“The Indians believe that there is no country like theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs”, writes Abu Rahan Al-Biruni in his famous book on India in early 11th century.

Can we Pakistani Muslims believe that our forefathers were so proud for being what they were? Many among us would shout they weren’t our forefathers. Of course they weren’t. The proud heads Al-Biruni met were mostly from upper castes and classes who not only resisted the Mahmud Ghaznavi’s ferocious armies but also refused to convert. It were mostly segments from lower castes and classes, suppressed and discriminated against, that accepted new religion in the wake of Turkic ascendancy in the Punjab.

Conversion on the similar pattern had happened a few centuries ago in Sindh and a part of the Punjab after Muhammad Bin Qasim’s successful invasion of India in early eighth century. Most of the converts had earlier existed on the margins of the society and hardly shared what upper castes and classes were proud of in terms of religious norms, intellectual traditions and cultural identity.

A scholar has rightly said that poverty is a problem but bigger problem is what it produces, the culture of poverty. Similarly the bigger problem is the culture of servility which forced low caste living produces. After conversion the lower castes generation after generation have continued to carry the mindset that at best expresses low self-esteem and at worst self- loathing.

Change of faith doesn’t necessarily change the psyche. Servitude born of specific conditions would leave an indelible imprint on the subconscious and collective memory of a group. Remember great Italian intellectual and theorist Antonio Gramsci who defied fascism and spent most of his years in prison? Arguing with those who wanted immediate revolutionary change in the society said something like this: “suppose you are able to capture power at this moment, a labour leader would refuse to occupy his manager’s chair. He feels he isn’t worthy of it”. Change of system without cultural transformation would invariably be short-lived.

Muslims in this region largely being descendants of low caste culture suffered immensely from an inferiority complex even after the conversion. The situation worsened further because of the nature of their specific relationship with their new rulers. They shared faith with the rulers and that was it. The rulers were foreigners. They had nothing in common with them in terms of language, ethnicity, race and culture. The rulers distinguished themselves from the converts at least on three counts; one, they were a superior race, two, they were better Muslims, three, they were among the chosen few as the fact of their being rulers irrefutably testified to their higher status. Besides dynamics of power creates conditions which make the culture of rulers the ruling culture. Hoi polloi is expected to look up to elitist culture as their model because leisure class being well-versed in social graces has resources at its disposal to embellish its culture and put it on a high pedestal with its social power. Being alien in nature added to the mystique of foreign elitist Muslim culture. But the historical irony is that the aliens who landed here treated the indigenous people as aliens.

Royal courts at Lahore and Delhi, for example, would be open to all non-local imposters. Adventurers, social climbers, clerics, mystics, poets, soldiers, technocrats and conmen from Iran, Central Asia, Middle East and Africa would throng the Muslim courts in India in search of cushy jobs and they would gladly be employed by kings and courtiers. Anybody with foreign background would be preferred to a local with much better credentials.

People were divided into two broad categories; ‘Ashraaf’ [nobility/ patricians] and ‘Arzal’ [the lowly/plebeians]. All the aliens would fall in the former category and most of the locals in the latter. Imagine the daughter of an impoverished man from Iran became the empress of India. She lies buried in Lahore.

Patronage of Muslim courts lured a number of Persian poets to India. Urfi and Naziri are well-known. Even Hafiz Shirazi was ready to leave for Bengal. But just before he could embark, a storm in the sea scared him and he gave up the idea. Ibne Batuta, a great traveller no doubt, from Africa was appointed a Qazi [Muslim Judge] after his arrival in India. How could he adjudicate disputes between people to whose economic, social and cultural life he wasn’t exposed to. All this is the tip of the iceberg. Alien Muslim elite treated the converts with undisguised contempt. Caste and class background of the converts helped facilitate such a snobbish attitude. Bulk of the converts were either peasants or menials low on the scale of traditional hierarchy in the region.

King Babar was an epitome of the dilemma elite was faced with in India; he hated everything Indian and coveted everything Indian. Muslim elite tolerated local Muslims for one simple reason; it needed increased number of their co-religionists to consolidate their rule. Thus it tried to strengthen its position by building a social buttress of converts in a hugely diverse subcontinent where non-Muslims had a threatening majority which could overwhelm it. Consequently clergy and Sufi saints were encouraged to come to India on proselytising missions and they came in droves. Clergy was contemptuous of locals like elite but what constituted a motley group of the spiritually inclined proved to be a soft face of Islam. They comprised two types of people, pro-people saints and pro-establishment scholars.

Baba Farid and Nizamuddin Aulia were popular with the commoners while Bahauddin Zakria Multani mingled only with the rich and powerful. A myth popularised by the elite and the converts asserts that it were Sufi saints who spread Islam in India. The elite by doing so tried to cover the traces of their coercion and the converts did it as a face-saving gesture. This assertion at best is a half-truth. The fact is kings and saints complemented each other. The rulers created conducive conditions for the saints to preach their faith and saints reinforced the rulers’ position by increasing the number of the converts. It was a sort of mutually beneficial sacred enterprise.

Some segments of converts claimed that saints introduced them to the new faith, not the kings but this failed to raise their social status in the eyes of alien Muslim ruling clique which never accepted them as their equal. Foreign nobility, unfamiliar rituals of new faith and alien cultural norms increased a deep-rooted sense of inferiority among the local Muslims who already suffered from indignity and rigours of being low caste and poor. They became the opposite of the Indians described by Al-Biruni. With intense self-loathing and a desire to cast themselves in the mould of their foreign masters, the converts came to hate everything indigenous. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2020