We in the West generally associate Islam with the Arab world. We often fail to remember that the majority of Muslims live in South Asia and eastwards. The most populous Islamic country is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Islam first came to India late in the 8th century C.E., with several military conquests by Muslim leaders from central Asia. Islamic influence in India was not consolidated, however, until several centuries later, when Muslims Sultans established a capital at Delhi, now considered Old Delhi.
By the 15th century, Muslim Sultans ruled most of India, but their power was concentrated in the Northern regions. Today, Indian Muslims live throughout India, though mainly in the Northern region. The South is considered the most Hindu region of the country.
It is hard to imagine two religions that contrast as starkly as Hinduism and Islam. Hinduism embraces both polytheism and monotheism as we have discussed in detail. Islam, however, is singularly monotheistic. It has even criticized Judaism and Christianity for not being sufficiently monotheistic. Hindus venerate images of the divine. Muslims are iconoclastic. In Islam the greatest sin is idolatry. From the Muslim perspective, images are idols.
A Tense Coexistence
When Islam began to spread in medieval India, Hindu temples and temple images were often destroyed. Hindus have an ages-long practice of cow reverence to honor the life-giving and life-sustaining qualities of the cow. Muslims, however, have no reservations about eating beef. Today, much of the butchery in India is performed by Muslims.
Still, Muslims and Hindus did coexist in India for centuries. The relationship was frequently tense, although not always and everywhere so. Although Islam’s presence in India was openly antagonistic to Hinduism, Hinduism survived because it was so deeply rooted in the everyday routine of India. India’s other major religion at the time was Buddhism. Buddhism did not survive the coming of Islam, but Buddhism was in decline and had long passed the era of its dominance in India.
Eventually, Muslim rulers granted Hindus religious toleration similar to the sort granted to Christians and Jews in other Muslim countries. To Hindus, Muslims were merely another caste and Hinduism usually ignored the challenges Islam presented to its religious way of life. Of course, Muslim rulers ignored the challenges of Hinduism. They did not try to convert Hindus to Islam. As non-Muslims, Hindus were susceptible to a greater tax-rate. Later, however, Sufi orders began to proselytize Hindus in great numbers. The Sufis were successful in part because their version of Islam was much like the Bhakti religion that was well established among Hindus.
Sufi Islam thus began to appeal to lower castes who were attracted to its message of human equality. It also appealed to others who aspired to upward social mobility. Adopting the religion of one’s rulers has frequently helped people gain social power.
Certainly, there have been some bright moments in the Muslim-Hindu relationship. The rise of the Mogul emperor Akbhar the Great in the 16th century marked the beginning of a fine syncretistic culture. Akbhar was highly esteemed by Hindus as a tolerant ruler. Despite the tolerance of emperors like Akbhar, frictions between Hindus and Muslims increased. These tensions are the background noise in the history of modern India.
The Creation of Pakistan and Subsequent Conflicts
In 1947, centuries-long stresses came to an end when India was partitioned into India and Pakistan at the moment of its independence from Great Britain. Mahatma Gandhi strongly resisted the creation of Pakistan. But the President of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, argued that Muslims needed a separate State to be true to Islam, since Islam does not distinguish between religious and political law.
The partition of India, however, did not end Hindu-Muslim hostilities. Tensions between India and Pakistan are extremely high as they continue a long standing dispute over the region of Jammu and Kashmir. Within India itself, Hindu-Muslim frictions often erupt in violence.
Although the Hindu-Muslim tensions have been long and tragic, Muslims actually gave up the rule of India in the 18th century, when the British defeated them. This initiated the period of British colonialism in India. As the British established their Indian empire, they tended to favor the Hindus over the Muslims, and granted them greater administrative power.