South Asian Culture and Islam

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When the Muslims arrived, South Asia had already cradled two great religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, and was divided into culturally distinct areas by differences in terrain, climate, ethnicity, religion, and social background. Apart from the Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu introduced by the Muslims, there were already a vast number of existing languages, all of which cut across religious barriers, and Muslim contributions to the various extant literatures were, and are, substantial. Although there were some cities, society was still predominantly rural and agricultural, and religion played an important role in people's lives. Even today, many social customs are rooted in ancient Hindu practices, for example the hereditary caste system, which Islam appropriated rather than threw away.

Islam's Entry and Early Conversions

Arab Muslim mercantile interest in western India began in the seventh century, predating the conquest of Sind (in what is now Pakistan) by Muhammad b. Qasim in 712. Qasim executed opposing soldiers, but spared the traders, artisans, and ordinary people, and wrought minimal changes in the social and administrative structures of Sind. He also struck a deal with the Brahmins, the priestly high caste of Hindus, coopting them as partners in the administration, exempting them from paying the poll tax imposed on non-Muslims and ensuring their right to worship freely. Temples, such as the famous sun-temple in Multan, were important to the early Muslim rulers as a source of revenue, as they could collect the pilgrims' donations.

As Turks and Afghans after Qasim established small, Muslim-ruled enclaves in the northwest of India, Arab and Persian mercantile communities flourished along the western coast. The merchants were honored and protected by local Rashtrakuta kings (eighth to tenth century), intermarried with lower-caste Hindus, spoke Malayalam, and dressed like the Hindu military caste. However, Muslims and lower castes were excluded from the social life of upper-caste Hindus.

Muslim kings up to the eighteenth century ruled over a vast majority of non-Muslims, largely Hindus, but including Buddhists, Jains, and indigenous tribes. They wisely followed a policy of conquest and reconciliation; conversion was not prioritized because it meant less revenue. The fact that the Muslims of South Asia have remained a minority suggests that the vast majority of Indians did not seek conversion. While the Brahmins resisted change, it was within the lower castes that most conversions took place. Yet the advantages to converts were minimal, because their post-conversion lifestyle did not differ much from that which they practiced as Hindus.

The Effects of Caste and Culture

At the partition of India in 1947, following almost two hundred years of British rule, the country was divided along communal lines. At that point Bengal and Punjab, the two foremost agricultural provinces, had the largest number of Muslims. The converts in these areas were from indigenous groups who had never been fully integrated into a strong Hindu social system, and even after conversion had been distanced from the centers of Muslim political power. Caste remained operative in Muslim society in India, where families of foreign extraction (Arabs, Turks, Afghans, and Persians) were considered nobility, lived in cities, and maintained exclusiveness. They spoke first Persian and later Urdu, a new language combining Hindi syntax with Persian and Arabic vocabulary. The seed for a separate state for the Bengalis of East Pakistan was sown when there was a move from the West to impose Urdu as the state language. The cultural divide between the two wings, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory, and an economic disparity rooted in oppression and exploitation, led to civil war and the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971.

Next in the social hierarchy of Muslim times were uppercaste Hindu converts, such as the Rajputs. After them came the artisans and "clean" castes, with the "unclean" occupational castes occupying the lowest rung. (Caste is still important in arranging marriages.) Local officials learned to speak and dress like the Muslim ruling classes, and gradual inter-marriage with the local population led to Muslim adoption of indigenous food and customs. The Muslim and Hindu aristocrats kept their women secluded behind purdah (curtains) in separate apartments, whereas women of the artisan and cultivating classes had relatively more freedom, probably because of the economic necessity of working with men. Marriage customs and rituals also cut across religions. Although not sanctioned by traditional Muslim law, dowry, a Hindu custom by which the bride's father must give money to the couple, was widely practiced among Muslims (it remains so, today), and has resulted in much violence against women.

The practices of Islam and Hinduism influenced each other; Muslim mystics (sufis) and holy men (pirs) showed this influence the most. Their mystical doctrines centered around union with God through love. Highly unorthodox, they were nonetheless often revered by Hindus as well, and their tombs became pilgrimage sites for people of all religions, a phenomenon particular to South Asia. In many rural areas such charismatic men took part in clearing forests, introducing agriculture, settling populations, and effecting large-scale conversion.

