Consciousness of Muslim Identity in South Asia Before 1947

By , Lahore, 2009
Historical aspects of creation of a muslim identity.
The question of Muslim identity in the Indian subcontinent may be analysed on the basis of social, religious, and political consciousness. Socially, the Muslim communities of India have never been united as a single cohesive entity. Their religious identity was transformed from a passive state to an active one according to the changing priorities of the ruling classes. They invoked religious sentiments when they fought against Hindu rulers and suppressed them when the shariah hindered their absolute rule. The concept of a Muslim political identity was a product of British rule when the electoral process, the so-called democratic institutions and traditions were introduced. British rule that created a minority complex amongst Indian Muslims and thereby a consciousness of Muslim political identity. After passing through a series of upheavals, the Muslim community shed its minority complex and declared itself a nation, asserting its separateness.
Northern India remained the centre of Muslim power, historically. The class of leading Muslim elites played an active role in determining and affirming Muslim identity according to their economic and political interests. Muslims of the other parts of India followed in their footsteps and looked at issues and problems from the point of view of northern Indian Muslims. We shall look at the changing concepts of Muslim identity in the Indian subcontinentbefore 1947.
Three elements were amalgamated in the making of Muslim communities in India,namely conquerors who came from the north-west, immigrants, and local converts. The conquerors and their entourage had a sense of higher rank and superiority as it was they who wielded political power. Arab, Persian, Turkish, Central Asian, and Pathan immigrants, who came to India to make careers for themselves, were treated as if they shared a common ethnic background, and were integrated with the conqueror class as the ruling elite. Local converts, on the other hand, were treated as being lower down the social ladder and never accorded an equal place in the ethnically divided Muslim society. Thus, ethnic identity was more powerful in dividing Muslim society than the religious factor was in unifying it.
We can find an example of this in Chachnama, which is a basic source of the history of Sindh. Muslim conquerors of Sindh are referred to in the Chachnama as Arabs. Similarly, the early conquerors of northern India were known by their ethnic identity as Turks. After the foundation of their kingdom (AD 1206) they maintained their exclusive ethnic domination and did not share their power and privileges with other Muslim groups. The same policy was followed by other Muslim dynasties. The founder of the Lodhi dynasty, Bahlul (1451-1489), did not trust non-Afghan Muslims and invited Afghans from the mountains (Roh) to support him.
Locally converted Muslims were excluded from high positions and were despised by their foreign (Muslim) brothers. Ziauddin Barani (fourteenth century) cited a number of examples in the Tarikh-i-Firuzshahi when the Sultan refused to appoint lower caste Muslims to high posts, despite their intelligence, ability, and integrity. Barani propounds his racist theory by advising Muslim rulers to appoint only racially pure family members to high administrative jobs. He suggested that low caste Muslims should not be allowed to acquire higher education as that would make them arrogant. The theory of racial superiority served to reserve the limited available resources of the kingdom for the benefit of the privileged elite who did not want to share them with others. The ruling dynasties kept available resources in the hands of their own communities and excluded others.
The Mughals wrested power from a Muslim dynasty (AD 1526). On their arrival, therefore, they posed a threat to other Muslim rulers as well as to Hindu rulers. The danger of Mughal hegemony united Muslim Afghans and Hindu Rajputs in a common cause. They fought jointly against Babar in the battle of Kanwaha (AD 1527). However, Mughal rule changed the social structure of the Muslim community in India, as a large number Iranaians and Turks arrived in India after the opening of the North-West frontier. These new immigrants revived Iranian and Central Asian culture which had been in a process of decline during Afghan rule. To monopolize top positions in the state, Muslims of foreign origin formed a socially and culturally privilged group that not only excluded locally converted Muslims but also Afghans who were deprived of high status jobs. The Mughals were also very conscious of their fair colour, which distinguished them from the converted, darker complexioned Muslims. Since being a Muslim of foreign origin was considered prestigious, most of the locally converted Muslim families began to trace their origin to famous Arab tribes or to prominent Persian families.
