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South Asia

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

    South Asia

    The Muslims of South Asia—which includes the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan—number almost 300 million. Aside from their shared religious identity, they differ significantly in social and economic circumstances, language, and in many other ways. The history of Islam in South Asia also varies greatly.

    Arrival on the Subcontinent.

    Arab forces invaded the Indian subcontinent during the early 700s and established Muslim rule in the northwestern region of Sind. But Muslim conquest did not begin in earnest until the 1000s, when Turkish armies from Afghanistan migrated southward. By about 1200 , the Turkish forces had conquered North India. In 1206 Qutb al-Din Aybeg, a general serving the Ghurid dynasty, captured Delhi and founded the first of a series of dynasties known as the Delhi sultanates. The Delhi sultans acknowledged the caliph in Baghdad as the leader of the ummah (Muslim community).

    In the early 1500s, a prince named Babur (about 1483 – 1530 ), who claimed descent from two great conquerors, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane, was forced to leave his Central Asian kingdom. Babur seized control of the region of northwestern India known as the Punjab and established the Mughal dynasty. By 1530 he ruled much of northern India. Over the next two centuries, the Mughal Empire dominated most of the Indian subcontinent. During the empire's peak, its power and prestige were important symbols of strength and culture throughout the Muslim world. Ultimately, the Mughal rulers were unable to prevent attacks by Afghan and Persian invaders and opposition from oppressed religious groups. Moreover, the power of the Mughal emperors weakened as they allowed Great Britain to establish trading centers in the area.

    During these years, Islam rapidly spread from the ruling class to the general population, which was largely Hindu. The number of Muslims increased from less than half a million in 1200 to 15 million in 1600 and more than 60 million by 1900 . Muslims became the majority in parts of northwestern and northeastern India and a significant minority in other parts of the subcontinent. The expansion of Islam was primarily a result of the missionary work of Sufi brotherhoods. They used good will, acceptance, and cooperation to convert the Indian people to Islam.

    The Colonial Period.

    By the early 1800s, the British had established control over Delhi, the seat of the Mughal Empire. The Mughal Empire continued as a British protectorate. Following an uprising in 1857 , Great Britain abolished the Mughal dynasty and established formal political rule over India.

    Colonial rule pitted Muslims against Hindus in a new relationship as minority versus majority. Hindus had always been a majority in the country, but they had never taken advantage of their greater numbers to gain privileges over the Muslim minority. The British regarded Islam and Hinduism as two distinct cultures, and they reinforced the concept of an identity based on religion. Furthermore, because they distrusted the former rulers, they tended to favor Hindus while marginalizing Muslims. The two religious communities began to compete for opportunities and for influence in the growing nationalist movement. The British cited the need to maintain peaceful relations between the groups as justification for colonial rule.

    Indian Muslims faced pressure from Britain's Christian missionaries, who condemned basic Islamic beliefs. The Muslim community responded to these attacks in various ways. Some groups suggested that Muslims should accommodate European values. Others rejected all Western influences, and still others joined Islam-based mass movements.

    Demands for independence from British rule grew during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Concerned that Hindu nationalists would deprive Muslims of their rights after India gained independence, members of the Western-educated Muslim elite established the All-India Muslim League in 1906 . The league called for Muslim representation in all political institutions. The idea of a separate Muslim state in northwestern India was first proposed in 1930 , and it became increasingly popular. Later, the name Pakistan was coined for the proposed state.

    Post-Independence Troubles.

    In August 1947 , Great Britain partitioned India into two independent states based on religious affiliation. India would remain predominantly Hindu, and Pakistan would become a Muslim state. According to the terms of the partition plan, the ruler of Kashmir, a mountainous region located at the extreme northern frontier of the Indian subcontinent, could choose whether Kashmir would become part of Pakistan or India. Muslims, who accounted for almost 80 percent of the population, favored Pakistan. Nevertheless, the ruler of Kashmir agreed to join India, provoking a full-scale war. The region continues to be the subject of a heated dispute between India and Pakistan.

    The formation of Pakistan also resulted in a terrible civil war. Partition caused approximately 10 million people to flee from regions where new state boundaries suddenly made them a religious minority. Massacres on both sides claimed the lives of at least a million people.

    The smaller but still vital Muslim community that chose to remain in India faced formidable social and economic challenges. Most educated Muslims with professions had migrated to Pakistan. Most Indian Muslims were landless laborers, farmers, or shopkeepers, although a new middle class emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in urban areas.

    Today India's Muslims number more than 120 million, making them one of the largest Muslim communities in the world. As members of a religious minority in a secular state, Indian Muslims have had to carry on the struggle to gain a voice in the government. They have also fought to protect their religious beliefs and practices, especially in matters regulated by Islamic law. Although their rights have improved over time, Indian Muslims continue to suffer from discrimination and prejudice. A growing revivalist movement among Hindus, beginning in the 1970s, has intensified the already-difficult situation. Riots and other acts of violence continue to plague relations between India's Hindus and Muslims.

