IX. The Interaction of Islam and Hinduism

        [[123]] AN ASPECT of the cultural life of Islamic India that demands special consideration is the nature of the interaction of faith and practice that took place between Islam and Hinduism. There are, however, a variety of factors involved that make the study of this interaction exceedingly complex and prevent any very assured conclusions being attained. One is simply the lack of evidence, for the religious movements of medieval India have left few records. Then there is the uncertainty at times whether a pattern of behavior and belief in both religions has a common origin in one, or if it grew up independently in both cultures. The intricate question of the relation of Hindu and Islamic mystical movements is an example of this difficulty. Finally, since one is confronted not just with the problem of identifying Islamic influence on Hinduism but also Hindu influences on Islam, it is clear that the process of interaction may be complicated by a double movement. Original Hindu influences, for example, may have passed over into Islam; the movement or process that resulted from this may then in turn influence Hinduism, causing a rather different phenomenon. Mysticism again provides a possible illustration.

       The most obvious result of the religious impact of Islam on Hinduism is, of course, the existence of a large Muslim population in India. The view that Islam propagated itself in India through the sword cannot be maintained; aside from other evidence, the very distribution of the Muslim population does not support it. If the spread of Islam had been due to the might of the Muslim kings, one would expect the largest proportion of Muslims in those areas which were the centers of Muslim political power. This, however, is not the case. The percentage of Muslims is low around Delhi, Lucknow, Ahmadabad, Ahmadnagar, and Bijapur, the principal seats of Muslim political power. Even in the case of Mysore, where Sultan Tipu is said to have forced conversion to Islam, the ineffectiveness of royal [[124]] proselytism may be measured by the fact that Muslims are scarcely 5 percent of the total population of the state. On the other hand, Islam was never a political power in Malabar, yet today Muslims form nearly 30 percent of its total population. In the two areas in which the concentration of Muslims is heaviest—modern East and West Pakistan—there is fairly clear evidence that conversion was the work of Sufis, mystics who migrated to India throughout the period of the sultanate. In the western area the process was facilitated in the thirteenth century by the thousands of Muslim theologians, saints, and missionaries who fled to India to escape the Mongol terror. The names and careers of some of these are well known. Thus Pir Shams Tabriz came to Multan; Khwaja Qutb-ud-din Bakhtiyar went to Delhi; and Syed Jalal settled in Uch, the great fortress south of Multan. The influence of such men, and of many others, can be traced through the families of their spiritual descendants.

       In Bengal, the Muslim missionaries found the greatest response to their message among the outcastes and the depressed classes, of which there were large numbers in Bengal. To them, the creed of Islam, with its emphasis on equality, must have come as a liberating force. Then too, the acceptance of the religion of the conquerors would have been a powerful attraction, since it would undoubtedly carry with it possibilities of advancement they had never known before. Another factor in the large number of conversions is the somewhat peculiar religious history of Bengal. From the eighth to the twelfth century the Pala dynasty had supported Buddhism. Then in the twelfth century the Sena dynasty, which had its roots in South India, began to encourage Hindu orthodoxy. The result was probably a good deal of religious unrest and uncertainty, which made it possible for Islam to find an opening for its work of proselytization. When the Islamic missionaries arrived they found in several instances that the conquering armies had destroyed both the temples of revived Hinduism and the monasteries of the older Buddhism; in their place—often on the same sites—they built new shrines. Moreover, they very frequently transferred ancient Hindu and Buddhist stories of miracles to Muslim saints, fusing the old religion into the new on a level that could be accepted by the masses.

       [[125]] By the end of the fourteenth century Islam had permeated all parts of India, and the process was fully under way which led to the conversion of a large section of the Indian population to Islam, and resulted in far-reaching cultural and spiritual changes outside the Muslim society. The developments in the cultural sphere—development of regional languages, the rise of Hindustani, and the evolution of Indo-Muslim music and architecture—have been outlined in the preceding chapter; here an attempt will be made to examine those religious movements which seem to owe something to the interaction of Hinduism and Islam.

