Islam (part 6)

Islam From The Beginning To 1300

Date: 2002

The Coming Of Islam To South Asia

The pattern of political fragmentation that had left the much-reduced
Abbasid caliphate vulnerable to nomadic invasions was also found in the
regions of South Asia to which Islam spread during the centuries of Abbasid
decline. As in the Islamic heartland, internal political rivalries left
openings for nomadic warrior bands to raid the towns and villages on the outer
frontiers of the subcontinent. When the indigenous Indian lords failed to
patch up their differences in order to effectively repel these incursions,
more powerful foreign rulers and ever larger armies descended upon the
subcontinent, first to raid and pillage but soon with the intention of
conquering and settling. As they had been since ancient times, the fertile and
heavily populated river valleys and irrigated plains of west and central India
were tempting targets for nomadic chiefs in search of booty or displaced lords
in search of a strong base on which to anchor their kingdoms.

All through the millennia when a succession of civilizations from Harappa
to the Brahmanic Empire of the Guptas developed in the subcontinent,
foreigners had entered India in waves of nomadic invaders or as small bands of
displaced peoples seeking refuge. Invariably, those who chose to remain were
assimilated into the civilizations they encountered in the lowland areas. They
converted to the Hindu or Buddhist religion, found a place in the caste
hierarchv, and adopted the dress, foods, and life-styles of the farming and
city-dwelling peoples of the subcontinent. This capacity to absorb peoples
moving into the area owed much to both the strength and flexibility of India's
civilizations and the fact that they usually enjoyed a higher level of
material culture than peoples entering the subcontinent. As a result, the
persistent failure of Indian rulers to unite in the face of aggression on the
part of outsiders meant periodic disruptions and localized destruction, but
not fundamental challenges to the existing order. All of this changed with the
arrival of the Muslims in the last years of the 7th century A.D.

With the coming of the Muslims, the peoples of India encountered for the
first time a large-scale influx of bearers of a civilization as sophisticated,
if not as ancient, as their own. They were also confronted by a religious
system that was in many ways the very opposite of their own. Hinduism (the
predominant Indian religion at that time) was open, tolerant, and inclusive of
widely varying forms of religious devotion - from idol worship to meditation -
in search of union with the supernatural source of all creation. Islam was
doctrinaire, proselytizing, and committed to the exclusive worship of a
single, transcendent God.

In contrast to the egalitarianism of Islam, which proclaimed all
believers equal in the sight of God, Hindu beliefs did much to validate the
caste hierarchy, which rested on the acceptance of inborn differences between
individuals and groups and the widely varying levels of material wealth,
status, and religious purity these differences produced. Thus, where the faith
of the invading Muslims was religiously more rigid than that of the absorptive
and adaptive Hindus, the caste-based social system of the great majority of
the indigenous peoples was much more compartmentalized and closed than those
of the Muslim invaders, with their emphasis on mobility and the community of

Because growing numbers of Muslim warriors, traders, holy men, and
ordinary farmers and herders were able to enter and settle in the
subcontinent, extensive interaction between invaders and the indigenous
peoples was inevitable. In the early centuries of the Muslim influx, conflict,
often involving violent clashes between the two, predominated. But there was
also a good deal of trade and even religious interchange between them. As time
passed, peaceful (if wary) interaction became the norm. Muslim rulers employed
large numbers of Hindus to govern the largely non-Muslim populations they
ruled; mosques and temples dominated different quarters within Indian cities;
and Hindu and Muslim holy men strove to find areas of agreement between their
two faiths. Tensions remained, and periodically they erupted into communal
rioting or sustained warfare between Hindu and Muslim lords. From the 11th
century, aowever, Islam became a major force in Indian history. Islam added
further layers of richness and complexity to Indian civilization and some of
its most enduring channels to the peoples and cultures of neighboring lands.

