Islam's Impact on India

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ISLAM'S IMPACT ON INDIA Islam exploded from the Arabian Peninsula eastward and westward after the Prophet's death in a.d. 632 By the start of the next century, Islam would reach Spain in the West and India in the East. What did the early Muslims find in these societies?

In the West, Muslims came across Christian and Jewish communities with whom they were already familiar. These were faiths within the Abrahamic tradition. Muslims were aware that their God was the same, their prophets were shared and indeed many of their values and customs were familiar. In the East, however, Muslims were to encounter wholly different challenges in territory that had never been influenced by the Abrahamic tradition. In Persia, Muslims encountered a society in which people appeared to worship fire; further east, the Buddhists in Central Asia appeared to have no concept of a divine being; to the southeast, in what they would call Hindustan, or the land of the Hindus, societies appeared to worship numerous gods taking different forms. In Hindustan or India, a name derived from the river Indus, Islam came face to face with Hinduism—a polytheistic, ancient, and sophisticated religion.

In the encounters in the East, Islam's response tended to be one of two extremes: that of the military commanders, who believed that the Hindu and Buddhist idols were to be destroyed and the people who worshiped them to be converted; or that of the Sufi scholars, who preached the essential oneness of humanity on the basis of sulh-i-kul (peace with all). The former advocated a jihad, which ignored moral elevation and emphasized religious war against the kafir, or nonbelievers, and an imposition of the jizya, or head tax. The image of one of the earliest invaders, Mahmud of Ghazni (971–1030), "notorious" as an idol breaker, is therefore only one aspect of Islam in South Asia.

India presented what seemed to be intractable problems to the Muslims. The encounter changed the nature of Islam and was sometimes expressed in extravagant forms: Akbar, the great Mughal ruler, creating a new religion, the Din-i-Illahi; Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet of Islam, almost worshiped as a Hindu avatar with four arms; Duldul, the Prophet's mule, equated to Hanuman, the monkey god. Islam in India was meeting its most interesting set of challenges.

For Hindus, the religion of Islam, too, was equally perplexing. In India people who were accustomed to looking for the divine in a stone or in a snake were now expected to believe in one God, who was also invisible. Individuals who were expected to be reborn in unending cycles of life now faced the prospect of a judgment day at the end of their lives when they would be sent either to heaven or hell. Finally, societies that had been divided rigidly into a hierarchy of castes were expected to accept the notion that all human beings were essentially the same and that their deeds, not their birth, determined their merit.

In the stereotype created by the critics of Islam, the conversion of large parts of the population in India to Islam was effected by fanatical medieval warriors from Central Asia waving a sword in one hand and the holy Qurʾan in the other. This is not entirely a correct picture. Conversions and their lasting impact on society came from Sufi scholars and saints. The first response rested in the strength of the sinew; the second in the enlightenment of the heart. It was the second Islamic response that in time would develop into a specific South Asian brand of Islamic mysticism. Nonetheless, Muslims are aware of the tensions that the stereotype implies. Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), who best symbolizes the response of Islam to modernity, reflects the dilemmas in his popular poems Shikwa (Complaint) and Jawab-i-Shikwa (Response to complaint). He talks of quwat-i-ishq, or the power of love, while at the same time reminding God that it was the Muslims who—through the power of the sword—forced the infidel to acknowledge monotheism.

Sometimes alone and sometimes with a few disciples, these Sufis settled in and went about their business in small towns and villages. Universalist, gentle, and visibly rejecting the material world, these Sufis reached out to ordinary people with their message of sulh-i-kul. Sufism was the attractive face of Islam in India.

Perhaps the most famous Sufi saint of India is Muin al-Din Chishti (1142–1236). He came to Ajmer in the heart of Hindu India to preach sulh-i-kul and is buried in that town. His shrine attracts thousand of pilgrims annually. Many of these are Hindus who believe in the goodness of the saint. The annual anniversary of his death is the occasion for festivities and attracts hundreds of thousands of people.

Ali Hujwiri, popularly called Datta Sahib, is buried in Lahore and came to India even before Muin-al-Din Chisti. He is the most renowned Sufi saint of Pakistan. His shrine in Lahore is the center of social and religious activity. The tradition of devotional singing is maintained at both shrines.