The social structure of the Mughal aristocracy changed further when the empire extended its territories and required more people to administer them. Akbar (AD 1556-1605) as the emperor, realized that to rule the country exclusively with the help of Muslims of foreign origin posed a problem as there would not be enough administrators for the entire state. He realized that the administration had to be Indianized. Therefore, he broadened the Muslim aristocracy by including Rajputs in the administration. He eliminated all signs and symbols which differentiated Muslims and Hindus, and made attempts to integrate them as one. Despite Akbar’s efforts, however, the rigid social structure did not allow lower class (caste) Hindus and Muslims to move from their lower position in society to a higher status. Class rather than faith was the true dividing line. The Muslim aristocracy preferred to accept upper caste Rajputs as their equals rather than integrate with lower caste Muslims. Akbar’s policy was followed by his successors. Even Aurangzeb, in spite of his dislike of Hindus, had to keep them in his administration. He tried to create a semblance of homogeneity in the Muslim community by introducing religious reforms. But all his attemptsto create a consciousness of Muslim identity came to nothing. During the entireSultanate and Mughal periods, politically there was no symbol that could unite the Muslims into a single cohesive community. In the absence of any common economic interest that might bind the different groups of Muslims, they failed to cohere and achieve homogeneity as a single community. Biradaris, castes, professions, and class interests kept them politically and culturally divided.
The ulema made strenuous attempts to foster a religious consciousness and to build a Muslim identity on such consciousness, by dividing Indian society into believers and non-believers. They fulminated against ‘Hindu rituals’ being practised mainly by lower-class Muslims and warned them to reform and keep their religion ‘pure’. Their attitude towards locally converted Muslims was particularly hostile. They argued that by retaining some of their indigenous Indian customs, they were half Muslims and half Hindus. The ulema further argued that true Islam could be understood only through knowledge of Arabic or Persian. Therefore, to integrate with the ‘Muslim Community’ locally converted Muslims should abandon their vernacular culture and learn Arabic and Persian (the everday language of the ruling elite). By that definition, Muslims of foreign origin were taken to be better than those who had been locally converted. These latter were catgorized as ignorant, illiterate, and bad Muslims. However, it must be said that in that period (AD 1206-1707) when the power of the Muslim rulers in India was at its height, no attempts were made to arousereligious, political, or social consciousness on the basis of a Muslim identity. It was only in the period of Akbar, when Rajputs were being integrated with Mughal nobility, that some ulema raised a voice against his religious, political, and social reforms and asserted the separateness of Hindu and Muslim communities. Later on, Aurangzeb tried to rally Muslim support by trying to unite them under a state-imposed version of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), compiled as the Fatawa-i-Alamgiri. But all his efforts failed to arrest the process of political disintegration which he was thus trying to avoid.
During the later period, the decline of Mughal political power dealt a heavy blow to the ruling Mughal aristocracy. Immigrants from Iran and Central Asia stopped coming in due to lack of patronage. The dominance of the Persian language weakened. Urdu emerged as the new language of the Muslim elite. The social as well as the political hegemony of Muslims of foreign origin was reduced. Locally converted Muslims began to claim and raise themselves to a new, higher status.
The rise and successes of the East India Company undermined the role of the Muslim ruling classes. Defeats in the battles of Plassey (AD 1757), Buxar (AD 1764) and, finally, the occupation of Delhi by the British (AD 1803) sealed the fate of Mughal power and threatened the privileged existence of the Muslim ruling elite, as the Mughal emperor became incapable of defending their interests.
Under these circumstances, after Shah Alam II, the practice of reciting the name of the Ottoman caliph in the khutba began. This was meant to indicate that the Ottoman Caliph, and no longer the Mughal emperor, was the defender and protector of the Muslim community in India. Another significant change was that with the eclipse of the political authority of the Mughal emperor, the ulema began to represent themselves as the protectors and custodians of the interests of the community. They were now contemptuous of the Mughals whose decline they attribute to their indifference towards religion. They embarked on revivalistic movements which they claimed would lift the community from the low position to which it had fallen. Their revivalism was intended to reform the Muslim community and infuse homogeneity in order to meet the challenges that confronted them.
Sayyid Ahmed’s Jihad (AD 1831) and Haji Shariatullah’s Faraizi movements’ were revivalist and strove to purify Islam of Hindu rituals and customs. Their ultimate goal was to establish an Islamic state in India and to unite Muslims into one community on the basis of religion. Two factors played an important role in reinforcing the creation of a separate identity amongst Indian Muslims. They were, firstly, the activities of Christian Missionaries and secondly, the Hindu reformist and revivalist movements. Muslims felt threatened by both. The fear of Muslims being converted into another faith, and of being dominated by others, led the ulema to organize themselves ‘to save Muslims from extinction’. Recognizing the authority of the ulema, Muslims turned towards them for guidance. They sought fatawa over whether they should learn the English language, serve the East India Company, and regard India as Dar-ul-Islam(under which they could live peacefully) rather than as Dar-ul-Harb (which imposed upon them an obligation to rebel). Thus, external and internal challenges brought the Muslims of India closer together. Religious consciousness paved the way towards their separate identity. The madrassa, mosque, and khanqah became symbols of their religious identity. However, the hopes that they placed in religious revivalism as the path to political power came to an end when Sayyid Ahmed was defeated and his Jihad movement failed to mobilize Muslims to fight against British rule.Bengali Muslims were subdued with the suppression of the Faraizi movement, and the brutal repression that followed the uprising of 1857 reduced the Muslim upper classes to a shadow of what they had been.
