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Past present: The wall of separation

July 28, 2013

Muslim society in the subcontinent comprised mainly three influential elements; the rulers, the ulema or religious scholars, and Sufi saints. The three maintained different points of view regarding state law, religion and the local Hindu population.

When the Muslim rulers consolidated their political power in India, they formulated their state policy based on practicality. Realising that they could not rule the Hindu majority by coercive means, they decided to adopt a policy of reconciliation. At this juncture, there was a conflict between Sharia and politics but religion was kept apart from state law.

The rulers were basically conquerors and only focused on extending their empire with little or no interest in preaching religion to people, or in converting them to Islam. They wanted to extract as much wealth as possible and to enjoy their power. For the establishment of their rule, they crushed rebellions led by the Muslims or Hindus alike. Their wars against Hindu rulers were not fought over religion but purely for political motives.

As they did not observe religious practice in their daily life, their interest was not to implement religious law. In order to adopt a policy which would help consolidate their power, they would go to the extent of violating religion. After succeeding to the throne, the rulers issued their own rules and regulations.

The views of the ulema and the jurists differed from those of the rulers. They wanted the rulers to follow the Sharia and abolish all rules and regulations that were contradictory to religion. They were hostile towards the Hindus and considered them infidels and enemies of Islam. They were not in favour of any conciliatory policy towards non-Muslims. The ulema wanted to be a part of government, assert their authority and have a share in the power of the state so that they could implement their religious agenda. The rulers respected the ulema but never allowed any interference from them in state affairs.

The Sufi saints represented the third point of view. There is a general misconception that the Sufis promoted peace and harmony among people of all religions. Some of them were the jihadis or holy warrior Sufis who prayed for the victory of Muslim rulers against the Hindus. However, the majority of the Sufis remained aloof from politics. People of all religions would visit their khanqah to seek solutions to their problems. The Sufi saints remained within the domain of Islam and did not deviate from its basic teachings. They tolerated the Hindus and after their death, their shrines would become a centre of peace for people of all religions.

Besides the Sufis, the Bhagti movement also created harmony among the believers of different religions and helped alleviate prejudice. Both the Sufis and the Bhagti leaders prevented any friction between the Muslim rulers and the Hindus by inculcating in the latter a sense of loyalty, obedience and passivity.

Once the Muslim population settled in the subcontinent, they gradually adopted the existing Hindu culture and tradition. The Hindus who were converted to Islam retained their cultural practices and integrated these into the Muslim society despite the ulema’s condemnation of Hindu customs. When the Mughals invaded India, the Hindus and Muslims were united and regarded the Mughals as aggressors. Together they fought the battles of Panipat (1526) and Khanwa (1527) against the Mughals. In the earlier period of their rule, the Mughal rulers mistrusted the Hindus and excluded them from powerful appointments. Later, when Akbar introduced new policies, the inclusion of Hindus in his administration consolidated the Mughal Empire.

But the fact remains that throughout the rule of the Turks, the Afghans and the Mughals, the ulema were not allowed to interfere in state matters by keeping religion and state separate. Both the Muslims and Hindus were equally treated as subjects by the Muslim rulers and no special concessions or privileges were extended to the Muslims.