North India On The Eve Of The Muslim Invasions

In the years after the collapse of the Gupta Empire at the end of the 5th
century, the heads of numerous regional dynasties aspired to restore imperial
unity in North India. But until Harsha in the early 7th century, all imperial
ambitions were frustrated by timely alliances of rival lords that checked the
rise of a single and unifying power center. Harsha was the second son of one
of these rival kings, who through a series of wars had carved out a modest
domain in the Panjab region to the southeast of the Indus River system. Upon
his father's death in 604, Harsha's elder brother ascended the throne. He was
soon killed - some accounts say treacherously murdered by the agents of a
rival confederation of kings centered in Bengal. Although still a youth,
Harsha agreed to accept the imperiled throne and was soon at war with the
kingdoms of Bengal. The young king proved skillful at forging alliances with
other rulers who were the enemies of those in the Bengali confederation; he
also was a talented military commander. Soon after ascending the throne, he
won a series of battles that both revenged the murder of his brother and led
to a great increase in the territories under his control. Within a matter of
years he had pieced together the largest empire India had seen since the fall
of the Gupta dynasty over a century earlier.

Harsha's Empire

At the height of his power Harsha ruled much of the central and eastern
Gangetic plain, but his "empire" was a good deal smaller than that of the
Guptas. He beat the Bengali lords in battle but was unable to control their
lands on a sustained basis, and his attempts to expand into southern India
were unsuccessful. Harsha also never conquered most of the Indus valley to the
northwest of his original kingdom or the region to the south, called
Rajputana, which was divided into a patchwork of tiny kingdoms, dominated by a
proud and fierce warrior elite. Thus, though he was one of the most powerful
rulers India was to know from the time of the Guptas until the establishment
of the Delhi sultanate in the 13th century, Harsha's conquests fell far short
of uniting even the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent.

The wars that dominated the early years of Harsha's reign gave way to a
long period of peace and prosperity for his empire. Content with his early
conquests and too greatly feared by rival rulers to be attacked, Harsha turned
his considerable energies to promoting the welfare of his subjects. Like
Ashoka, he built roads and numerous rest houses for weary travelers,
established hospitals, and endowed temples and Buddhist monasteries. In many
cases, Harsha personally supervised the building of these public works
projects, and he frequently toured the provinces of his empire to inquire
about the condition and needs of his subjects. A Chinese pilgrim named Xuan
Zang, who visited the Buddhist shrines of India during Harsha's reign, wrote
that as the king toured the provinces he would hold audiences for the common
people in a special pavilion that was set up alongside the main roads. Judging
from Xuan Zang's account, the prosperity of the Gupta age had been largely
restored during Harsha's reign. This was particularly the case in large towns
such as the capital, Kanauj, which had formidable walls, palatial homes, and
beautiful gardens with man-made tanks or pools. Some of the artistic
creativity of the Gupta age was also revived during Harsha's long reign. The
ruler was an author of some talent who wrote at least three Sanskrit plays,
and he befriended and generously patronized philosophers, poets, artists, and

Though he was probably a Hindu devotee of the god Shiva in his early
years, Harsha was tolerant of all faiths and increasingly attracted to
Buddhism. His generous patronage of Buddhist monasteries and the Buddhist
monkhood attracted pilgrims like Xuan Zang. If Xuan Zang's account can be
trusted, Harsha came close to converting to Buddhism in the last years of his
life. He sponsored great religious assemblies, which were dominated by
Buddhist monks and religious rituals, and prohibited eating meat and putting
an end to human life. His lavish patronage of the Buddhists led on one
occasion to a Brahmin-inspired assassination attempt, which appears only to
have strengthened his preference for Buddhist ceremonies and beliefs. Despite
his favoritism, however, Buddhism was clearly in decline. Monasteries were
large and wealthy, but monastic discipline was lax and most monks had little
contact with the populace at large. Much like a Hindu god, the Buddha was the
object of cult veneration, and a variety of corrupt practices had crept into
popular worship. Buddhist centers would prove vulnerable targets for Muslim
raiders, and in some areas a substantial portion of the dwindling numbers of
Buddhist lay believers would soon convert to Islam.

Political Divisions And The First Muslim Invasions

Harsha died without a successor in 646, and his kingdom was quickly
pulled apart by ambitious ministers seeking to found a new dynasty of their
own. Though Hindu culture flourished in both north and south India in the
centuries after Harsha's death - as evidenced by the great temples that were
constructed and the works of sculpture, literature, and music that were
produced - no paramount kingdom emerged. Political divisions in the north and
west-central regions of the subcontinent proved the most significant because
they left openings for a succession of invasions by different Muslim peoples.

