How Did Islam Reach the Subcontinent: Through Socialization or Coercion?

cheraman juma masjid
Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungalloor

How did Islam reach the Subcontinent: through Socialization or Coercion; Trade or Invasion? It is a very important question which has a direct bearing on the social ecology in which people live their lives nowadays. It requires a fair and satisfactory answer to clear the doubts that have crept into the minds of many people owing to their not so clear understanding of Islam’s arrival in the Subcontinent.

There is, thus, an urgent need to lay bare the falsehoods the subjective interpretation of history is spreading about the arrival of Islam in the Subcontinent. And learn that the diffusion of Islam towards the entire Southeast Asia occurred due to its getting along with peoples through the Arab MuslimTraders–frequenting its bazaars and business hubs for commercial enterprises–rather than the Invaders as imagined and publicised by many, including some jobbing historians, spinmeisters, phoney journalists and naive followers of the trend. It got into the Southeast Asia, writes Dr. Carool Kersten of King’s College, London, so peacefully that:

“it did not involve a conquest, and that it happened gradually and surprisingly”

through socialization, interaction, aculturization and trade. The Arab traders frequented Malaysia and Indonesia as well where they were welcomed by the natives for their fair behaviour which impacted on them so profoundly that they accepted Islam as their religion and made their places largest Muslim countries in the process.

That Islam made its way into the Subcontinent through quality merchandise is a glaring fact of history. It reached there on ships and boats and with the piety, honesty, uprightness and philanthropy of merchants, selling and buying a variety of goods, and exchanging exquisite silks for highly flavoured spices with the indeginous buyers and sellers. This is fairly well borne out by a huge influxe of Arab traders that Kerala, Gujarat and subsequently Laxdweep witnessed over a period of time. The advent of Arab traders in Kerala and Gujarat happened almost simultaneously in the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad ( pbuh). With these traders the local rulers became so familiar and affable that out of their warm feelings and friendly gestures they created facilities in their dominions to accommodate them comfortably, and enable them to perform their religious duties with ease during their sojourns.

The existence of the earliest mosques at Kodungallur, Kerala, and Bhavnagar, Gujrat amply substantiate our contention, pointing towards the benefits that accrued to these independent territories from the active participation of their peoples in the ever growing Arab mercantile activities and trade. These mosques are of considerable archaeological and historical significance as their life is more than 14 centuries old. They furnish credible evidence to support the fact that these locations were not only the great business hubs and thoroughfares but also the meeting points of cultures. To these places the traders made regular trips and errands to accomplish business. And where due to prolonged social intercourse between the Arabs and the natives a wonderful acculturation of both the peoples to one another’s lifestyles took place to merge their social patterns together.

Indeed these mosques are the earliest archaeological spicemens and architectural landmarks that clearly show the presence of Islam in these places which are located near the seas. It was from among a multitude of independent territories of the Subcontinent that these were chosen by the Arab traders mainly for their being nearby seas and, therefore, easily accessible for trade and commerce through the Arabian Sea.

It is interesting to note that at that point of time the Subcontinent presented but a wide assortment of separate political entities which were set apart, historically, culturally and traditionally. Quite disparate were they as neighbours, having no love lost for one another. They were yet to find it easy to adapt from one to another culture and form a single entity due to the scientific and technological limitations of the age. The overwhelming parochialism, medievalism, obscurantism and superstition, and the nonavailability of sound, faster and modern facilities of transport and communications constricted their social mobility enormously, preventing them to form a united whole.

For these separate identities social intercourse and give and take became possible gradually only when they were physically and emotionally connected by a whole network of communications and railways that were conceptualized and established by the British for their own commercial and political interests. They coalesced together to develop feelings of nationalism which ofcourse drove them together against the British but caused them to part ways with a sizable section of population to carve out two independent dominions of India and Pakistan.

However, Indian Union began taking shape practically in 1947 when 565 Princely States plus thousands of Zaminadari and Jagir estates on the one side, and the British India on the other agreed to join together after their integration was successfully accomplished by Sardar Patel.

The mosques of Karala and Gujrat are said to have been built in the lifetime of the Prophet (pbuh). The Kudungallur Cherian mosque was built at the behest of its ruler, Chera Perumal who had been highly impressed by the honesty, generosity and fair trading of Arab traders. He is also said to have heard from these traders about the holiness of the Prophet (pbuh) and his noble mission. He seemed to have been so greatly inspired by the Islam’s sacred quest for truth that he is believed to have proceeded towards Mecca to meet the Prophet (pbuh). It is said that after meeting the Prophet (pbuh) in person with a gift of Ginger Pickle, he converted to Islam and commanded his government back home to build a mosque. He is also said to have died in a shipwreck on his way back home.

