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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > India: The Idea of a Muslim Nation in India

India: The Idea of a Muslim Nation in India

Monday 9 September 2019, by siawi3


The Idea of a Muslim Nation in India

Parvez Mahmood

August 23, 2019

Throughout history, even a casual observer of Indian society noticed the distinction between Muslim and Hindu communities. However, as will be evident in the course of this article, the term “Muslim” had very different connotations in the pre- and post-1857 era.
The scholar Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni (973–1048 AD), one of the fathers of sociology, came to India with Mahmud of Ghazni. He wrote a remarkably candid book titled Kitab-ul-Hind, perhaps the first comprehensive book on India and its people. He observed in the opening chapter of this book that Hindus and Muslims differed in all matters and habits. He devoted a few pages to explain these differences under five areas namely: language, the issue of caste, social customs, prejudice against Muslims and suspicion of all foreign things.
This detailed differentiation by the famed scholar, who took pains to learn Sanskrit so as to be able to read original Vedic sources, is of profound significance for us because the book was written at a time when North India, the part of the Subcontinent that he visited and explored, was overwhelmingly Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. For Al-Biruni, therefore, “Muslims” meant Persians, Turks and Afghans – the three major Muslim nationalities that he was aware of. Al-Biruni’s homeland of Khorasan province was the spring of Islamic Golden Age and home to an advanced civilization comparable only to its contemporaries in Muslim Spain or Song China.

Image: Sir Syed’s residence on campus at Aligarh

Around the time when Al-Biruni arrived in India, its centres of learning of Gandhara in present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Nalanda in present-day Bihar had been in decline for the previous few centuries. When Al-Biruni compared “Hindus” and “Muslims”, he felt that he was comparing the most cultured and learned people with the most unsophisticated and uncivilized. It is evident, then, from this comparison that local converted Muslims, if there were any, were being grouped by Al-Biruni with Hindus and not with his own agecompatriot Muslims. It becomes more evident when he notes that the wide distance between two people is due to the difference in their languages. The Persian-speaking Al-Biruni had faced great difficulty in mastering Sanskrit, which had a written record in the form of the Puranas and the Rigveda. He realized that difference in language was a hurdle in bringing the two communities closer. This is a clear indication that he was referring to the Muslims of Persian and Turkish background and not those of Indian origin. Al-Biruni also freely and interchangeably used the word “Hindu” for “Hindustani”, acknowledging that he used both words to refer to the inhabitants of the land and not the followers of its dominant religion. The disregard for Indian Muslims is obvious because a mere change of religion would have done nothing for bridging gaps of outlook, culture, traditions and customs.

Mill’s history is considered the first written record in the modern era of two mutually hostile nations in the Indian Subcontinent.

For the Persianized Turkic invaders, Indian Muslims rarely carried much importance. They were not given military commands, political appointments or court rankings because they belonged to the lower classes of society and were neither educated nor groomed in the ways valued by the rulers. High ranks were reserved by the Muslim rulers for their own compatriots or for the dignified Rajput royal families, in whom they found their match in the battlefield as well as in social status. It is a well recorded fact that only the Rajputs, all of them Hindus, were considered by the Mughals as their equal. Muslims of Punjabi, Sindhi, Bengali or other local origins were never held in high esteem by them.
The first European in modern times to describe Muslims and Hindus as separate nations was an 18th/19th century Scottish polymath – a historian, economist and philosopher. Without ever setting foot on the soil of the Indian Subcontinent, James Mill wrote an authoritative six-volume History of British India, published in 1817. This history found much favour at the time with the British, earning James Mill profitable employment at the London office of the British East India Company. He divided his Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods, implying that these three were different nations.

