History of Islam in India

Islam in Modern India

Muslim influx and influence in India started almost at the inception of the religion. The traders from Arabia were frequent visitors to the Indian subcontinent even before Prophet Muhammad revealed the Koran. They brought the word of Muhammad to India in the 7th century and this resulted in some peaceful conversions of Hindus to Islam. Following this, Mohammad-ibn-Quasim in the year 712 A.D conquered the Province of Sindh. However, this event in history does not seem to have influenced India as much as expected. Beginning with the invasion of Mohammad of Ghazni in the 10th century, followed by a barrage of invaders from Persia, Turkey and Afghanistan in the 11th and 12th centuries, a full force of Islam was thrust upon India. Forcible conversions of people of other faiths with inducements as well as unfair taxation resulted in spread of the Islam in Hindustan. The British conquest in India that started insidiously with the establishment of the East India Company, eventually usurped the Muslim stronghold of India, in the 18th century.

Today there are more than a quarter of a billion Muslims living in the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). This amounts to more than a quarter of the total Muslim population of the world. Muslims form about fifteen percent of the Indian population. It is unique that the Muslim population of India has been influenced by the Hindu religion throughout history. Sufism, for example is an adaptation of Vedanta. Over many centuries, Islam in India has undergone several attempts at reforms, some towards modernization and some leaning more towards fundamentalism.

The Muslims in India are categorized into two distinct classes based on their origins. This is similar to the caste system of Hinduism (so called Varnashrama). Muslims are broadly divided into two groups, namely, Ashraf and Ajlaf. Ashraf are again grouped as Sayyeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans. The Sayyeds are said to be descendents of the Prophet and regarded in high esteem. The Sheikhs are of Arab descent and are next in line in prestige. The Mughals are descendents of the greatest Muslim rulers of India, the Mughals and occupy third place. Pathans including Sepahis hail from the northwestern regions including Afghanistan and form the last group of Ashraf. The Ajlaf on the other hand are the Indian converts and are considered to be of common ancestry. They are considered to be of inferior class when compared to the Ashraf.

Nineteenth century India saw great socio-religious reform in Hinduism. The reform movements of Rajaram Mohan Roy in 1827 first started the abolishing of Sati and recognition of widow marriage as well as education of women by founding of his Brahmo Samaj in Bengal. Many reform movements followed this, significantly the Prarthana Samaj started by Keshab Chandra Sen in 1867 (later popularized by G.M. Ranade and Bhandarkar), Arya Samaj established in 1875 by Dayananda Saraswati and Ramakrishna Mission of Vivekananda. The Theosophical Society of Colonel Cleott popularized by Annie Besant in 1886 in Madras, the Rehnumai Mazdayasan Sabha of the Parsees established by Dadabhai Navaroji in 1851 in Bombay and the Sri Narayan Dharma Paripalan Yogam started by Sri Narayana Guru in 1903 in Travancore were some other reform movements of late 19th century. All these reforms were attempts at steering the Hindu religion towards Vedanta, which is the backbone of its philosophy.

Unlike Hinduism, which is flexible and amenable to reform, Islam is rigid and difficult to change. Criticism of old archaic practices is shunned and viewed as anti- Muslim rhetoric. Modernization is seen as a threat to the way of life of a Muslim. In the face of such persistent orthodoxy all the reforms of the 19th century generally have been reverting to more fundamentalism rather than modernization. Two such reforms were the Wahabis and Tabligis.

The Wahabis

The Wahabi movement started in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century by Muhammad ibn-Abd-al-Wahab (1703–1792) regards all other religions as heretical and thus intolerant towards them. The Indian Wahabi movement was founded by Syed Ahmed Brelavi (1789-1831) belonging to Rai Baraili. When he saw Islam drifting towards superstitions and exaggerated veneration of saints and prophets, he steered Islam to its more fundamental roots similar to the Arabian Wahabi movement. However, the Brelavi Wahabis had no direct contact with their counterparts in Arabia. Its aim was to establish Muslim sovereignty in India or a Dar-ul-Islam.