       The process of interaction is undeniably obscure, and knowledge of many vital links is lacking, but what is certain is that the period was of great importance for the development of the religious and cultural traditions of modern India. The fifteenth century, it has been observed, "was marked by an extraordinary outburst of devotional poetry inspired by these religious movements, and this stands out as one of the great formative periods in the history of northern India, a period in which on the one hand the modern languages were firmly established as vehicles of literary expression, and on the other the faith of the people was permeated by new ideas."/1/

       The religious schools and movements which arose in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are generally characterized as variants of bhakti, or devotional religion, and the influence of Islam has been seen as a determining factor. This understanding of the movements is, however, an oversimplification of a very complex phenomenon. It is important to remember, first of all, that many of the elements associated with the religious movements at the end of the sultanate had already been dominant in Hinduism itself for many centuries. This is especially true of those areas of South India where Muslim influence had not been strong. It is also quite possible that the Islamic mystics, the Sufis, had been directly or indirectly influenced by Hindu thought and institutions before the conquest of India. Hinduism in the fifteenth century, then, was receiving in an elaborated form what it had already given to Islam. But of even greater importance in examining [[126]] the religious movements of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is an awareness of two very different attitudes which Hindu religious leaders had toward Islam. One group accepted what was congenial to it in the new spiritual system; the other group adopted a few elements from the spiritual structure of the dominant race in order to strengthen Hinduism and make it better able to withstand Islam. Both reacted to Islam, but one was sympathetic while the other was hostile. The two trends are similar to the growth of the tolerant, cosmopolitan Brahmo Samaj and the militant Arya Samaj, when Hinduism was confronted with Christianity in the nineteenth century. Kabir, Guru Nanak, Dadu, and other founders of syncretic sects are included in the first group, while the movement in Bengal, associated with Chaitanya, mirrors the latter tendency.

       One of the earliest of the religious leaders, and probably the most influential, was Kabir. His dates are uncertain, some scholars giving his birth date as 1398, and some as late as 1440, but it is generally agreed that he flourished in the middle of the fifteenth century. There has also been much controversy concerning his religious origins, but it is quite certain that he was born into a Muslim family. The names of Kabir and Kamal, his son, are both Islamic. According to the popular Tazkirah-i-Auliya-i-Hind (Lives of Muslim Saints), he was a disciple of the Muslim Sufi, Shaikh Taqi. A further indication of his Muslim origin is that his grave at Maghar has always been in the keeping of Muslims. But Kabir was above all a religious radical who denounced with equal zest the narrowness of Islamic and Hindu sectarianism. According to one tradition he was a disciple of Ramananda, the great mystic who is credited with the spread of bhakti doctrines in North India. That Ramananda himself was influenced by Islam is not certain, but his willingness to admit men of all castes, including Islam, as his disciples, suggests the possibility of this. The right conclusion seems to be that Kabir was a Muslim Sufi who, having come under Ramananda's influence, accepted some Hindu ideas and tried to reconcile Hinduism and Islam. However it was the Hindus, and particularly those of the lower classes, to whom his message appealed.

       With many of his works not available for study, and serious doubts [[127]] existing about the genuineness of others, it is difficult to assess Kabir properly, but there is no difference of opinion about the general tenor of his writings. He often uses Hindu religious nomenclature, and is equally at home in Hindu and Muslim religious thought, but there is no doubt that one of the most salient features of his teachings is denunciation of polytheism, idolatry, and caste. But he is equally unsparing in his condemnation of Muslim formalism, and he made no distinction between what was sane and holy in the teachings of Hinduism and Islam. He was a true seeker after God, and did his best to break the barriers that separated Hindus from Muslims. What has appealed to the millions of his followers through the ages, however, is his passionate conviction that he had found the pathway to God, a pathway accessible to the lowest as well as the highest. That he has in the course of time become a saint of the Hindus rather than of the Muslims is a reflection of the temper of Hinduism, which finds it easier than Islam to bring new sects and doctrines within its spiritual hegemony.

       The second great religious leader whose work shows undoubted Islamic influence is Guru Nanak (1469–1539). The Sikh religion, of which Nanak was the founder, is noted for its militant opposition to Islam, but this is largely a product of historical circumstances in the seventeenth century. Nanak's own aim was to unite both Hindu and Muslim through an appeal to what he considered the great central truths of both. He acknowledged Kabir as his spiritual teacher, and their teachings are very similar. His debt to Islam is shown in his rigorous insistence on the will and majesty of God, while the underlying structure of his thought, with its tendency to postulate a unity that comprehends all things, suggests his Hindu inheritance. Accompanied by two companions, one a Muslim and the other a Hindu, he wandered throughout North India and, according to some accounts, to Arabia, preaching his simple gospel. The followers he gained became, in the course of a century, a separate religious community, but the Sikh scriptures, of which Nanak's sayings provide the core, are a reminder of the attempt to bridge the gap between Hinduism and Islam.

