Perhaps no aspect of India’s history excites more passion and violent disagreement than the evaluation of Islam’s role in the sub-continent. On the one hand, the most extreme advocates of the 2-nation theory see the arrival of Islam as overwhelmingly positive – defending every gory invader or brutal conqueror that reached Indian soil – there are others who see the arrival of Islam as an even more destructive event for the people of the sub-continent than colonial rule.
And while it may be impossible to be completely objective and accurate in evaluating Islam’s impact in the sub-continent – it is undoubtedly true that advocates of the former view have engaged in enormous histroical deception. And even well intentioned historians can have their biases. Their assessment of Islam’s role in India could depend in large part on their personal priorities and value system. It could also be shaped by the nature and scope of the sources the historian consulted in order to develop his or her point of view. To some extent, the study of the Islamic period in Indian history has suffered because often, historians with an Islamist bias have attempted to obscure the truth while many other more objective historians have not always studied all aspects of Indian history in adequate depth. As a result, even while wishing to be objective, they have reinforced theories that are at best only partially accurate. The student of Indian history is then left to grapple with highly contradictory views of Indian history.
For Indians, this problem has been compounded by the impact of colonial rule, and its attempt to foster divisions and heighten tensions between India’s different religious communities. A successful fight against colonial rule required the widest possible unity of the Indian people. This often meant that historical disputes between Hindu and Muslim scholars had to be muted. The fear of inciting communal riots or tensions and religious separatism weighed heavily on many historians. Partition caused such fears to linger on into the post-independence period as well. Because Muslims were a minority in India, there was a reluctance on the part of secular historians to critique the role of Islam in any way that could be perceived as ‘negative’. Unfortunately this also led to an intellectual vacuum and historical confusion that has now been exploited by less scrupulous historians and even sheer myth-makers.
In order to restore the scholarship of this important period of India’s history to a higher and more authentic plane, it is important that India’s historians take up this challenging task with even greater devotion to truth and objectivity. At the same time, it is important that students of Indian history learn to separate the crimes of Islamic invaders and conquerors from their treatment of ordinary Indian Muslims. It is also important that we not judge the record of medieval rulers by today’s standards of fairness and justice
On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to project something that seemed positive in one social era as something that is beyond criticism or reproach in a later era. What may have been tolerable or progressive in a certain period may become a hindrance to progress in a later period. It is therefore essential to understand that different eras may accept or tolerate or promote different social philosophies – but demands for social progress can and should lead us to expand or modify our ethical codes and therefore change our evaluation of religion, social mores and political ideology.
In evaluating the impact of Islam on the sub-continent, one must also note that the sub-continent was never immune from invasions from the North West. Like other settled agricultural societies – India has been periodically attacked by less civilized barbarian tribes all through its long history. In that sense, the Islamic invasions were not exceptional or unique. What does make the Islamic invasions different is that unlike their predecessors who assimilated into the prevalent social system – Islamic conquerors retained their Islamic identity and created new legal and administrative systems that challenged and usually superceded the existing systems of social conduct and ethics. They also introduced new cultural mores that in some ways were very different from the existing cultural codes. While these were a source of friction and conflict, it should also be noted that there were also Islamic rulers who in much of their secular practice absorbed or accommodated local traditions.
We should also note that there were many different kinds of Islamic invaders. There were those who came primarily to pillage and loot, and left quickly after their plunder. Such invaders undoubtedly had a very debilitating effect. Any society that is subject to repeated external attack can lose its vigour and confidence. It can also suffer economic ruin because its accumulated savings can be forcibly expropriated and spent elsewhere. However, India was not alone in suffering such raids. Iraq and Egypt – which had already come under the sway of Islamic rule also experienced such violent attacks. In general, the treasuries of the Indian rulers (who had access to a large agricultural tax base) were comparatively rich, and frequently drew covetous interlopers and envious conquerors from the less fertile parts of Central Asia and the Middle East. The very geographic advantage that had helped to enrich India’s civilization became its bane as it repeatedly attracted ambitious conquerors and marauders.