Though the Wahabis took part in fighting the British, the basic tenet of the movement did not change, that is to establish Muslim supremacy over all of India. Influenced by the Wahabi movement, two other fundamentalist movements came into existence. Shariatullah started Fairazi movement in attempt to aid the poor peasants in Bengal against the oppressive zamindars. Soon this became an anti-Hindu movement as well. More significant was the second movement called the Deoband. They established the Muslim schools for education, the model of which is still followed in the madrassahs around the Muslim world. These Deoband faction attracted students from all over the Muslim world. Financed by the rich Muslim Arab nations, fundamentalism was institutionalized in these schools. In India there is an undercurrent of discord between the Deoband faction and the Brelavi Wahabis, mainly due to the financial disparity. In course of time the movements started as reform of Muslims shifted course and has been preoccupied with power and control of the populous.

The Tabligis

Dayananda Saraswati’s Arya Samaj targeted Muslim converts and attempted a purification drive (shuddhikaran). As a response Maulana Iliyas of Mewat in Rajastan started the Tabligi movement in 1927. The Hindu converts were practicing a mixed form of Islam as they were culturally more Hindu than Muslim. Maulana Iliyas started his movement to transform these converts into ‘complete Muslims’ and put forward the slogan, ‘Aye Musalmano! Musalman bano’ (O Muslims! Be Muslims). True Islamic teachings and practices were taught in an uncompromising way. Initially localized to Mewat, the movement caught on and spread rapidly after the death of the Maulana.

The Tabligis follow strict codes of the Islamic law. They are bound by the religious dogma, dressing patterns, detailed methods of religious practices. Meetings of thousands of Muslim gatherings (Jama’at) are held where minute details of the religious practices are taught for Muslims to follow. Half the populations of Muslims in the subcontinent are now adherents of this movement. Though apolitical in its organization, they have a capacity of mobilizing a large number of Muslims at short notice to gather.

More moderate reforms of the Islamic religion also occurred simultaneously. The adherents of such reforms are much less in number today. The Aligarh and the Ahmedia movements are the two main moderate attempts at reform.

The Aligarh Movement

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1891) attempted a social upsurge amongst the Indian Muslims with his so-called Aligarh movement. His main contribution was to enhance education with starting of many schools and colleges. Much importance was given to Urdu language. He undertook reconciliation between Islam and Christianity and he pointedly showed the similarities between the two religions. He even published a sympathetic study of the Bible. Urdu translation of books on western arts and sciences were done by a translation society founded by him. Despite all the successful launching of social reforms, Sir Syed failed to bring about much needed moderation of the religion such as women’s education and the purdah system for oppressed women. Only the education of upper and middle class and has been criticized for not going far enough with his reforms of the entire Muslim society.

The Ahmedias

Founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, the movement was based on universal religion of all communities. It spread western liberal education among Muslims by starting a number of schools and colleges. It was opposed to Jihad but at the same time infused vigorous religious spirit among Muslims. It is the most closely knit and organized group of Muslims in the country. Its perceived mysticism was its downfall.

The Aga Khan’s Flock

Apart from the Sunnis (the followers of Omar, the Caliph) and Shiites, (followers of Ali, Prophet’s son in law) there is another sect in Indian subcontinent called the Aga Khanis. It is the Nizari Ismaili community with Aga Khan as their Imam. It originated as a splinter group of Shi’ite sect, when they accepted Ismail as the seventh Imam instead of his brother. They trace an unbroken line of Imams up to the current day Aga Khan (Prince Karim), who is 49th in succession. Many Shiite sects refused to accept any Imams after the elevnth Imam died without an heir. In this way the Nizari Ismailis are different. Thirteen generation after Ali, the Shiite sect further divided between followers of Nizar and his brother (later came to be known as Bohra community). Nizari Ismailis follow Aga Khan as their leader and celebrate his birthday as a holy day rather than the Muharram, which most of the Shiites celebrate as a holy day because of the death anniversary of Hussein, son of Ali.