From the time of Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century to that of the establishment of the Mughal dynasty in the early sixteenth century, Delhi was ruled by several Muslim dynasties of Afghan/Turkic background. Serious attempts were made at establishing a permanent administration and a permanent viable presence in India. But it was with the arrival of Babur (Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad), originally from Farghana in Central Asia, that Muslims established what would be their most successful and famous dynasty, that of the Mughals.

The Mughals of India

Babur conquered Delhi and established the Mughal empire early in the sixteenth century. It became one of the largest and most successful centralized states in early modern world history—greater in extent than the other great Muslim empires, the Ottoman and the Safavid. At the height of their power, the Mughals ruled what in effect are the modern countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and parts of Myanmar.

Six remarkable emperors ruled the empire over the span of three centuries from the time of Babur to Aurangzeb, his direct descendant. The Mughal empire would last until the uprisings against the British in 1857, although by then it was a shadow of its former self and its rulers mere puppets. The British would then step in as direct rulers, and Queen Victoria would be declared the empress of India.

Akbar (1542–1605), the grandson of Babur, consolidated the empire during his fifty-year reign. Administrative, financial, and diplomatic structures were put in place that would convert the empire into one of the most powerful in the world. In particular, Akbar reached out to the majority population of the Hindus. Hindu warrior groups who had been excluded from power by the previous Muslim dynasty, the Lodhis, were favored by Akbar. Of these, the powerful Rajput chieftains now served the Mughal emperors, even giving wives to the emperors (as in the case of Akbar).

Indian, Iranian, and Central Asian influences combined to create eclecticism and synthesis in the arts, architecture, literature, and music. The creation in the next century of the Taj Mahal at Agra by Shah Jahan (1592–1666), Akbar's grandson, is to be understood in this context. One of the finest glories of Mughal architecture, it is also one of the most recognized buildings in the world. Indeed, the Taj Mahal, the tomb Shah Jahan built for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, has come to symbolize romantic love. Shah Jahan also built the Red Fort and the Jumma Masjid in Delhi. The latter was then the largest communal mosque in India. Alongside these buildings he built colleges and hospitals.

The mutual intellectual and artistic stimulation and synthesis between Hinduism and Islam reached a peak during the time of the great Mughal emperors. But from the late seventeenth century onward, Muslims became aware of their predicament as a minority, faced with two choices: they could either draw rigid boundaries around Islam, or allow the boundaries to become porous to the point where Islam itself became compromised. The first strategy emphasized an orthodox, formal, and legal interpretation of Islam; the second advocated synthesis, eclecticism, and informality. It is no historical accident that the two opposed forms of Indian Islam were embodied in the sons of Shah Jahan, Dara Shikoh (1615–1659) and Aurangzeb (1618–1707).

The clash between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb was more than a clash for succession. The victory of one over the other would influence the course of history and cast shadows on events today in South Asia. Here are the differentiating characteristics of the two princes: Dara Shikoh believed in a universalist humanity, encouraged art, and was known to dislike religious clerics (as is clear from his quotation "Paradise is there, where there is no Mullah"). He kept the company of Sufis and Hindu yogis, and the ring he wore bore the legend Prabhu, Sanskrit for "god." He helped translate the classic Hindu texts, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā, into Persian. He argued that Hinduism and Islam were not theologically incompatible and, as an example, he equated Adam with Brahman.

Aurangzeb, in contrast, emphasized his commitment to the ummah, the Muslim community, discouraged art, and supported the clergy. He maintained the outward signs of orthodoxy, rejecting silk clothes and gold vessels. He patronized the Fatwa-i-Alamgiri, the most comprehensive digest of Muslim jurisprudence ever compiled. His favorite reading was the Qurīan, the holy book of Islam, which he learned by heart. He abandoned many of Akbar's liberal practices. The hated jizya tax was imposed on non-Muslims. Aurangzeb's understanding of Islam did not prevent him from ruthlessly executing his brothers and cruelly imprisoning his father Shah Jahan until his death in 1666.

