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Past present: The first Muslims of India

July 21, 2013

The arrival of Muslims in India took place in three phases. They first arrived and settled in the coastal towns of South India as traders. They were welcomed by the rulers who gained from their commercial activities. As traders, they were peaceful people and maintained friendly relations with the local population by integrating into the local culture and traditions, learning local languages and marrying local women. Gradually, they became Indian. As they adopted the Indian culture, they disconnected their past affiliation and emotionally attached themselves to their adopted homeland. There was no contempt for the Indian culture and no yearning to revisit the past.

Even today, the South Indian Muslims are tolerant towards other religions and believe in multicultural values.

In Sindh, the Arabs arrived as conquerors, defeated the local ruler and occupied the country. As conquerors, their interest was to extract as many resources as possible from the vanquished country and convert the people to Islam. Politically, Sindh first became a part of the Umayyad and then the Abbasid Empires. It lost its independence and was ruled by the appointed governors of the Arab Caliphs. In this process, Sindh became disconnected from the subcontinent. The local non-Muslim population or the Zimmis were required to pay jizya or poll tax and were treated as second-rate subjects.

The impact of the Arab conquest is deep-rooted in the Sindhi society. Even today, Muslims of Arab descent or origin such as Sayyids, Qureshis, Ansaris and Abbasis are an elite class which enjoys a higher social status. Proud of their Arab origin, they refer to Sindh as Bab-ul-Islam or the gateway to Islam.

In North India, the Turks arrived as conquerors and fought bloody battles with the Rajput rulers who resisted them, creating a gulf between the conquerors and the defeated. The Turk rulers were not interested in converting people to Islam and focused on military intervention. Early invaders like Mahmud of Ghazni and Muhammad Ghori swept away wealth from the subcontinent to Ghazna. In 1206, when Qutbuddin Aibak became the ruler, India disconnected its relations with Ghazna.

The Sultans of Delhi ruled over India ruthlessly. They were prejudiced and did not allow other ethnic groups to share power. When the Lodhis became rulers, they replaced the Turkish supremacy with the Afghan hegemony while the Turkish elite class was swapped by the Afghans.

Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodhi in the Battle of Panipat in 1526. In Tuzk-i-Babri, Babur undermines the Indian culture while reminiscing about the climate and fruits of his homeland. He wished to be buried in Kabul instead of the hot climate of India. The character of the Mughal rule was changed by his grandson Akbar who Indianised the empire by cultivating egalitarian relations with Hindus.

During the Mughal reign, the Iranians continued to arrive at the Mughal court so foreign influence flourished. Persian being their mother tongue, they were welcomed and appointed at high posts without much competition. The Iranians were arrogant people and had a condescending attitude for the way the Indians spoke and wrote the Persian language. Shaikh Ali Hazin (d.1766) who arrived in India in the later Mughal period poured scorned on the Persian literary works of the Indians.

The linguistic imperialism created a sense of inferiority among Indians while language created a gulf between the ruling classes and the common people. They always looked up to the Iranians for approval of their language but the Iranians refused to accept it as part of their literature. The tragic result was that after the fall of the Mughal Empire, Persian literature created by Indian writers disappeared.

After the arrival of the British, English became the official language. The Indian elite learnt it and became a part of the ruling class. Those who composed English poetry and wrote short stories and novels in English perhaps suffered a fate similar to the Persian writers who wasted their creativity on foreign language and lost their work without a trace.