The first and the least lasting Muslim intrusion, which came in 711,
resulted indirectly from the peaceful trading contacts that had initially
brought Muslims into contact with Indian civilization. Since ancient times,
Arab seafarers and traders had been major carriers in the vast trading network
that stretched from Italy in the Mediterranean to the South China Sea. After
converting to Islam, these traders continued to frequent the ports of India,
particularly those on the western coast. An attack by pirates sailing from
Debul (in Sind in western India) on ships owned by some of these Arab traders
prompted Hajjaj, the viceroy of the eastern provinces of the Umayyad Empire,
to launch a punitive expeditior against the king of Sind. An able Arab
general, Muhammad ibn Qasim, who was only 17 years old when the campaign
began, led over 10,000 horse- and camel-mounted warriors into Sind to avenge
the assault on Arab shipping.

After victories in several fiercely fought battles and successful sieges
of the great stone fortresses that stood guard over various parts of the arid
and thinly peopled Sind interior, Muhammad ibn Qasim declared the region, as
well as the Indus valley to the northeast, provinces of the Umayyad Empire.
Soon after the territories haddbeen annexed to the Umayyad Empire, a new
caliph, who was a bitter enemy of Hajjaj, came to power in Damascus. He purged
Hajjaj and recalled and executed his son-in-law, Muhammad ibn Qasim. Though
the personnel of the ruling Arab elite shifted as a result, the basic policies
established by Muhammad ibn Qasim were followed by his Umayyad and Abbasid
successors for several centuries.

In these early centuries, the coming of Islam brought little change for
most of the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. In fact, in many areas
local leaders and the mass of the populace had surrendered towns and districts
willingly to the conquerors, who offered the promise of lighter taxation and
greater religious tolerance. The Arab overlords decided to treat both Hindus
and Buddhists as protected "people of the book," despite the fact that their
faiths had no connection to the Bible, the book in question. This meant that
though they were obliged to pay special taxes, non-Muslims enjoyed the freedom
to worship as they pleased and to maintain their temples and monasteries.

As in other areas conquered by the Arabs, most of the indigenous
officials and functionaries retained their positions, which did much to
reconcile them to Muslim rule. The status and privileges of the Brahmin castes
were also respected. Virtually all the Arabs, who made up only a tiny minority
of the population, lived in the cities or special garrison towns. Because
little effort was expended in converting the peoples of the conquered areas,
they remained overwhelmingly Hindu or Buddhist and, initially at least,
displayed scant interest in the beliefs or culture of their new overlords.

Indian Influences On Islamic Civilization

Though the impact of Islam on the Indian subcontinent in this period was
limited, the Arab foothold in Sind provided contacts by which Indian learning
could be transmitted to the Muslim heartlands in the Middle East. As a result,
Islamic civilization was enriched by the skills and discoveries of yet another
great civilization. Of particular importance was Indian scientific learning,
which rivaled that of the Greeks as the most advanced of the ancient world.
Hindu mathematicians and astronomers traveled to Baghdad after the Abbasids
came to power in the mid-8th century. Their works on algebra and geometry were
translated into Arabic, and their instruments for celestial observation were
copied and improved upon by Arab astronomers. Most critically, Arab thinkers
in all fields began to use the numerals that Hindu scholars had devised
centuries earlier. Because these numbers were passed on to the Europeans
through contacts with the Arabs in the early Middle Ages, we call them Arabic
numerals today, but they originated in India. Because of the linkages between
civilized centers established by the spread of Islam, this system of numerical
notation has proved central to two scientific revolutions: the first in the
Middle East, which was discussed previously, and a second, more sustained and
fundamental transformation first in Europe and subsequently in much of the
rest of the world from the 16th century onward.

In addition to science and mathematics, Indian treatises on subjects
ranging from medicine to music were translated and studied by Arab scholars.
Indian physicians were brought to Baghdad to run the well-endowed hospitals
that the Christian Crusaders found a source of wonderment and a cause for
envy. On a number of occasions, Indian doctors were able to cure Arab rulers
and high officials whom Greek physicians had pronounced beyond help. Indian
works on statecraft, alchemy, and palmistry were also translated into Arabic,
and it is believed that some of the tales in the Arabian Nights were based on
ancient Indian stories. Indian musical instruments and melodies made their way
into the repertoires of Arab performers, and the Indian game of chess became a
favorite of both princes and ordinary townspeople. Arabs who emigrated to Sind
and other Muslim-ruled areas often adopted Indian dress and hairstyles, ate
Indian foods, and rode on elephants as the Hindu rajas (kings) did. In this
era additional Arab colonies were established in coastal areas, such as
Malabar to the south and Bengal in the east. These trading enclaves would
later provide the staging areas from which Islam was transmitted to island and
mainland Southeast Asia.

