Hinduism and Islam

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated


The relationship between these two great religious traditions in South Asia is often characterized as one of civilizational or cultural clashes, confrontations, and discontinuities. Popular accounts of South Asia's religious history often juxtapose Hinduism's tolerance of diversity, innate spirituality, and rootedness in the Indian soil with Islam's doctrinal rigidity, innate militancy, and foreignness. Such essentializations, which gained ascendancy during the era of British imperialism, fail to recognize that, as complex social and cultural phenomena, religions undergo historical change. A critical assessment of the relationships between Hinduism and Islam accounts for multiple histories involving subtle encounters, exchanges, and conversions, as well as overt confrontation and conflict. A more accurate and multifaceted range of perspectives emerges, reflecting the ways in which Hinduism and Islam interact with each other, and with other social, cultural, and political formations in South Asia through time.

A Demographic Overview

Today there are an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims, one-third of whom live in South Asia—mainly in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Indeed, there are as many Muslims in South Asia as there are in the Middle East and North Africa combined. The majority of South Asian Muslims come from indigenous ethnic populations. Muslims constitute clear majorities in Pakistan (96%) and Bangladesh (87%), while in India and Sri Lanka they are sizable minorities (12% and 7.6%, respectively). Prior to the 1947 partition an estimated 24 percent of greater India's population was Muslim, the remainder being predominantly Hindu. Today, there are more than 800 million Hindus in South Asia.

The extent of Islam's indigenization in the region is reflected in the languages spoken by its adherents: Numerous Arabic and Persian loanwords are found in local languages, especially those of the Indus and Ganges basins. Furthermore, the primary language of most Muslims is the same as that spoken by local non-Muslim populations, such as Punjabi or Bengali in the North and Malayalam or Tamil in the South.

Just as Hindu religious ideas and practices are constituted in a variety of traditions and movements, ranging from the brahmanic to the devotional, mystical, intellectual, and reformist, so too Indian Islam finds expression in diverse ways. Sunni Islam, primarily of the Hanafi legal tradition, has been the official religion for most urban Muslims and landholders. Less than one-fifth of South Asian Muslims adhere to one of two main divisions of Shi˓ism, the Ithna˓shariyya (Twelvers) or the Isma˓iliyya (Isma˓ilis). Most South Asian Muslims have been formally and informally affiliated with Sufi shrines and tariqas (brotherhoods). Indeed, it is widely held that Islam was established in South Asia through Sufism, though there is little evidence of an organized, deliberate Sufi strategy of conversion. Nonetheless, Sufism has participated in the creation of local expressions of Islam, which embody the greatest degree of assimilation of Hindu religious ideas and practices. Since the sixteenth century, several Islamic reform and revival movements have emerged, directed in part against unorthodox practices among Sufis and the Shi˓a, and also against Hindu influence on Muslim belief and practice. Thus, assimilation and differentiation are the two alternating processes governing relations between Hindus and Muslims through more than one thousand years of shared history.

Medieval Hindu-Muslim Encounters

The first contacts between Hindus and Muslims occurred through trade and conquest. Arab Muslim colonies involved in the Indian Ocean spice trade appeared on the Malabar Coast of southern India as early as the ninth century, continuing a long history of commerce and migration between India and the Near East. Local Hindu rulers granted Muslims permission to build mosques and intermarry with their subjects. Though these early immigrants were merchants, Muslim legends remember them as holy men and pilgrims, and even claim that at least one Hindu prince converted to Islam and went to Mecca on the hajj. Muslim trading colonies also flourished in Sri Lanka and on the Coromandel Coast in what is now Tamil Nadu. By the time the Portuguese arrived in 1498, Islam was firmly implanted in the region, and intertwined with its Hindu cultures.

Islamization in northern India followed a different course. Arab Muslim expeditions reached the banks of the Indus by 711, but systematic raids into the heartland did not commence until the tenth century. Armies under the command of the Turkish rulers based in Afghanistan, most notably Mahmoud of Ghazni (r. 998–1030 c.e.), repeatedly plundered towns in the Punjab and Sind. Muslim rule in the Indian heartland was established when Turkish, Persian, and Afghan warriors crossed the northwest frontier, defeated Indian Rajput forces in 1192, and established their capital at Delhi in the Indo-Gangetic plain. The Delhi Sultanate (1211–1526), bolstered by Muslim immigrants fleeing Mongol armies in the west, extended Muslim control across northern India to Bengal and southward into the Deccan, rendering the region a dar al-islam. However, the Delhi Sultans often yielded to local Muslim and Hindu rivals when they were unable to absorb them into the imperial order, as did the Mughal dynasty that succeeded it (1526–1857).