In the end, Aurangzeb would succeed to the throne of India, and Dara Shikoh would lose his life. Dara Shikoh was paraded in rags through the streets of Delhi and was executed in prison on the grounds that he was an apostate on 30 August 1659. The tension between the two brothers around the opposed forms and interpretations of Islam is reflected in modern South Asian society. It has been argued that the clash between General Zia ul-Haq and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leaders of modern Pakistan, reflected the earlier clash between the two opposed models of Islam. Zia was more like Aurangzeb and Bhutto like Dara Shikoh in their approaches to Islam. Bhutto's death at the hands of Zia suggests that there is little compromise between the two positions. The death warrants signed by Aurangzeb and Zia, sealing the deaths of Dara Shikoh and Bhutto, reflect the unresolved dilemmas and tensions of South Asian Islam.

Muslim Crisis and Renaissance

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Muslim power in Delhi, however symbolic, was finally snuffed out after the uprisings against the British in 1857 and 1858. This was a major turning point in history for the Muslims of India. Delhi, their capital, was almost razed to the ground. The Red Fort and the Jumma Mosque, the two central symbols of Muslim rule, were almost blown up. To be Muslim was to be seen as an enemy of the British.

The savagery on both sides was startling. Here is Robert Montgomery, a well-known British official, writing to Hodson, a colleague, congratulating him on a deed that found few defenders, even among the British. Hodson had cold-bloodedly shot the male members of the family of the last king of Delhi, the frail and old poet Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last of the Mughals: "My dear Hodson, All honour to you (and to your 'Horse') for catching the king and slaying his sons. I hope you will bag many more."

It appeared that Islam in India was the prime target of the new masters of the land. This was a depressing time for Muslims. A letter written shortly after 1857 by one of the greatest Urdu poets, Mirza Ghalib, in Delhi, once the mighty and flourishing capital of the Mughals, captures the mood.

At two separate points in your letter yesterday I see that you have written that Delhi is a big city and there must be plenty of people with all sorts of qualifications there. Alas, my dear boy, this is not the Delhi in which you were born, not the Delhi in which you got your schooling, not the Delhi in which you used to come to your lessons with me to Shaban Beg's mansion, not the Delhi in which I have passed fifty-one years of my life. It is a camp. The only Muslims here are artisans or servants of the British authorities. All the rest are Hindus. The male descendants of the deposed King—such as survived the sword—draw allowances of five rupees a month. The female descendants, if old, are bawds, and if young, prostitutes. . . . Agha Sultan, son of Paymaster Muhammad Ali Khan, who has himself held the rank of Paymaster, fell ill; without medicine, without food, at last he died. Your uncle provided for his shroud and his burial. (Russell and Islam, Ghalib: 1797–1869, 1969, p. 269)

In not so subtle ways, the British now ridiculed the main figures of Islam, its kings and saints. Rulers such as Sirajud-Dawla (1733–1757) (notorious for the Black Hole of Calcutta in which many Britons were killed) and Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk (1780–1842) became "Sir Roger Dowler" and "Cha, Sugar and Milk," respectively. The saintly leader, the Akhund of Swat (1794–1877), became part of a "nonsense rhyme" in Edward Lear's poem, "Who or why, or which or what, is the Akond of Swat?" Religious leaders of revolts against the British were simply dismissed as the "Mad Mullah." The British Empire's most renowned writers reflected the prejudice: for Rudyard Kipling, South Asian "natives" were a "blackfaced crew" ("Gunga Din"), "half devil and half child" ("The White Man's Burden") and the women of the east, "funny an' yellow" ("The Ladies").

Muslim society itself was affected. Professor Imtiaz Ahmad, in Delhi, has documented the growth of caste-like structures. The ashraf—especially the Sayyids and Pukhtuns—considered themselves superior to the ajlaf, the recently converted Muslims. But these divisions are to be taken with a pinch of salt: a well-known proverb tells of the recently self-elevated sheikh who calculates that if crops are good again next year he will elevate himself to Sayyid category. In society it appears as if leadership after the collapse of the Mughal empire in India was provided by the ashraf, by men like Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan. But the most prominent leaders, including Muhammad Iqbal and M. A. Jinnah, were not from ashraf families.