[See Tomb At Agra: Built in 1626 at Agra, this exquisite tomb of white marble
encrusted with semiprecious stones provides a superb example of the blending
of Islamic and Hindu architectural forms and artistic motifs.]

Muslim Invasions: The Second Wave

After the initial conquests by Muhammad ibn Qasim's armies, little
territory was added to the Muslim foothold on the subcontinent. In fact,
disputes between the Arabs occupying Sind and quarrels with first the Umayyad
and later the Abbasid caliphs gradually weakened the Muslim hold on the area
and led to the reconquest of parts of the lower Indus valley by Hindu rulers.
The slow Muslim retreat was dramatically reversed by a new series of military
invasions, this time launched by a Turkish slave dynasty that in 962 had
seized power in Afghanistan to the north of the Indus valley. The third ruler
of this dynasty, Mahmud of Ghazni, led a series of expeditions that initiated
nearly two centuries of Muslim raiding and conquest in northern India. Drawn
by the legendary wealth of the subcontinent and a zeal to spread the Muslim
faith, Mahmud repeatedly raided northwest India in the first decades of the
11th century. He defeated one confederation of Hindu princes after another and
drove deeper and deeper into the subcontinent in the quest of ever richer
temples to sack and loot.

Mahmud's raids and those of his successors became a lasting source of
enmity between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia. After capturing and looting a
rich Hindu temple in 1008, he became obsessed with the promise of treasure and
the chance to strike a blow at the infidel Hindu faith, which the great temple
complexes provided. His most spectacular raid was directed in 1024 at the
massive Somanth temple in Gujarat. The temple was served by more than 1,000
Hindu priests and hundreds of temple dancers and singers, supported by 10,000
villages, and defended by nearly 50,000 warriors. Its capture marked the high
point of Mahmud's career as general and religious zealot. After stripping the
captured shrine of its legendary jewels and golden decorations, Mahmud ordered
his followers to smash its idols and destroy the intricate complex of shrines
and passageways that housed them. The main idol of the temple was cut into
many pieces, and the parts were placed in the floors and stairways at the
entrances to Muslim mosques, where the faithful would regularly trod on them
when going to prayer. The persecution of both Hindus and Buddhists by
invaders, such as Mahmud, gave the Muslims a reputation among the Indian
peoples for intolerance and aggression that would greatly hinder the efforts
of later and more tolerant Muslim potentates to reconcile Hindu subjects to
their rule.

From Booty To Empire

The raids mounted by Mahmud of Ghazni and his successors, which were
devoted primarily to pillaging, gave way in the last decades of the 12th
century to sustained campaigns aimed at seizing political control in North
India. The key figure in this transition was a tenacious military commander of
Persian extraction, Muhammad of Ghur. The breakup of the Ghazni Empire as a
result of the ceaseless quarrels of Mahmud's successors made it possible for
the small mountain kingdom of Ghur, near Herat in western Afghanistan, to
emerge as a formidable regional power center. Vendettas to avenge the death of
relatives in the protracted struggle with the Ghaznis and the support of his
elder brother prepared Muhammad for ambitious military expeditions into India,
which began in 1178. After barely surviving several severe defeats at the
hands of Hindu rulers, Muhammad put together a string of military victories
that brought the Indus valley, Sind, and much of north-central India under his

Muhammad's conquests were extended in the following years by several of
his most gifted subordinate commanders, who, as was quite common in Muslim
kingdoms, were slaves who had risen to positions of power on the basis of
their military skills. These commanders established Muslim rule in the
Gangetic plain as far as Bengal and throughout Rajputana to the south and
west. After Muhammad of Ghur was assassinated in 1206, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, one
of his slave lieutenants, formed a separate kingdom in the Indian portions of
the Ghuri Empire.