But not all invaders left after looting. Some fought on to win kingdoms and stayed to create new ruling dynasties. The practices of these new rulers and their subsequent heirs (some of whom were borne of Hindu wives) varied considerably. While some were uniformly hated, others developed a popular following. According to the memoirs of Ibn Batuta (the 14th C. Tunisian traveler who left extensive records of his travels in India) one of the previous sultans had been especially brutal and was deeply hated by Delhi’s population. His memoirs also indicate that Muslims from the Arab world, from Persia and Turkey were often favored with important posts at the royal courts suggesting that locals may have played a somewhat subordinate role in the Delhi administration. S.A.A. Rizvi (The Wonder That Was India – II), however points to Muhammad bin Tughlaq as not only encouraging locals but promoting artisan groups such as cooks, barbers and gardeners to high administrative posts. In his reign, it is possible that conversions to Islam took place as a means of seeking greater social mobility and improved social standing.
There is also evidence of collaboration between Islamic and Hindu rulers such as between Ibrahim Shah Sharqi (1401-40) ruler of Jaunpur with Kirti Singh of Tirhut (although there is alos evidence to suggest that often such collaborations were coerced). The sultans of Jaunpur were frequently helped by the Hindu chiefs against their Muslim opponents, particularly the Lodis. Similarly, during the reign of Akbar, there was a functional alliance between the Rajput rulers and the Mughals – the alliance extending until the reign of Aurangzeb when the alliance began to weaken and gradually fall apart.
Hence, it would be incorrect to paint the Islamic rulers with a broad brush. While some were decidedly oppressive towards the local population, vandalized temples and sculpture, and remained generally detached from the vernacular cultures, others like Ahmed Shah of Ahmedabad or Adil Shah of Bijapur maintained a relatively close connection with indigenous traditions. While most Islamic rulers simply expropriated older Hindu or Jain monuments, and adapted them for their own purpose, a certain amount of fresh building activity also took place. Sher Shah Suri in his short reign played a particularly decisive role in creating several new urban centres. Although the practice of expropriation of Hindu temples and palace complexes did not come to an end with Lodhi or Mughal rule, new urban structures (such as inns along major highways) were alos built.
While some rulers stayed aloof from their subjects, and were strongly biased towards cultural practices imported from Turkey, Central Asia, Persia or Iraq – others preferred to study Sanskrit, encourage indigenous arts and employ Hindus in their administration without much discrimination. Ahmed Shah incorporated Hindu and Jain architectural motifs into his buildings without inhibition, Mughal rulers like Akbar and Jehangir tried to be eclectic in their tastes, and others like the Deccan rulers encouraged unique local-flavored styles. Some of the more enlightened Islamic rulers (particularly those who were born and raised in India and were recent converts from Hinduism or Jainism) understood (or came to understand) Indian geographic and climatic conditions, and like their Hindu counterparts in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh or Tamil Nadu (and elsewhere), invested in vital water-works like canals, dams, artificial lakes, step-wells and underground water-channels.
In their secular practice, the best of the Islamic rulers contributed to the expansion of urban life and culture, just as other rulers had done in preceding eras. (The contributions of Islamic rulers in promoting trade and manufacturing are noted in much greater detail in the article on the History of Crafts and Trade.) However, a major source of conflict emerged between Islamic and Hindu rulers, and this was on issues of taxation, and in the framing and enforcement of legal codes. And this is where matters came to a head. If one were to extrapolate from the accounts of Ibn Batuta, it would appear that Hindu rulers were more inclined to tax trade activities at a higher rate, giving concessions to agriculturists, whereas Islamic rulers tended to follow a more liberal policy vis-a-vis traders (many of whom were foreigners from the Islamic nations), but exercised a more exacting tax policy towards agriculturists. It would thus appear that the arrival of Islam shifted power in favor of the mercantile class at the expense of cultivators.
Islam and the expansion of trade
It was in the expansion of trade where Islam’s impact was the greatest. One of the most significant aspects of the Islamic period in world history was the emergence of Islamic courts capable of imposing a common commercial and legal system that extended from Morocco in the West to Mongolia in the North East and Indonesia in the South East. Although this was not of significant benefit to countries such as India that enjoyed a substantial trade surplus, it was probably of great significance to the people of the Arabian or Central Asian deserts whose oases depended heavily on trade.