Interactions with Folk and Indigenous Religions

In the fifteenth century Sufism resonated with popular Bhakti devotional movements in Hinduism, whose leaders attacked institutionalized religion, disregarded caste, and taught in the vernacular languages. Kabir (1440–1518) and Nanak (1469–1539), both of Punjab, were two of the most significant contributors to the Bhakti movement, and both assimilated Muslim ideas. They taught devotion and love devoid of ritual framework, and aimed at a reordering of society along egalitarian lines. Their followers are known as the Kabirpanthis and Sikhs, respectively.

Among the Muslims, interesting developments took place within the Nizari branch of the Shi˓ite Isma˓ili community. Their most successful leader in Sind, Sadr al-Din (fifteenth century), is considered to be the first author of the literary genre of Das avatar (The tenth incarnation), an amazing blend of Islamic and Hindu ideas, in which ˓Ali and the prophet Muhammad are acknowledged as incarnations of the Hindu gods Vishnu and Brahma.

At the popular level there were folk religions of indigenous origin, like the cults of Panch Pir (five holy men) and Satya Pir (the true holy man), in which various beliefs and practices were assimilated. Religious reform movements of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, led by returnees from Mecca, disputed the Indian influences on local Muslims, and aimed to instill in the masses a commitment to "pure" Islam. Descendants of Shah Wali Allah Dehlawi (1703–1762), perhaps the greatest Indian theologian, spearheaded this movement; and the later Deobandis and Ahl-i hadith opposed the excessive veneration of saints and tomb worship. Shah Wali Allah translated the Qur˒an into Persian that it might be more widely understood, and his grandsons made an Urdu translation. Later, Haji Shari˓atullah (1781–1840) of Bengal also made it his mission to correct the Islam of the Bengali peasantry. His movement was known as the Fara˒iziyya (Ar. Fara˒idiyya), laying emphasis on the fara˒id, or Muslim religious duties. Bengal had well-developed local religious traditions, including the veneration of local saints, because of a dearth of orthodox Sunni Islamic writings in Bengali.

Language and the Arts

At the advent of Muslim rule, Sanskrit was limited to Hindu texts, while Buddhist and Jain texts used Prakrit. The new Indic vernaculars (Hindi, Bengali, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Marathi, Gujrati, Oriya, Sindhi, and Assamese), which grew out of the Prakrit and the Apabhramsa stages of Sanskrit, received a tremendous boost from the Muslims, who preferred the newer languages over Sanskrit and Prakrit.

Arabic enjoyed prestige as the language of the Qur˒an, and was used mostly for religious scholarship, historiography and for translating scientific books on astronomy, medicine, and arithmetic for the West Asian market. Turkish flourished briefly as a literary language under the early Mughal emperors, but was replaced by Persian. Muslims were the most influential writers in the Indic languages of Kashmiri, Sindhi, and Punjabi, and the writing of Indo-Iranian languages Baluchi and Pashto was exclusively done by Muslims. In Bengal, Muslim sultans patronized the translations of Sanskrit classics into Bengali, and Muslims like Syed Sultan (sixteenth century), Dawlat Qazi, and Alaol (seventeenth century) were well-known writers in Bengali.

In the heartland of northern India, Amir Khosrow (1253–1325) mainly composed poetry in Persian, but also wrote in the Awadhi dialect of Hindi. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Muslim contribution to mystic (both Sufi and Bhakti) poetry in several dialects and languages was considerable. The so called "Indian style" of Persian poetry peaked during the reign of the Moguls (Fayzi, ˓Urfi, Naziri, Zuhuri, Kalim); the greatest exponent being ˓Abdul Qadir Bedil (b. 1644) of Uzbek descent. Well acquainted with Indian religions and philosophy, and influenced by Sufis, he was skeptical of all dogma. Persian remained the official language of Muslim India until 1835.