In retrospect, Muslim historians recalled the conquests as heroic wars against pagan infidels (kafirs), and they lauded conversions along with the destruction of Hindu temples. These accounts obscure the fact that where Muslim attacks were made on Hindu temples, they were aimed at enriching Muslim elites (temples were repositories of gold, jewelry, and cash), and undermining the power of local rulers, the traditional temple patrons. Mosques and shrines were erected in their stead. However, most rulers treated subjugated Hindus as "protected" peoples (dhimmis), leaving temples untouched, authorizing and often patronizing new shrines. Nonetheless, there were occasions when they followed the advice of men like Diya˒ al-Din Barani (1285–1357), a court historian, who, in counseling rulers to maintain the purity of the "true religion," urged them to "use their efforts to insult and humiliate and to cause grief to and bring ridicule and shame upon the polytheistic and idolatrous Hindus" (Mujeeb, p. 68). Brahmanic Hindus, for their part, regarded Muslim invaders as impure mlecchas (aliens), or as Turks, Tajiks, and even Greeks, which suggests that they defined Muslims more by their foreign ethnicity than by their religious identity.

Muslim elites sought to comprehend the religions of their subjects intellectually. Al-Biruni (973–c. 1050) gives the earliest and most detailed Muslim account of Indian religion, writing in detail about brahmanic concepts of divinity, cosmology, reincarnation, ritual practices, and yoga. He approached these topics comparatively, drawing parallels with Sufism and Greek philosophy. The Mogul emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), famous for his interest in comparative religions, sponsored Persian translations of Hindu epics, the Bhagavad Gita, and books on Vedanta philosophy. His great-grandson, Dara Shukoh (1615–1659), befriended Hindu holy men, translated the Upanishads and, inspired by Ibn ˓Arabi's pantheistic ideas, attempted a synthesis of Sufism with Hindu Vedanta. He was executed for heresy by his brother and rival to the throne, Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707). As a zealous promoter of Sunni revivalism, Aurangzeb reimposed taxes on Hindu subjects and razed temples in major Hindu religious centers. As Akbar and Dara Shukoh became emblematic of Hindu-Muslim conviviality, Mahmoud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb are today remembered as symbols of Muslim militancy and intolerance.

Conversions and Convergences

Most South Asian Muslims are descended from indigenous peoples who converted to Islam. As a rule, conversion was not an all-or-nothing break with Hindu belief and practice, nor did it usually occur at the end of a sword. Rather, it was a process that occurred in different degrees, and it involved a variety of social, cultural, political, and economic factors. Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of the history of Islam in South Asia is that it gained the most converts in areas situated beyond the traditional centers of political power and brahmanical religious authority. Today, the largest proportions of Muslims are to be found in the northwest (now Pakistan and Kashmir) and northeast (now Bangladesh); even Kerala (1991: 23.3%) in the south has a higher percentage of Muslims than does Uttar Pradesh (1991: 17.3%), where Delhi and Agra are located.

The chief agents for Islamization on the local level were wandering Muslim saints, teachers, and warriors. Isma˓ili missionaries in Sind and Rajasthan adopted Nath yogi guise and formulated their Islamic message in terms of Hindu concepts of divinity and cosmology. In Bengal, communities grew up around saint shrines and mosques built where lands had been newly converted to wet-rice agriculture during the Mughal era. Through local Sufi centers Islam was often introduced and integrated into the socioreligious landscape, establishing points of exchange between the Muslim rulers and the populace, thus integrating people and property into the infrastructure of the kingdom. Across India shrines are patronized and even managed commonly by Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians, and some have evolved into major pilgrimage centers, such as that of Mu˓in al-Din Chishti in Ajmer. Such places are identified with supermundane beings who offer their devotees power, healing, fertility, and occasions to participate in ecstatic rites. Muslim warrior saints have been incorporated as guardian deities into the cults of Hindu hero gods and goddesses, where Muslims as well as Hindus worship them. This is exemplified by Vavar, the battle companion of the popular south Indian deity Ayyappa, and by Muttal Ravutan, guardian of Draupadi shrines in Tamil Nadu.

