Imaginary enemies

Print edition : March 12, 2021

At a protest against “love jehad” and religious conversion, in New Delhi on November 8, 2020. Photo: PTI

Harbans Mukhia .

Contrary to the vilification of Islamic rulers of the medieval era by Hindutva warriors over an imagined past of forcible conversion, historical evidence suggests that political exigencies took precedence over the propagation of Islam.

In a moment of total disregard for the pluralist ethos of India, Yogi Adityanath, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, said last year: “How can the Mughals be our heroes?” and promptly went on to rename the proposed Mughal Museum after Chhatrapati Shivaji, militant Hindutva’s much-loved symbol of Hindu assertion, and followed it up with a law banning conversion for marriage.

Earlier, his party colleague Sangeet Som had called the Mughals invaders. What was said by Yogi Adityanath and others has been heard multiple times; what is implied is that during the Mughal age, the Hindus were subservient, jizya (tax on non-Muslims) was imposed, and the state forcibly converted millions of people. “A sword in one hand and the Quran in the other” was the oft-repeated allegation. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to have been influenced by it when he urged Muslim youths to adopt modern technology in a big way by saying, “The Muslim youth must have the Quran in one hand and the computer in the other.”

Not a theological state

However, the reality of conversions in medieval India was quite different. The period was largely between 1206, when Qutbuddin Aibak founded the Slave Dynasty, and 1857, when the British crushed the First War of Independence and brought the curtains down on the Mughal dynasty that had ruled since 1526 when Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodi in the Battle of Panipat. Historians specialising in medieval India studies dismiss such allegations of state-sponsored mass conversions, while those with Sufism as the core area of study reject notions of coercion in religion. They insist that the Sufis wanted the Muslims to set an example of humanity through their actions.

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Raziuddin Aquil, who teaches history in Delhi University and has authored multiple books on Sufism in medieval India, said: “It defies reason. The Muslims ruled for over 600 years, from 1206 to the mid-19th century. Yet their population was barely13-15 per cent. Even today, in 2021, Hindus account for more than 80 per cent of the population. If the state had indeed used coercion, or the so-called policy of the sword in one hand and the Quran in the other, it is open to reason that the population of non-Muslims would have been much, much lower.” He reasons that if the state had used force, people would have been either slaughtered in great numbers or forced to migrate. He said: “People of non-Islamic faiths would have been forced to migrate to other places, much like Buddhists were forced to go to Japan, China, Korea, etc., to survive in ancient times.”

However, in a sweeping generalisation, all Muslim rulers are held guilty of demolishing temples, forcing conversion, imposing jizya, etc. The uncomfortable detail of only a couple of rulers following the path of discrimination and destruction is cast aside.

Harbans Mukhia, eminent historian, said: “There were only two Muslim monarchs who could be said to be dogmatic. One was Firoz Shah Tughlaq, the other was Aurangzeb. Tughlaq demolished one or two temples, including the Jwalamukhi temple, and was occasionally in conversation with the maulvis, seeking their advice.” He refuted allegations that the state was under the influence of the ulema (body of Muslim scholars) in medieval India. “The ulema needed the state much more than the state needed them.”

In medieval Europe, the church was an independent institution. In medieval India, the ulema were not a singular, independent entity. Each mosque was independent by itself. Harbans Mukhia said: “Islam is in a way non-ecclesiastical in the sense that there is no organised church. However, it is not as if ecclesiasts had no influence on it. In India, the ulema were dependent on state patronage. The state addressed itself in Islamic nomenclature, but it was not an Islamic state. The state did not convert people to Islam. During the Sultanate period, there is hardly any evidence of any ruler converting the local people to Islam.” According to him, no ruler was a missionary they were all more concerned with protecting their throne and forging alliances towards that goal.

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Incidentally, the institution of Khilafat itself was abolished around 1258, rendering any possibility of the state taking on the role of a missionary null and void. The state did use the Islamic idiom at the time of war, but it was more of a political exigency. India never had an Islamic state. Harbans Mukhia said: “During the Sultanate period, there is hardly any evidence of any ruler converting the locals to Islam. If we look from the beginning, Iltutmish said: ‘The ulema say we must convert people to Islam. We are like a piece of salt in water. If the salt starts meddling with water, it will just disappear.’ So, he advised the ulema to desist from any conversion activity.”

