views updated May 14 2018


MUSLIMS There has been an ongoing controversy for many decades regarding the ways in which Islam entered Indian civilization and culture. This controversy has been largely connected to varying political characterizations of Indian Islam—its opponents seeing it as a fundamentally "foreign" imposition and "alien" presence in the subcontinent, and its advocates and believers viewing it as a brilliant and positive contribution to the heritage of Indian civilization. Historically, Islam came to be a religious, cultural, and political force in India in three different ways: through trade, conquest, and conversion. Its effects on Indian civilization then cannot be fairly seen from any one-dimensional perspective, but have from the beginning been multifaceted, diverse, and complex.

The Arrival of Islam in the South

It is generally believed that Islam first spread in South India with Arab traders passing through what is now Malabar. Commercial contacts were present between regions of the Arabian Peninsula and several western Indian coastal towns, which were conduits to centers of trade within southern India. Thus it is known that in the Malabar region (today part of Kerala) the presence of Arabs was quite common in pre-Islamic times. As Islam emerged in Arabia, these traders began to engage not only in trading goods but also in sharing their new faith with the people they encountered during their travels.

According to most accounts, Islam received a warm welcome in the southern regions of India. Muslim traders constituted an important link to prosperous intercontinental trade that benefited local Indian merchants and consumers alike. In addition, early Muslim settlers in southern India were seasoned traders who were cognizant of their responsibilities and for the most part did not harbor any political ambitions. As they built mosques and community institutions, their religion, Islam, became known and attracted converts. As a different ethnic group, they were seen as having a distinct caste status, equivalent to the Hindu high caste, and thus were able to associate with Hindu nobles and other upper caste people of influence. They were also able to intermarry, which gave these non-Hindus greater status among the locals. The intermarriage between Arabs and South Indians and the raising of children in such marriages as distinctly Muslim in the Indian environment created a fusion of cultures and traditions at various levels. Since Arabic was fast becoming the dominant language of culture, scholarship, and commerce, these indigenous Muslims consciously retained their Arab heritage and used their Arabic language skills as a bridge between natives and Arabs in the pursuit of commercial gains. The Arabs and the native Indian rulers and traders benefited by complementing each other; the Arabs benefited from the trade of Indian goods, and the Indians learned the art of seafaring from the Arabs. Thus several examples of such mutual exchange and cooperation can be found during this period. Some are even found in legends and folklore.

Conquest and Alliance in the Northwest

In the northwestern region of the subcontinent, Islam arrived through various forms of conquest. In 711 when Muhammad bin Qasim arrived in Sind, he was not greeted with the same hospitality as the Arabs in the south. The reasons for the invasion of Sind by Qasim, who later became governor of the region in the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus, were—from the historical records we possess—retaliations for having his trading caravans attacked by local "bandits."

Muhammad bin Qasim made alliances in the region and declared Hindus (Brahmans) and Buddhists as dhimmis (protected groups). They were allowed to practice their religion and maintain their religious institutions under Muslim rule in exchange for their services, which included the collection of revenues from subjects of the state. Religiously speaking, considering Hindus and Buddhists as dhimmis was a remarkably "liberal" step, as they are not mentioned in the Qurʾan or in the sayings of the Prophet as being such. This was an act of ijtihad (independent reasoning) on the part of Qasim, who was supported in his judgment by the ulama (Islamic religious scholars) of the Umayyad court, who had previously declared the Zoroastrians of Persia as deserving of dhimmi status.

The first major sultanate to emerge in North India was the Ghaznavid (997–1175), which marked the beginning of the rule of the "slave kings," so called because prior to their rule, they served as trained and compensated soldiers within the Abbasid dynasty (750–1258), guarding its outposts in the regions of Afghanistan and northwestern India. The most famous figure from this dynasty is Mahmud of Ghazni (971–1030), reputed to have championed temple destruction in many regions of northern and western India. He plundered the wealth from many of the famous temples, including the Somnath, and used this wealth to strengthen his hold on power. Mahmud staged more than a dozen invasions of Sind over a period of approximately fifteen years, though he was clearly less interested in establishing an outpost of the Abbasid empire in North India than he was in buttressing the wealth of his own empire and its center in Ghazni.

In the employ of Mahmud of Ghazni worked one of the most famous medieval scholars, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1048), the first to study and write extensively on Indian religions and intellectual traditions. His work on India, Kitab al-Hind, was a compendium of India's religious and philosophical traditions. Al-Biruni, though under Mahmud's patronage, was critical of the latter's destruction of the Hindu temple in Somnath.

Historically, growth in the numbers of practicing Muslims in India has been a subject of controversy. Muslim rulers were not interested in converting the masses to Islam as much as they desired to maintain political and economic control over their territories.

From the ninth through the twelfth centuries, the Muslim populace expanded due to multiple factors. Some emigrated from other Muslim lands in North Africa and Arabia through Central Asia and Afghanistan. There were also conversions to Islam from various Hindu castes and subcastes. The single largest factor in conversions seems to have been an egalitarian form of Islam displayed by the Sufis and others who seemed open to a wide variety of spiritual practices. Sufis were apolitical and sometimes antiestablishment. They were often critical of the institutional religious and political hierarchy; hence they were closer to the masses than to the Muslim elite. They established khanqahs (community centers) for spiritual guidance, which were open to all.

There were other factors that led to the growth of Muslim communities in India, notably political patronage by the Muslim rulers, which attracted artisans, scholars, landed gentry, and other high caste Hindus. Some historians in recent times have argued that there were also forcible mass conversions to Islam, but a general consensus of scholars opposes this view. There are several examples of the destruction of Hindu temples at the hands of some rulers, but these were exceptions to the norm. Rulers were often interested in increasing their political capital, and where it suited them they destroyed temples, while in other places they granted land and other resources for temple building. Indeed, indigenous Hindu groups were often militarily aligned with both centralizing and anticentralizing forces during the six successive dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate (1192–1526).

The Sultanate Period (1192–1526)

As Ghaznavid power declined, it gave way to the reign of other "slave kings," which included the dynastic succession of the Ghorids (1192–1290), the Khaljis (1290–1320), and the Tughluqs (1320–1398), culminating in the Lodi (1451–1526) dynasty. The Sultanate period, which lasted from the late twelfth to the early sixteenth centuries, began with the invasion of India by Muiz al-Din Ghori, who was of Turkish origin. Unlike Mahmud of Ghazni, who came to India simply to plunder and loot, Ghori and his descendants aimed to establish political control which manifested itself as the Delhi Sultanate.

The sultanates created a relatively stable political structure during this period, while the ultimate political authority rested with the Turkic sultans who, at least nominally, displayed Islam as their religious as well as political ideology. Among the populace, the religion of Islam meant something different. It was not synonymous with power or political dominance, and mostly grew among the poor. In fact, in the multifaceted social structure that developed in the midst of this complex period, it was generally acknowledged within the Muslim populace that the ulama held a religious authority that could not be subordinated or abrogated by the sultan, be he a local or imperial sultan. Instead, sultans generally attempted to legitimize their rule by acknowledging the authority of local ulama and particularly of Sufi saints.