As the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of Asia were subjugated by Islam, and as Islam spread through Africa – it became a highly centralizing force that facilitated in the creation of a common legal system that allowed letters of credit issued in say Egypt or Tunisia to be honored in India or Indonesia. To create and sustain such an internationally consistent legal system, Islamic rulers had to undercut the local and traditional systems of governance that prevailed. This also meant that they often preferred to deal with foreigners who had no interest in preserving the older systems. It is also possible that the terms of trade were structured in ways that disadvantaged local artisans and peasants, but favored the rich traders and ruling elites in the newly established and aggressively expanding Islamic kingdoms.
As the old contractual obligations in society were weakened, Islam became the new binding force of these newly conquered societies. And in order to cement their rule, Islamic rulers initially promoted a system in which there was a revolving door between the clergy, the administrative nobility and the mercantile classes. Ibn Batuta is a classic example of this phenomenon. He served as an Imam in Delhi, as a judicial official in the Maldives, and as an envoy and trader in the Malabar. There was never a contradiction in any of his positions because each of these roles complemented the other. Islam created a compact under which political power, law and religion became fused in a manner so as to safeguard the interests of the mercantile class. This led world trade to expand to the maximum extent possible in the medieval world.
Agriculturally developed societies played a crucial role in this transformation. The interests of the mercantile community were such that they wished agricultural taxes to be high but trade duties to be low. By and large, Islamic rulers implemented exactly such a regime. This enabled the founding of new trading and manufacturing centers that emerged wherever Islam took hold. For the desert areas of the world, Islam came as a big boon – providing wealth from trade that would have been unimaginable considering the poverty of the natural landscape. For the world’s largely self-sufficient and more advanced agricultural civilizations like India (or Egypt or Indonesia) – this growth in trade was probably of lesser significance and more of a mixed bag (as we shall see later).
Islam and the spread of technology
With the growth of international trade also came the spread of manufacturing technology and a more advanced urban culture. Local inventions and regional technologies became more easily globalized. This was of profound importance to those parts of the world that had lagged in terms of technological development. On the other hand, for a nation like India which had had a rich intellectual tradition of its own, and was already a relatively advanced civilization, this may have been of lesser import. Nevertheless, no country has a lock on technology, and to the extent that the arrival of Islam was concomitant with the adoption of new technologies it helped India too. The use of ceramic tiles in construction was inspired by architectural traditions prevalent in Iraq, Iran, and in Central Asia. Rajasthan’s blue pottery was an adaptation of Chinese pottery which was imported in large quantities by the Mughal rulers. There is also the example of Sultan Abidin (1420-70) sending Kashmiri artisans to Samarqand to learn book-binding and paper making.
But regardless of whether the Islamic rulers introduced new technology or not, there is considerable evidence that many Islamic rulers developed Karkhanas – i.e. small factories during their reign. Of even greater significance is how new towns that specialized in a particular category of manufactured goods emerged throughout the country. Khurja and Siwan became renowned for pottery, Moradabad for brass ware, Mirzapur for carpets, Firozabad for glass wares, Farrukhabad for printing, Sahranpur and Nagina for wood-carving, Bidar and Lucknow for bidriware, Srinagar for papier-mache, Benaras for jewelry and textiles, and so on.
In part this came about because even Babar (who held India in great disdain) was compelled to acknowledge the great variety of artisan skills that were available in India.
Impact on the peasantry and urban citizenry
The impact on the peasantry varied from region to region, and from ruler to ruler. Even as new urbanization created opportunities for some, it also created new problems for the countryside and enormous suffering for those whose older urban centres were destroyed. This was because with every new invading dynasty, there was considerable destruction of previous urban settlements. Moroever, throughout Islamic rule, there was constant resistance from several local communities who resented the imposition of alien Islamic rule. By and large, such rebellions were put down with massive force and often led to the complete destruction of previously established urban settlements. This meant that many urban settlements were of transient character, and Indian urban life could never achieve the degree of stability and cultural life that eventually led to the sort of developments in urban planning, modern educational facilities (such as colleges and univerisities) and other urban infrastructural works that were gradually becoming visible in Europe or Korea, Japan and China.
Furthermore, the growth of the new urban centres and the manufacture of luxury goods that were popular in the lavish courts of some of the Islamic rulers often came at a heavy cost on large sections of the peasantry. While trading communities and certain categories of skilled artisans may have been able to take advantage of new avenues for social mobility, other sections suffered a setback.
