Myth of ummah’s equality: How Indian Muslims were looked down upon by those who converted them

 Who are Indian Muslims? And how were they treated by Muslim rulers? There has been a continuous debate over the issue of the identity of Indian Muslims which in turn is closely linked to their origin. The complexity of this question has been aggravated as there is no integrated contemporary account that explains holistically how Islam spread in India.

In this context, it is important to go back and revisit the chronology of Islam’s spread in India. That would probably help us deal with the issue of the identity of Indian Muslims more rationally and find some permanent answers.

It is interesting to note that despite the much talked about attack of Muhammad bin Qasim in 712 CE on Sindh, by the year 1000 CE there was only a handful of Muslims in India and that too in the trans-Indus region. In fact, contrary to the common perception that Qasim was the first Muslim invader in India, the Islamic invasion in India had begun as early as 664 CE when Abdur Rahman captured Kabul, which was then part of India.

Stanley Lane-Poole mentions in Medieval India under Muhammadan Rule (London, 1926, Pp1) that in CE1000 there were no Muslims in northern India east of the Indus.

Noted historian KS Lal gives an account of the early years of Islamic expansion in India till the tenth century (Indian Muslims: Who are they? Voice of India, Pp2-3), “There were some settlements of Muslims in Sindh, Gujarat and Malabar Coast. Parts of Sindh were conquered by Muhammad bin Qasim Sakifi in CE 712; whichever towns he took like Alor, Nirun, Debul and Multan, he established mosques in them, appointed Muslim governors, and propagated the Muhammadan religion.”

According to various accounts, Qasim stayed in India for three years. After he went back, not only the Arab power declined in Sindh, but most of the neo-converts went back to the fold of ‘Hindu dharma’. In fact, this ‘ghar wapsi’ has been a continuous phenomenon that ran parallel to the conversion of Hindus since then.

During the first three to four decades of the 11th century, thousands of Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam by Mahmud of Ghazni. To give an example, the attack of Mahmud led to the conversion of 10,000 people alone in Baran (present-day Bulandshahar in Uttar Pradesh). Historical texts such as Tarikh-Yamini, Rausat-Us-Safa and Tarikh-i-Ferishtah give detailed accounts of conversions of Hindus under the sword by Ghazni and his successor Masud. All these texts were written by Islamic chroniclers. During this period some of the first Muslim colonies came up in places as far as Kanauj, Banaras and Bahraich. Some conversions took place in Gujarat and Kashmir also.

It was Muhammad Gori who established Islamic rule in India on a more durable basis. Tarikh-i-Ferishtah specifically mentions that when Gori captured Kalinjar, 50,000 people were converted into Islam.

At the beginning of 13th century, the next wave of conversions happened in the eastern part of the country as Itkhtiyaruddin Bakhtiar Khilji marched into Bihar. He destroyed the great learning centres of Nalanda, Vikramshila and Uddandapur. According to another historical text Tabqat-i-Nasiri, Khilji converted even some tribes in the Himalayan region.

According to KS Lal (Growth of Muslim Population in Medieval India, PP.108), “The numbers of Hindus that converted into Islam between 1193, when the rule of the Turkish sultanate was established at Delhi and 1210, when Qutubuddin Aibak died, and the immigrant Muslims were about two and a half lakhs. To this may be added the Muslims converted, migrated and pro-created, since the days of Mahmud of Ghazni in Punjab, UP, Gujarat and South. Thus, by the beginning of the 13th century, there surely was emergence of a Muslim community in India.”

Muslim population in India grew rapidly between 12th and 14th century under the Turkish rule primarily due to conversions. The Turkish rulers not only used the ‘sword’ but they also used economic tools like high taxation on Hindus in the name of jaziyah to put economic pressure to compel them to convert to Islam.

According to Lal, (Indian Muslims: Who are They, Pp36), “By the close of 14th century the situation was like this. Kashmir’s introduction to Islam had started since the days of Mahmud of Ghazni. Sindh and Punjab were being effectively Islamised by the rulers and Mongol invaders. In Gujarat, Deccan and Malwa also, because of the campaigns of local Muslim rulers against Hindu chiefs, the number of Muslims had risen. By the last years of the century, in the heartland of Muslim power, Muslim population of Delhi and its adjoining regions rose greatly.”

The Muslim population grew very rapidly between 1200 CE and 1400 CE. According to Lal, there were more than 30 lakh Muslims in India around 1400 CE. During the next 400 years, the Muslim population continued to grow primarily due to forced conversions of Hindus as well as polygamy. These conversions picked up further pace during Mughal rule, especially during the regimes of Babur, Shahjahan and Aurangzeb. The areas which were not ruled by the Mughals but by the provincial Muslim rulers across the length and breadth of the country also witnessed state-sponsored conversions. Enslavement of women and children and imposition of Jaziyah continued to be two major tools that were used to force Hindus to convert.

Lal gives a broad estimate of the emergence and expansion of Muslims in India from 1000 CE to 1800 CE with an interesting insight, “While the total population of India from 1000 to 1800 registered rise and fall by turns, Muslim population had shown only a constant rise. In (the year) 1000, Muslim numbers in India were microscopic. In 1200 they were perhaps three to four hundred thousand. By 1400, their number had probably risen to 3.2 million and they formed about 1.85 per cent of the total population. In 1600, they were probably 15 million. The total population estimated for 1800 is 170 million. Muslims who were 15 percent of the total would have been about 25 million.”

Lane-Poole writes in his seminal work Medieval India (1903), “The population of India in the present day is over three hundred million, and every sixth man is a Muslim.”

One of the most remarkable things, as the Muslim population grew in India, was the way foreign Islamic rulers treated the neo-converts. This also busts the myth that caste discrimination in Hindu society led to a large number of voluntary conversions. Hindus who converted to Islam were humiliated and ill-treated by Muslim rulers.

Ira Mervin Lapidus describes their plight (Muslim Cities in the Later Middle Ages, Pp 83), “The Indian converted Muslims manned the subordinate occupations. The socially rejected tradesmen were weighers, camel and donkey drivers, changers, falconers, cuppers, leather-workers and tanners, jugglers and barbers. The menials included scavengers, entertainers, funeral workers, wrestlers, clowns, players, story-tellers, and singing women moving about in the street, irregularly employed, knocking about for a living, associated with vice and begging, were part of this low class.”

Ziyauddin Barani, an Islamic chronicler of early medieval times, reveals in Fatawa-i-Jahandari how Indian Muslims were looked down upon by the Muslim ruling class. Barani writes that the foreign Muslims “alone are capable of virtue, kindness, generosity, valour, good deed, good work, truthfulness. On the other hand, low-born (Indian Muslims) are capable of only vices — immodesty, falsehood, miserliness, misappropriation, wrongfulness, lies, evil-speaking, in gratitude, shamelessness, impudence. So they are called low-born, mean, worthless, shameless and of dirty birth.”

It would be pertinent, in the light of such remarks, for that section of Indian Muslims to rethink the legacy they have tried to own as they claim their lineage to the foreign Muslims who ruled in India. The latter, ironically, never owned them.

The writer is a research director at RSS-linked think tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra. Views expressed are personal.

Source Myth of ummah’s equality: How Indian Muslims were looked down upon by those who converted them (


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