He added: “Then there was Balban, who hardly cared for any conversion. He was busy killing rebels of whatever faith. He even threatened his son Bughra Khan by landing in Bengal and subduing the local governor. He got the governor and his supporters killed. Then he said to Bughra Khan: ‘Do you see these corpses? This is what would happen to you if you think of rebellion.’ Ziauddin Barani, in a fit of hyperbole, said that even the beggars who had taken alms from the governor were hung on the streets of Lakhnauti.”

Alauddin Khalji, the best-known Sultanate ruler, was so far removed from religion that he did not even know how to say his Friday prayers and was quite unaware of the Shariah (Islamic religious law). There is an interesting story about his wish to found a new religion, much like Akbar is said to have done nearly three centuries later. After he had conquered a lot of territory, including much of the Deccan, he expressed a desire to leave it all to his son and found a new religion himself. Khalji said: “Like Prophet Muhammad who had four loyal companions, I also have four loyal companions. I can found a new faith.” He looked at the prophet as a kind of rival.” Not quite the man for propagation of Islam, one could say.

Incidentally, Khalji often asked his qazis (religious experts) for their opinion on his various actions. More pertinently, he would ask the learned if his actions were in consonance with Islam. The qazis often told him they were not, but that did not deter Khalji who remained steadfast in his policy. In fact, during the entire Sultanate period, the state was not founded on the principles of the Shariah. It was not a theological state, like, say, Saudi Arabia is today. People of different religions enjoyed complete religious freedom. In criminal cases the Shariah principles were followed, but in civil life, nothing of the Shariah was followed. 

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Not much changed with the coming of the Mughals. Whether India had Turks or Afghans as the rulers, the governing principles were immediate exigencies, not matters of faith. Alliances were formed, wars were waged, and people were even killed for the continuation of a dynasty, not the propagation of Islam. While Babur and Humayun did not rule for a long stretch, Akbar did. Not only did he come up with the policy of Sulh-i-kul, wherein he took the principles of all faiths to found a new religion—he did not make it compulsory for anybody to join—he also conducted matrimonial alliances without interfering in the faith of the Rajput princesses.

Mughal approach

Akbar believed all religions to be equally true or illusory. He sent his son Murad to Jesuits for his initial education. He banned cow slaughter and did not impose jizya. In fact, even when Aurangzeb imposed jizya after 21 years of assuming power, it was a move to replenish the royal treasury that was fast depleting owing to his relentless wars. If Akbar got the Mahabharata translated into Persian, Aurangzeb gave grants to more temples than the ones he destroyed. He also gave employment to more non-Muslims than ever before.

Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, an Aligarh Muslim University historian, said: “If you look at Vrindavan documents, as Irfan Habib and Tarapad Mukherji have done, you will realise that there were more temple grants under Aurangzeb than under Akbar. Yes, temples were demolished, but only in areas of recalcitrant nobles or areas of revolt. When Rani Hadi, the widow of Jaswant Singh Rathore, wrote to Aurangzeb during the Rathore rebellion of 1679 offering to demolish temples herself if he would bestow tika (formal recognition as ruler) on her, he refused. This information is contained in Waqai Ajmer. Aurangzeb was just a shrewd politician. He did what suited him politically.” 

Back in the 1950s, S.R. Sharma, a noted historian and author of Religious Policies of the Mughal Emperors, mentioned a popular story about Aurangzeb converting people. He enumerated the figures and it came to about 200-odd people who had been converted by Aurangzeb. He said: “These popular theories (of Aurangzeb ordering mass conversions) are highly exaggerated.” When the state did convert people, as in the case of soldiers during war or a recalcitrant provincial satrap, it was almost always as punishment. There is no evidence of any emperor being pleased with the actions of an individual and converting him as a reward. Instead, there were cases of emperors forgiving a rebel and refraining from executing him if he converted to Islam.