Macaulay's Minute and Muslim Society

Confronting the diverse mass of humanity in India that it was their destiny and intention to rule, the British outlined a strategy. British colonial philosophy would embrace the upper layers of society and encourage them to become as much as possible like their masters. T. B. Macaulay's "Minute on Education" in 1835 established English as the medium of instruction in India. When English replaced Persian, the court language of the Mughals, ordinary Muslims found themselves at a crippling disadvantage. With this one crucial step, Macaulay aimed to create a social class "who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect."

The Indian generation after Macaulay, who would be "English in taste," was mainly Hindu. Schools, colleges, and service in the army and civil administration encouraged this process. Among the Muslims, the man who came closest to representing Macaulay's new ideal Indian was Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, "loyal servant of the Crown."

Islam in India had constantly faced the challenges posed by the majority Hindu population and as a result developed inner tensions within society. Now it also faced a hostile British presence. The result was a constant renewal and continuous vitality, which produced remarkable leaders in thought and action. The decline of Muslim power in the eighteenth century helped to sharpen sensibilities. This process began when the Mughal empire was still ruling from Delhi. It came with Shah Waliullah (1703–1762), who promoted the puritanical Muhammadia movement, which aimed to purge Islam of non-Islamic influences, in particular Hindu ones. Other reformers soon took to arms in different parts of the sub-continent: Sayyid Ahmad of Bareli (1781–1831) died waging jihad, or holy war, against the Sikhs in North India; and in Bengal, Haji Shariatullah (1781–1840) led the Faraizi movement to revive the teachings of Islam at the village level. Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817–1898) fought the jihad, but in a different form: he opened a college at Aligarh.

The Aligarh Model

Sir Sayyid argued that if Muslims continued to shut out modern—by which he meant British—civilization they would be reduced to khansamas (cooks) and khidmatgars (attendants/servants). The Muslim tendency to ignore the present and wallow in past glory was, he argued, a dangerous opiate. His bluntly expressed views outraged religious circles.

In The Loyal Muhammadans of India, Sir Sayyid defended Muslim loyalty to the British. Muslims, he argued, were as loyal as the most faithful Hindus. The college that he founded at Aligarh in 1875 was called the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, its very name illustrating the synthesis he wished to effect. His models were the universities at Oxford and Cambridge. The Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College was later upgraded to a university. Its main buildings, the clock tower, and the cricket fields all reflected nineteenth-century ideas of British architecture in alliance with Islam. Resigning from government service in 1876, Sir Sayyid lived in Aligarh, promoting the college until his death in 1898. His success affected the future course of events in India.

The emblem of the college at Aligarh expressed its Islamic stance. In the center stood a date palm, a reminder of Arabia and the origins of Islam, on the right the book of learning—no doubt the Qurīban—and on the left a crescent, a widely recognized symbol of Islam. The emblem seems oddly out of tune with present-day India, which is undergoing Hindu cultural and religious revivalism.

The college at Aligarh was to be the Muslim answer to modernity, introducing the study of mathematics, science, and modern languages in a syllabus in which Islam was also prominent. It offered Muslims from all over India a sense of direction and revived confidence. It educated those Muslims who would eventually lead the community in the movement that would create Pakistan. Indeed, it produced several presidents and prime ministers.

Macaulay's vision and Sir Sayyid's ethos would bear triumphant fruit in one of the most influential and popular books written on Islam in the early part of the twentieth century, Justice Sayyid Amir Ali's The Spirit of Islam. Translated into numerous languages, including Arabic and Turkish, it was written in English. The Spirit of Islam reflects pride in Islam while placing it in a modern context, though Muslim critics cited it as too apologetic.

Amir Ali's book inspired men like Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948) who represented the political response of Islam to modern times. Jinnah argued for rights and security for his community. Upon failing to achieve them, he demanded a separate homeland. What is important to point out is that Jinnah fought for the Pakistan movement through constitutional means, using his skills as a trained lawyer. It was this response that gave the Muslims their most notable triumph in the twentieth century: the creation of Pakistan, then the largest Muslim nation on Earth.

