils on the island of Sri Lanka. In Bangladesh, where the majority of the population is Muslim, the situation they face is political instability. The leaders of both major political parties, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP), are under indictment on charges of corruption and the country is in the hands of a caretaker government that is supposed to oversee elections at the end of 2008.


Muslim women in South Asia face the restraints of the Islamic religion. Thus, even though Islam espouses gender equality, women tend to be treated as second class citizens. Some groups favor purdah and many Muslim women wear the burqa, a robe that covers the woman's entire body with just netting through which she can see out. Honor killings are quite common in Pakistan—though men can be killed, the victims are usually female, because they have gone outside the community to pursue relationships. Divorce is easy for men to obtain, as Muslims in most South Asian countries live under Shariah law, while widow remarriage is permitted.

At least in Pakistan Muslims do not have to endure the communalism and casteism that is found in India. Despite India being a secular society, Muslims face discrimination of all kinds. With the rise of Hindutva, Muslims have faced hostility and animosity from Hindus. From Moradabad in 1980 to Gujarat in 2002, it is Muslim women who bear the brunt of Hindu anger, being sexually assaulted, raped, and burned to death. Moreover, since many Muslims in India were of the lower castes who converted from Hinduism to escape the inequities of the caste system, they are treated very much like lower caste Hindus. While many Muslim groups qualify for Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Class status, and thus are eligible for reservations, lack of education and political clout put them at a disadvantage. As usual, poverty, illiteracy and socio-cultural customs place Muslim women at a considerable disadvantage in many societies in South Asia.


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—by D. O. Lodrick

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