India’s Muslims have lived under stable, pluralist democracy for decades. They ought to reclaim their syncretic narrative and project it to the rest of the Islamic world.
For years, much of the Islamic world has been aflame in conflict. Vali Nasr was among the first to describe the modern civil strife within Islam, between Shi’as, represented by Iran and its affiliates on one side, and Sunnis, represented by Saudi Arabia and its subordinates, including Pakistan and militant groups therein, on the other. Petrodollars (or Riyals) from both blocs are underwriting the proxy wars that have taken shape in the Levant, Iraq, Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and increasingly in the Indian Subcontinent.
Each misrepresents the essence of Sunni and Shi’a Islam, instead putting forth messianic narratives of Islamic revivalism that serve the narrow geopolitical aims of Riyadh and Tehran. More recently, these forces have been trying to co-opt the Arab Awakening and the introspection therein that has at its heart, questions of how Islam can be reconciled with nationalism, justice, democracy, economic growth, and other religions.
Amidst all this, nearly 170 million Muslims have survived under a stable, pluralist democracy without compromising their own religious practices or that of the other faith groups amongst them. These Muslims, of course, live in India. Until recently, there were more Muslims in India than in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and more than in any other country in the world except Indonesia. And they have lived and participated in nearly uninterrupted democratic rule since 1947.
There was, of course, disorder when Islam came to the Indian Subcontinent from Persia in the 1200s. Geopolitical conflict between warring Hindu and Muslim kingdoms spilled into local religious strife, which continued into the twentieth century in the form of political division, communal rioting, and violent militancy.
But, though there was divergence between Hindus and Muslims and even Sunnis and Shi’as in the subcontinent, they have historically negotiated an inclusive syncretism that enables anekta mein ekta- unity in diversity. Through interaction with local traditions in India, Islam gave rise to a syncretic, uniquely subcontinental culture of philosophical exchange.
The intermingling of Islam and Hinduism in the 12th century produced a profound evolution in Hinduism that remains salient today. Before Islam, Hinduism professed that common people need an intermediary to God, and that the only person who could enter a temple to facilitate that relationship was the priest or Brahmin. Islam, however, introduced the idea that the rapport between man and god was personal; that all are equal in worship. That intellectual challenge from Islam reformed Hinduism and produced the Bhakti movement, which argued that Hindus of all castes could worship in their own mandirs, conduct their own pujas, and practice religion, the way they wished; it brought about the more equitable realities of modern Hindu worship.
Meanwhile, Hinduism had an equally profound effect on Islam in the subcontinent, through the resonance and development of various tariqas of Sufi Islam. Sufism emphasised the mystical, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions of religion over more rigid exoteric dogmas. This brought about a shared cultural space in which practitioners of many religions worshipped at the same shrines, revered the same saints, and even performed the same rituals. The North Indian Nawabi culture, in which Hindus and Muslims greeted one another in the Persian greeting “Khuda Hafiz,” wrote in the same scripts, and spoke the same Hindustani language, was ubiquitous.
Admittedly, the historical record is pocked with a few more marks, and many of these ideas are more in synch with India’s historical narrative- best personified by Bollywood- than its daily practice. Everyday realities included distrust based on a lack of social integration (exacerbated by the British Raj’s decision to divide communities into religious electorates), and the riots that wrought havoc upon pre-independence India. It was this reality from which partition was meant to protect the Muslim minority of the subcontinent.
But instead, the syncretic, Pan-Subcontinental Islamic narrative that did exist was weakened when the region was divided into religious sectors in 1947. Fundamentalist Muslims in Pakistan and extremist Hindus in India tried to define their new national identities in opposition to what had been.
Many Pakistanis, notably President Zia ul-Haq and his allies in the Jamaat-e-Islami, sought to import and impose ‘purer’ Wahhabi and Arabian Islamic customs in an effort to contrast Pakistani religious identity with the rest of the subcontinent’s Hindu influenced Sufi Islam. In India, post-partition accusations of being a fifth column for Pakistan- along with demands from right-wing Hindus that Muslims in India behave as ‘Hindu’ Muslims- weakened the self-confidence of the remaining Indian Muslims, who came to fear exerting their own Islamic identities. Muslims seeking employment went so far as to adopt Hindu names in order to gain acceptance by the mainstream. Electoral democracy has absorbed some of those strains by ensuring political rights and representation, but exacerbated others through vote-banks that empower conservatives who claim to represent their communities. This is to say nothing of the all too high tolerance for communal violence across the region.
These tensions on both sides of the border are worsened by the influence of Saudi and Iranian Islamist doctrines that have contributed to a rise in not only sectarian polarisation, but also in its violent manifestations. Tehran has had a hand in Shi’a riots in north India, not to mention an alleged link to a bombing plot in New Delhi and to militants like Sipah-e-Mohammad Pakistan. Riyadh, meanwhile, has even more vast networks of influence through organisations like the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), Jamiat-Ahali-Hadith in Kashmir, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, and even Jamaat-e-Islami, the Deobandi Movement, and thousands of subcontinental pilgrims and migrant workers. India faces the added dilemma that purchasing energy from these countries ultimately empowers these forces, weakening India’s own safety as well as its narrative of Islamic inclusivism.
Yet, while the state of Indian Islam has been held back by Hindu chauvinism, the psychological challenge of Pakistan’s existence, andstructural injustice, many Indian Muslims have been anything but impotent. Names like Khan, Azim, Mirza, Kalam, and Hussein excel in Indian art, business, sports, science, and politics. And institutions like Chishti, Barelvi, Jamia Millia Islamia, and Aga Khan have contributed to the uplifting of millions in the country and beyond. Yet in one of the most consequential geopolitical and ideological tussles over the soul of Islam that is taking place in Arab streets, subcontinental Muslims, who have a centuries-old legacy of religious pluralism and decades of experience with electoral democracy, have almost no voice.
Indian Muslims must comfortably reclaim their subcontinental Islamic identity without relinquishing their national character, and proffer their narratives in a way that helps their coreligionists around the world. This projection could never be a state-led endeavor: just as India’s other “soft power” assets- from economic investment to ‘democracy,’ Bollywood, and food- are largely bottom-up, religion can be nothing but.
Yet environments that enable it to flourish can be encouraged. A big step forward is that the psychological baggage of partition is slowly being overcome, with the ageing of the partition generation as well as a burgeoning détente and era of conciliation with Pakistan. The public sphere, meanwhile, is an increasingly safe space for Indian Muslims to demonstrate their own internal heterogeneity: from proudly voicing their Islamic heritage, to vehemently disagreeing with elements of it, to ignoring it altogether. This diversity demonstrates that Indian Muslims are anything but monolithic- that hybrid identities prevail and Islam easily coexists with other economic, social, and political values. In other words, it demonstrates that syncretic Indian Islam is alive and well.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that Indian artists, “entrepreneurs, engineers, bankers, investors, traders, and guest workers may not…be thought of primarily as “democracy promoters”…but they will by their mere presence contribute to the opening of societies—not least in the Middle East.” As the Islamic world contends with challenges of development, democratisation, pluralism, and political upheaval, Muslims around the world ought to remember the legacy of subcontinental Islam.