Aligarh was not the only Muslim model produced in India as a response to the modern era. Another educational center was opened in Deoband at around the same time as the college in Aligarh. However, in this case, lines would be rigidly drawn around Muslim identity and practice. Deoband has remained an important source of inspiration for many contemporary Islamic parties and movements, including the Taliban.

The Pakistan Movement

Although Jinnah skillfully and successfully led the Muslim League to the creation of Pakistan in 1947, he was representing an intellectual movement begun in the last century and one that was clear in the writings of Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan. Sir Sayyid's discussion of two distinct communities in India, both needing to live in harmony but as separate entities, had already outlined the idea of a separate Muslim polity. This argument culminated in the poetic vision of Iqbal, which saw a distinct geographical area for the Muslims of North India. Chaudhri Rahmat Ali in Cambridge gave the name Pakistan to the area—letters of the alphabet representing a distinct Muslim area and together forming the word Pakistan—thus "P" for Punjab, "A" for Afghanistan, "K" for Kashmir, "S" for Sind and "tan" for Baluchistan. Pakistan also means the land of the "pure," from pak. Jinnah, then, was expressing the sentiments of Muslims, not creating them.

Early in his career, Jinnah had advocated dialogue and understanding with the Hindus. Indeed, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a leading Hindu politician, called him "the best ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity." Later Jinnah began to believe that, once in power, the Hindus would not honor their commitments to the Muslims. But Jinnah aimed high. In an inspiring speech that he made to the newly formed Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in August 1947, he underlined the tolerant and compassionate nature of the new Muslim state.

But even Iqbal the visionary poet, or Jinnah the humanist, could not have envisioned the extent of disruption at the creation of Pakistan. A communal madness gripped the land in 1947. Centuries of fear and hatred exploded into savagery. No one was spared—young or old, male or female, high or low. The massacre and migration were unprecedented. It has been estimated that possibly 2 million people were killed, and 10 to possibly 15 million migrated from their homes, Muslims fleeing to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India. Not all Muslims in India could or indeed wished to migrate to Pakistan.

Although the creation of Pakistan had solved one problem, that of establishing a separate homeland for Muslims, it did not solve the problem of identity. The debate about religious and political identity in Pakistan ensured stormy and unsettled politics; the periods of martial law were almost inevitable. Corruption and nepotism were also widespread. Bengalis in East Pakistan complained of being treated like colonial subjects by West Pakistanis and, in 1971, broke away to form Bangladesh—the "nation of Bengalis." After 1971, what remained of Pakistan was plunged more directly than ever before into attempts to resolve the dilemma of identity. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later his daughter Benazir wished for a "democratic" Pakistan, while generals like Zia ul-Haq wanted a fundamentalist Islamic Pakistan, ruled by the army.

There have been gains over the years. The number of universities and medical colleges has increased. Agriculture and the textile industry have shown development. Income per capita has risen to twice that of India. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the U.S. "war on terrorism" in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 have allowed Pakistan to play a major role in the region. Pakistan's self-conscious Islamic posture has assured it an important voice in the Muslim world.

But Pakistan faces the new century with uncertainty. Ethnic tensions, breakdown of law and order, and an unpredictable international climate have created problems. India and Pakistan have so far fought three wars. The rise of the communal party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in India and its campaigns against Muslims, including the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya and its support of riots (like the especially savage ones in Gujarat in 2002) confirm in Pakistani minds their worst fears of "Hindu domination"; for them, in retrospect, the orthodox Aurangzeb, not the tolerant Akbar nor Dara Shikoh, seems vindicated. The BJP recognize this, almost as in a mirror, and have a contemptuous title for the Muslims of India: Aurangzeb ki aulad, "the children of Aurangzeb." The failure of Pakistan to develop Jinnah's vision and its subsequent spiral into violence has meant that the community is pushed further away from the tolerant and compassionate model of Islam.