Significantly the capital of the new kingdom was at Delhi along the Jumna
River on the Gangetic plain. Delhi's location in the very center of northern
India graphically proclaimed that a Muslim dynasty rooted in the subcontinent
itself, not an extension of a central Asian empire, had been founded. For the
next 300 years a succession of dynasties would rule much of north and central
India. Alternatively of Persian, Afghan, Turkic, and mixed descent, the rulers
of these imperial houses, who proclaimed themselves the sultans of Delhi,
fought each other, Mongol and Turkic invaders, and the indigenous Hindu
princes for control of the Indus and Gangetic heartlands of Indian

All the dynasties that laid claim to the sultanate based their power on
large military machines, which were anchored on massive contingents of cavalry
and, increasingly, on corps of war elephants patterned after those that
indigenous rulers had used for centuries. The support of their armies and
sumptuous court establishments became the main objectives of the extensive
bureaucracies that each of the rulers at Delhi sought to maintain. Though some
rulers patronized public works projects, the arts, and charitable relief, most
rulers concentrated on maximizing the revenues they could collect from the
peasants and townspeople in their domains. Throughout the Delhi sultanate era,
however, factional struggles among the ruling Muslims and their dependence on
Hindu lords and village notables in administration at the local level greatly
limited the actual control exercised by any of the dynasties that emerged.
Through the collusion and cheating of lower-level officials, who had no sense
of loyalty to the Muslim overlords, much of what the peasants produced was
retained by the villagers or appropriated by local and regional elite groups.


Though the Muslims literally fought their way into India, their
interaction with the indigenous peoples soon came to be dominated by
accommodation and peaceful exchanges. Over the centuries when much of the
north was ruled by dynasties centered at Delhi, sizeable Muslim communities
developed in different areas of the subcontinent, particularly in Bengal to
the east and in the northwestern provinces in the Indus valley that were the
points of entry for most of the Muslim peoples who migrated into India. Few of
these converts were won by forcible conversion. The main carriers of the new
faith were traders, who played a growing role in both coastal and inland
trade, and Sufi mystics, whom in both style and message shared much with
Indian holy people and wandering ascetics. Belief in their magical and healing
powers did much to enhance the stature and increase the following of the
Sufis, whose mosques and schools often became centers of regional political
power. Sufis organized their devotees in militias to fend off bandits or the
depredations of rival princes, oversaw the clearing of forests for farming and
settlement, and welcomed low and outcaste Hindu groups into the Muslim
brotherhood. After their deaths, the tombs of Sufi holy men became objects of
veneration for Hindus and Buddhists as well as for Muslims. They were sites of
pilgrimage, where travelers from many regions congregated and from which
Islamic teachings were further spread throughout the subcontinent.

Most of the indigenous converts, who came to form a majority of the
Muslims living in India, were drawn from specific regions and social groups.
Surprisingly small numbers of converts were found in the Indo-Gangetic centers
of Muslim political power, a fact that suggests the very limited importance of
forced conversions. Most Indians who converted to Islam were from Buddhist or
low-caste groups. In areas such as western India and Bengal, where Buddhism
had survived as a popular religion until the era of the Muslim invasions,
esoteric rituals and corrupt practices had debased Buddhist teachings and
undermined the morale of the monastic orders. This decline was accelerated by
Muslim raids on Buddhist temples and monasteries, which provided vulnerable
and lucrative targets for the early invaders. Without monastic supervision,
local congregations sank further into orgies and experiments with magic, and
in some areas into practices, such as human sacrifice, that also disregarded
the Buddha's social concerns and religious message. Disorganized and
misdirected, Buddhism proved no match for the confident and vigorous new
religion the Muslim invaders carried into the subcontinent, particularly when
those who sought to spread the new faith possessed the charisma and organizing
skills of the Sufi holy men.

Though Buddhist converts probably made up the larger portion of the
Indians who converted to Islam, untouchables and low-caste Hindus, as well as
animistic tribal peoples, were also attracted to the more egalitarian social
arrangements promoted by the new faith. As was the case with the Buddhists,
group conversions were essential since those who remained in the Hindu caste
system would have little to do with those who converted. Some conversions were
also prompted by the desire of Hindus or Buddhists to escape the hated head
tax the Muslim rulers levied on unbelievers and by intermarriage between the
indigenous peoples and Muslim migrants, whose communities usually included far
fewer women than men. The migrants themselves also increased the size of the
Muslim population in the subcontinent. This was particularly true in periods
of crisis in central Asia, as in the 13th and 14th centuries when Turkic,
Persian, and Afghan peoples retreated to the comparative sanctuary of India in
the face of the Mongol and Timurid conquests.