Rajput nobles arrive at the Mughal court to greet Emperor Akbar, 1577
Mill’s history is considered the first written record in the modern era of two mutually hostile nations in the Indian Subcontinent. Romila Thapar in her article for Outlook magazine titled “The Colonial Roots of Hindutva Nationalism”, notes that this classification assumed that religion superseded all other authority. But Mill, it would appear, differentiated between Muslims and Hindus in the same vein as Al-Biruni did eight centuries earlier. His elaboration leaves no doubt that he referred to Muslims in an ethnic sense.
Mill writes, “The political state of India, at this time (during the Turkic invasions from the North) consisted of a Mahomedan government, supported by a Mahomedan force, over a Hindu population.” His description of the Muslims in the second volume of his history starts with Mahmud of Ghazni and ends with the Battle of Panipat in 1761; a year he considers the end of Muslim rule. Not once in his 216 pages long description of 750 years of rule by the Mahomedans, the word he used for the Muslims, did he make one mention of the social conditions of the local Muslims whom he treats as Hindus, preserving the word Muslim only for the invading Muslims. As against five categories that Al-Biruni used to differentiate between two nations, Mill employed eight: the classification and distribution of people, the form of government, laws, taxes, religion, manners, arts and literature. In each of these categories, he opines that “[…] the superiority of the order of things among the Mahomedans, over the Hindus, was inexpressibly great.”

As an aside, Mill’s description of Hindus in volume 2 under the title “On Hindus” is derogatory and slanderous – though his description of Muslims and Chinese is equally disparaging.
A reading of Mill’s history makes it evident that when he spoke of Muslims, he too referred to Persianized Turkish rulers of India and not the local converts. His reference to “Hindus” – inhabitants of the land across the Indus as observed from Persia – was to all the inhabitants of the Indian Subcontinent. In this sense, the Persians had been using the term since ancient times.
The Muslim conquerors and local Muslim converts blended and amalgamated to become “one nation” only when the bloody events of 1857 had annihilated any semblance of power belonging to Muslim elites. The sad process of this blending is recorded in Begamat key Ansoo (“Tears of Royal Ladies”) penned by Khawaja Hassan Nizami. Professor Ahmad Ali’s Twilight in Delhi also depicts this process. Lately, Arshad Islam in his well researched 2011 article “The Backlash in Delhi: British Treatment of the Mughal Royal Family following the Indian ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ of 1857” has drawn upon Nizami, Ghalib, Zahir Dehlvi, Dalrymple and a host of other sources to describe in painful detail how the Mughal princes and princesses merged with the general populace and became unrecognizable as a foreign elite. In the context of Bengal, this phenomenon has been described by W.W. Hunter, a member of the Indian Civil Service, in his 1864 book titled The Indian Musalman. He writes that the noble Muslim families disintegrated and were lost among the lower class multitudes due to drying up of their financial resources in the wake of the British takeover of Bengal. One can observe in the narrative of these books the blurring of distinctions between different classes of Muslims under British rule.
The phenomenon started after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, gained momentum after the Battle of Buxar (1764) and was completed in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1857. Thereafter we find no trace of any Turkish-Persian-Afghan elite except the residuary traces in the submissively loyal princely states and in the family names of some of the Muslim populace.

Soviet stamp honouring Al-Biruni, 1973
The first time that local Muslims were truly able to “make their mark” so to say, was when Sir Syed Ahmed Khan with his colleagues and followers started a campaign for social awareness through their writings and pleaded for mass education through English-medium Anglo-Muhammadan schools and colleges. His advocacy for education inspired Muslims to join missionary- as well as government-run schools and colleges.
The modern Indian Muslim identity was born in the cradle of Aligarh University and through the educational institutions that it inspired including Islamia Colleges in Peshawar and Lahore. Without his gigantic efforts, Allama Muhammad Iqbal would have probably ended up managing his father’s tailor shop and this author would certainly be mending carpets, the trade of his paternal Kashmiri family. Today’s Muslim businessmen, politicians and military men are the product of the educational system initiated by Sir Syed.

The modern Indian Muslim identity was born in the cradle of Aligarh University and through the educational institutions that it inspired.

When Sir Syed spoke of a Muslim nation, he meant all Muslim inhabitants of India as a religious rather than an ethnic group. It included the local Muslims who had never gained prominence, and also the pre-1857 nobility that, by and large, had been reduced to very difficult circumstances. Sir Syed is, in that sense, the true father of Indian Muslim nationalism. His ideas created divisions between Hindus and Muslims for economic and social equality. But he probably knew, as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was to state later, that Islamic identity may not necessarily unite Muslims under one political banner.
Apart from being a mutiny or a War of Independence, the real long term significance of events of 1857 was that it was a revolution that swept away the old medieval political institutions and social order and ushered India into the modern world. It also raised Indian Muslims as a religious rather than an ethnic nation. The divisions that this identity created ultimately led to the formulation of the Two Nation Theory and the creation of Pakistan.