The invading rulers, particularly during the Delhi Sultanate (or even the Mughal) period had a fairly narrow local support base – (especially if they were not born and raised in India, and were driven to enforcing their particular idea of Islamic law on a resistant population). This meant that they had to rely on greater violence to sustain their rule. It appears that military campaigns became more frequent and more brutal. Punishments became more severe and torture and the death penalty were used with little restraint.
During the early period of Islamic conquest, many Islamic rulers resorted to the hated jaziya, or poll tax levied on non-believers – i.e. non-Muslims. In some instances, this pushed the poorest sections of the peasantry into slavery. In other instances this may have coerced some of the peasantry into converting, or else led to local uprisings and tax rebellions. But the consequences of failed rebellions were just as disastrous.
Growth of Slavery
During the period of the Delhi Sultanate, the practice of slavery grew to levels previously unseen in Indian history. S.A.A. Rizvi reports that Delhi’s 14th C. ruler Firuz Shah Tughlaq kept 180,000 slaves. Impoverished peasants were often forced into selling their children, both boys and girls into slavery. According to Ibn Batuta, captive girls were very cheap, and even skilled girls were relatively inexpensive. Slaves acquired through wars and armed raids against Hindu chiefs were sold in local markets. Noblemen kept an enormous number of slaves and feudal lords maintained entire armies of slaves. A significant number were captured and sent to the slave markets of Central Asia. However, slaves utilized in the military often fought their way to the top and took their revenge on the ruling clans. This occurred not only in Delhi but also in Aurangabad and Ahmednagar in the Deccan, and in Bengal. As a result, the Sultanate period was a period of great instability with rulers being deposed in quick succession. It is quite likely that the Rajput practice of Jauhar emerged as a means of fending off such degradation in the face of impending military defeat.
During famines, both Hindus and Muslims sold their children into slavery thus forcing the clergy to speak out against the practice. In 1562, Akbar abolished the practice of taking the wives and children of defeated rebels as captives and from then on, it appears that the practice of slavery may have gone into decline but was not entirely discontinued. The special tax on non-Muslims, the jaziya was also abolished. Nevertheless, taxes on the peasantry went up from a sixth or a fourth of the produce to a third under the Mughals. While some of these increased taxes may have been made possible through improved irrigation methods – at some point these taxes far exceeded any gains in productivity and came to be viewed as unbearable, and eventually led to the Sikh and Maratha revolts that permanently fractured Mughal rule.
But not all Islamic rulers bled the peasantry. Shah Mir who became king of Kashmir in 1339 fixed the land tax at 17%. Later rulers like Tipu Sultan of Mysore were also not viewed as unreasonable taxers and became especially popular. Even more profligate rulers like the Awadh Nawabs managed to juggle the interests of the peasantry with the interests of urban-dwellers thus maintaining a certain amount of popular support.
Social Impact of Islam
Although as a religious faith, Islam is commonly believed to provide for the “equality” of all believers, the Quran and the Hadith bith justify the second-class or third class treatment of non-believers and infidels. thta is why there is considerable evidence that most Hindus experienced considerable downward mobility as a consequene of the Islamic invasions. Only those social groupings that actively collaborated with the alien rulers were able to maintain their wealth and status (or in some cases, move up the ladder)
The general bias towards trade, and the trend towards higher taxes on the peasantry led to far greater concentrations of wealth amongst the social elite. Not only did the distance between rich and poor widen with the arrival of the Islamic invaders, Islamic rulers did not contribute in any meaningful way to breaking down the caste system.
Hence, it would be wrong to exaggerate the “egalitarian” character of Islam versus the “discriminatory and sedentary ” character of caste-driven Hinduism. As some historians have pointed out – those who earned their living by “unclean tasks” (such as corpse-handling, tanning/leather work, or janitorial work) were often treated with disdain by both the Islamic and Hindu elite. The majority of the Islamic conquerors and ruling dynasties refrained from close social interaction and marriage with the local artisans and working castes just as much as did Brahmins or Kshatriyas. It would also be wrong to argue that caste rigidity was uniformly enforced in ‘Hindu’ India. Many of India’s greatest ruling dynasties sprang from lower castes or socially “inferior” mixed castes. The Nandas were shudras, the Mauryas hailed from a mixed caste, and Harsha was a Vaishya. The Rajputs were of Central Asian stock and became accepted as Kshatriya after they had established their power. And just like the Muslims, the Kalingas of Orissa allowed anyone to join their armies and rise to the top by demonstrating their skills in battle. Moreover the Vaishnava and Bhakti movements had already been popularizing the notion that spiritual devotion superceded caste in terms of gaining salvation. Hence, Islam did not offer anything that was substantially new or more radical to the majority of India’s Hindus and this is why the majority did not convert to Islam.