Due to the disapproval of dance and theatre by orthodox Muslim scholars, which stemmed from concerns over the portrayal of the human image, performing arts were regarded with extreme caution. Nevertheless, a form of passion play developed, especially in areas of Shi˓ite concentration, enacting the tragedy of Karbala when Husayn's (the Prophet's grandson) family was killed in battle. In spite of the orthodoxy, Kathak dancing, born of a marriage of Hindu and Muslim cultures and enacting the love story of Radha and Krishna, flourished in the Mughal courts in the seventeenth century. Ghazals, short lyrical poems in Urdu set to music; Marsiya, songs on the tragedy of Karbala; and qawwali, songs celebrating the life of the Prophet or a Sufi saint, became popular during this period, and remain so today.

In India, the most dramatic impact of the Muslims was on the visual arts. Because of the orthodox Muslim aversion to the representation of living beings, non-figural art, such as calligraphy, and vegetal and geometric designs in both architecture and painting are preferred. Once settled, Muslim sultans started commissioning religious and secular manuscripts in the various Persian Islamic styles, replacing palm leaf with paper. Thus, the Indo-Persian style of painting developed, reflecting Indian styles as well as individual rulers' tastes. The N˓imat-nama (Book of recipes) was done in this style for the Sultan of Malwa in the sixteenth century. It can be seen today in the India Office Library in London.

Two Persian masters, Mir Sayyid ˓Ali and Khwaja ˓Abd al-Samad, founded the Mughal School of painting in the sixteenth century. The atelier, composed of mostly Hindu artists, illustrated both Persian and Indian histories and romances; for example the Dastan-e Amir Hamza (Stories of Amir Hamza), part of which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The compositions, fine line, and architectural detailing were Persian influences, while the vigorous movement and bold color were indigenous. Contemporaneous with the Mughal school was the Rajput style, the subject matter of which was almost exclusively Hindu. The interplay between these two artistic styles depended on the contact between the Mughal and Rajput rulers—political, cultural, and marital, or simply the movement of artists from the Mughal court. These traditional styles of painting were revived in the early twentieth century by the stalwarts of the Bengal School, who wished to make Indian artists aware of their own heritage.

Architectural Influences

In architecture, the Indian temple, with its sculpture-encrusted walls and ceilings and dark interior housing an image of a deity, with entry restricted to the Brahmin priest, radically differed from the mosque of the Muslims, which was open, large enough for congregational prayer, and contained no imagery. Yet the new Muslim architecture became eclectic, capitalizing on the ancient Indian traditions, and introducing new forms brought from West Asia; for example, the voussoired arch (composed of wedge-shaped constituent pieces). Muslim building activity passed through three stages. The first was short and violent, when the new rulers politically appropriated temples by destroying them. In the second, material from destroyed sites was used to build mosques and tombs. Finally, once they settled, Muslims prepared their own building materials for individual structures, and used salvaged material only rarely.

As in painting, provincial architectural styles developed in the independent sultanates as the rulers assimilated the local culture. Elegance of style depended on indigenous traditions, terrain, climate, and available materials. This accounts for the enormous difference between the brick and terracotta mosques of Bengal (Mosque at Bagha, 1523), the wooden mosques with spires in Kashmir (Friday Mosque, Srinagar, 1385, 1402, and 1674), and the stone-built mosques of Gujarat, the interiors of which have marked temple features (Ahmed Shah's Mosque, Ahmedabad, 1411).

The Mogul style, which started in the imperial capitals of Delhi, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikri in the sixteenth century, and which is marked by the spectacular architecture of Humayun's tomb, Delhi (1571), the Jami Mosque of Fatehpur Sikri (1574), and the Tajmahal, Agra (1643), diffused to the provinces as they increased. The universal Mogul style can be recognized everywhere, but there were special features in every provincial context that were rooted in the vernacular tradition. For example, in Bengal, where there was no marble, the brick surface was plastered, lime coated, and polished to a gleam.

Although European styles took over during British rule, the Mogul style resurfaced again in the late nineteenth century, when the Indo-Saracenic style became popular for the official British buildings. It was an architecture of facades, with a traditionally Indian exterior favoring the Mogul arch and dome masking a European interior. Examples of this style include the Law Courts in Madras, built between 1888 and 1892. This linkage to the Mughals and to India's past was useful to the British in establishing legitimacy for their rule.

See alsoHinduism and Islam ; South Asia, Islam in ; Urdu Language, Literature, and Poetry .


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Perween Hasan

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South Asian Culture and Islam

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South Asian Culture and Islam