Followers of Aga Khan are more westernized than any other Muslim community. Most of the recent Aga Khans have been educated in England. Thousand years ago they were rivals of the caliphate of Baghdad and ruled as the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. After the decline of their influence in Egypt and Asia, they remained in Persia until 1840, when the 46th Imam was forced to leave Persia. They then moved to India and Pakistan where they formed an amicable relationship with the British. They were not accepted into Mecca and did not undertake pilgrimage. In 1866 their interpretation of the Koran resulted in dissension among its followers and many left the faith and reverted to some other form of Shiite sect. The Aga Khans were also accused of mishandling the Nizari finances in 1905 though they won a court battle in this regard. However, the modernization of the religion by the Aga Khans did not sit well in the Muslim world. The Nizari Ismailis of Gujarat are called Khojas.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, for example, Indian Nizaris often deemed it necessary to consult Hindu texts as well as The Holy Koran (which is of course their primary Book); in fact even today a fair number of Aga-Khanis enjoy and derive some inspiration from the Bhagavad-Gita. Unlike other Muslims, they sometimes sing hymns during their services, usually in an Indian language such as Gujarati. In addition, many Nizaris believe that reincarnation of souls is possible under certain circumstances. Mostly these are Muslims who embrace Sufism. An attempt was once made to categorize Hazrat Ali as the tenth avatar of Vishnu by Aga Khan though they no longer believe this.

As a result of the rift between the reformers and the orthodox sections of the religion, many deserted and joined other Shiite sect, thus becoming indistinguishable from them. It was thought that only about four million Muslims remained faithful to Aga Khan. However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union and birth of independent countries like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan where many Aga Khanis were found to be followers of the faith. Now it is believed that there are about 20 million followers.

Other attempts

Other attempts have been made to modernize the religious practices with varying effects. Shibli Numani attempted Muslims to adopt a more flexible attitude towards Hindus and accept new ideas, but failed. Barruddin Tyebji (1844-1906) attempted to do away with the Purdah in Bombay. Moves toward re-interpretation of scriptures, history and behavior have been attempted by Hali and more recently by Maulana Vahiddudin Khan.

Traditional Muslim forces are too strong to allow any radical changes in the socio-religious front. Unlike Hindu reforms, real radical reforms of Islam have remained a dream of certain individuals over the course of history. Phadke wrote in 1989 that “ So tight has been the hold of orthodoxy on the Muslim mind that nowhere in India has Muslim society been so far able to support a vocal group of liberal Muslims committed to modern values. There has been no serious attempt of a thorough critical appraisal of their heritage”. After Indian Independence the reform of the Islam has become even more difficult as any attempt is viewed with suspicion because of the minority status of the Muslims.

Another moderate Muslim movement attempting to reform is the Bohra Reformist Group. Bohras are mainly business people mostly in the hardware and gun smithy. This is a modern movement attempting to soften the authority of the religious leaders on the religion. Started by Engineer, Contractor and Poonawala they have even attempted to interpret Koran in the perspective of a Christian liberal theology.

In the 1970’s a reformist named Hamid Dalwai made a serious attempt at modernizing Islam in India. He proposed abandonment of purdah and more freedom to women among the Maharashtra Sunni Muslim community. For this effort he was branded as heretic and his movement did not survive after his death. Dalwai’s movement was called Muslim Satayshodhak Mandal (MSM). Many more similar attempts have so far failed to produce significant results in reforming the socio-religious aspect of Islam in India. The fundamentalism is readily accepted whereas the moderate reforms are shunned.

The Future

Any attempt to bring the religion in par with the modern scientific world is perceived as a threat to Islamic identity. Religion is law in Islam and any change is thought to be breech of faith and belief. Sir Syed (Aligarh Movement) was called a kafir or infidel for his attempts and Dalwai (MSM) was branded as munafique or a heretic. Religion forms an integral part of the day-to-day practice of Islam that any reform devoid of religion is bound to fail. At the same time the injudicious reliance on religion can result in extreme fundamentalism like the Wahabi or directionless organization of the Tablig Jama’at. Being a minority status in India has resulted in any attempt at modernization to be called as an attempt at ‘Hindu-isation’ of Islam. Even the purdah system is defended as a religious identity, discarding the humanitarian aspect and discrimination.