This is particularly evident in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa where few artisans or craftspeople converted to Islam. There is evidence of social mobility across caste groupings in the Pratihara period in Rajasthan. Caste divisions were not significant in the early Kalinga period in Orissa and the Chandella rulers of Madhaya Pradesh were reputed to have an egalitarian attitude on matters of caste and may have been of lower caste origin themselves. Some rulers had tribal origins (such as the Meena kings of Rajasthan and the erstwhile rulers of Jabalpur before its defeat at the hands of the Mughals). Just as the impact of Islam varied considerably, it would be wrong to generalize about pre-Islamic India. Caste rigidity and Brahminical conservatism were not uniform or all-prevalent features of the sub-continent. Had Islam offered a truly radical alternative to the Indian masses, a much greater proportion of the Indian population would have converted.
As pointed out by Amartya Sen and others, the majority of conversions took place directly from Buddhism to Islam or amongst certain mercantile communities and specific categories of skilled artisans.
Growth of Clerical Obscurantism
Although conversions may not always have been forced, local histories from several districts in the Hindi-speaking parts of the country (especially the gangetic plain) allude to considerable pressure on local rulers and chieftans to convert. This is because the Islamic rulers wanted their intermediaries with the Indian masses to also be Muslim so that their rule was less easily challenged or thwarted.
Ibn Batuta also points to coercion in forcing people to attend the daily prayers. Indians who were used to religions where they had considerable autonomy in terms of when and how often they went to the temple – initially resisted the regimen of frequent daily prayers. Imams often had to threaten and cane convertees into attending.
Another negative consequence of Islam was that because Islam was against idol worship, the rich ancient Indian tradition of sculpture suffered a major setback. This also had certain profound though less apparent consequences. At one level – praying to a stone deity may seem very irrational, but in practice it was certainly no worse than praying to an invisible entity. At least the stone deity that was sculpted with human features embodied the fantasies and wish-fulfillment desires of the people. Daily and forced obeisance to an invisible god with the power to punish with eternal damnation was potentially far more spirit deadening and mind-numbing.
Islamization thus led to a steady loss of independent thinking and religious dissent. Unlike the polycosmological practises that prevailed in India wherein all manner of heterodox and conservative traditions competed, and allowed atheism and goddess worship to coexist with Brahminical orthodoxy, Quranic Islam more often demanded complete submission to its precepts and allowed much less room for heretic beliefs. For instance, students of Indian philosophy were familiar with several atheistic traditions which included the Nyaya-Vaisheshika, the Sankhya, the Mimamsaka, the Yoga, and several Jain and Buddhist currents. State support of such atheist and other currents contributed quite substantially to the expansion of literacy beyond the elite castes and also helped in the expansion of scientific knowledge and in further development mathematical and epistemological analysis.
While obscurantist ideas emasculated followers of both faiths, the power of the Islamic clergy was considerably greater in enforcing social conservatism. This trend became notable during the reign of Shah Jahan and climaxed during the reign of Aurangzeb.
By the time Aurangzeb took over, much of the state’s social budget had come to be expropriated by the conservative clergy. The only scholars to be promoted were Islamic scholars who became prisoners to the unworldliness that is ingrained in any religion that makes absolute devotion to an unknown and indescribable entity its paramount aim. Towards the end of his life, Aurangzeb regretted his turn towards Islamic conservatism and exclusivity, but by then the conservative clergy had developed a momentum of its own.
Being a religion of the book, Islam was more easily hijacked by dogmatic currents than Hinduism which lacked the formal and centralizing institutions that came with Islam. There was no council of Ulemas with the power to issue fatwas (threatening religious edicts). There were no daily prayers. There wasn’t even a single sacred book that could resolve religious disputes. While some followed the Gita or the Upanishads, others followed the Ramayana which itself came in multiple versions. Many of these texts were highly polemical, embodying intense philosophical ambiguity and debate. Concepts like “dharma” were loosely defined and abstract in their conception, enabling them to be adjusted to the changing needs of changing times. The concept of “karma” furthered a sense of secular responsibility and some understanding of causality and proportionality in a manner that had no comparable counterpart in Quranic Islam.
