FC52: The coming of Islam to India (711-c.1800)




Until 711 C.E., India had faced many invaders, but no substantial challenges on both a military and cultural level.  The Persians and Greeks had confronted India with highly developed civilizations, but also had reached the limits of their expansion by the time they arrived there.  The various nomadic peoples who entered India between the second century B.C.E. and eighth century C.E. may have been more potent military threats, but their cultures were thoroughly absorbed by India.  However, in 711 C.E., India faced for the first time a vital people with a culture and religion both as sophisticated and powerful as its own: Islam.

Much of the relationship between Islam and Hinduism hinged on a battle that took place at the Talas River in Central Asia in 751 C.E. between the expanding empires of the Arab Muslims and T'ang China.  The Arab victory in that battle not only stopped the T'ang dynasty's expansion to the West; it also led to the triumph of Islam over Buddhism as the prevailing religion in Central Asia.  As a result, although India continued to face a succession of invaders from the North, all those invaders had Islam as the common defining element of their cultures, a religion that in its own way was as appealing as Hinduism.

Pattern of development

For 1000 years following the entry of the Arab Muslims into India, a basic pattern of development emerged. Muslims would come into North-western India and expand to the south and east.  Eventually, India's environment would slow them down, as Islamic and Indian civilizations would leave their marks on each other.  Then another group of Muslims would come in and repeat the process. This pattern repeated itself in three successive waves: the Arabs in the eighth century, various Turkish peoples starting around 1000 C.E., and the Mughal dynasty that entered India in 1526.  This cycle may have continued repeating itself except for the intrusion of the British who would present India with a new cultural challenge.

Arabs and Rajputs (711-c.1000 C.E.)

The Arab Muslims entered India in 711, the same year their religious compatriots in the West entered Spain.  They conquered the area known as Sind in the Indus River valley (modern Pakistan).  It is hard to imagine two religions and civilizations so different in their outlooks as Islam and Hinduism.  Whereas Islam saw all people as equal before God, India's rigid caste system presented a highly stratified social structure sanctioned by religion.  On the other hand, while Hinduism was incredibly tolerant of a multitude of gods, Islam was strictly monotheistic.  For better or worse, the two cultures have co-existed, though not always peacefully, since the Arabs arrived until the present day.

Arab expansion was stopped by various feudal Indian princes known as the Rajputs who themselves may have been descended from invading Huns two centuries earlier.  While theoretically loyal to a king, they functioned as virtually independent rulers.  As trade increased, so did competition for the control of that trade.  As a result, the Rajputs often spent as much time fighting each other as they did resisting foreign invaders.  Their warfare was highly ritualized and regulated by an elaborate code of behavior, much like the codes of chivalry and Buhsido regulated the fighting of elite nobles in medieval Europe and Japan.  Our modern game of chess, originating in India, reflects this ceremonial way of fighting wars.  Unfortunately for the Rajputs, this also kept them from adapting to changes in warfare and hampering the Muslim advance across Northern India.

Arab rule was fairly tolerant of Hinduism.  They even preserved the temple of a Hindu sun god in Multan, which also prevented Hindu attacks on the city that might damage this holy spot.  Although the Arabs only conquered the northwestern part of India, their tolerant rule won many converts to Islam in that region which remains Muslim to this day.  This provided a solid base for further Muslim expansion into India.

Turkish invaders and the Sultanate of Delhi (c.1000-1526)

By 1000 C.E., the Abbasid Caliphate and Arabs' grip on their empire were in decline because of the empire's vast size, weak caliphs, and the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Like the caliphs in Baghdad, the Arabs in Afghanistan relied increasingly on slave bodyguards drawn chiefly from neighboring Turkish tribes.  Eventually these Turkish warriors asserted their independence and took over from the Arabs.  From this base in Afghanistan, they launched raids into India, thus resuming Muslim expansion in the subcontinent.

