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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century


    Islam has been a presence on the Indian subcontinent for over 1,000 years. Today, Indian Muslims comprise one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. About 12 percent, or 120 million, of India's residents are Muslims.

    Mughal Rulers of India.

    Arab invaders first brought Islam to India in the 700s. Although India had a Hindu majority, Muslims gained widespread control over the region after the rise of the Mughal Empire in the 1500s. The empire's founder, Babur , claimed to be a descendant of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan . Babur's successors extended Muslim rule over nearly the entire subcontinent.The most famous Mughal emperor, Akbar , reigned for half a century, until 1605 . He promoted religious tolerance, banning the tax on non-Muslims and allowing Hindus, Muslims, and Christians to live according to their faith. Akbar employed Hindus at all levels of government and even married Hindu princesses. Education and the arts flourished under Akbar's rule, as did trade relations with Britain.

    Islamic civilization thrived in India until the late 1600s, when Hindu and Sikh groups rose in opposition to the imperial rule. Despite the protests, the emperor Aurangzeb reinstated the tax on non-Muslims and replaced Hindus and Christians in the government with those of Islamic faith. The empire fell into decline after Aurangzeb's death in 1707 . By the mid-1700s, attacks by Persian and Afghan invaders, along with those from the Marathas of central India, had weakened the Mughal grip on the region.

    Hoping to reverse the empire's decline, court scholar Shah Wali Allah ( 1703 – 1762 ) urged religious reform and promoted a deeper devotion to the hadith. He believed that a broad interpretation of Islamic law could restore political order, and he sought to serve as a guide to the princes. Although the Mughal decline continued, Shah Wali Allah's movement led to the publication of an influential collection of fatwas and to the advancement of Urdu, a regional language, as the court language (replacing Persian).

    British Influence in India.

    In the 1700s, Great Britain extended its power to India. The British initially sought economic rather than military conquest and battled with the French over trading centers in the region. By 1803 , however, Britain's East India Company had taken over Delhi, the seat of the Mughal Empire. The Mughal Empire continued as a British protectorate but had little true power. Social rank became important to Muslims as they lost political control, and they developed the concept of the ashraf (a privileged or well-born class). Members of the ashraf were fluent in Urdu and claimed to be descendants of important historical figures. They took such titles as sayyid (descendant of the Prophet), shaykh (descendant of Muhammad's companions), and Pathan (descendant of Afghan leaders). They typically owned land and worked as government officials or as religious figures.

    Noting the declining power of the Muslims, scholar Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi ( 1780 – 1831 ) sought to rebuild a strong Muslim state. He became the first Indian Muslim to widely circulate printed material in order to spread religious teachings. Barelwi believed that false beliefs had divided and weakened Islam in India. He called for Muslims to reject certain Sufi and Shi'i practices, and he promoted social reforms to bring practice into conformity with Islamic norms. For example, he opposed the practice of preventing widows from remarrying as un-Islamic. In 1826 he urged Muslims to unite in a jihad against a Sikh kingdom. The campaign failed in large part because of internal divisions, and Barelwi's movement declined after his death in 1831 .

    To the east in Bengal, Hajji Shari'atullah led a separate Muslim reform campaign in the 1820s. His Faraizi movement emphasized reform of individual religious practice in the context of British rule. Supporters printed pamphlets to spread his teachings, and his son Dudhu Miyan led an uprising of Muslim peasants against their Hindu landlords. The British, seeking to maintain order, helped suppress the revolt.

    Although Hindus and Muslims often clashed, they found a common enemy in the British. Tensions boiled over in 1857 , when both groups united against Great Britain. After savage fighting, the British crushed the revolt, established formal political rule over India, and sent the last Mughal emperor into exile. Although Hindus as well as Muslims had participated in the revolt, British leaders placed greater blame on the Muslims because of their status as former rulers. Some members of the Muslim elite moved to Arabia (now Saudi Arabia) and communicated with their followers through publications and meetings in Mecca.

    Following the rebellion, the British sought “natural leaders” to help govern India. They wanted to build a loyal force that would not rebel against them. The British found candidates among the ashraf class and promoted them to leadership positions. These aristocrats supported Islamic learning, music, and medicine and encouraged the acceptance of English education and values.

    Efforts Toward Reform and Independence.

    In the 1870s, Islamic scholar Sayyid Ahmad Khan emerged as a strong voice calling for reform. To overcome lingering British mistrust, he argued that the Muslims were not disloyal and that the British should promote them to high positions because of their past experience as rulers in the region. He also urged Muslims to face the reality of British rule. In 1875 Ahmad Khan founded the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) to provide Muslims with a British education. He modeled the school after the famous English universities Cambridge and Oxford. Ahmad Khan hoped that its graduates would adopt British culture and emerge as leaders in the colony. Queen Victoria recognized his loyalty to Britain by knighting him as Sir Sayyid.

    As part of his call for reform, Ahmad Khan tried to show that Islam could exist harmoniously with modern science. He encouraged the ulama to depart from centuries-old interpretations of the Qur'an and directed Muslims to accept Western education practices and modernism. Ahmad Khan discouraged literal readings of religious texts. For example, he held that scholars should interpret the miracles in the Qur'an as metaphors (likenesses), stating that the Qur'an itself rejects the possibility of events that violate nature.