Indian Muslims were demoralized after the failure of the rebellion of 1857. Sadness and gloom prevailed everywhere. Muslims felt crushed and isolated. There came a challenge from British scholars who criticized Islamic institutions as being unsuitable for modern times. Never before had Indian Muslims faced such criticism of their religion. This frightened and angered them. In response, Indian Muslim scholars came forward to defend their religion. This led them to study Islamic history in order to rediscover that they believed to be a golden past. In reply to Western criticism they formulated their arguments, substantiated by historical facts, that Europe owed its progress to the contributions ofMuslim scientists and scholars, which were transmitted to it through the University of Cordoba in Moorish Spain, where, under Umayyid rule, there was a policy of religious tolerance towards Christians and Jews. Muslim contributions to art, literature, architecture, and science, thus enriched human civilization. To popularize this new image of the role of Muslims in history, there followed a host of historical literature, popular as well as scholarly, to satiate the thirst of Muslims for recognition of their achievements. Such images of a golden past provided consolation to a community that felt helpless and folorn. Images of the glories of the Abbasids, the grandeur of the Moors of Spain, and the conquests of the Seljukshealed their wounded pride and helped to restore their self-confidence and pride. Ironically, while glorifying the Islamic past outside India, they ignored the past of the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal India. In their eyes, the distant and outside past was more attractive than the past they had actually inherited. It was left to the nationalist historians of India, mainly Hindu, to reconstruct the glory of Muslim India in building a secular, nationalist ideology in the struggle against British rule.
Muslim search for pride in their Islamic past, thus, once again turned the orientation of Indian Muslims towards the rest of the Muslim world. That consciousness of a greater Muslim identity obscured their Indian identity from their minds. Their sense of solidarity with the Muslim world found expression, especially, in sympathy for the Ottoman empire. Although most educated Indians were quite unaware of the history of the Ottomans, it became a focal point of their pride, displacing the Mughals. Sayyid Ahmad Khan, while explaining the attachment of Muslims to Turkey, said ‘When there were many Muslim kingdoms we did not feel grief when one of them was destroyed. If Turkey is conquered, there will be great grief, for she is the last of the great powers left to Islam.
During the Balkan wars (AD 1911-1914), when the existence of the Turkish empire was threatened, the sentiments of the Indian Muslims were deeply affected.Muhammad Ali expressed those feelings in these words ‘The Musalman’s heart throbs in unison with the Moors of Fez… with the Persians of Tehran… and with the Turks of Stamboul. The highly emotional articles that appeared in Muslim newspapers such as al-Hilal, Zamindar, Hamdard, Comrade, and Urdu-i-Mualla, aroused feelings of religious identity.Even secular Muslims turned towards religion, growing beards and observing religious rituals.
The Khilafat movement extended the consciousness of a greater Muslim identity amongst Indian Muslims. It also united the ulema and Western educated Muslims. The Muslim League, in its session of 1918, invited leading ulema to join the party. They grasped the opportunity and soon established control of the movement. When Gandhi supported the Khilafat issue and launched his non-cooperation movement (AD 1919-20), he brought out Hindus to protest in solidarity with the Muslims. But the withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement and the eventual collapse of the Muslims, their unity with the Hindus evaporated.
Support of Pan-Islamism and the Khilafat by the Indian Muslims was the emotional need of the growing Muslim middle class, which was in search of an identity. Rejecting the territorial concept of nationhood, they turned to the Muslim world in order to add weight to their demands. The failure of the Khilafat Movement weakened their relationship with the Muslim world and the logic of extra-territorial nationalism came to an end with the end of the Turkish caliphate. The Muslim elite realized that to fulfil their demands they had to assert their separate identity in India. In the words of Prabhha Dixit, the Khilafat movement ‘constituted an intermediary stage in the transformation of a minority into a nation’.
The assertion of a separate national identity by the Indian Muslims brought them into conflict with the Hindus. The factors that had contributed to distance the two communities were the uneven development of Western education among them, the Urdu-Hindi conflict, the partition of Bengal, the Muslim demand for separate electorates, their demand for quotas for government jobs, and political representation. Communalist feelings in both communities were deepened by revivalist movements of the 1920s. In 1928, in response to the Shuddhi (purification) and Sangathan (Hindu unity) movements of Hindus, the Muslims formed Tabligh (proselytizing) and Tanzim (organization) movements to protect Muslim peasants fromreconversion to Hinduism. In order to ‘purify’ the Muslims peasants, Muslim preachers visited far off villages and thus made them conscious of their religious identity. The consequently heightened awareness of their religious identity affected their relationship with the Hindu peasants and communalism greatly damaged their cordial and long-time social and cultural relationship.