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At the social level, the state did not object to inter-religious marriages. The state itself promoted inter-faith marriages, and that too without conversion. For instance, Akbar married Rajput princesses without converting them. Then, during Shah Jahan’s time, in the Kashmir region Hindus and Muslims were freely marrying one another. When a woman died, she was buried or cremated according to the practice of her husband’s religion, although the women continued to follow their own faith after marriage. The emperor came to know of 5,000 such marriages between Muslims and Hindus, and the cremation or burial of women according to the husband’s faith. Harbans Mukhia said: “Shah Jahan wanted to put a full stop to it. But it continued anyway. Social practices were much stronger than any imperial edict.”

At the end of the Mughal rule, various estimates put the percentage of Muslims in India, including modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, around 12-13 per cent. Harbans Mukhia said: “In 1941, the Muslim community in India was the largest in the world, probably twice as large as Indonesia. Yet, we have no evidence of massive conversions. I was once given a fellowship to study conversions in medieval India, but in six months I gave up as there was no work, no evidence of it.” 

He added: “If conversions had taken place at one go, either at the hands of the state or at the hands of Sufis, or any other agency, they are bound to be recorded. They escaped the record because conversions took place over several centuries through various agencies and various kinds of motivations.” According to him, there is some evidence that the Muslim population was around 16 per cent in the 1820s and 1830s. He said: “It grew from 16 per cent to 25 per cent during the British period, not during the Muslim period. The Muslim population right till the end of the Mughal rule could not have been more than 12 per cent or so.”

The last Census before Independence put the Muslim population at 25 per cent of the total population. Back in the 1820s, Bishop Heber noted that one in every six Indians was a Muslim. So, there was a 50 per cent rise in the Muslim population during the British rule, and not during the time of the Mughals. Interestingly, the geographical spread of the Muslim population across the country defies the claims of the state indulging in forceful conversion. The state ruled from Delhi and Agra and was the strongest in the heartland and the weakest on the peripheries. In the heartland of the Sultanate and the Mughals, the Muslim population at the time of Partition was around 15 per cent. It must have been much lower in medieval times. The percentage of Muslims was much higher in places such as Kashmir and Kerala, and the latter never came under the Mughal sway. “Can we then believe that the state converted people where it was the weakest?” Harbans Mukhia asked. 

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Raziuddin Aquil gave the issue a different perspective, stating: “In Islam, the kafir should submit to the authority of Islamic ruler, or be forced to migrate to a place outside the pale of Islam, or convert to Islam. None of these three options were adopted in India. The rulers identified as kafirs only those who did not submit to the authority of the king. And a struggle against them was called jehad.” He added: “But let’s not forget that during any war, Islam was used in a political context. The rest of the Hindu population was given the status of Ahl-e-Kitab or people of the book. When the Arabs expanded into Sind and beyond, they called the Hindus as Ahl-e-Kitab as Hindus also had scriptures. They could live peacefully and practise their religion, but they could not propagate their religion. It was much removed from the modern anti-conversion laws. The laws now are inspired by hatred of Muslims and the assumptions that the Muslims ruled over India for a thousand years, demolished temples, etc. Now, we have power to take revenge through such laws. But these laws are completely against the Constitution.”

The Sufis are considered responsible to some extent for the growth of Islam, but Harbans Mukhia said that they were one of the agencies for conversion, not the primary agency. He said: “The great Sufis, like Nizamuddin Auliya and Bakhtiyar Kaki, said, ‘If you want to attract people to Islam, do so through your actions.’ They disapproved of forced conversion. Sufis travelled from one Muslim locality to another Muslim locality. They did not travel to non-Muslim areas where they could preach and convert. If you look at the great Sufis’ itinerary, they went from Delhi to Ajmer to Agra, to Multan.”

However, Raziuddin Aquil believes that the open and egalitarian ethos of the khanqahs and dargahs attracted many to the fold of Islam. Particularly, the untouchables and lower-caste Hindus found the egalitarian practices appealing. That probably explains the continued following of the Sufis by people of all religions today. This change of faith owing to the work of the Sufis was a long-drawn-out affair with no pre-decided goal of conversion. A man changed his faith of his own accord, unlike the option often presented by various emperors before prisoners of war or political rebels. 

The reality of conversions in medieval India is a world far removed from the politics of Hindutva and the laws aimed at “love jehad”.