Somehow a middle ground has to be sought both by the minority Muslims and the majority Hindus in India. There has to be an exchange of moderate ideas in a non-religious context that does not cross the line of infuriating the religious faction. From a distance this looks like an impossible feat as both sides have vowed not to give an inch. This rigidity has made the clash of two of the great religions all the more difficult to avoid. The divergent paths followed by both in their philosophy and theosophy seems to be drifting apart at a rapid pace.


The stories of the history of the sultanates of India and the Mughal history during the medieval period are beautifully written by John Keay in his book ‘India: A history’. The history of Aga Khans was obtained from an article by David McNaughton and personal communication with my Muslim friends. The research on Indian Muslim movements was aided by an excellent research article by Babsaheb Kazi, a research associate from the Center for Social Studies in Surat.


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

Top | History

Views: 3825      Comments: 7

Comment Faruk Choudhary is expressing his views howsoever distasteful or disagreeable it may be to you Mr. Butt. He has been critical of all religions not just Islam. All religions have good things to teach but also contain flaws and are open to criticism.
It is ironical that you talk of respecting all and yet call him 'neech zaat' with your condescending attitude.
As for Roodra it is best to ignore him.

Austin Crasta
10-Jun-2014 01:45 AM

Comment I always look for such a awesome and deep knowledge full article. Thanks a lot to the writer.
One thing I want to say about the religions that all the religions of the world have come into existence after large number of processes and all belongs to a parent or root religion and we are not sure what is that root as by the time facts become fade and fade and sometime completely lost. By guess and study we say that one particular religion is older than others. And I am saying it about the history about which we don't have written records. It is similar to parent child relation.One religion might be there and by the time reform would have needed and new forms created. So as one is root so all the religions are brothers of each other. So we all should respect all the religions. People need to follow a religion for the peace of mind and harmonisation among people.

30-Jan-2014 15:07 PM

Comment I think Faruk H. Chaoudhary, or whatever your name is, has a sick mind and Roodra is much sicker. In this age and era, the people having such thoughts are the ones who flare up the hatred.

You are supposed to respect all the religions and never say anyone evil. Is this what your racist parents taught you to use such vulgar langauge for the people who are not like you.? Is that secularism teaches you to degrade other people? This shows how "neech zaat" or low garde people you are, I mean Faruk(?) and Roodra.

As far as Nasir Sayani goes, you are right to say that do not blame Farulk as he is mentally ill person.

Mishra Ji, please read more about it you will find that Islam is more than it is portrayed. (Go to Google.com and check ISLAM) I belive all the religions have good things and that is what Akbar the Great had brought up the religion called Din-e-Ilahi taking good things from many religions and showing that all the religions can be respected but I guess he went too far and Muslims of that era did not like that. Well that is thing of the past.

We have to, now today, respect all of the religions and religios thoughts and not hurt each others felings.


M. N. Butt
Houston, Texas, U.S.A
May 3, 2013

Nadeem Butt
03-May-2013 10:28 AM

Comment Hinduism is incompatible with Islam. India and Hindu is inseparable. Islam is foreign to India. Islam came in as invaders, plunderers, rapists, iconoclasm and all that is evil. Even Christianity has done the same. Just look at the true history of India.

Both Islam and Christianity must be totally wiped out of India. Lost land must be regained by all means.

07-Jan-2013 01:58 AM

Comment Good material for history lovers and scholars. I got what I wanted. Thanks a bunch Dr. Neria!

Kamal Kumar Mishra
26-Oct-2012 14:37 PM

Comment Good article, reasonably researched, or perhaps the size of the article may not have covered what I think has been missed. Any way I don't blame Faruk Chaudhury for having such a negetive feeling about Islam, unfortunately it is not whats in the Holy Quran, it is what said is in it, which gives a very negetive view of Islam.

Unfortunately, the status of Muslims in Pakistan deemed to be worse than India, becuase secularism is totally not practised in Pakistan.

Nasir Sayani
23-Feb-2012 15:25 PM

Comment After watching the genocide and rape by Pakistani Muslim army in 1971 in Bangladesh I lost Faith not only Islam I lost faith in all the religion.I believe Koran is the plagiarized version of Jewish Torah and Christians Bible and the creators of Islam Mohammad,s toxic book of Evil.

Faruk Hyder Choudhury
28-Jul-2011 20:41 PM

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