It should be noted that during this period there was a creative cultural melding of traditions, which resulted in systems of military cooperation strong enough to head off the powerful Mongol advance, agrarian management systems that would survive well into the British colonial period, and an artistic and architectural synthesis so compelling that its creations still draw tourists to India today. Through the medieval period, Muslim intellectuals, Sufis, artisans, and travelers in general were attracted to South Asia from all parts of the Muslim world. This resulted in an administrative system resembling Islamic structures developed in the Muslim caliphates of Iraq and Syria.

The role of the Sufis was central to the growth of Islam, as they were generous in establishing their khanqahs. These centers also served as places for devotional and therapeutic needs. Sufis and religious leaders filled the need for education as well as spiritual fulfillment.

As the Delhi Sultanate became weak at the center, it resulted in the emergence of regional dynasties—in Bengal in the east and Gujarat in the west. The Bahmani kingdom in the south became independent of the Sultanate in 1347 and lasted for almost two hundred years before being split up into four smaller kingdoms. Its rulers, patrons of Sufi saints, also supported a variety of forms of Indo-Islamic art and the spread of Islamic tradition in South India.

In this regional arrangement of political power, Muslim culture developed in collaboration with local linguistic and social norms. This contributed to the increasing diversity of Islamic societies, cultures, and traditions. Muslim rulers and nobles formed alliances based on political and economic interests that went beyond religious and sectarian (Shiʿa-Sunni) affiliation. Hindu kings fought with Turkish rulers, Muslim rebels collaborated with Hindus to secede from the Sultanate's center, and so on.

The Mughal Empire (1526–1858)

The Mughals were heirs to the earlier Muslim dynasties that were sustained by their concentration of power within the Turkic ruling classes. By contrast, the Mughal empire thrived through power-sharing practice with Hindus and other Muslim elites. The Mughal rulers often had alliances that cut across religious and ethnic divides. The two major concentrations of power at the dawn of the Mughal period in India were with the Lodhi dynasty and the Rajputs.

As the Sultanate of Ibrahim Lodi became divided into many regional kingdoms, it was successfully invaded by Zahir al-Din Babur (1483–1530), who himself hailed from the central Asian region of Ferghana. There he laid the foundations for what became the most powerful and extensive Muslim empire in India. Babur also had to defeat the Hindu Rajput kingdom before consolidating his power. Babur's son Humayun ruled India from 1530 to 1556, except for a period of fifteen years (1540–1555), and eventually recaptured the throne by absorbing many regional kingdoms in the fold of the empire. He died a year later, in 1556, leaving behind a very young Akbar in charge.

Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (r. 1556–1605) has been credited for laying the foundations for the empire by initiating a number of innovations, such as a centralized political administration. His fiscal reforms were also effective. Akbar had the acumen to draw on his knowledge of both Persian and Turkic administrative practices on the one hand and those of the Rajputs and Indian Muslim dynastic rulers on the other. He was successfully able to fuse elements from these systems to construct his own administrative structure, which became the sustaining factor of the empire and continued to be implemented during the reigns of all the great Mughals until the beginning of the eighteenth century. Under Akbar, the Mughal empire continued to expand. This was possible because of alliances through marriage and royal patronage with other powers such as the Rajputs. Akbar was succeeded by his son, Jahangir (r. 1605–1627), and his grandson, Shah Jahan (r. 1628–1658).

The political expansion of the empire continued during the reign of Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). With a centralized power structure and an elaborate system of promotion of the nobles, the Mughals were successful in politically uniting most of the Indian subcontinent. But the wars of succession weakened the empire after Aurangzeb and eventually led to the British political takeover of parts of the empire. Rival Muslim rulers twice sacked Delhi, the seat of Mughal power, first in 1739 by Nadir Shah of Persia and again in 1761 by the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Abdali. In 1757 the British East India Company defeated the Muslim armies at Plassey, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century, Delhi, too, was effectively under the control of the British, although a figurehead Mughal emperor remained on the throne until after the "Mutiny" of 1857.

British Rule in India (1757–1947)

After the 1857 mutiny (also known as the "Sepoy rebellion") was crushed and Delhi was under the control of the British, the East India Company was no longer in charge, and the rule was administered directly by the British Crown.

Muslim power had been reduced to a few regions. Despite attempts to assert its legitimacy, Muslim rule had basically come to an end, and the British were firmly established throughout most of the Indian subcontinent. From their humble beginnings in the early eighteenth century as a trading company in Bengal, to a full-fledged empire with millions of Indian subjects, the British succeeded the Timurid Muslim (Mughal) power, which had constructed a unique cultural landscape in its three-hundred-year presence in India.

There were several attempts to reverse the course of British expansion during the three centuries of British presence in India. The Muslim loss of power meant that as a political minority they would stand to lose the most under non-Muslim rule. It was generally believed that Muslim rule was essential to the implementation of Shariʿa (Islamic law), which governs all aspects of Muslim life. Without Shariʿa Muslims would not be able to fully practice their faith.

There were calls for jihad, or armed resistance against the British, such as the one made by the Muslim scholar Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi (1786–1831). He argued that because of the loss of Muslim power, India was no longer dar al-Islam (house or land of Islam). India had fallen into opposite category—dar al-harb (territory open to war)—and thus it became incumbent for Muslims to wage war against the British establishment. Sayyid Ahmad led many of his followers into the movement and died in 1831 while fighting the Sikhs in the northwestern India. He is widely regarded as a shahid (martyr).

Muslim Modernist Reformers (Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries)

Many Muslim scholars, Sufis, and political elite challenged the authority of the British on religious grounds. There were some, however, who chose the path of cooperation with the British. One such scholar, who later founded the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 (later renamed Aligarh Muslim University), was Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817–1898). Khan was primarily concerned with the welfare of Muslims in light of what he saw as the intellectual and scientific advancements made by the British. He wanted Muslims to learn from the British in order to improve their educational and social status. While Khan promoted British-style educational curriculum and called for Muslim women's education, other ulama (Muslim religious scholars) established the Dar-ul ʿUlum at Deoband, which became the center of Islamic learning and continues to enjoy an international reputation as such.

Sayyid Ahmed Khan inspired other reformers. Sayyid Ameer Ali (1849–1928) was a Western-educated Shiʿa scholar whose major contribution was his work on Islam for a Western audience. Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) was also trained and educated in the West and steeped in its philosophical tradition. Iqbal, the poet and the philosopher, inspired some Muslims to see in his thought an argument for a separate Muslim homeland, later translated into a demand for Pakistan in the mid-1940s.