The Creation of Bangladesh

While Bengali leadership enthusiastically embraced the idea of a separate homeland for the Muslims in the first half of the twentieth century, once Pakistan was created, the Bengalis felt, rightly, that although they formed the majority of Pakistan's population, the more powerful West Pakistanis had sidelined them. West Pakistanis controlled the two key instruments of government, the civil service and the army. Bengali political and cultural feelings of alienation developed into an irresistible ethnic movement for independence, which was given its final shape in 1971, when the mainly West Pakistani army posted in East Pakistan attempted to control that province by force. Atrocities were committed, as West Pakistani soldiers sought to suppress Bengali demands for "autonomy" and full democratic control of a new national assembly, reflecting the victory won in the 1970 elections by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League. Adverse international public opinion against Pakistan, despite support from U.S. president Richard M. Nixon, further isolated it. India, with strong Soviet military assistance, easily won the war it fought with Pakistan toward the end of the year, ensuring the birth of Bangladesh, quickly recognized as an independent nation.

Although Bengalis shared Islam with West Pakistan, they looked to Calcutta (Kolkata) for their poetry and literature. Their ideas were laced with the intellectual arguments emanating from the coffee shops and salons of Calcutta. They were also more politically sophisticated than the people of West Pakistan who, until then, were largely led by the feudal lords of Sind and Punjab and by tribal chiefs in the North-West Frontier province and Baluchistan. The breakup of Pakistan would act as a catalyst and help challenge this feudal and tribal way of thinking.

The creation of Bangladesh meant that the Muslims of South Asia were now divided into three bodies increasingly isolated from one another. Yet each remains aware of the mutual predicament of living in South Asia with and in the presence of a far larger majority, that of the Hindus concentrated in India.

The Muslims of India

Muslim leadership in India disintegrated in 1947 as millions fled to Pakistan. The next decades were traumatic. Muslims appeared uncertain and unsure. It has been a slow struggle to reestablish an Indian Muslim identity. The events and dates are clearly etched in the Muslim mind: the uprisings of 1857 and 1858, the partition of 1947, and then, at the turn of the century, the dramatic rise of communal violence.

Muslims are aware of the cruel irony of history in the splendid monuments that lie scattered over India's landscape: the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Jumma Mosque, the Qutb Minar. It is precisely at this point where they are most threatened, for there is a growing movement among Hindus who claim that these monuments were built not by Muslims but by Hindus themselves, out of more ancient Hindu temples, that will be "restored" by force if necessary. Hindus argue that the now demolished Babri Masjid (Babur's mosque) in Ayodhya was just the first of these conversions.

India's Muslims desperately cling to some sort of identity in the face of massive cultural and media onslaught. It is this desperation that partly explains their rallying behind three major cases which they saw as Muslim causes from the 1980s onward, but which led to deaths and further alienated them from the majority: the Shah Bano case, in which Muslims succeeded in overturning a Supreme Court decision granting better financial rights to Shah Bano than provided by her husband who had divorced her under Muslim personal law; the banning of The Satanic Verses in India; and the Babri Mosque controversy in Ayodhya. India's problems with Pakistan act as further pressure on the Muslims as communalist Hindu leaders accuse them of being secret supporters of Pakistan.

So as they cling to their identity they are castigated for being isolationist, backward, and marginal; accusations of a "ghetto mentality" create the ghetto and reinforce it. It is a cycle in which they appear to be trapped and from which, for the time being, there appears little escape. On the bright side, individual Muslims have done very well in India, several of them becoming heads of state.

The Muslims of South Asia

Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India together have about one-third of the world's Muslim population. About 95 percent of Pakistan's population of 145 million, about 90 percent of Bangladesh's population of 135 million, and about 13 percent of India's 1 billion people are Muslim. It is estimated—and figures for population on the basis of religion are invariably "estimates"—that the total Muslim population in South Asia may well be over 400 million people.

Muslims in South Asia have produced a remarkable modern Muslim renaissance. Some of the most renowned and influential modern Muslim intellectuals—including Iqbal, Maulana Azad, and Maulana Maududi—have lived there. The Muslims of South Asia have won international prizes, and they have produced world-class figures in sports, especially in cricket, hockey, and squash. South Asians have created a coherent and rich cultural legacy, starting from the time of Amir Khusrau (1253–1325), one of the earliest Sufi poets, who synthesized Hindu and Muslim cultures. They have created one of the most powerful and impressive empires of world history, the Mughals; achieved architectural excellence in the Taj Mahal; touched the highest peaks of literature in the verses of Mirza Ghalib, Iqbal, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz; and have led the most significant and successful Muslim political movement of the twentieth century, resulting in the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

