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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Indian Muslims - one of a kind

The times of India Article "The distinctiveness of Indian Muslims is asserting itself again." follows my commentary.

I applaud Times of India for consciously making an effort to reflect the views of the moderates of India who make up perhaps 98% of the population across the board. They want to get along with all and silently act, talk and think of goodwill for every Indian; they are the peace makers.

The article by Harbans Mukhia is a reflection of those peace makers; it is written with the purpose of mitigating conflicts and nurturing goodwill.

The battle cry of the insecure members of our society who are less than 1/10th of 1% of our population is to spread hate so they can make a political capital out of it; they are the surrogates of our past colonial masters who believed in dividing and weakening India. The Indians be it Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists and others have seen this time and again and have rejected that extremist ideology.

I am pleased to see Muslims of India sending a strong, firm, clear and emphatic signal to the terrorists; "when you die you will not even get burial grounds and you will become the curse of people", and 6000 Ulema's coming together for the express purpose of condemning terrorism must be lauded and encouraged.

Times of India will continue to keep its lead, as long as it promotes articles that unite India. Every Indian hankers for one India, and it is there and I am glad to see their view reflected in the leading paper of India. This is what it takes to lead. Keep it up!

Mike Ghouse

The distinctiveness of Indian Muslims is asserting itself again.
Harbans Mukhia


The distinctiveness of Indian Muslims is asserting itself again. Over the past few months, Muslim theologians distanced themselves from what has come to be branded "Islamist terror" in the media followed by an organised expression of unqualified disapproval by as many as 6,000 Ulema (Muslim Clergy) from around the country gathered in Hyderabad specifically for the purpose. This highlights the distinctiveness of Indian Muslims which has evolved through centuries of Indian history. There is probably no other instance of the Ulema rising up in protest against terrorism on this scale anywhere else in the world. And in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, ordinary as well as elite Muslims also gave public vent to their outrage.

To appreciate this distinctiveness, it is instructive to look at the process of conversions to Islam that took place in India. The Muslims inhabiting the Indian subcontinent comprise the largest concentration of the community in the world. The easiest assumption is that conversions were effected by the might of the medieval Muslim state in India over the six centuries that it ruled. Yet, interestingly there is not a single book on the subject of conversion in India as a whole. There are two books on the subject in Kashmir, another on Bengal. That's it. The reason is that there is not enough historical evidence to substantiate a book length work. This in turn implies that conversion did not take place at the hands of one agency or at one go or for one reason, either by the use of force or temptation or persuasion. For, if such had been the case, there was no way it could have escaped being recorded either by Islamic scholars or their opponents.

Indeed, the geographical distribution of the density of Muslim population in the subcontinent flies in the face of the notion that the medieval Indian state could have been even the chief agency of conversion. The highest density is located in four geographical peripheries of the subcontinent: the Kashmir valley in the north, Pakistan in the west, Bangladesh in the east and in the Malabar region down south. That is where the Muslims are, and were, in a majority. These were also the political peripheries of the medieval Muslim state. Kashmir had turned to Islam long before the medieval Indian state reached there in Akbar's reign. West Punjab was a land where the hold of the medieval state was forever disputed and tenuous. East Bengal was seldom under the control of Delhi or Agra either and the Muslim state's reach never extended to Kerala anyway.

On the other hand, in the heartland of the Muslim empire Bihar, UP, Delhi, East Punjab for nearly six centuries the Muslims never exceeded around 15 per cent of the total population. Significantly, the massive conversions amounting to about a 50 per cent rise from about one in six to one in four of the population occurred between the second quarter of the 19th century and 1941, the last census before the partition, when the British ruled here. And overall, a fraction less than 25 per cent of the population had converted from the arrival of Islam in India to about the time of the partition.

Massive as these conversions are, two things stand out: if the medieval Indian Muslim state had taken upon itself the role of the religious zealot, it could not have been satisfied with converting just about one in every six inhabitants; and, the process of conversion was so slow, spread out over such long stretches of time and almost imperceptible that medieval historians and litterateurs, both Hindu and Muslim, failed to notice and record it, except as sporadic events.

It is this slow, stretched out process that explains the persistence of a wide spectrum of pre-Islamic, sometimes even anti-Islamic, customs, ceremonies, values and mores among the converts. Historian Ghulam Ahmad Tabtabai, writing in the 1780s, noted that the Muslims celebrated Holi as much as the Hindus. And Mirza Qateel a little later said that except for the Afghans and fanatics among Muslims, everyone played Holi and celebrated Diwali. But much more significant is the fact that militancy has never found much civil support either among the Hindus or Indian Muslims. It, therefore, becomes understandable that all the assaults on temples, mosques and dargahs in the past few years with the clear intention of inflaming communal passions and inciting violence have failed to provoke a single incident of rioting.

The Indian Muslims are thus a part of that all encompassing civilisation of which tolerance of difference is a central feature. The offence that Islamic militants have caused to this civilisation and to the Muslims in the process is now being confronted with protests from within the community.

One happy result of these happenings is the gradual lifting of the siege mentality with which Indian Muslims have lived for a long time. The seeping realisation that peace lies in reaching out, rather than sulking in isolation from the other communities, bodes well for us all. It has the capability to erode the hold of other forms of communalism as well.

The writer was professor of history at JNU, New Delhi.

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