Independence from the British in 1947

The idea of a Muslim homeland surfaced as the anti-British nationalist movement was about to witness the realization of its main objective, freedom from the British. The Indian National Congress (the Congress Party), which was established in 1885 as a political organization for and by the Indian elite, increasingly began to challenge the legitimacy of the British in India. In the early twentieth century, the Congress became the principal agency representing the aspirations of millions of Indians seeking to rid India of the British Raj. It coexisted and sometimes cooperated with other nationalist and religious movements, such as the All-India Muslim League (established in 1906), which worked toward similar objectives.

Muslims and Hindus both participated in the Congress's efforts to establish what they called "self-rule." Even though the British had tried and, to some extent, succeeded in creating separate communal identities for Hindus and Muslims, the two communities resisted such compartmentalization based solely on religious differences. Most Muslims and Hindus shared common cultural and ethnic backgrounds, their linguistic and social commonalities more significant than their religious differences. But the British, based on the Orientalist constructions of the two communities as two different peoples, continued their policy of treating them as such. Politically, this worked in favor of the British; by pitting one group against the other, they were able to continue their political and economic subjugation of India. Hindu-Muslim unity was a major threat to the existence of British power.

The key players in the Congress Party, Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1947), Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), and Abul Kalam Azad (1888–1958), worked tirelessly to deconstruct the idea of Hindu and Muslim separateness. Other Muslims, such as the prominent leader of theMuslim League, Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), argued that Muslims in free India would not be able to receive just treatment as a minority and that their interests would not be protected. He and some others demanded special autonomous powers for the Muslim-majority regions as part of a federal system once India became free. The alternate solution was to partition India into two separate states. The new state, Pakistan, would be fashioned out of the territories in the northwest and the eastern half of Bengal (the latter was to become independent from Pakistan in 1971 as the separate nation of Bangladesh). Neither proposal was acceptable to the leaders of the Congress Party.

Among the Muslims who opposed the idea of partition were two influential community leaders, Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890–1988) and Abul Kalam Azad. Ghaffar Khan was an admirer and follower of Gandhi who believed in and implemented the latter's principle of ahimsa (nonviolence) by forming what he called the Khudai Khidmatgar (servants of God) movement, in which members vowed to serve God by serving others, while utilizing nonviolence as their only weapon. He worked among his ethnic community of Pathans in the North-West Frontier province and was quite successful in mobilizing his people to engage in nonviolent social activism against British rule.

Azad, an erudite scholar of Islam and a colleague and admirer of Gandhi, was particularly distressed by the idea of a separate Muslim homeland causing a permanent rift between Hindus and Muslims. Unlike some other Muslim elite who dreamed of restoring Muslim rule in India, Azad focused on possible models in which Hindus and Muslims would be able to share power in a democratically governed India. Azad was a nationalist and a committed anti-British activist.

The early 1920s brought Indians of all stripes and vocations closer together. Even Muslim religious organizations such as the Jamiʿat ʿUlama-i Hind (Society of Indian Islamic Scholars) supported the nationalist struggle against the British and were opposed to partition. In fact, a vast majority of Muslims were not enthusiastic about the "two-nation" idea because of sheer practical concerns. Muslims were spread all over India and lived side by side with Hindus. The partition, as it was imagined in the minds of the handful of Muslim elite, was neither possible nor desirable.

Another major Muslim institution that came into being during this time, with the support of Gandhi and other nationalists, was the Jamia Millia Islamia (Muslim Nationalist University). Established in 1920 at Aligarh (later moved to New Delhi in 1925), it began as a reaction to the then famous Aligarh Muslim University, which had been founded on the principle of cooperation with the British and remained to some extent oriented toward British intellectual traditions. Many nationalist and secular-minded Muslims later became associated with the Jamia, and others emerged from its ranks as the institution developed into a full-fledged university in a democratic republic of India.

The Partition

The movement for Pakistan based its rationale on religious and cultural notions of self-preservation. Its proponents argued that Muslims must preserve their culture and religious way of life by implementing the Shariʿa. This would not be possible in a free India where Muslims, being a minority, would not have the power to ensure governance according to Islamic law. The main thrust of this movement was a desire to return India to Muslim rule, albeit with a twist of religious flavor. This was a classical Islamist proposition. Maulana Abuʾl ʿAla Maududi (1903–1979), the founder of the religious organization Jamaʿat-i Islami (Islamic party, founded in 1941), who was at first against the partition of India, became the chief proponent of the idea of implementing Islamic law in a newly created Pakistan. There were others who had similar objectives on the grounds that Muslim cultural and economic interests would not be met in a Hindu-majority India. Jinnah, a secularist leader of the Muslim League, was in the forefront of this struggle. Earlier in the Congress's struggle for independence, he had worked with Gandhi, but toward the mid-1930s he parted ways and worked in competition with and against the Congress Party.

Eager to remove themselves from the subcontinent, the British, under the pretext of being concerned for minority rights in a Hindu-majority India, seemed willing to accept the Muslim League's proposal of a "two-nation" solution. Gandhi, Azad, and other leaders of the Congress Party were against the division of the country, but they reluctantly accepted it; the alternate solution, having a federal system with greater autonomy for the Muslim provinces, drew even more severe objections from the members of the Congress, including Nehru, who advocated a centralized power structure. Thus on 14 August 1947, the dominion of Pakistan was created and consisted of two noncontiguous territories, the northwestern region as well as the eastern half of Bengal. Jinnah became the new nation's first governor-general and president of its legislative assembly. However, he did not live long enough to see the struggle that ensued between Islamic and secular forces, each vying to move Pakistan toward their respective visions of a Muslim homeland. Hours later, just past midnight on the 15th, India was declared independent, dividing the Muslims of British India into two roughly equal halves. Nehru became the first prime minister of independent India.

While celebrations for independence were underway, a tragedy of massive proportions unfolded. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs had to leave their belongings and migrate from what had become Pakistan, the west Punjab, and Sind, while Muslims from various parts of India migrated toward Pakistan and eastern Bengal. The partition of India was a major tragedy for Indians in general. Members of the same family found themselves at opposite sides of the great political divide, afraid at times to even communicate with each other lest they become suspected of compromising their loyalty to the state in which they resided.

Indian Muslims since Independence

The partition caused a serious blow to Indian Muslims. Even though India became a secular and not a Hindu state, the blame for the division of the country (at least unofficially) was placed squarely on Muslims. Since independence, Muslims as a minority have experienced large-scale violent campaigns launched against them. Known as communal riots, many of these are deemed to be planned and well-organized "pogroms." The net result of the violence has been that, over fifty years after independence, there is little mutual trust between members of the two communities.

The recent rise of Hindu militant nationalist groups has once again raised the issue of Muslims' loyalty to India in light of their erroneous reading of Indian history. Since the reasons given for the partition were religious and communal, Muslims, as a religious community distinct from Hindus, were seen as misplaced and unwelcome in independent India. They suffered the most politically, by not being part of the Pakistan movement, but also in social, economic, and psychological terms. The wounds of the partition incurred by many Muslim families on both sides of the border took three decades to heal, since they found themselves divided physically as well as psychologically.