The interpenetration of Hinduism and Islam is further evident in folk epics and religious poetry. Thus, regional oral epics contain elements from the classical Hindu epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana that have been reshaped as a result of interaction with Muslims. At assemblies of poets throughout India, Hindus, Muslims, and others recite the compositions of poet saints such as Kabir (died c. 1448), known as the "apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity." The compositions of vernacular poets like Baba Farid Shakarganj, Sultan Bahu, and Bulleh Shah are on the lips of every Punjabi, regardless of creed. The Sikh religion founded by the North Indian holy man Guru Nanak (d. 1539) is often characterized as a fusion of Islamic monotheism and Hindu devotionalism. Across north India and Pakistan, people sing romantic ballads, or qissa, such as Hir-Ranjha, Sassi-Punnu, Mirza-Sahiban, and Layla-Majnun. These are inevitably tragic tales of romantic heroes and heroines destined to remain apart and doomed to die because of differences in caste, class, and religion. Nonetheless, the songs in which these boundaries are crossed are sung and beloved by people from all walks of life. Through richly symbolic language and imagery qissa are also mystical allegories of the human soul seeking union with God.

Hindustani music is another excellent example of the interplay between Hindu and Muslim culture. One of the greatest innovators of Hindustani classical music is often identified as Tansen (d. 1589), the Great Mogul Emperor Akbar's court musician. The musical modes and the code of conduct within the musical lineages, or gharanas, draw on Indian and Perso-Arabic styles. The initiation ceremony of the student into the master's school closely mirrors that of the Hindu guru-sishya initiation. Furthermore, although many of these lineages are principally Muslim in terms of personnel, worship of Hindu deities, especially the goddess Saraswati, and the lighting of lamps and garlanding of musicians are all common practices associated with Hinduism. The popularity of explicitly Islamic devotional styles such as kafi, ghazal, and qawwal, and of Muslim singers such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen among all audiences indicates a shared aesthetic culture.

Finally, in many areas conversion, intermarriage, and shared community life have led to common cultural practices. Often customs and observations of lifecycle events, such as births, marriages, and death, are regionally extremely similar. The offering of a child's first haircutting or pilgrimage to bless a marriage is performed by all religious communities at local shrines. Dress and eating habits are frequently shared. Muslim social status usually reflects caste distinctions found among the wider society; and in Malabar, Muslim traders intermarried with Hindu locals to such an extent that they adopted their matrilineal social organization.

Hindu-Muslim Encounters after 1857

The Mogul Empire's territory reached its apogee under Aurangzeb, encompassing the Deccan plateau and parts of the South Indian coast. After his death in 1707, Mogul power rapidly unraveled, paving the way for the British East India Company to transform its commercial power bases into political centers. In 1757 at the Battle of Plassy, the British forces took effective control of much of North India, placing it under the Raj. Though nominal authority still lay in Mogul hands, this ended following the British defeat of a large-scale rebellion of Hindu and Muslim troops in 1857. After this power shift, religious movements arose to address the new sociopolitical milieu, which rewarded modernism, secularism, and progressive scientific thought over traditional values.

Reaction to the impact of foreign rule was channeled in many cases through religious movements. Revivalist and reformist groups emerged representing the full range of responses to the new power structures. Some sought to incorporate and integrate Western values, others focused on internal revitalization, and still others mobilized to oppose British rule. Hindu revivalist groups such as the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) advocated different means of promoting Hinduism in modern society. Whereas the Mahasabha, RSS, and Arya Samaj strove to purify Hinduism and reestablish an inherently Hindu national identity, the Brahmo Samaj emphasized social reform and education more in line with modern Western concepts. Similarly, Muslim organizations addressed the educational, social, and political interests of the Muslim population. The Dar al-˓Ulum Deoband was founded in 1867 to generate a new Indian body of ulema. In 1875, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan established Aligarh Muslim University with a westernized secular curriculum, to educate Muslims capable of reviving Islam and addressing the exigencies of modernity. The Jama˓at-e Islami, founded by Abu l-A˓la˒ Maududi in 1928, advocated religious renewal and political independence. Grassroots movements, like Tablighi Jama˓at (founded 1926), arose to teach basic Islamic principles and practices and to eradicate "Hindu" accretions, such as pilgrimage to saints's tombs, music, elaborate weddings, and mourning and death rites. The Muslim League formed in 1906 as a political group working to protect minority Muslim interests in an independent India.