Likewise, the Gujrat mosque seems to have been built by the Arab traders when the Kaba in Maka was yet to become the Qibla for Muslims. It was erected in the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) which is proven by its very direction which is towards Qibla-e-Awal, Masjid-e-Alaqsa in Jerusalem.

There was, thus, no bloodshed involved in the materialization of these two earliest projects of Islam in the Subcontinent. And there was no role for arrows and swords to play in their construction and in the spread of the message of Islam. These weapons fell into disuse for quite a long time and accumulated dust, dirt and rust while remaining obscure and concealed in their quivers and sheaths.

It was finally the medieval power politics that made a terrible use of these weapons for territorial aggrandizement, wealth, power and reputation. The absolute Monarchy of the time established an elaborate military apparatus for this purpose, equipping its warriors with bows, arrows and spears to invade the territories of other rulers and usurp and annex them to its dominions. A huge exchange of arrows and crossing swords with multiple powers of the Subcontinent would occur at intervals to bring unimaginable troubles that lasted intermittently throughout the centuries. And with the invention and subsequent use of gunpowder as a war weapon, the entire urban and rural landscape together with village hamlets and land management system of the vanquished were destroyed. The magnitude of the application of violence remained so high and ruthless during the ongoing wars and unrelenting skirmishes, that followed them, that the total annihilation of forces of production plus destruction of arable lands, paddy fields, crops, Oxens and buffalos was an inevitable outcome, leaving a little scope for reconciliation between the victor and the loser that too through the route of indemnification.

With Mohammad Bin Qasim’s forays into Sindh began the period of whipping out swords to lower down those of the adversaries to usurp their wealth and riches and leave them destitute. His invasion was also facilitated by the anti-trade activists and pirates who had infested the maritime routes like termites, daring even to kidnap some women who were on their sea journeys. Before Sindh, the Arabs had already reached Makran and Balochistan as well.

The narrative that Muslims in the Subcontinent were religious invaders from outside has stemmed essentially from the political strategy and divide and rule policy devised by the British to bring its major areas under their sway. They engaged scholars and historians to develop such strategies to help the authorities to build up a narrative that could be used in fueling and exploiting the most subjective interpretation of medieval historical literature.

The noted scholar, Max Muller, originally a German, was employed and paid handsomely to interpret indigenous literature in such a way that the people were prompted not only to look down upon common people and artisans, and hate village urchins, Sudaras and Maleechs but also lost faith in their own belief systems and traditions. He was inducted into the Company’s Library to become finally a Cultural Intermediary between Europe and the Subcontinent.

Before Max Muller two British scholars, William Jones and Henry Thomas Colebrooke were engaged to produce huge works which finally led to the founding of a number of Asiatic Societies in India, London and Paris.

A lot of money went into this research which ultimately pointed to what the British desired, enabling them, thus, to let the proselytization of Hindu hatred against Muslim rulers percolate down the streets systematically and profusely. Historical links of a common Eurasian ancestry of the British with the Hindus established by the scholars made the East India Company to boast proudly that they were duty bound to protect the Hindu interests. Trumpeting themselves as saviours of Hindu culture, they widely publicized that the providence had brought them to the Subcontinent to rescue her people of grave historical burdens and injustices perpetrated on them over centuries by “the Muslim autocratic tyrants”. They were, thus, obligated to rectify the wrongs done to Hindus in the past by avenging the insults heaped on their ancestors– by Mohammed Bin Qasim, a Muslim “bigot” and invader– and guarding them against being completely swayed and overwhelmed by Islamic theocracy and Sharia laws.

The historians tasked for the job claimed to have delved deeper into the old records and, thereby, unearthed what they decried as historical malice against Hindus. They developed their arguments on the Turko-Persian Chronicles to whose internal contradictions they didn’t pay attention. They also ignored the contemporary Hindu sources that do not give any information regarding the raids of Ghazni and, thus, developed iconoclastic historiography.

Their conclusions were published to flare up identity politics and play one community against the other. Ellenborough, the then Governor-General of the East India Company was the foremost who vowed to do whatever it took to purge the Hindu ethos of its Muslim influence. He portrayed the British arrival in the Subcontinent as an effective challenge to Muslim identity and thought. He even claimed to have brought back the “gates of Somnath” temple once carried by Mohammed Ghaznavi . In his declaration of 1842 to “all Princes and Chiefs of India”, he announced that the return of the so called spoiled remains of the temple to India avenged “the insult of 800 years…the gates of the temple of Somnath, so long the memorial of your humiliation, are become the proudest record of your national glory”. ( it is a “sad reminder of historical lies of the East India Company” ASI).