Hindu-Muslim riots, or what many have recognized as pogroms against Muslims, have become increasingly organized and coordinated over the years. Before the 1990s they were more sporadic, and while highly organized, the element of local initiative was crucial. But, during the height of the Babri Mosque controversy, the organized efforts to destroy and uproot Muslim communities received far greater national-level support from right-wing resources than was imagined before. The act of destruction of the historic mosque in Ayodhya was carried out locally, but it was planned, supported, and funded by the vast network of Hindu nationalist elements throughout India. It was a tragedy of international proportions, one that shook the secular foundations of the democratic Constitution of India. Even the central government was unsuccessful in preventing the destruction because, as Paul Brass in The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India rightly observes, anti-minority violence is coordinated in the sense that most of the time the police forces are found to be prejudiced against Muslims; therefore, despite its best intentions, the government is unable to act because this essential arm of the law becomes paralyzed.

Muslims in the Twenty-first Century

Even though the notion of "Indian Muslims" may appear somewhat reasonable given the unifying nature of the fundamentals of Islam, it is, in fact, a construction like its counterpart, "the Hindus." Muslims are a very dissimilar group with respect to their religious practices, ideological affiliations, and social, cultural, and political preferences. Such construction of identity is also problematic in dealing with issues of gender justice. The Muslim religio-cultural discourse tends to define women as well as their roles in homogenous terms, disallowing full realization of their potential. During Muslim rule between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries, however, Muslim women made significant contributions as poets, authors, mystics, and teachers. Princess Jahanara (1614–1681), the eldest daughter of Shah Jahan, was one such famous intellectual and mystic. Women were not completely absent from public life either; the Sultanate period had its first queen in Razia Sultana (r. 1236–1240). During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the throne of Bhopal was occupied by women rulers; the last to be named was Abida Sultaan (d. 2002) who ruled the state from 1935 to 1949.

Within Muslim communities, Muslim women are among the most disadvantaged. Women's educational rights are only recently being recognized, while they remain politically marginalized for cultural and economic reasons. Despite these challenges, Muslim women have made and continue to make significant advances in promoting female education and in removing barriers preventing their economic independence.

Even though Muslims are a diverse people, both the right-wing Hindus and the politically motivated Muslim leaders continue to insist on identifying Muslims as a monolith block of people with one agenda, one culture, and one religion. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as recent studies (by Peter van der Veer and Cynthia Talbot) have shown, individual identities were understood in flexible terms in the past, and they were not compartmentalized in a single characteristic form, such as Muslim, Hindu, or Christian. Rather they were perceived in terms of geography, culture, state, profession, and language. Thus in medieval India, one could not simply be identified as Muslim without also being recognized as, for example, a Bengali, an easterner, a trader, a speaker of Bengali, and so forth.

In the post–Babri Mosque era, steps have been taken in building bridges between Hindus and Muslims and highlighting their shared history and common objectives in a democratic India. Several Muslim leaders, such as Wahiduddin Khan (b. 1925) and Asghar Ali Engineer (b. 1939), have made significant intellectual and social contributions through their writings, dialogue, and personal examples.

The legacies of Islam in India are, despite the minority framework imposed during the colonial period, inextricably intertwined with the legacies of Indian society as a whole, and both of these continue to unfold in the present. In the entire millennium of its presence in India, from architecture to music, from language to community belonging, from history writing to history making, Muslims have joined with Hindus and other groups in constructing the edifice of a great civilization. It lies to Indians of the twenty-first century to find paths through their communal frameworks and to continue to build upon this edifice.

Irfan A. Omar

See alsoAkbar ; Aurangzeb ; Ayodhya ; Babur ; British Crown Raj ; Congress Party ; Gandhi, Mahatma M. K. ; Humayun ; Iqbal, Muhammad ; Islam ; Jahangir ; Jinnah, Mohammad Ali ; Nehru, Jawaharlal ; Sayyid Ahmed Khan and the Aligarh Movement ; Shah Jahan


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views updated May 23 2018







Muslims are the second-largest religious group in the world, after Catholics (Saenz 2005). The group is racially and ethnically diverse, but the Muslim identity has taken on racial connotations at various points in U.S. history, most recently after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon building near Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. Although the racialization of a religious identity is not a new phenomenonfor example, Jews experienced an identity change during and after the Holocaustthe impact of this transformation and increased otherization of Muslims and Muslim Americans has profound implications for a group that is seen as both a religious and a cultural threat to the mostly white, Christian U.S. population.


Currently, over a billion Muslims live in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. There are roughly forty-four Islamic countries in the world today. Although Muslims vary in their particular religious practices and cultural beliefs from region to region, the majority follow the same basic tenets of Islam (Esposito 1998).

Islam is one of three Abrahamic religions, along with Christianity and Judaism, that trace their communities back to the biblical Abraham. The basic teachings of Islam were said to have been revealed to Muhammad (c. 570632), the final prophet, and collected and recorded in the Quran. Muslims rely on the Quran for the fundamental Islamic teachings and guidelines for their lives. Aside from the teachings in the Quran, Muslims also believe that Muhammad led an exemplary life that all Muslims should attempt to emulate. These examples can be found in the hadith, the documented reports of the prophets life, which Muslims also rely on for spiritual and practical direction.

In addition, every Muslim is required to follow the five pillars of Islamobligatory practices outlined in the Quran (Nasr 2003). The first of these is the profession of faith, where a Muslim declares, There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God, emphasizing the monotheistic nature of the religion (Esposito 1998, p. 68). In making this declaration, a person becomes a Muslim. The second pillar is prayer, or salat. Muslims are instructed to pray at specific times, five times a day. Prayers begin with the azan, the call to prayer, followed by an ordered series of recitations from the Quran in conjunction with bowing and prostrations toward the direction of Mecca. Zakat, the third pillar of Islam, is a religious tax required of those who have enough money to give to the poor and needy. Giving of alms is not voluntary, but rather a duty defined by sharia, or Islamic law. Fasting during Ramadan is the fourth pillar of Islam. Every year, Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset during the Islamic month of Ramadan, based on the lunar calendar. According to John Esposito (1998), this is a time for Muslims to reflect on their spiritual beliefs and gratitude for good health and wealth, and to remember their duties toward those who are less fortunate than themselves. The final pillar of Islam is pilgrimage, or hajj. During the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims who are physically and financially able are required to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca; this needs to be done only once in a persons lifetime. Once in Mecca, Muslims perform a series of rituals such as circling the Kaba (House of God) while reciting verses from the Quran. According to Seyyed Nasr hajj signifies a return both to the spatial center of the Islamic universe and to the temporal origin of the human state itself (Nasr 2003, p. 95).