       Dadu (1544–1603) was the third of the religious leaders through [[128]] whose teachings Islamic ideas found wide currency among non-Muslims. While he does not belong chronologically in a survey of the early interaction of Hinduism and Islam, since he lived into the seventeenth century, his membership in a Kabir sect makes a brief consideration of his career useful. Furthermore, his biography shows the same process at work that is seen in the accounts of the life of Kabir. Dadu is stated by his later followers to have been the son of a Nagar Brahman, but recent researches have shown that he was born in a family of Muslim cotton-carders. This is borne out by his own works and the fact that all the members of his family have Muslim names: his father's name was Lodi, his mother's, Basiran; his sons were Garib and Miskin and his grandson, Faqir. His teacher was Shaikh Budhan, a Muslim saint of the Qadri order. The early Hindu followers of Dadu were not disturbed by the knowledge that he was a Muslim by birth, but later ones were. The legend of his Brahmanical origin made its first appearance in a commentary on the Bhaktamala, written as late as 1800. It is said that until recent times documents existed at the monasteries of the followers of Dadu which suggested that he had been a Muslim, but that these were destroyed by the keepers who were unwilling to admit that his origins were not Hindu./2/

       The metamorphosis which the life story and teachings of Kabir and Dadu have undergone is not merely the work of those who were anxious to secure for their heroes high lineage and a link with Hinduism; it is symptomatic of the general movement of separation that became common in both Islam and Hinduism in later centuies. As the Muslims grew more orthodox, they turned away from men such as Kabir and Dadu, while the Hindus accepted them as saints, but forgot their Islamic origins. In order to conform to the requirements of the Hindu bhakti tradition, they have undergone a transformation that at times necessitates a falsification of history. Two poet-saints who are clearly in the Hindu bhakti tradition but show traces of Islamic influence are Namadeva and Tukaram, the great religious figures of the Maratha country. Namadeva, who lived in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, used a number of Persian and Arabic words, suggesting that even at this early time the influence of Islam [[129]] was felt by a man, in a remote area of the country, whose only concern seems to have been with religion. The writings of Tukaram (1598–1649), the greatest of the Marathi poets, contain many obvious references to Islam, such as the following:

First among the great names is Allah, never forget to respect it.
Allah is verily one, the prophet is verily one.
There Thou art one, there Thou art one, There Thou art one, O friend.
There is neither I nor thou./3/

       In general the attitude of the Marathas to Muslim saints was one of respect, the most vivid example of this being the great faith Shivaji's grandfather had in Shah Sharif of Ahmadnagar. In honor of the saint he gave his sons the names of Shahji and Sharifji. While a full study of the religious and social ferment of Maharashtra in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries has yet to be made; it seems certain that the new religious life did not take the form of a Hindu revivalism that emphasized the separation of the Hindus from Islam. Antagonism toward Muslims came later, and, as was the case with the Sikhs, had definite antecedents in particular historical events. The creative spiritual and literary movement provided the basis on which the Maratha nation could be built, and its emergence as the great antagonist of Muslim power in India was based on political, not religious, factors. The evidence from the songs of Namadeva and Tukaram strongly suggests that they were not reacting in any hostile fashion to Islam. For this reaction one must look to Chaitanya and the Vaishnavite movement in Bengal.

       Chaitanya (1485–1533) of Bengal represents an aspect of the bhakti movement that is very different from that seen in the lives and teachings of Kabir and his successors. Chaitanya's concern, unlike that of Kabir, was not with bringing people to an understanding of a God beyond all creeds and formulations; it was to exalt the superiority of Krishna over all other deities./4/ It was, in other words, a revivalist, not a syncretic, movement, a return to a worship of Vishnu under one of his most appealing forms, the loving ecstatic Krishna. The attitude [[130]] of Bengal Vaishnavites toward Islam was the antithesis of the attitude advocated by Kabir and Nanak. Conscious of the appeal being made by Islam, they did not try to reform Hinduism by adopting any of the attractive features of the rival faith. Instead, they emphasized precisely those features, such as devotion to Krishna, which were most antipathetic to the Islamic spirit. Another difference between Chaitanya's movement and that of Kabir is the attitude toward caste. While it is true that Chaitanya made disciples from all classes, one does not find the same note of condemnation of caste as one does in Kabir. According to some students of the period, this indicates the essential difference between the two aspects of bhakti in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: only where Hinduism was directly influenced by Islam was there evidence of concern for social inequities./5/

       Because of the interest that is attached to such great names as that of Kabir, there is a tendency to think of the movement of interaction between the two faiths as mainly from Islam to Hinduism. This was not true, however, for Muslim society was deeply influenced by its contacts with Hinduism. Some contacts had been made even before Islamic rule was established in India; for example the probable Hindu element in certain forms of Islamic mysticism, and the intellectual interchanges that had taken place after the conquest of Sind in the seventh and eighth centuries. During the sultanate, changes of a quite different order were apparent.