Although Islam won large numbers of converts in certain areas and
communities, it initially made little impression on the Hindu community as a
whole. Despite military reverses and the imposition of Muslim political rule
over large areas of the subcontinent, high-caste Hindus in particular
persisted in regarding the invaders as the bearers of an upstart religion and
as polluting outcastes. Al-Biruni, one of the chief chroniclers of the Muslim
conquests, complained openly about the prevailing Indian disdain for the

The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like
taeirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like
theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited and stolid.

Many Hindus were quite willing to take positions as administrators in the
bureaucracies of Muslim overlords or as soldiers in their armies and to trade
with Muslim merchants, but they remained socially aloof from their conquerors.
Separate living quarters in both cities and rural villages were established
everywhere Muslim communities developed; genuine friendships between members
of high-caste groups and Muslims were rare and sexual liaisons between them
were severely restricted.

During the early centuries of the Muslim influx, the Hindus were
convinced that, like so many of the peoples who had entered the subcontinent
in the preceding millennia, the Muslims would soon be absorbed by the superior
religions and more sophisticated cultures of India. Many signs pointed to that
outcome. Hindus staffed the bureaucracies and made up a good portion of the
armies of Muslim rulers. In addition, Muslim princes adopted regal styles and
practices that were Hindu-inspired and contrary to the Quran. Some Hindus
proclaimed themselves to be of divine descent, while others minted coins
decorated with Hindu images such as Nandi, the bull associated with a major
Hindu god, Shiva.

More broadly, Muslim communities became socially divided along caste
lines. Recently arrived Muslims were generally on top of the hierarchies that
developed, and even they were divided depending on whether they were Arab,
Turk, or Persian. High-caste Hindu converts came next, followed by "clean"
artisan and merchant groups. Lower caste and untouchable converts remained at
the bottom of the social hierarchy, which may well explain why conversions by
these groups were not as numerous as one would expect, given the original
egalitarian thrust of Islam. Muslims also adopted Indian foods and styles of
dress and took to chewing pan, or betel leaves. Their intrusion had
unfortunate consequences for women in both Muslim and Hindu communities. The
invaders increasingly adopted the lower age of women at the time of their
marriage and the prohibitions against widow remarriage found especially at the
high-caste levels of Indian society. Some upper "caste" Muslim groups even
performed the ritual of sati, the immolation of widows with the bodies of
their deceased husbands.

Islamic Challenge And Hindu Revival

Despite a significant degree of acculturation to Hindu life-styles and
social organization, Muslim migrants to the subcontinent held to their own,
quite distinctive religious beliefs and rituals. The Hindus found Islam
impossible to absorb and soon realized that they were confronted by an
actively proselytizing religion that had great appeal to substantial segments
of the Indian population. Partly in response to this challenge, the Hindus
placed ever greater emphasis on the devotional cults of gods and goddesses
that had earlier proved so effective in neutralizing the challenge of Buddhism
and other indigenous religious rivals. Membership in these devotional, or
bhaktic, cult groups was open to all, including women and untouchables. In
fact, some of the most celebrated writers of religious poetry and songs of
worship were women, such as Mira Bai. Saints from low-caste origins were
revered by warriors and Brahmins as well as by farmers, merchants, and
outcastes. Because many songs and poems were composed in regional languages,
such as Bengali, Marathi, and Tamil, they were more accessiblr to the common
people and became prominent expressions of popular culture in many areas.

Bhaktic holy people and gurus stressed the importance of a strong
emotional bond between devotee and the god or goddess who was their object of
veneration. Chants, dances, and in some settings drugs were used to reach the
state of spiritual intoxication that was the key to individual salvation. Once
one had achieved the state of ecstasy that came through intense emotional
attachment to a god or goddess, all past sins were removed and caste
distinctions rendered meaningless. The divine objects of these devotional
cults varied not only by region and social group but also by the holy person
followed. The most widely worshipped divine objects, however, were the gods
Shiva and Vishnu - particularly in the guise of Krishna the goatherd - and the
goddess Kali in any one of several manifestations. By increasing popular
involvement in Hindu worship and enriching and extending modes of prayer and
ritual, the bhaktic movement may have done much to stem the flow of converts
to Islam, particularly at the level of low-caste groups. Once again, the Hindu
tradition demonstrated its remarkable adaptability and tolerance for widely
varying modes of divine worship.