Islamic civilization grew rapidly after the death of Muhammad in 632. Over the course of the century beginning around 600 CE, an Islamic Empire spread to occupy what was once known as Arabia, Central Asia, North Africa, and parts of Europe. Throughout the next few centuries, Islamic imperialism had a profound effect on the arts, sciences, and philosophy. Many scholars note that during this time Islam advanced beyond predominantly Christian Europe in many areas, including trade and commerce, exemplified by the urban centers that popped up all across the Islamic Empire (Turner 1995; Esposito 1998; Nasr 2003). Islamic scholars greatly contributed to the progress of math and science, expanding on Greco-Roman geometry and advancing algebra and trigonometry. Universities and academies flourished in Islamic countries. Nonetheless, although Islamic contributions were significant, they are often overlooked in Western cultures. The Enlightenment brought about a positivist view of the world that refuted religious explanations, ignoring the contributions of Islamic civilizations while promoting eurocentric scientists and artists.


Islam has never been a homogenous or unified religion. During the era of Islamic imperialism there were vast differences in Islamic practices and the development of Islamic cultures. The best known sects today are Sunni Islam, Shiism, Sufism, and the Nation of Islam.

Sunni and Shiite Islam Sunni Muslims constitute the majority of the roughly one billion Muslims in the world today; Shia comprise the second-largest Islamic sect. After Muhammads death a schism occurred over who should be the next caliphate, or leader of the Muslims. Abu-Bakr became the first caliphate after Muhammad, followed by Umar, Uthman, and then Ali (the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad). The Shia believe that Ali should have been the first caliphate because of his blood relation to Muhammad. Sunnis practice a more decentralized version of Islam than the Shia, which does not require one religious authority, but relies instead on a community of learned religious scholars and the standard religious texts. Thus, Sunnis are more literalist than Shia when interpreting the Quran and hadith. Shia follow the Quran too, but they rely on imams, religious leaders, who they see as divinely guided by God to help them interpret the Quran. Thus, they follow a more authoritarian form of Islam compared to Sunnis, who are more communitarian in their practice.

Sufism Sufis follow a very different version of Islam than Sunnis and Shia. Whereas Sunnis are more literalist in their interpretation of the Quran, the Sufis interpretation is more symbolic and allegorical, and their religious practices are often described as mystic. Sufism developed out of a desire to return to a purer and more spiritual version of Islam as a reaction to the corruption that Sufis felt had became rampant during imperialist Islam. Hence, Sufis embrace an ascetic way of life and reject materialism in an attempt to return to the lifestyle of Muhammads time. Sufism focuses particularly on Gods love and meditation.

The Nation of Islam The Nation of Islam is a newer sect of Islam, introduced to African Americans in the 1930s through Wallace D. Fard (1891?1934?) and then made popular in the United States by Elijah Muhammad (18971975). Fard took passages from both the Bible and the Quran and preached a religion that encouraged black liberation, using messages from Islam about brotherhood and social justice to encourage African Americans to reject the domination of their white oppressors. Elijah Muhammad took over leadership of the Nation of Islam after Fard disappeared in 1934. He claimed that Fard was Allah (the Arabic word for God), and that he was his messenger. It was during Muhammads leadership of the Nation of Islam that the sect welcomed the most conversions, due to the popularity of one of Elijahs disciples, Malcolm Little, or Malcolm X (19251965), and the racially charged climate of the 1960s in the United States. As the civil rights movement gained momentum, the Nation of Islam offered an alternative to African Americans who lived in mostly poor urban areas and who felt that their immediate issues and needs were not being addressed by the leaders of the mainstream movement. The Nation of Islam lost members in 1964 after the split with Malcolm X and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and suffered a further decline in membership after the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975. Elijah Muhammads son Warith Deen Muhammad (b. 1933) succeeded him and converted to Sunni Islam, taking many leaders with him and leaving the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan (b. 1933).


The events of September 11, 2001, had an impact on Muslims around the world. Since then, both Afghanistan and Iraq have been invaded by the United States with the support of a number of allies. In the Euro-American media, anti-Muslim rhetoric demonstrates a simplified and reductionistic understanding of Islam and its followers rather than depicting the various political and cultural particularities of Muslims from different Muslim countries.

Moreover, Muslims are often portrayed as a homogenous group fanatical in their religious beliefs, and either participants in, or supporters of, terrorism. Muslims in the United States face increasing racism through racial profiling and the perpetuation of negative stereotypes in the media. Jack Shaheens Reel Bad Arabs (2001) identified roughly 900 American movies from the 1900s through the early 1990s in which Muslims and Arabs have been negatively stereotyped. Because these images are so long-standing, they s eem to Americans to be normal, natural attributes of Muslims, and this has led to public and political support for the creation and implementation of racist laws and policies such as the U.S. Patriot Act, which has curbed the civil rights of Muslims in the United States and spurred military action against Muslim-majority countries.

The United States is not the only country where Muslims face racism and persecution due to misunderstanding of their culture and religious beliefs. In France, Muslim girls are forbidden from wearing the hijab (headscarf), and in 2005 a Danish newspaper published a political cartoon that depicted Muhammad as a terrorist. Acts of violence by Muslims are stripped of their political motivations and reduced to religious fanaticism; images of Muslims as violent terrorists perpetuate an already antiMuslim ideology that Islam is a threat to both modernity and a democratic world. In truth, Islam is not a monolithic religion; Muslims vary in their cultural makeup, political views, level of religiosity, and in the type of Islam that they choose to practice.

SEE ALSO Enlightenment; Fundamentalism, Islamic; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Jihad; Muhammad; Mysticism; Orientalism; Pan-Arabism; Racialization; Racism; Religion; September 11, 2001; Stereotypes; Terrorism


Armstrong, Karen. 2000. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library.

Bloom, Jonathan, and Sheila Blair. 2000. Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power. New York: TV Books.

Curtis, Edward E. 2006. Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 19601975. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. 2006. An Introduction to Islam. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Esposito, John. 1998. Islam the Straight Path. 3rd ed. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. 2003. Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Saenz, Rogelio. 2005. The Changing Demographics of Roman Catholics. Population Reference Bureau. TheChangingDemographicsofRomanCatholics.aspx.

Shaheen, Jack. 2001. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. New York: Olive Branch Press.

Turner, Howard R. 1995. Science in Medieval Islam. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Saher Selod

David G. Embrick


views updated May 09 2018










While there is a persistent tendency to give the term “Muslim” a racial connotation, “Muslim” and “race” constitute in fact very different categories. Although now recognized as a

sociocultural construction, the notion of “race” is based on assumptions of some sort of commonancestry, andevenona degree of physiognomic homogeneity. The denotation “Muslim,” however, refers to an adherent of Islam, one of the world’s main religions. In 2006, there were close to 1.5 billion Muslims spread over all inhabited continents of the world. One can be a Muslim by birth, but a person can also become a Muslim through conversion, regardless of ethnic background. Consequently, the historical interrelations between the categories of “Muslim” and “race” are extremely complex, and any conflation of the two must generally be considered erroneous. In discussing this problematic connection, it is also important to make a distinction between, on the one hand, Islam as a religious tradition and the attitudes of Muslims toward race, and, on the other hand, the treatment of Muslims at the hands of non-Muslims.


