SAH MKK-23027: Forced Conversions to Islam

In his “Discovery of India”  Jawaharlal Nehru appears to attribute the conversion of Hindus to Islam to Islam’s purported  egalitarian character and hence its ‘mass appeal’: ” The idea of brotherhood of Islam and of the theoretical equality of its adherents made a powerful appeal, especially those of the Hindu fold who were denied any semblance of equal treatment.”

But strangely, India’s demographic data stands in complete contradiction to such a conclusion. From Punjab and Haryana in the North to the Gangetic Plains, and to Bengal, Hindu communities include members of all castes – including those that should have been most amenable to conversions to Islam. If Islam had truly been perceived as the vehicle for liberation from a petrified caste society as Nehru had claimed, surely there could be no Hindus left at the lower ends of the caste spectrum – especially after five centuries of Islamic rule.

Furthermore, such a speculation appears to be contradicted by another of Nehru’s assertion (concerning Muslim Rajputs) which seems more historically accurate: “It is worth noting as a rule, conversions to Islam were group conversions…Among the upper castes individuals may change their religion…almost an entire village would convert…group life as well as well as their functions continued as before with only minor variations with regards worship etc.”

If entire villages converted and maintained their former practices, how could the conversion have had any tangible effect on any prevalent social hierarchies? Moreover, as Nehru himself implied, the conversion of the lower castes followed the conversion of the upper-castes such as the Rajputs. This is quite in line with the observations of Arab historian Ibn Khaldun who noted that conversions to Islam amongst the masses followed the conversion of the elites. In other words, the subjects followed the religion of the rulers – and not the other way around, as was gratuitously implied by Nehru.

Yet, such an ahistorical view has continued to receive wide currency, and has been echoed by numerous Indian intellectuals and government-supported historians and has been reinforced by another commonly held notion that Hindus converted to Islam peacefully and voluntarily and were won over by enlightened Sufis.

In fact, a careful perusal of the historical record suggests that the observations of Ibn Khaldun apply as much to India as they did to North Africa and the Middle East. Surviving records

point to most conversions being preceded by military victories by Islamic invaders or local interlopers. While some conversions may have been of a purely voluntary nature,  most were coerced, or were, at least of an opportunist character. Furthermore, the historical record provides numerous instances of  conversions that were a result of violent terror or blackmail.

And unsurprisingly, when Islamic invaders/rulers left or were subsequently defeated, the converted population returned almost en masse to their former faiths.

Referring to statements made by E. Denison Ross (who along with Eileen Power wrote and edited a 26 volume series on India: The Broadway Travellers), K.S. Lal  concludes that after the recall of the Arab General bin Qasem from Sindh, Islamic power in Sindh declined rapidly and the neo-converts reverted to their original faith.

That mass conversions to Islam took place after violent invasions and massacres is documented by several historians of the Khalji period (late 12th-13th C) including K.S. Lal. When Bakhtiar Khalji marched into Bihar and destroyed the university centers at Nalanda, Vikramshila and Odantapuri (Magadh) and massacred the Buddhist monks, the Buddhist masses turned to Islam or Brahminism. K.S. Lal also refers to Malik Kafur, the victorious general of Alauddin Khalji, who gave the Raja of Dwarsamudra a choice between Islam, death or payment of a huge idemnity.

Such threats were neither uncharacteristic nor unusual.

K.S. Lal notes how during the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq there was even greater insistence on the vanquished Hindu princes to embrace Islam.  During the Warangal campaign all the eleven sons of the Raja of Kampila were forced to become Muslims.

In the Tarikh-i-Mubarak Shahi, it is recorded that when Firoz Tughlaq invaded Jajnagar (Orissa), he captured the son of the Rai of Sikhar, converted him to Islam, and gave him the name of Shakr Khan. During his campaigns in the Saurasthra region of Gujarat, Mahmud Beghara attacked the Raja of Girnar in 1469, even though he had been paying regular tribute. Although he offered considerable resistance, he was  eventually compelled to convert to Islam and was bestowed the title ‘Khan-i-Jahan’. In 1473, the Raja of Champaner died in a valiant  attempt to fend off an attack, following which his son was forcibly converted to Islam and given the title ‘Nizam-ul-Mulk’.

Such practices continued  during Mughal rule under Jehangir, Shah Jehan  and Aurangzeb.  In the Gangetic plain, when local Hindu chieftains or royal feudatories were subjugated after they had rebelled against the Mughal authorities (or their agents), they were coerced into converting, (along with their clans and other loyal followers).