       One of these concerns the lives of converts to Islam. Here the important point to keep in mind is that when one sees Hindu practices followed by Indian Muslims, it is not a case of Hindu influence, but simply of incomplete change from the old way of life. Indian Muslims did not start with orthodox Islam, but began by accepting a few basic features, and only in the course of time, particularly during the last two centuries, have they become more orthodox. The process is less complete in the lower classes, or those groups which, like the Khojas, adopted a somewhat composite form of religion. More than religious beliefs, Indian Islam retained certain characteristic features of Hindu society which, if not religious in themselves, certainly had [[131]] been given religious sanction. One of these was the place given to caste, with converts clinging to some memory of their former status in a hierarchical society, while what may be called Muslim castes developed as Indian Muslims classified themselves as Sayyid, Shaikh, Mughal, or Pathan. This structure was never very rigid; as Bernier commented, anyone who put on a white turban called himself a Mughal. An old saying makes the same point: "Last year I was a Julaha (weaver); this year a Shaikh; and next year if the harvest be good, I shall be a Sayyid." And in the mosque the Islamic ideals of brotherhood and equality remained triumphant.

       Muslims in India also adopted the Hindu practices of early marriages and of objection to widow remarriage. Some social ceremonies connected with births, deaths, and marriages may also be traced to Hindu origin. Some writers think that reverence for pirs, or saints, and their graves, a marked feature of popular Indian Islam, is a carry-over of Hindu practices. This interpretation overlooks the fact, however, that even outside India pirs and their tombs are objects of great attention and veneration.

       The main influence of Hinduism on Islam, however, is probably seen not so much in these specific instances as in a general softening of the original attitude of the conquerors, particularly the Turks, in religious matters. This softening is to be seen partly as a movement of Hindu attitudes toward the universe into Islamic thought; it is also partly a recognition of the position of Islam in India. More striking than the amount of interaction that took place in the first three centuries of Muslim rule was the fact that there was not more. The impression one gains is that there was never a very conscious attempt to create understanding, except on the part of Kabir and Nanak, and that the contacts between the two great religions were, on the whole, remarkably superficial as far as the total life of the country was concerned. Writing in 1030, before the full tide of conquest had begun, Al-Biruni spoke of how the Hindus differed from the Muslims in every respect, and, because of the raids by Mahmud of Ghazni, "cherish the most inveterate aversion toward all Muslims."/6/ Nearly three centuries later another traveler, Ibn Battuta, remarked that [[132]] Hindus and Muslims lived in entirely separate communities. For Hindus, there could be no intermarriage with Muslims nor even interdining. "It is the custom among the heathen of the Malabar country," he remarked, "that no Muslim should enter their houses or use their vessels for eating purposes. If a Muslim is fed out of their vessels, they either break the vessels or give them away to the Muslims."/7/

       It is against this background that one must see the greatness of the achievements of men like Kabir and Nanak and, at the same time, the almost insurmountable barriers to a genuine rapprochement. The tenacity with which attempts continued to be made to establish links between the two religions is a dominant theme in the cultural history of the Mughals, the new group who entered India at the beginning of the sixteenth century.


/1/ W. H. Moreland and A. C. Chatterjee, A Short History of India (London, 1945), p. 193.
/2/ K. M. Sen, Medieval Mysticism in India (London, 1936), p. viii.
/3/ Quoted in Tarachand, The Influence of Islam on Indian Culture (Allahabad, 1946), p. 228.
/4/ M. T. Kennedy, The Chaitanya Movement (Calcutta, 1925), pp. 92–93.
/5/ T. K. Raychaudhuri, Bengal under Akbar and Jahangir (Calcutta, 1953), pp. 94–95.
/6/ E. C. Sachau, Alberuni's India (London, 1914), I, 22.
/7/ Mahdi Husain, The Rehla of Ibn Battuta (Baroda, 1953), p. 182.

 ~~ next chapter ~~ Ikram index ~~ Glossary ~~ fwp's main page ~~