As a monotheistic religion claiming universal validity, Islam makes an appeal to all of mankind. In this respect, the most frequently quoted injunctions from the Islamic sacred scripture, the Qur’an, are: “O mankind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another” (49:13), and “Among God’s signs are the creation of the heavens and of the earth and of your languages and of your colors. In this indeed are signs for those who know” (30:22). The Prophet Muhammad’s selection of a black slave, Bilal, as the first muezzin (the person who announces the times for the obligatory five daily prayers) is cited as an example of Islam’s nondiscriminatory attitude toward race or ethnic affiliations.

Islam emerged in early seventh-century Arabia, and the culture-specific conditions of that time and place have had an influence on its outlook. In pre-Islamic times, the only factor holding the social fabric of Arab society together was tribal affiliation, and all tribes inhabiting the Arabian peninsula traced their lines of descent back to either one of two eponymous ancestors: the South Arabian Qahtan and the North Arabian Adnan. These two Arabian branches eventually converge again in their common forefather: Ismail (identical to the Biblical Ishmael). Traces of this historical setting in which the new faith initially took shape can also be found in the Koran. At various instances the scripture emphasizes the special position of the Arabs and the Arabic language: “And so We have revealed to thee an Arabic Koran that thou mayest warn the Mother of Cities [Mecca] and those who dwell about it, and that thou mayest warn of the Day of Gathering, wherein is no doubt—a party in Paradise, and a party in the blaze. If God had willed, He would have made them one nation” (42:7–8).

When, due to political pressures of his adversaries, the Prophet moved in 622 CE from his hometown Mecca to the oasis settlements now known as Medina, the tiny Muslim community came face-to-face with another ethnic group: Jewish tribes co-inhabiting the oasis alongside Arab tribes. As certain political and religious tensions began to develop, the relationship between Arab Muslims and Jews became more antagonistic, making Islam’s aspects of “Arabness” more pronounced.


After the Arabian Peninsula had fallen under the sway of Islam, the Muslim armies, consisting of Arab tribesmen, swarmed out over the adjacent regions. Over the course of the second half of the seventh century CE, the areas of what are now Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and North Africa were incorporated into the Muslim Empire. Conquest had priority over conversion, however, and this Islamic state remained very much an Arab entity. A major incentive for the Arab tribes to take part in these campaigns was namely the entitlement of all Muslims to share in the spoils of war. At the same time, this economic benefit acted as a restraint on the Arabs’ attempts to convert the subjugated non-Arab peoples.

The gradual acceptance of Islam by non-Arabs—such as Aramaeans, Persians, Egyptians, and Berbers—actually caught the Arab conquerors unaware, and it was initially only possible because converts were being “adopted” as mawali, or “clients,” into Arab tribes. Although this legally entitled them to a share in the spoils of war, for a considerable period of time the Arabs maintained a contemptuous attitude toward these non-Arab Muslims. The latter’s growing discontent with this Arab attitude found a religious expression in their increased siding with a movement known as the Shi’a ’Ali or “Party of Ali.” Shi’ism had started out as a purely Arab political faction supporting the claims of the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-inlaw Ali’s claims to succession. When the movement’s epicenter moved from Arabia to Iraq, it began to draw increasing support from the non-Arab Muslims there, who were mostly of Persian origin.

The opposing party, known as the Sunnis, was led by the Caliph, and in 661 CE they shifted the capital of the Muslim Empire away from Medina in the Arabian Peninsula to Damascus, bringing them into closer contact with Aramaeans and Greeks. With the Caliph’s seat first moving to Syria, and then to Baghdad in Iraq (in 750 CE), the Muslim Empire became more cosmopolitan. As intermarriage between Arab troops and non-Arab women became more common, Arab “racial purity” became diluted, and the ethnic diversity of the Muslim world increased. Moreover, with its continuous expansion, the empire faced a human resources crisis and had to rely on increasing numbers of non-Arabs to staff its bureaucracy and armies. In fact, Arabs soon constituted a minority, as large numbers of Persians, Syrians, southern Europeans, and later Turks from Central Asia began occupying influential positions in the realm.

In this context, a word should be said about the position of those who did not convert. As an Islamic legal system took shape, a special position was created for “Peoples of the Book,” or Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. With the payment of a special tax, they could acquire the status of Dhimmi, which entitled them to continue their religious practices and allowed them also to serve the state in certain capacities. Christian Aramaeans, for example, played a prominent role in the transmission of classical Greek learning through their involvement in translation efforts undertaken by the Baghdad Caliphate. Their position compared favorably to the treatment of non-Christians in Christendom until relatively recent times. One discriminatory practice that remained in place was the prohibition of non-Muslim men marrying Muslim women without the formers’ conversion to Islam, even though the reverse was permissible. The reason for this is that, under Islamic Law, children are considered to belong to their father’s religion. Consequently, it is considered unacceptable that Muslim women contribute to the natural growth of non-Muslim communities.

Thus, Islam’s historical roots in the Arabian Peninsula, aided by the spread of Arabic as the sacred language of Islam and as a lingua franca throughout many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, have contributed to the erroneous tendency to conflate the categories “Muslim” with “Arab,” or at least with people of Middle Eastern origin. In regard to the latter, the fact that Persians and Turks are not Arabs, and that their languages are not even related to Arabic, is often ignored.


As Islam continued its spread beyond the Middle East, the conflation of Islam—or the designation “Muslim”— with a particular race, as well as its own supposed non-discriminatory stance toward race from a doctrinal point of view, were increasingly at odds with reality.

In his 1971 study Race and Color in Islam, Bernard Lewis provides ample examples from actual Islamic history that run counter to the universalism of Islamic doctrine. As is often the case in other civilizations, Muslim attitudes toward skin color and the alleged inferiority of certain races is closely associated with slavery, an institution to which Africans in particular fell victim, even in the Muslim world. Racial distinction was also discussed by the geographer al-Jahiz (776–869), who used the Greek theory of the four humors to explain the characteristics of the various races in the world. The descriptions he formulated were not free from value judgments, which were often uncomplimentary.

In the early twenty-first century, the great majority of Muslims in the world are found outside of the Middle East. The largest Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia (with close to 200 million Muslims), is located in Southeast Asia, while the South Asian states of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh together have more than 450 million Muslim citizens. Substantial numbers are also found in populous sub-Saharan African countries like Nigeria (65 million). In addition, after an intermezzo of nearly half a millennium, there are again increasing numbers of Muslims in Europe. Of more recent date is the entry of large numbers of Muslim immigrants into the Americas and Australia, and there is the growing phenomenon of Europeans and North American descendants of Europeans converting to Islam. This continued expansion of the Muslim presence throughout the world makes associations between religious and racial affiliations increasingly untenable.