Forcible conversion during war became common iduring the reign of Shah Jehan. When Shuja was appointed governor of Kabul, the rebellion of Jujhar Singh yielded a rich crop of Muslim converts, mostly minors. His young son Durga and his grandson Durjan Sal were both converted to become Imam Quli and Ali Quli

It is therefore no surprise, that in UP (prior to partition) there were as many (or more) Muslims amongst the landlords and the elites than amongst the lower castes. Scheduled castes who were considered impure because they handled corpses or performed janitorial duties  were looked down upon by the Muslims elites no less than their Hindu counterparts.

In contrast, when local rulers were successful in resisting the Islamic rulers, there is simply no record of any conversions having taken place. For instance, the Kateheriyas of the Bareilly/Aonla region remained undefeated till the reign of Akbar, but it was only when Bareilly fell to the Afghan Rohillas that there is any notable record of conversions to Islam.

Likewise, in Gonda and Bahraich, there was staunch resistance to the Islamic invaders.  At different points in time, rulers emerged from amongst the local tribes and castes and during Mughal rule, Raja Dutt Singh refused to pay taxes to the Mughal authorities.Later Raja Jai Singh of  Gonda  refused to pay the customary tribute to the Nawabs of Awadh. After his death in battle, his wife Rani Phul Singh administered the region for some months before  she was murdered by rivals to the throne.

Because there were no major victories recorded by the Islamic invaders in these districts, there are no early records of conversions to Islam, and this appears to be a trend that prevailed throughout the plains of what is now Uttar Pradesh.

In many other districts of UP (such as  Kannauj, Etawah and Mainpuri) resistance and rebellion against the imperial Islamic rulers of Delhi persisted right up to Mughal rule, thus limiting the number of conversions. K.S. Lal estimates that the proportion of Muslims in India was probably less than 2% prior to 1400 and may have risen to 10-11% by 1600 and to 14-15% by 1800 and this obviously included those that had arrived with the invaders and other Islamic migrants.

By and large, areas that came under victorious Islamic invasions more frequently saw a proportionally greater percentage of Hindus convert than areas that virtually escaped defeat at the hands of Islamic invaders, thus refutating the Nehru claim that Islam held any sort of mass appeal amongst Hindus chafing under a repressive caste system.

Nevertheless, it may be useful to explore further detail as to how, in 400 years, the Muslim percentage had grown seven-fold.

The Tarikh-i-Firishta records that Sultãn Sikandar Butshikan of Kashmir (AD 1389-1413) persecuted Hindus and issued orders proscribing the residence of any other than Muslims in Kashmir “Many of the brahmins, rather than abandon their religion or their country, poisoned themselves; some emigrated from their native homes , while a few escaped the evil of banishment by becoming Mahomedans. After the emigration of the bramins, Sikundur ordered all the temples in Kashmeer to be thrown down”

Sikh archives note how Guru Tegh Bahadur helped save Kashmiri Hindus who were fleeing from slaughter during the reign of Sher Afghan Khan, the viceroy in Kashmir, who had launched a campaign of mass murder against  Kashmiri Hindus who refused to embrace Islam.

Historians of Bengal have noted how during the reign of Jalaluddin Muhammad (converted son of Hindu Raja Ganesh, 1414-1431) a large number of  Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. British historian Dr. Wise observed that the only condition he offered were the Koran or death, forcing many Hindus to flee to Kamrup and the jungles of Assam.

And contrary to the widespread myth about Sufis only converting through peaceful means, both Prof. Abdul Karim and Dr I.H. Qureshi refer to the activities of militant and warrior Sufis who forced conversions from amongst the Hindus and Tribals of Bengal (and what is now Bangladesh). Other Bengali historians have recorded how rulers and landlords unable to deposit land revenues by the proscribed date were forced to convert.

(It is also recorded by Jamali how  Raju Qattals efforts to convert Nahawan, the Darogha of Uchch led to the latter’s resistance and murder by Sufi zealots.)

Most significantly, K.S. Lal refers to the widespread scourge of mass enslavement and the ensuing forced conversions that resulted during the reign of the Khaljis and Tughlaqs. Alauddin Khilji was reputed to own  50,000 slaves some of whom were mere boys, of which many were captured during war. Chroniclers such as Ziyauddin Barani record how the Delhi Slave Market was constantly replenished with fresh batches of slaves. “Firoz Tughlaq had issued an order that whichever places were sacked, in them the captives should be sorted out and the best ones (fit for service with the Sultan) should be forwarded to the court”. “Soon he was enabled to collect 180,000 slaves”.