    Growing Pains.

    Pakistan was formed from India as a Muslim homeland. It is the only modern country established in the name of Islam, and about 97 percent of Pakistanis are Muslims. In 1947 the young nation faced many difficult problems, but the most controversial issue was religious. Conflicting visions of the role of Islam in politics deeply divided various groups. Religious figures led a large segment of the population in calling for an Islamic constitution, the introduction of traditional Islamic law, and the restoration of traditional social and religious institutions. Those who held political power regarded Islam as a moral force and as a base on which national unity and loyalty could be built.

    Over the decades, the struggle over the depth and extent of the country's commitment to religion led to many debates about Pakistan's constitution. The country has suffered through decades of chaotic civil rule, alternating with periods of harsh military regimes. Pakistani governments have generally professed a commitment to Islam in order to maintain their legitimacy and popular support.

    The Muslim nation established in 1947 consisted of West Pakistan, to the northwest of India, and East Pakistan, a smaller region to the northeast of India on the Bay of Bengal. The partition plan divided the provinces of Punjab and Bengal and separated West and East Pakistan by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory. These political boundaries, combined with sharp ethnic and linguistic differences, presented great obstacles to the creation of a stable regime and a unified national identity. During the 1960s, the people of East Pakistan, frustrated with the military, political, and economic superiority of West Pakistan, began demanding independence. In 1971 East Pakistan won its independence after a brutal war with West Pakistan. With the aid of Indian troops, East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh.

    A Moderate Stance.

    With strong support from India and the presence of a large Hindu minority, the Bangladeshi government initially emphasized the country's national, rather than religious, identity. The constitution of 1972 was notably secular, and it banned political activity by religious groups. By the late 1970s, however, the government began to introduce Islamic principles into the country's political institutions. In the constitution of 1977 , a reference to trust in God replaced the secular language of the previous document. Today the general population, estimated to be about 83 percent Muslim, holds strong Islamic sympathies, but the major political parties have adopted a moderate position between secularism and conservative Islam.

    Sri Lanka.

    Muslims make up about 7 percent of the population of Sri Lanka, an island in the Indian Ocean, just south of India. Between the 700s and 1400s, Arab traders settled along the coasts of southern India and Sri Lanka. They adopted the Tamil language and some local customs, while preserving Islamic law and the basic doctrines of their faith. When the Portuguese seized control of Sri Lanka in the early 1500s, they persecuted the Muslims. They called the Muslims moros because they shared the faith of the Moors, the descendants of the Arab conquerors of Spain. The Portuguese were followed by Dutch and British colonial governments, which pursued commercial interests and generally did not engage in religious oppression. During the 1800s, the introduction of Sufi orders sparked an Islamic revival among Sri Lankan Muslims. Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948 . Growing Muslim consciousness generated interest in the Arab roots of the community, the study of Arabic as a way to understand the Qur'an, and separate schools for Muslim children. The Sri Lankan government created a Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Department.

    In the 1980s, ethnic tensions between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists plunged the country into a civil war that lasted for almost 20 years. Tens of thousands of people died in the conflict. The island's Muslims were caught in a difficult position. Although they are Tamil speakers, they generally support the Sinhalese-dominated government. As a result, the Tamils classified the Muslims as enemies and targeted them in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.


    Muslim Arab armies reached the region now known as Afghanistan around 700. Over the following centuries, many Muslim empires emerged in the area. Modern Afghanistan is the remnant of the Durrani empire, which was founded in the mid-1700s. Conflicts over succession as well as military and political pressures from Great Britain and Russia weakened Durrani rule. Eager to control Afghanistan in order to protect its holdings in India, Great Britain fought two Anglo-Afghan wars ( 1839 – 1842 and 1878 – 1880 ). However, the British failed to gain control of the country. After their second defeat, the British helped bring Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan, a descendant of the Durrani dynasty, to power in Afghanistan. The Iron Amir (commander), as he was known, became the first Afghan ruler to centralize political power in the name of Islam. Although he cooperated with the British in foreign affairs, his internal policy provided the foundation for the modern Afghan state. Abd al-Rahman Khan's descendants continued to rule Afghanistan. During their reigns, there was tension between the forces of modernization and conservative Islam.

    In 1978 , a coup brought a communist government to power. This regime met with strong resistance from most Afghans, and in 1979 , the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the unpopular government. After a decade of struggle against the mujahidin, the Soviets withdrew their forces. In April 1992 , the mujahidin captured Kabul, a communist holdout, and declared Afghanistan an Islamic state. Nevertheless, the mujahidin failed to create a new Islamic political system, and competing groups seized control of sections of the country. The radical Islamic group known as the Taliban eventually came to power. A U.S.-led military campaign led to the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 and the establishment of a transitional government. See also Afghanistan; Bangladesh; India; Kashmir; Minorities; Mughal Empire; Mujahidin; Pakistan; Taliban.

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