As a world religion, Islam has therefore experienced an enormous internal cultural diversification. It has also been exposed to encounters with cultures holding on to different religious traditions, which has given rise to complicated ethno-religious issues, in which it is often difficult to disentangle the religious from wider cultural and ethnic aspects.


Before the arrival of the Proto-Russians, the areas of the Lower and Middle Volga were settled mainly by Bulgar and Turkish tribes, who were only Islamized at the beginning of the tenth century. The interactions between pagan Russians (and later Christianized Slavic Russians) and Turkic Muslims date back to these times. Following the Mongol invasions of the 1230s, a poly-ethnic and multicultural empire emerged, known as the “Golden Horde.” This empire became increasingly Islamized from the early fourteenth century onward. In the 1480s the tide began to turn, and the Muslims of the Golden Horde, Caucasus, and Central Asia faced an increasingly expansive Russian state encroaching on their territories.

Under the relatively tolerant policy of Catherine the Great (1684–1727) toward the Muslims, the former Golden Horde and Caucasus experienced something of an Islamic renaissance. By the 1860s, however, when the tsar’s eye began to fall on Kazakhstan and the Central Asian regions, tsarist politics became more consciously “Russian.” In the late nineteenth century, this nationalist tendency carried over to the (Turkish-speaking) Uzbek, Turkmen, and (Persian-speaking) Tajik Muslims of Central Asia, who by then had been incorporated into the Russian realm. Overlaid with elements of Islamic Renewal (Jadidism) as well as traditionalism, a drive toward cultural, ethnic, and linguistic self-realization within the Russian state took hold of Russia’s Muslims along the Black Sea, in the Northern Caucasus, and in Central Asia.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, it was Josef Stalin who reorganized all inhabitants of the Soviet Union into “first-class” and “second-class” nationalities, based on commonalities in language, territory, economics, and culture—but not on religion. With respect to the Muslim citizens, this resulted in the “first class” union republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan. The Tatars and Muslims of the Northern Caucasus were relegated to a patchwork of less-privileged “second-class” autonomous republics.

The blurring of the lines between the realm of the “religious” and other elements of ethnicity sporadically resulted in attempts at unification among the Muslims— at times driven by Pan-Turkic sentiments, at other times by Pan-Islamic sentiments. In particular, the latter turned into political dynamite following the events of the 1970s and 1980s in Iran and Afghanistan. Alongside attempts to affirm the specific ethnic identifications of these “nationalities,” these unifying trends were suppressed by both tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union’s “Russification” of its Muslim-inhabited territories, only to remerge again when Communism’s fortune dwindled in the 1990s.


Islam has been present in China since the time of the Tang dynasty, and throughout history it was commonly regarded as a challenge, if not an outright threat, to the Chinese establishment. However, in discussing the racial dimensions of this tension, one runs into the same complications as elsewhere. Muslims differ from other minority groups in China in that they—although concentrated in certain geographical margins of the empire—are found in every province and every sizable urban agglomeration. This makes it difficult to reduce the differences between the Chinese Muslim minorities and the majority Han Chinese to an issue of race alone.

In fact, Chinese history evinces that both Chinese and Muslim identities are social-cultural constructs, since the root of the tensions between the two groups is the failure or refusal of the Chinese Muslims, both Han Chinese and others, to subscribe to the values of dominant Chinese culture, which is strongly informed by Confucian teachings that often run counter to Islamic dogmas. At the same time, this did not prevent certain Chinese Muslims from attaining prominent positions in Chinese society, such as the famous marine explorer Zheng He under the Ming dynasty. The glossing of all Chinese Muslims into one category can be traced to the Yuan dynasty, when the term Hui became the common denominator for referring to Muslims (and Jews and Christians as well).

More recently, the Chinese Muslim rebellions of the nineteenth century, such as the one resulting in the shortlived sultanate of Dali in the southwestern province of Yunnan, raised the awareness of the numerical significance of Muslims, particularly in certain frontier regions such as Yunnan and Xinjiang. This led, in the early twentieth century, to the recognition of the Muslims as one of the “five peoples of China” by the young republic under Sun Yat Sen. This conflation of Muslim identity with a discrete “nationality” was continued by the People’s Republic after 1949. Then, however, the authorities began (not unlike Stalin’s initiatives of the 1920s and 1930s) to differentiate between the Hui of China proper, the Uighurs of Xingjiang, and other Turkic minorities of China’s Central Asian fringes, such as the Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs. While these ethnic identifications may constitute an implicit and partial recognition of Muslim identity, any overriding tendencies toward “Pan Islamism” or—in the case of the Central Asian Muslims—“Pan-Turkism” have been strongly opposed by the central state. This is again an illustration of the ambivalence prevailing in the association of Muslim identity with any discrete form of ethnicity.


Since its independence, the political leadership of the largest Muslim nation in the world—the multiethnic Indonesia— has always steered clear of any unifying policies based on the Islam factor. This is in marked contrast with Malaysia, where “being Muslim” is considered an inherent part of “Malayness.” Since the 1970s, the government has implemented a policy of “affirmative action” benefiting the Malay majority in the educational, social, and economic fields. Its aim is to emancipate the Malays from their backward positions in comparison with the often economically more affluent Chinese and Indian minorities. This policy was reinforced with an “Islamization” drive in Malaysian public life following the Malay-Chinese riots of 1969.

The position of the Malay Muslims of southern Thailand is another example of the politicization of an ethno-religious issue. Constituting a numerical majority in Thailand’s border provinces with Malaysia, these Malays were severed from their counterparts south of the border as a result of a demarcation treaty signed between Thailand and the colonial authorities of British Malaya in 1909. As a result, close to three million ethnic Malay Muslims had to be incorporated into a predominantly Buddhist nation-state of ethnic Thai.

These Malay Muslims shared neither linguistic, religious, nor cultural commonalities with the majority population, but the policies of successive Thai governments emphasized loyalty and adherence to the monarchy (which is regarded as divine), Buddhism, and Thai language and culture. This policy has resulted in very antagonistic relations between the southern Muslim minority and the rest of the country. In political terms it led to frequently violent attempts by the Malay Muslims to secure secession and independence, or at least a degree of autonomy.


Prior to the arrival of large numbers of Muslim immigrants, especially from countries in North Africa and South Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, Europe can be said to have at least a dual Muslim heritage. Until the fall of Granada in 1492, the Iberian Peninsula had been home to a thriving “Moorish” culture, in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians participated. In the eastern Mediterranean and in the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire had been making inroads into Christendom since its capture of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in 1453 CE.