Throughout the independence struggle relations between Hindus and Muslims worsened. Many factors contributed to this: British divide-and-conquer policies, Muslim under-development, the Hinduization of the nationalist movement, and Hindu and Muslim prejudices and fears. Following the Indian National Congress's (INC) formation (1892), Muslim participation decreased steadily. However, there were moments of cooperation, such as Gandhi's support for the Khilafat movement to reestablish the Ottoman caliphate. Gandhi viewed this as a kindred freedom struggle and a means of garnering Muslim support. Nevertheless, as the independence movement progressed, the Congress leadership consistently failed to address Muslim fears of a Hindu majority nation without safeguards for their sizable (24%) minority. The INC rejected power-sharing schemes proposed by the British in the Communal Award (1932) and during the final Cabinet Mission negotiations (1946). After the Muslim League in 1940 publicly called for the creation of a separate state for Muslims, many Hindus no longer trusted Muslim ambitions for a free and unified India. Hindus sought a strong center and Muslims wanted strong regional governments and electoral reservations. Unable to find a compromise, the rapid departure of the British in 1947 resulted in horrific violence—an estimated 500,000 to 1 million died as 8 million Hindus and Sikhs shifted to India and 7 million Muslims departed for East and West Pakistan.

Since Partition, India's non-Hindu population has steadily increased, whereas Pakistan's non-Muslim population has declined—currently below 5 percent. The secular mandate of India's constitution nominally protects equal rights, and several controversial government schemes—particularly reservation of seats for various minority groups in the civil service, elected bodies, and universities—ensure at least some Muslim presence in India's civic life. Nonetheless, divisive politics persist. Three issues in particular frustrate understanding between Hindus and Muslims: Muslim personal law, Ayodhya, and Kashmir.

Currently there is a separate personal law for Muslims regarding marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Hindu nationalists and many women's advocacy groups champion a uniform civil code, which would apply the same legal regulations to every Indian citizen. Many Muslims cling to their separate legal code as a small realm of autonomy and the only available institutional means of maintaining their cultural identity.

In the early twentieth century Hindu radicals identified the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, as the god Rama's birthplace and began agitation for its "liberation." In the absence of decisive action by the state and central governments and the Supreme Court, the situation remains unresolved. In 1992 Hindu radicals tore down the mosque and placed Rama's image at the site. The riots subsequent to this demolition claimed thousands of lives, and the tension is periodically reactivated with similarly tragic results. In 2002 a move by Hindu organizations to begin construction of a temple resulted in another round of disturbances, destabilizing interreligious relations.

Finally, at Partition, Muslim-majority Kashmir gained "special status," or semiautonomy, under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. India has promised a referendum on statehood or independence, but three wars with Pakistan, continual border skirmishes, Pakistani support to militants and freedom advocates, severe government repression of Muslim movements, and Hindu agitation over Article 370 keep tensions high. This situation is more alarming now that both nations are nuclear powers.

Real fissures do exist between Hindu and Muslim communities testifying to continued Hindu resentment of temple desecration by Muslims (real or alleged) and persistent Muslim fears (both reasonable and baseless) of assimilation or annihilation in Hindu-majority India. This mutual suspicion and hostility threaten constantly to overshadow the enormously rich and diverse shared traditions of the subcontinent. Yet the constitutional secularism of the largest democracy in the world, the persistence of shared places such as the shrine of Vavar in Kerala, and the continuing popularity of common cultural traditions such as music, literature, and art forms, indicate that there is a sound and strong common ground.

See alsoAkbar ; South Asia, Islam in ; South Asian Culture and Islam .


Ahmad, Aziz. Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment. 1964. Reprint, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bayly, Susan. Saints, Goddesses and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society 1700–1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Eaton, Richard M. Essays on Islam and Indian History. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Gilmartin, David, and Lawrence, Bruce, eds. Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. Rethinking India's Oral and Classical Epics: Draupadi among Rajputs, Muslims and Dalits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Khan, Dominique-Sila. Conversions and Shifting Identities: Ramdev Pir and the Ismailis in Rajasthan. New Delhi: Manohar, 1997.

Metcalf, Barbara, ed. Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Mujeeb, Mohammad. The Indian Muslims. London: Allen & Unwin, 1967.

Robinson, Francis. Islam and Muslim History in South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wink, Andre. Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990.

Anna BigelowJuan Eduardo Campo