This heightened religious consciousness was fully exploited by Muslim politicians when the question of distribution of government jobs and political representation arose. The Muslim elite, in order to get a better share in the name of the Muslim community, made full use of appeals to Muslim identity. Thus, the two-nation theory arose out of political necessity, and for the first time it highlighted the differences betweenMuslim and Hindu culture, social life, and history, as well as religion.
Muslim intellectuals provided the theoretical basis of the two-nation theory by reconstructing Indian history on the basis of religion. Those Muslim conquerors who had long been forgotten and had vanished into the dry pages of history, were resurrected and presented as champions of the Muslims of India. The conquests and achievements of those heroes infused Muslims, high and low, with pride. Ahmad Sirhindi of the seventeenth century and Shah Waliullah of the eighteenth, who were not so well known in their own time, were re-discovered by the Muslim elite who searched their writings of legitimation of their theory of two nations in India. Ahmad Sirhindi was the first Indian Muslim ‘Alim’ who declared that cow slaughter was an important ritual of Islam and should never be abandoned.
There followed an abundance of published literature which was widely read by the Muslim educated classes during this period. The novels of Abdul Halim Sharar, the poems of Hali and Iqbal, and the writings of Muhammad Ali enthralled Indian Muslims and reinforced the consciousness of a distinct Muslim identity. This was essentially on an emotional basis rather than by rational arguments.
The ulema also contributed to the infusion of religious feelings amongst ordinary Muslims by organizing milad festivals and giving a call to go ‘Back to the Quran, Back to the Prophet’. They mobilized the common people to take an active part in the religious and political issues concerning the interests of the Muslim community.
The political developments of the 1930s promoted further the consciousness of a Muslim identity. The propaganda of the Muslim League, the success of the Indian National Congress in the 1937 election, and the emergence of Jinnah as the sole spokesman of Indian Muslims, widened the political gulf between the two communities that led ultimately to the partition of the subcontinent.
In the first phase of the history of Muslim rule, the fact that the Muslim elite was in power, kept Muslim religious consciousness dormant. It was invoked only when its grip on power was threatened. For example, Babar appealed to the religious sentiments of Muslim soldiers on the eve of the battle of Kanwaha but forgot it once the crisis was over. Rather than a religious identitythe Muslim ruling elite asserted an ethnic identity in its bid to hold political and economic privileges. In the second phase, the fall of the Mughals deprived that elite of political power. The task of reviving the sense of their past glory was then left to the ulema. The Jihad movement of Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed and the Faraizi movement of Haji Shariatullah were outwardly religious but aimed at political goals. These leaders, however, sincerely believed that only after the revival of the pure and orthodox faith, could worldly and material success be achieved. Religious piety and political ambitions were interlaced and both provided the incentives to those movements.
In the third phase, the association of the Muslim elite with pan-Islamism was an attempt to derive strength and protection from the Muslim world in order to respond to challenges from the Hindus and the British Government. That movement united Western educated Muslims with the ulema. Anti-imperialist sentiments, on the other hand, brought them closer to the Hindus. In their efforts to maintain unity they gave up some of their religious symbols such as cow slaughter. The end of pan-Islamism and the break-up of Hindu-Muslim unity brought about a radical change in Indian Muslim politics. This led to the politicization of religion.
Thus, in the last phase, consciousness of Muslim identity was exploited by the leadership not so much for a religious cause but for achieving political goals. The leadership was privately secular, but in public they greatly emphasized religion and its values. It is here that the foundations of hypocrisy in appeals to religion were laid, which has persisted to this day. The Partition was regarded as the recognition of the separate identity of the Indian Muslims. But that identity instead of solving their problems has created more crises for the Muslims of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.


  • 1. Ziauddin Barani, Fatawa-i-Jahandari, Lahore, 1972.
  • 2. B. R. Nanda, Gandhi, Pan-Islamism, Imperialism and Nationalism, Oxford, 1989.
  • 3. Ibid., p.383.
  • 4. Prabha Dixit, ‘Political Objectives of the Khilafat Movement in India’, in Mushirul Hasan (ed.) Communal and Pan-Islamic Trends in Colonial India, Delhi, 1985.
  • 5. S. M. Akram (ed.), Darbar-i-Milli, Lahore, 1966.
  • 6. W.C. Smith, Modern Islam in India, Lahore, 1947.


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