In world history, the Indian sub-continent or South Asia maintained a unique stature as being religiously ‘tolerant and pluralistic’ as a society. In ancient times, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism co-existed in society.
Islam arrived in India in the early eighth century and slowly penetrated into the Indian society. While Arabs were the first Muslims to arrive, the major influx of Muslims was from Central Asia and Afghanistan. The strong foundation of plurality in the Indian society enabled, in general, a rather smooth integration of Muslims into society.
History Of Religious & Cultural Tolerance And Assimilation In India
The Muslim conquerers from Central Asia, despite their military strength and separate cultural and ethnic identity, merged into the Indian society and promoted a blended culture integrating Central Asian customs into the Indian traditions. The Muslim conquests and rule in India had set a unique example in the history of the Muslim world, where the invading armies, accompanying migrants and rulers blended into the local society, and embraced the pluralistic societal mosaic.
This resulted in the emergence of a tolerant attitude in Muslim masses towards other religions in the society. They continued their religious practices, while respecting the religious rights and freedom of others. The same attitude was shown by other religious communities towards Muslims, which had created the environment of social harmony.
Despite the overall social harmony and religious accommodation, there were incidents of religious hatred and persecution; however, they did not rip apart the overall tolerant fabric of the Indian society. There were battles between Muslim and Hindu rulers, but these battles were primarily on political grounds rather than religious grounds. History is full of examples where Muslims were in the army of a Hindu ruler and Hindus were fighting alongside a Muslim ruler.
Centuries of such accommodation and tolerance created strong practices of social harmony among Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other religious communities, that spread across India from small villages to large cities.
While sporadic local incidences of religious hatred occurred, there were no incidents of large-scale massacres or ethnic cleansing of any religious community. With time, Indian Muslims strengthened their cultural norms, deeply rooted in Indian traditions. They maintained their connection with Muslims in other parts of the world, particularly Arabia, but it was restricted to religious customs, whereas, their links to Indian culture helped them keep strong social bonds with local multi-faith communities, and political affiliations with India.
- History shows that Muslims and Hindus lived together in the Indian subcontinent, from villages to cities, for over one thousand years.
- The seeds of communal divide were sown when the British government introduced the separate electorate system for Muslims in 1909.
- The creation of Pakistan had two long-term religio-political consequences on Indian Muslims.
- In India, Muslims faced a political void due to the migration of almost all Muslim political leadership to Pakistan.
- In Pakistan, by declaring Islam as its raison d’etre, the political leadership continued to play the religion card to sustain power.
How Seeds Of Communal Divide & Hindu-Muslim Disharmony Were Sown
Islamic history in India provides evidence that religion and culture are two separate entities. One could follow religious practices of Islam while being socially affiliated with the local culture, traditions, linguistics and ethnicity of another place. Indian Muslims share religious practices with other Muslims but socially, they are much closer to Indian Hindus than Arab or Persian Muslims.
Although the seeds of communal divide were sown when the British government introduced the separate electorate system for Muslims in 1909, but broadly speaking, there was no sense of segregation in the social climate of the country until the late 1930s, when Muhammad Ali Jinnah played the communal card for political gains. He argued that nationhood is defined based on religion, and hence, Hindus and Muslims constitute two separate nations –– thus, they cannot live together –– as per his so-called Two-Nation theory.
On this basis, he demanded a separate state for Muslims. Ironically, a large fraction of Indian Muslims bought into his theory without rationally thinking that there is no credible evidence to support this theory, and rather, to the contrary, both history and contemporary political events nullified this theory.
History has shown that Muslims and Hindus lived together in the Indian subcontinent for over one thousand years.
The Muslim history of 1500 years also witnessed that religion never bound Muslims into a nationhood; and race, ethnicity and/or tribal hood were the primary fault lines for the political divide, which often led to brutal bloodshed among Muslims.
The Arab revolt against Turks in 1916 that led to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire was the strongest contemporary evidence to Indian Muslims, that race and ethnicity supersede religious affiliation. Ironically, the same factors led to the break-up of Pakistan in 1971.
How South Asian Cultures Came To be ‘Degraded’ As ‘Hindu Customs’
The creation of Pakistan had two long-term religio-political consequences on Indian Muslims that were then divided between the independent states of India and Pakistan. In India, Muslims faced a political void due to the migration of almost all Muslim political leadership to Pakistan. This political gap was filled by religious parties that created the walls of conservatism and hindered the socio-political progression of Indian Muslims. In Pakistan, by declaring Islam the raison d’etre, the political leadership continued to play the religion card to sustain power.
While religion was used by the Muslim leadership, the Muslim masses on both sides of the border continued to adhere to their South Asian social identity and continued practising their cultural norms till around 1970s.
A change started to emerge with the growing influence of Saudi Wahhabism on South Asian Muslims. In Pakistan, the promotion of Wahhabism and Arabisation of the South Asian cultural practices were started extensively under the state patronage of the military dictator Zia ul Haq. The information and media machinery of the state was fully utilised to redefine the identity of Pakistan and the Muslims living in the country.
The supremacy of Arabian culture was denoted, and South Asian cultural practices were degraded as ‘Hindu customs’. History was distorted and presented with a biased binary lens, where heroes and villains were defined based on religion.
Efforts To Keep South Asian Muslims Rooted To Their Cultural Ethos
The attitude of religious tolerance and accommodation was declining in Pakistan. The disownment of South Asian culture furthered them from a tolerant attitude and religious accommodation, the signature characteristics of South Asian heritage. This unleashed the horror of sectarian violence and persecution of religious minorities, which continues unabated even today.
This change of mindset did not stop at Pakistan but also entered Muslim communities in Bangladesh and India. In Bangladesh, religious extremism is on the rise. In India however, the secular and pluralistic nature of the society restricted its spread as compared to that in Pakistan or even Bangladesh, but the mindset of Arab cultural affiliation and distancing from South Asian culture is growing.
It is important to remember that religion and culture are separate entities. Disowning the South Asian cultural identity and adapting the Arab culture will not make South Asian Muslims ethnic Arabs but rather identity-less. It is important to remember that religion and culture are separate entities and people could still adhere to same religious values while practicing different cultural norms.
The efforts to keep South Asian Muslims rooted in their South Asian culture and identity however, are currently facing a threat due to the rise of Hindu right wing extremism.
This extremism tends to destroy the social harmony that has existed for hundreds of years by marginalising religious minorities. In particular, the attempt to alienate Muslims in their own land is pushing them away from their South Asian identity, which will lead to the rise of religious extremism among Indian Muslims.
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh Must Revive Tradition Of Inclusiveness & Tolerance
It is surprising that Hindu extremists have not learnt a lesson from their neighbouring country –– how religious extremism destroys social harmony, obstructs societal advancement and damages respect among fellow nations.
Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other religious communities in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh need to collectively revive their centuries’ old tradition of tolerance and religious accommodation, before religious extremism causes unrepairable damage.
This is only going to be possible when Muslims in the three countries re-own and retain their common South Asian culture and traditions of religious tolerance and denounce religious extremism, while the Hindu community in India eradicates religious extremism that is spreading in their community.
Do not let the politically-driven animosity between the people of the region created in the last seven decades, change the deep-rooted traditions of inclusiveness and harmony. The key to prosperity in this region lies in reviving the cultural bonds among the people living in the three countries, and advancing socio-economic cooperation. There is no other way out.
(The author is a Professor at a Canadian university. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)