Compared to the Arabs, Turkish raids into India were much more ruthless and destructive.  The first of these raiders, Mahmud of Ghazni, earned the title of  "the Idol Smasher" for the damage he did to Hindu Temples, while the ruler, Ala al-Din, similarly came to be called "the World Burner."  These raids and invasions especially hurt Buddhism, as kings in East India were no longer able or willing to patronize Buddhist monasteries.  This led many Buddhists either to convert to Islam or flee to Tibet and Southeast Asia.  As a result, Buddhism virtually died out as a religion in India although its influence elsewhere continued to spread.

The Mongol invasions in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries seriously disrupted Muslim civilization, especially in Central Asia.  As a result, Muslims left on their own in India built an independent kingdom, the Sultanate of Delhi (1206-c.1500).  Also, many Muslim scholars fleeing the Mongol onslaught came to India.  This, along with an active sea-borne trade with Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East led to a flowering of Muslim culture in India.  The Sultanate of Delhi witnessed a gradual blending of Muslim and Hindu cultures.  Many Hindus learned Persian and Muslim bureaucratic procedures.  Helping this process was the introduction of paper, which made record keeping easier, thus, enhancing the Sultan's control over his realm.  Islam gained a number of converts from lower castes, especially from such castes as elephant trainers, weavers, and butchers who worked for the Muslims and saw this as a way to improve their station in life.

Muslims also absorbed Indian Culture, with caste distinctions starting to appear among them, Muslim men marrying Hindu women, and a mystical branch of Islam, Sufism, developing that used Hindu techniques such as meditation.  Altogether, these developments paved the way for the next wave of invaders: the Mughals.

The Mughal Dynasty (1526-c.1700)

 was founded by Babur the Tiger, an Afghan leader claiming descent from both Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame.  His original intention was the reconquest of Timur's Central Asian empire. However, when the Safavid Dynasty in Persia thwarted this plan, he turned toward India.  Using a combination of firearms, artillery, and nomadic cavalry, he defeated the Sultan of Delhi's much larger army at Panipat in 1526 and beat an even larger army of Rajputs the next year.  By his death in 1530, Babur had established the basis for over a century and a half of Mughal expansion that would encompass all but the southern tip of India.

The greatest of the Mughal rulers was Akbar the Great (1656-1605).  Coming to the throne at the age of thirteen, he soon proved himself a firm and shrewd ruler who quickly crushed any revolts in his inherited lands and expanded Mughal power into the Deccan.  However, it was Akbar's talents as a ruler, not a conqueror that earned him the title, "the Great."  Instead of trying to rule the stubborn Rajputs by force, he allied with them, using them as his officers and government officials to keep his unruly Muslim nobles in line.  He tolerated Hinduism, married Hindu princesses, and held scholarly discussions on any and all religions each Friday.  He even founded his own religion, Din Ilahi, a simple monotheistic faith that would not survive its founder's death.

Akbar looked out for his peoples' welfare by holding a land survey to ensure fair taxes.  He would even over-rule his own Muslim judges, the ulema, in order to secure justice and prosperity for his subjects.  Akbar was also a patron of the arts, encouraging both Hindu and Muslim artists, poets, and musicians.

Akbar established a strong and stable state that allowed his three successors, Jahangir (1605-27), Shah Jahan (1628-58), and Aurangzeb (1658-1707), to keep expanding the Mughal realm.  During this time, India experienced another flourishing of the arts with the fusion of Persian and Hindu styles.  In painting, Mughal artists combined the Persian tradition of colorful painting with the looser and more natural style of Indian artists.  Architecture especially reflected Muslim influence as seen in the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum for Shah Jahan's wife and still considered one of the world's most beautiful buildings.  In music, the sultan, Aurangzeb's ban on music caused Muslim musicians to flee to the countryside where they blended their style of music with Hindu folk music to create a style of music still known as Mughal music.

Decline of the Mughals

It was during the reign of Aurangzeb that two major seeds of Mughal decline were sown.  One was the over-extension of his empire in the conquest of all but the southern tip of India.  The other was his persecution of Hindus, a reversal of the traditional Mughal policy of tolerance.  Together, these bred disaffection among the people and drained the empire's resources.  After Aurangzeb's death in 1707, the Mughal Empire went into rapid decline, allowing a new people with a new culture, the British, to take over.