Under Firoz Tughlaq (1351-88) the state openly became an active agent of conversion and Tughlaq ordered his subordinates to convert Hindus to Islam. In his memoirs Fatuhat-i-Firoz Shahi, he acknowledged how he rescinded the Jiziyah to lure people into converting.  Likewise, Gujarat’s Ahmad Shah (1411-1442),  collected the Jiziyah with such strictness, that it brought a number of converts to Islam.

Early in his reign Shahjahan had appointed a Superintendent of converts to Islam, thus setting up a department for the special purpose of making converts.  The one common practice was to make terms with the criminals.  The Hindus of the Punjab, Bhimbar, Bhadauri and Sirhind were all offered remission of their sentences provided they accepted the “true” faith. Thus common criminals were converted to Islam.

Earlier, Jahangir had banned his Muslim subjects from embracing Hinduism even of their own free will.  He severely punished Kaukab, Sharif and Abdul Latif who, under the influence of a Sanyasi, showed inclination for Hinduism. Thus, while Hindu rulers were frequently coerced into coverting, there was no freedom for Muslims – even converts to voluntarily embrace Hinduism.

Even Tipu Sultan – who has been held up by several historians as a great patriot, as a “liberal” and “secular” ruler was not free from a Jehadi mentality as is evident from these quotes from his correspondence:  In a letter dated January 18, 1790 to Syed Abdul Dulai, Tipu writes: “With the grace of Prophet Mohammed and Allah, almost all Hindus in Calicut are converted to Islam. Only on the borders of Cochin State a few are still not converted. I am determined to convert them also very soon. I consider this as Jehad to achieve that object” .

A day later, in a letter sent to Budruz Zuman Khan, Tipu wrote: “Don’t you know I have achieved a great victory recently in Malabar and over four lakh Hindus were converted to Islam? I am determined to march against that cursed ‘Raman Nair’ very soon (reference is to Rama Varma Raja of Travancore State who was popularly known as Dharma Raja). Since I am overjoyed at the prospect of converting him and his subjects to Islam, I have happily abandoned the idea of going back to Srirangapatanam now” (K.M. Panicker, Bhasha Poshini, August, 1923).

It is evident, the Nehruvian view of Islam in India is considerably at odds with the actual evidence. One can only hope that honest and serious authors of Indian history take into account the truth in its entirety and not rely on the speculations of those whose views on history have been shaped more by personal dogmas (or ideological prescriptions) than a genuine knowledge and understanding of the actual historical record.

References and Bibliography:

Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah (An Introduction to History) trans. Franz Rosenthal, edited and abridged by N. J. Dawood; Bollingen Series, Princeton

Kishori Saran Lal: Indian Muslims: Who are they?, Voice of India, New Delhi

K.S. Lal: History of the Khaljis, 1290-1320 (Forward by Muhammad Habib)

Yahiya Sarhindi, Tarikh-i-Mubarak Shahi

Satish C. Misra, The Rise of Muslim Power in Gujarat (Bombay, 1963), p.175

Lahori, Badshah Nama

Districts of India: History sections from Bareilly, Bahraich, Gonda, Etawah and Mainpuri oertaining to local/regional resistance to Islamic conquest

Muhammad Qãsim Hindû Shãh Firishta : Tãrîkh-i-Firishta, translated by John Briggs under the title History of the Rise of the Mahomedan Power in India, first published in 1829, New Delhi Reprint 1981

Hoshiarpur District Administration: Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur and the plight of Kashmiri Hindus threatened with death

R.C. Majumdar, H.C. Raychaudhuri, and Kaukinkar Datta: An Advanced History of India.1946

Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1894, Pt. III, p.28

Abdul Karim, Social History of Muslims in Bengal, pp.136-38, 143-146.

Jamali, Siyar-ul-Arifin (Delhi, 1311 H.), pp.159-60

Satya Krishna Biswas, Banshasmriti (Bengali), Calcutta, 1926, pp.6-10.

Shams Siraj Afif: Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi

Ishwari Prasad, Qaraunah Turks, p.331

Fatuhat-i-Firoz Shahi of Firoz Tughlaq, E and D, III, p. 386.

Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri, I, p.171.

K.M. Panicker, Bhasha Poshini


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