    Ahmad Khan gained many followers, but his acceptance of British rule undermined his popularity among some Muslims. The ulama denounced Ahmad Khan's reforms as un-Islamic. They set up the Dar al-Ulum at Deoband, a school that promoted hadith study and traditional religious learning. The Deoband scholars avoided politics, believing that devoted teachers and prayer leaders held the key to reshaping society.

    While Islamic scholars debated the best way to adjust to British rule, Hindus and Muslims continued to compete for power. Hindus wanted to establish democratic elections, but Muslims opposed this idea, fearing the domination of the Hindu majority. They stressed their higher levels of education and greater leadership experience in promoting greater influence for themselves. The British outraged some Muslims in 1900 when they advanced Hindi as an official language along with Urdu.

    Activists of both faiths continued to seek the end of British rule. In 1885 the Indian National Congress was formed to promote this goal. Some Muslims joined the Congress party, which pressed for a modern secular nation state. Others believed that Islam could not survive in a region with a Hindu majority. Muslims favoring a separate Islamic state formed the All-Indian Muslim League in 1906 .

    The issue of independence overlapped with that of religious reform. The poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (died 1938 ) became an important advocate for a modern Islam. Iqbal viewed India's Muslim community as corrupt and backward, in contrast to the creative, dynamic nature of God's law. Iqbal taught that God's law is inseparable from all aspects of life and that an Islamic state would acknowledge God's presence. Similar to Ahmad Khan, Iqbal faulted the ulama for adhering to a reactionary viewpoint. He believed that they should reinterpret and reapply Islamic law according to the current situation.

    After World War I ( 1914 – 1918 ), Muslim-Hindu tensions increased. Riots broke out in many communities. In this atmosphere of hostility, Muslim religious leaders sought new ways to promote their faith. In the 1920s, the Tablighi Jama'at movement sought to provide Muslims with guidance. Leaders of the movement revived the teaching of Islamic principles, and encouraged all Muslims to spread these teachings. The Jamaat-i Islami movement, founded in 1941 , looked to change society by rejecting the decadence of the West.

    Muslims remained divided over the issue of whether they should partition themselves off into a separate state. In the 1930s, Mohammad Ali Jinnah assumed the presidency of the Muslim League. Under his leadership, the league's popularity increased. Jinnah portrayed the Congress as pro-Hindu and hostile to Islam and pushed for the creation of a separate state. Scholars are uncertain about whether Jinnah actually wanted a Muslim state, or whether he used this demand as a bargaining tool. By the 1940s, however, most Muslims supported his cause.

    Partitioning the Country.

    Britain's grip on India had begun to loosen in the early 1900s. To gain Indian support during World War I, the British promised to grant more freedoms to Hindus and Muslims. Afterward, however, Britain enacted only limited governmental reforms. Muslims took further offense when Britain helped to break up the Ottoman Empire after the war.

    World War II ( 1938 – 1945 ) had drained much of Britain's power. Faced with an Indian independence movement led by Mohandas Gandhi in the 1940s, it could not retain its hold on the colony. In August 1947 , Britain partitioned India into two independent states—the predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, of which Jinnah served as the first governor-general.

    The Muslim state of Pakistan included the northwestern section of the former British colony. It also included the province of Bengal in the north, which became the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971 . Ten million Indian Muslims left their homes in India to move to Pakistan, some against their will. Hindus also had to leave the newly created Muslim nations. Muslim-Hindu tensions remained high during this transitional period. Fighting broke out, claiming the lives of nearly one million people.

    Bitter relations between Pakistan and India continued through the following decades. The two countries fought twice over Kashmir, a province claimed by both sides, in 1947 and in 1965 . During the partition, Kashmir had a choice of whether to join India or Pakistan. The Muslims, accounting for 80 percent of the population, wanted to join Pakistan, but the Hindu Kashmiri ruler consented to go with India in 1948 . Since then, more than 30,000 Kashmiris have died fighting for their independence.

    Hindu-Muslim Tensions Continue.

    India's Muslims are spread unevenly throughout the country. In the north central plain, once the Mughal heartland, Muslims make up less than 15 percent of the population. In Malabar in the southwest, Muslims account for 25 percent of the population.

    India's Muslims are also a diverse population. They exist at all income levels and speak at least seven major languages. Muslims tend to marry locally, within their original status group, and remain in the region of their birth. Illiteracy and poverty are common in some Muslim communities, especially after many educated and wealthy Muslims moved to Pakistan.

    The majority of India's Muslims are Sunni, and about 10 percent are Shi'i. Anti-Muslim attitudes have increased among the Hindus since the 1980s. Many Hindus blame the Muslims for past wrongs and current problems in India and demand that they either assimilate or leave the country. Hindu activists have also sought to end the separate Muslim civil code in India. Although all Indians must abide by the same criminal laws, Hindus and Muslims have separate regulations governing marriage, inheritance, divorce, and other civil proceedings. This issue erupted in 1985 in the case of Shah Banu , an elderly Muslim woman who sued her estranged husband for support—a provision not required in Islamic law. Although the Supreme Court decided in favor of Shah Banu, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reasserted the Muslim code.

    Hindu-Muslim tensions have often led to violence. For over a decade, the two groups have argued over a mosque in the town of Ayodhya. Hindu activists claim that Mughal leaders built the mosque on the birthplace of Rama after destroying a temple honoring the god. Muslims deny this claim and seek to preserve the mosque as an Islamic place of worship. In December 1992 , a Hindu mob tore down the building. See also Ahmad Khan, Sayyid; Colonialism; Iqbal, Muhammad; Kashmir; Mughal Empire; Pakistan.

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