While Muslims disappeared from Spain and Portugal following the Christian Reconquista— either by extermination, going into exile, or through forced conversion— countries like Albania and the former Yugoslavia are still home to substantial Muslim minorities. Here again, state policies followed a strategy similar to those of the Soviet Union, regarding nationality and Muslim as analogue categories, while simultaneously downplaying the significance of religious beliefs and practices. The dissolution of the Federation of Yugoslavia in the 1990s has shown that such conflations can have disastrous results, for Serbian nationalists were pitted against Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars.

In connection with the migrant communities from Muslim countries found throughout western Europe, North America and Australia, it appears that religion has become an additional ingredient in a more complex mix of ethnic factors that set these communities apart from the majority population. These factors include physical appearance, language, and cultural and social mores, such as dietary requirements and dress codes.

Typically groups within these communities become affected by and actively take part in an Islamic resurgence (often with distinctly political overtones) that has swept the Muslim world since the late 1970s. The politicized manifestations of this new Muslim assertiveness are, to a considerable degree, a result of unresolved political conflicts in various parts of the Muslim world (e.g., Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq), in which Western powers are often implicated or regarded as being involved.

When the politicization of this increasing Muslim assertiveness results in acts of violence, the authorities responsible for national security tend to include the tool of “racial profiling” in their repertoire of measures for defining potential threats. The most striking example in recent history of such a policy is the introduction of the Patriot Act and other Homeland Security measures in the United States following the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. However, as the above survey shows, such associations between religion and other elements of ethnicity are extremely diffuse and misleading.


Carrère d’Encausse, Hélène. 1988. Islam and the Russian Empire: Reform and Revolution in Central Asia. Comparative Studies on Muslim Societies 8. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Israeli, Raphael. 2002. Islam in China: Religion, Ethnicity, Culture and Politics. Lamham, MD: Lexington Books.

Kappeler, Andreas, Gerhard Simon, George Brunner, and Edward Allworth, eds. 1994. Muslim Communities Reemerge: Historical Perspectives on Nationality, Politics, and Opposition in the Former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Translated by Caroline Sawyer. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kersten, Carool. 2004. “The Predicament of Thailand’s Southern Muslims.” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences 21 (4): 1–29.

Lewis, Bernard.1971. Race and Color in Islam. New York: Harper and Row.

Yemelianova, Galina M. 2002. Russia and Islam: A Historical Survey. London: Palgrave.

Carool Kersten


views updated May 21 2018


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 liveBengali, Urdu, etc.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 statespreeminently the Mogul Empire (1526-1858)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 disabilitiesrestrictions 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.



views updated Jun 11 2018


The Islamic conquest that began in the early seventh century spread the new faith from its home in Arabia to the north, east, and west. At its height, the Muslim caliphs (rulers) held both secular and sacred authority over a realm stretching from northern India and central Asia west to Persia, Mesopotamia, the Levant, North Africa, and Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal). The campaigns between Christians and Muslims in the Levant, known as the Crusades, ended with the last Christian states destroyed by the armies of the Mamluks. The Mamluk dynasty, with its capital in Cairo, Egypt, originated in a caste of soldiers. The Mamluks turned back the Christians as well as the Mongols, who in the middle of the thirteenth century invaded and destroyed Baghdad, the center of the Abbasid caliphate. Cairo was the most prominent center of learning in the Islamic world, with the Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun who was the leading historian and philosopher of this period.

The Mongols ruling in Iran and Iraq were converted to Islam in the late thirteenth century. In the sixteenth century, a new Safavid dynasty emerged in what was ancient Persia. In India the Mughal Empire was established in 1526 by Babur, a Timurid prince of Kabul. The Mughal rulers built their capital at Delhi and collected tribute from Hindu states south of the Indian peninsula. In the meantime, the medieval Muslim societies of the Middle East developed a productive agricultural system, building new irrigation systems that put former desert land into production. New food and cash crops imported from India and Southeast Asia, including bananas, rice, cotton, citrus, eggplants, and many others, were propagated in the west. Many Muslim cities were surrounded by large rings of market gardens and small farms that supplied their harvests to a growing and prospering urban population.

Control of the spice trade between Asia and Europe contributed to the general wealth and security of the medieval Islamic world. The search for a route to bypass the Middle Eastern spice markets was the prime reason for Portuguese exploration of the African and the Indian ocean coasts in the fifteenth century. As Portugal and later Spain established overseas colonies, and began drawing on their newly discovered resources, the Muslim world entered a period of economic decline. In Spain a Reconquista (reconquest) eventually drove the Muslims out of al-Andalus. The kingdom in Granada, the last remnant of the Moorish conquest of the eighth century, paid a heavy tribute to the rulers of Castile, a Christian kingdom, until the united forces of Castile and Aragon captured Granada in 1492. Muslim farmers fled to North Africa or were absorbed into the newly united kingdom of Spain as converts to Christianity.

After the Mongol invasion the Ottoman tribe of Turks rose to prominence in Asia Minor. They crossed into Europe in the fourteenth century and in 1453 conquered Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman domains extended into the Balkan Peninsula, and during the European Renaissance the Turkish armies posed a constant threat to Christian territory. The Ottoman Turks crushed a Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 and eventually reached Vienna, the seat of power for the Habsburg dynasty. Although the sieges of Vienna failed, the Ottomans remained a force to be reckoned with by the Renaissance princes of Europe, who were unable to set aside their differences and unite their forces for the recapture of the eastern Mediterranean.

See Also: Mehmed II; Ottoman Empire


views updated May 21 2018

Muslim a follower of the religion of Islam. Recorded from the early 17th century, the word comes from Arabic, the active participle of 'aslama ‘submit oneself to the will of God’ (see also Islam).
Muslim Brotherhood an Islamic religious and political organization dedicated to the establishment of a nation based on Islamic principles. Founded in Egypt in 1928, it has become a radical underground force in Egypt and other Sunni countries, promoting strict moral discipline and opposing Western influence, often by violence.
Muslim calendar that according to which the Islamic year is reckoned.
Muslim League one of the main political parties in Pakistan. It was formed in 1906 in India to represent the rights of Indian Muslims; its demands from 1940 for an independent Muslim state led ultimately to the establishment of Pakistan.


views updated May 23 2018

Mus·lim / ˈməzləm; ˈmoŏz-/ (also Mos·lem / ˈmäzləm; ˈmäs-/ ) • n. a follower of the religion of Islam.• adj. of or relating to the Muslims or their religion.


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Muslim (Arabic, ‘one who submits’) Follower or believer in Islam. A Muslim is one who worships Allah alone and holds Muhammad to be the last and chief prophet. Today, there are c.935 million Muslims worldwide.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Muslim, Moslem Muhammadan. XVII. — Arab. muslim, act. ppl. of 'aslama (see ISLAM).


views updated Jun 11 2018


From the Arabic muslim, which means "submitted to the divine faith; believer, faithful." Designates those who believe in the Islamic religion.


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