Attempts To Bridge The Differences Between Hinduism And Islam

The similarities in style and religious message between the Sufis, who
sought to spread Islam to the Indian masses, and the gurus, who championed
bhaktic devotion to the Hindu gods and goddesses, led to a number of attempts
to find common ground between the two communities. One of these attempts can
be traced in the teachings, recorded in the form of religious poems, of the
15th century mystic Kabir. A man of humble origins who was raised by Muslim
weavers in Banaras, one of the most sacred Hindu cities, Kabir played down the
importance of ritual differences between Hinduism and Islam. He declared:

O servant, where doest thou seek Me?
Lo! I am beside thee.
I am neither in temple nor in mosque:
Neither am I in rites and ceremonies, nor in Yoga and renunciation.

Though he saw both religions as valid paths to God, Kabir taught that the
ultimate truths transcended Hinduism and Islam. Sheer devotion, not prayers or
sacrifices, he argued, would lead the devotee to divine bliss:

If you have not drunk of the nectar of that One Love, what does it matter
that you purge yourself of all sins?

The Kazi [judge] is searching the words of the Koran [Quran], and
instructing others but if his heart is not steeped in that love, what
does it avail, though he be a teacher of men? The Yogi dyes his garments
with red: but if he knows nothing of the color of love, what does it
avail though his garments be tinted?

Kabir says: "Whether I be in the temple or the balcony, in the camp or in
the flower garden, I tell you truly that every moment my Lord is taking
His delight in me."

The attempts of mystics like Kabir to minimize the differences between
Hindu and Islamic beliefs and worship influenced only small numbers of the
followers of either faith. They were also strongly repudiated by the guardians
of orthodoxy in each religious community. Sensing the long-term threat to
Hinduism posed by Muslim political dominance and conversion efforts, the
Brahmins denounced the Muslims as infidel destroyers of Hindu temples and
polluted meat eaters. Later Hindu mystics, such as the 15th-century holy man
Chaitanya, composed songs that focused on love for Hindu deities and set out
to convince Indian Muslims to renounce Islam in favor of Hinduism.

For their part, Muslim ulama, or religious experts, grew increasingly
aware of the dangers that Hinduism posed for Islam. Attempts to fuse the two
faiths, such as that by Kabir, were rejected on the grounds that though Hindus
might argue that specific rituals and beliefs were not essential, they were
fundamental for Islam. If one played down the teachings of the Quran, prayer,
and the pilgrimage, one was no longer a true Muslim. Thus, the ulama and even
some Sufi mystics stressed the teachings of Islam that separated it from
Hinduism. They worked to promote unity within the Indian Muslim community and
to strengthen its contacts with Muslims in neighboring lands and the Middle
Eastern centers of the faith.

Stand-off: The Muslim Presence In India At The End Of The Sultanate Period

After centuries of invasion and migration, a sizeable Muslim community
had been established in the Indian subcontinent. Converts had been won,
political control had been established throughout much of the area, and strong
links had been forged with Muslims in other lands such as Persia and
Afghanistan. But non-Muslims, particularly Hindus, remained the overwhelming
majority of the population ofethe vast and diverse lands south of the
Himalayas. Unlike the Zoroastrians in Persia or the animistic peoples of the
Maghrib and the Sudan, most of the Indians showed little inclination to
convert to the religion of the Muslim conquerors. On the contrary, despite
their subjugation, they remained convinced that they possessed a superior
religion and civilization and that the Muslims would eventually be absorbed
into the expansive Hindu fold. The Muslim adoption of Hindu social forms and
Indian customs certainly pointed in this direction. The teachings of Hindu and
Muslim holy persons threatened to blur the religious boundaries between the
two faiths, a process that favored the ascendancy of the more amorphous faith
of the Hindu majority. Thus, though Muslim conquests and migration had carried
Islam into the heart of one of the most ancient and populous centers of
civilization, after centuries of political dominance and missionary activity,
India remained one of the least converted and integrated of all the areas to
which the message of Muhammad had spread.

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