Thus was set in motion a narrative of savage scuffle between Hindus and Muslims which gradually turned into a battle of civilizations. It became a dominant narrative which had no room for those Gujarati Muslims who according to contemporary Jain sources lost their lives along with Hindus in defending the Somnath Temple against Ghazni’s raids. And for those Muslim traders who along with locals fiercely resisted Vasco de Gama’s inroads into Kerala. It skipped out totally on the Hindu ruler of Calicut who commanded his fishermen to bring up a male in their family as Muslim to man the Arabian ships of merchandise.

Also it didn’t take stock of the Rational Culture whose seeds were sown by the Sufi Saints of the stature of Ali bin Usman Hujwiri (1072) who came from Ghazni to settle down permanently in Lahore for the purpose. And which grew up subsequently into a plant that was deeply and fondly fed and caressed by Khawaja Muin-ud-Din Chisti (at Ajmer, the capital of a Hindu King, Prithve Raj), and Khawaja Nizamuddin and his disciple Amir Khusru, a great Sufi singer, musician, poet and scholar of middle ages. It witnessed further growth with the opening of Khanqahs at different stations of the Subcontinent to cater to the needs of the sick, needy and the poor irrespective of their race, caste and religion. And inspired Emperor Babur to persuade Humayun, through his wasiyat (testation), to nurture and protect the Rational Culture by dispensing justice to all irrespective of any religious considerations. While emphasizing its pleasant benefits, Zahir-ud-Din Mohammad Babur, Badshah-e-Gazi impressed upon Shahzada Nasir-ud-Din Mohammad Humayun that:

God “hath granted unto thee the Empire of India. It is but proper that you, with heart cleansed of all religious bigotry, should dispens justice according to the tenets of each community. And in particular refrain from the sacrifice of cow, for that way lies the conquest of the hearts of the people of Hindustan; and subjects of the realm will, through royal favour, be devoted to thee. And the temples and abodes of worship of every community under Imperial sway, you should not damage…”

Conscientious as he was, Humayun left no stone unturned to execute his father’s dying wish. He cultivated so tremendous love for humanity in his son, Akbar that it grew finally into a colossal tree of Salah-e-Kul (peace with all) and bore sweet fruit of Tawhid-e-Illahi (Oneness of God).

Emperor Akbar’s successors too remained dedicated to the purging of their empires of whatever was antagonistic to the Rational Thought which sprouted and blossomed fully under the benevolent patronage of Prince Dara Sheko, bearing, thus, the desired plush fruit of pluralistic taste that found its full expression in his scholarly works, and Persian translations of Hindu Scriptures.

With its hyperbolic caricature of the Muslim ruler’s character and uncontrollable urge to overplay their roles as religious zealots, and suppressing their plundering errands under the shadow of their so called passion for iconoclasm, the colonial hegemonic discourse became dangerously dominant and all-pervasive. It portrayed the invasions of the Sultans as their zest for propagating Islam and demolishing indigenous traditions and religious beliefs rather than their attempt at forming the Sultanate of Delhi. It resolved to liberate the majority mind from the mental clutches of the alien Muslim rule by liquidating its seats of power wherever they existed. It destroyed Muslim rule in Sindh which comprised a series of ports and large tracts of dry, desert-like terrain around the delta of the Indus River opening into the Arabian Sea. Bengal and Awadh too were crushed, and the Muslims were gradually replaced by Brahmins and Kayasthas in the administration of these places.

The dominant discourse was substantially strengthened by the British historians, notably Elliot, Elphinstone and Vincent Smith. Their writings on Islam in India, largely based on Chachnama– a 13 century (1220) Persian translation of an 8th century Arabic history of Muhammad bin Qasim’s campaign in Sindh–immensely influenced Indian historiography. The Indian historians especially Sir Jadunath Sarkar and R. C. Majumdar were deeply influenced by it. They carried forward the colonial interpretation of Indian history through their works in which they emphasized that Islam’s “fiercely monotheistic nature made Muslim Conquest of India different from all preceding invasions. They inevitably cast their covetous eyes on India after conquering Spain”.

They have left behind a huge platoon of successors in the field to add to the plethora of colonial type literatures to support distortions, falsehoods, imaginations and phoney assumptions, and design a variety of invectives (like Babur ki Aulad, Aurangzab kay Sapoot, Biryani wa Kabab, Meyan etc) which the street urchins hurl nowadays on the Muslims. Even attention-seeking writers of the likes of Taslima Nasrin, Salman Rushdie etc, are hell bent upon realizing a lot of benefit by generating a narrative of portraying even erudite, scholar and poet Emperors of yore as barbarians and bigots.

There is, thus, an urgent need to shun swapping cheese for chalk to drive political profit; an old, obsolete way of interpreting history. An objective understanding of the past is a prerequisite for building a better present and a rich, prosperous and quality future for our progeny, and for promoting humanity.

( Dr. Ahad is an author and historian )

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