The Quran offered little secular ambiguity or possibility for new philosophical development. Quranic interpreters could only spend their time quibbling over historic minutiae, obsessed with statements of the ‘prophet’ and what judgement day might bring and who would enter heaven. It was questions of the after-life that concerned them, and day-to-day reality had to be analyzed only through a medieval Arabist lens. Although there were currents within Hinduism that also emphasized detachment from real life – there was still space for more contemporary (and geographically more relevant) worldly currents.
Prior to the arrival of Islam, some Hindu rulers supported emerging scientists and rational scholars. Although the support for the sciences and education was never broad based and did not penetrate deep into society it allowed India’s secular and rational traditions to survive – even if in a weakened and restricted form. But in some cases, there is evidence of quite vigorous intellectual activity.
Some Hindu rulers like Raja Bhoj were particularly notable in that they were renowned architects and engineers and were highly respected for their many building projects. Raja Bhoj was also noted for his engineering innovations relating to town planning, civil construction and engineering and mechanical inventions such as time-telling devices. Recently, treatises on earthquakes and geological analysis have also been discovered suggesting that pre-Islamic India was not as stagnant or moribund as some Isalmic historians have tried to imply.
The more liberal of the Islamic rulers like Akbar attempted to follow in these footsteps and keep the Madrasahs (Islamic Schools) in line by compiling regulations that required them to also include secular subjects in their curriculum. Courses on ethics, mathematics, astronomy, agriculture, medicine, logic and government were recommended in addition to religious studies. The study of Sanskrit was prescribed including Vyakaran (Grammar) and Nyaya – (Rational Philosophy). During Akbar’s reign Hakim Shirazi (d. 1589) and his followers attempted to combine the study of mathematics and science with Islam at seminaries founded by them. Perhaps as a consequence of his father’s open-mindedness, Emperor Jehangir was also encouraged to pay attention to secular matters and took an active interest in botany and zoology. But neither Akbar nor Jehangir were to have any significant impact on the outlook of the Madrasahs. The actual practice of the Ulema – the clergy who ran the Madrasahs, remained theocratic, and they resisted Akbar’s modest attempts at secularizing the Islamic educational system. This was not entirely out of character because as early as the 11th C. the Central Asian scholar Al-Beruni had been jailed for his “heretic” beliefs, and for ‘challenging the supremacy of the knowledge contained in the Quran’.
In social matters also, there were distinctions that became apparent over time. Outside the ambit of Brahminical or Kshatriya orthodoxy, the triumph of patriarchy was only partial in India. Amongst some communities of artisans and the peasantry, there was a greater sense of realism and tolerance in matters of personal relationships and human sexuality. Gods and goddesses were propitiated based on local and even individual needs. Religion was more a matter of individual or group choice than a rigid doctrine imposed from above. Regional, even local variations and adaptations coexisted and survived.
But over time the conservative Islamic clergy attempted to limit or quash flexibility in such matters. Using their Friday sermons and power to issue fatwas they were able to exercise greater influence on the polity than were Hindu priests. With the rulers on their side, it was much harder to challenge them. This may have also had an indirect impact on some rationalist and autonomous schools within the broad Hindu umbrella who may have also came under some pressure.
Although the Sufi and Bhakti traditions challenged religious bigotry and intolerance, both traditions came under the sway of mystic renunciation of the real world. Even as they eased the pain of religious and social autocracy – they were unable to offer a realistic counterpoint to the imposition of religious sectarianism and bookish rigor. A powerful humanist reform current also appeared in the form of Sikhism which in its practice of social welfare measures for the poor and disenfranchised exceeded any faith preceding it. But like the Sufi and Bhakti faiths, it too incorporated elements of mystic withdrawal and saintly devotion to the ‘almighty’ as its high ideals.
The retreat from India’s long tryst with rationalism had already started in some parts of India with the ascendancy of those who believed strongly in astrology and ascribed to it a dominant role in shaping human destiny. But in other parts of India, scientifc and engineering research was not entirely dead. Not only did Islam aid and abet the retreat from scientifc rationalism, it further deepened it.