Women have always played an important role in South Asian Muslim society—from the time when Razia Sultana actually ruled over Delhi's sultanate in the thirteenth century, to the remarkable empress Nur Jehan, who ruled along with her husband, Mughal emperor Jahangir, in the seventeenth century, to modern times, when female prime ministers have been elected both in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The main communities, Hindus and Muslims, see history differently. If Muslims in Pakistan were asked to name their favorite historical figures, most would probably say: Mahmud of Ghazni (one of the earliest warriors to invade India from what is now modern Afghanistan); Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor; and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Most Hindus would respond to the question "who are your least favorite historical figures?" by giving the same names. Mahmud is associated with brutal military raids into India, smashing Hindu temples and statues; Aurangzeb with a harshly violent, triumphant Islamic rule and a narrow interpretation of Islamic law; and Jinnah is blamed for splitting Mother India in two.

History is never far from the surface in contemporary India. Newspaper articles and letters constantly cite Mahmud, Aurangzeb, or Jinnah as a hero among some Muslims but a villain for most Hindus. Few mention that on the whole Muslims were sensitive to their Hindu compatriots. From the start, Babur abolished cow slaughter, and up to the last Mughal emperor it was banned in Delhi as a gesture toward the Hindus. Sir Sayyid did the same at Aligarh. The contribution to Hindu culture of rulers like Akbar and Dara Shikoh is forgotten.

Bazaar sociology does not stop with the past; it feeds into the writing and perception of modern history. In India, if Muslim rulers are depicted in the stereotype as alien invaders, mainly drunk and destroying temples, in Pakistan the Hindu past simply does not exist. Hindus are dismissed as cowardly and mean. History in Pakistan begins in the seventh century, after the advent of Islam and the Muslim invasion of Sind; the great pre-Islamic civilizations of Mohenjo-Daro, Harappa, and Taxila are more or less ignored.

Trends in the Future

The events of partition still haunt South Asia: for India the nightmare of disintegration; for Pakistan the terror of the violence. This mutual hatred still feeds into the complex political configuration of contemporary India and Pakistan. Three wars with India and now a nuclear confrontation further underscore the importance of reaching enduring agreements to ensure a peaceful future for South Asia. India and Pakistan's nuclear explosions, the struggle for independence among the Muslims of Kashmir, the exorbitant cost of keeping large armies and the geopolitics of the region all reflect the dreadful dangers and inordinate price of communal conflicts, rooted in history.

Nuclear weapons on the one hand and starving peasants on the other are the reality of South Asia today. As a result one-fifth of humanity is mired in poverty (incomes per capita range between $200 and $400 in these countries). South Asia has produced world scientists and writers—including Nobel Prize winners—and yet seems incapable of improving its poor record on poverty and peace. The true enemies of South Asia are poverty, illiteracy, and communal hatred. Until this dawns upon all communities, South Asia will not enjoy peace, nor will it benefit from the uniqueness of its cultural legacy of synthesis and harmony.

At the start of the twenty-first century, we could well ask which model of Muslim political action triumphed in South Asia for over a thousand years—the model called fanatical by its critics, or that of peace? The answer lies in the demographic figures of the subcontinent. The vast majority of the population is still Hindu. Had Muslim rulers been ruthless tyrants, they could have converted the people they ruled, virtually unchallenged, for the better part of a millennium.

Jinnah's Pakistan anticipated the global questions that would be asked about modern Muslim states and societies in the aftermath of 11 September 2001: Is Islam compatible with democracy? Does Islam always subjugate women? Does Islam preach violence?

Jinnah's vision of a tolerant and modern Muslim Pakistan had provided the answer to the first of those questions in the affirmative, while rejecting the second and third as totally biased and untrue. Current Indian and Pakistani "cease-fire" agreements in Jammu and Kashmirand plans to meet to discuss ways of further opening closed borders to help achieve permanent South Asian peace and stimulate economic trade suggest the possibility of hope for the more than 1 billion people of this long-suffering region.

Akbar Ahmed

See alsoBangladesh ; Iqbal, Muhammad ; Jinnah, Mohammad Ali


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