This was in stark contrast to what was happening in Europe in that same period. By the 18th century Christian religious orthodoxy was facing powerful movements for social reform and was under attack from both internal and external humanist and rationalist currents. Rather than the rational currents being subsumed by religion, they were trying to raise their head to rise above the ocean of myth, superstition and religious confusion that had imbued the masses of the medieval world.
In India the trend was in the wrong direction and this undoubtedly fed into the process of cementing colonial rule. For instance, several recent economic hostorians have indicated that until the 13th C, India led the world in terms of its GDP. Four centuries of Islamic rule allowed China to gain parity with India, and later, Europe outpaced both China and India.
While the British used all shades of religious obscurantism to divide and subjugate the Indian masses, Islamic separatism became a particularly dangerous tool in the hands of the British. The complicity of the Muslim League served as a catalyst for the unfortunate vivisection of the sub-continent. Today, in Pakistan, Islam has become a vehicle for spreading venom and hatred against India. This has led to a growing revulsion against Islam and unfortunate stereo-typing of all Muslim nations and people in some sections of Indian society. Progressive forces in India have been caught in a curious bind.
Earlier in the century, in the fight against colonial rule, the widest possible unity of the Indian people was deemed essential. As a result, forces that were based on mystic renunciation or religious obscurantism (or even religious chauvinism) were tolerated, even welcomed in the freedom movement. Criticism of religion, even religious absolutism was avoided. The fear of communal riots and religious separatism prevented many of the nation’s most advanced freedom fighters from combating religious conservatism head on.
After independence, similar fears (of fomenting needless divisions) often led to the quiet censorship of essays containing a critique of Islam. However, because, Hinduism was viewed as the faith of the ‘dominant majority’ there weren’t the same fears of critically dissecting Hinduism. It was possible for the many weaknesses and failures of Hindu obscurantism to be exposed, but Islam, on the other hand was somewhat protected from critical analysis.
Today, this has led to a severe backlash. It has led to an exaggerated glorification of Hinduism – and a lack of historical distance from the odious aspects of Islam’s role in India. India thus faces an enormous challenge. At the same time, it has left many Muslims with an overly sanitized record of the Islamic and little respect for the much more intellectually virile Indian traditions.
The old solution of avoiding controversy or holding back from a frank and deeper assessment is clearly unsustainable. Historians cannot refrain from telling the truth for too long. Yet, the truth can also be told in ways that are enlightening, and without it being incendiary. If the record of India’s Islamic courts is presented in an unbiased and impartial way, and without stirring feelings of retribution towards Muslims, it is likely that most ordinary Indians will react in a manner that is sanguine and circumspect. It may also create an opportunity for fighting anew all the forces of obscurantism that hinder India’s progress.
If India is to meet the challenges posed by technology dominated globalization, it cannot afford to continue stumbling under the shadow of any type of religious obscurantism. The same applies to Pakistan and Bangladesh. In all three nations, there is tremendous poverty and oppression. While India, having embraced a secular path, offers somewhat more hope than either of its neighbors, a secular and cooperative federation of the Indian sub-continent offers the greatest hope of progress for the vast majority of the sub-continent’s people.
Between the nations of the sub-continent there exist the natural resources and the scientific and technological prowess to raise the average standard of living to modest but very respectable levels, and to do it in an environmentally sustainable fashion. But today, by and large, only India has elements of the requisite scientific and technological foundation in place. However, due to Pakistan’s proxy wars it is unable to tap the available energy resources and other natural resources and develop in a balanced way. Pakistan and Bangladesh on the other hand have rich energy reserves but lack the scientific and technological know-how, or industrial base to develop or use them. It is a poignant stalemate.
The forces of Islamic jehad have won a partial victory through partition and in keeping India bleeding. But it has undoubtedly been a very pyrrhic victory in which all except a very narrow elite have been big losers. Islam at one point served to unite the medieval world into one huge trading bloc. It is ironic that today, it is the forces of Islamic Jehad that prevent even bilateral trade from taking place between India and Pakistan. Rather than unite disparate social systems, Islam is being used to divide a people with a long and common culture and history.
In many ways, the key to the future is in the hands of the region’s ordinary Muslims because only they can successfully challenge the power of the conservative and now militarized clergy. India’s Muslims have a special role to play because they have the best chance of winning over the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh and exhorting them to work towards a cooperative and mutually beneficial federation with India.