New Strands in the Fabric Islamic Traditions

Just as the regions within the subcontinent were
not isolated from one another, so too, contact with
lands beyond the seas and mountains had existed
for millennia. Arab merchants, for instance,
frequented ports along the western coast in the first
millennium CE, while Central Asian peoples settled
in the north-western parts of the subcontinent
during the same period. From the seventh century,
with the advent of Islam, these regions became part
of what is often termed the Islamic world.
5.1 Faiths of rulers and subjects
One axis of understanding the significance of these
connections that is frequently adopted is to focus on
the religions of ruling elites. In 711 an Arab general
named Muhammad Qasim conquered Sind, which
became part of the Caliph’s domain. Later (c. thirteenth
century) the Turks and Afghans established the
Delhi Sultanate. This was followed by the formation
of Sultanates in the Deccan and other parts of the
subcontinent; Islam was an acknowledged religion of
rulers in several areas. This continued with the
establishment of the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth
century as well as in many of the regional states that
emerged in the eighteenth century.
Theoretically, Muslim rulers were to be guided by
the ulama, who were expected to ensure that they
ruled according to the shari‘a. Clearly, the situation
was complicated in the subcontinent, where there
were populations that did not subscribe to Islam.
It is in this context that the category of the zimmi,
meaning protected (derived from the Arabic word
zimma, protection) developed for peoples who followed
revealed scriptures, such as the Jews and Christians,
and lived under Muslim rulership. They paid a tax
called jizya and gained the right to be protected by
Muslims. In India this status was extended to Hindus
as well. As you will see (Chapter 9), rulers such as
the Mughals came to regard themselves as emperors
of not just Muslims but of all peoples.
In effect, rulers often adopted a fairly flexible policy
towards their subjects. For instance, several rulers
gave land endowments and granted tax exemptions
to Hindu, Jaina, Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish
religious institutions and also expressed respect and devotion towards non-Muslim religious leaders.
These grants were made by several Mughal rulers,
including Akbar and Aurangzeb.

5.2 The popular practice of Islam
The developments that followed the coming of Islam
were not confined to ruling elites; in fact they
permeated far and wide, through the subcontinent,
amongst different social strata – peasants, artisans,
warriors, merchants, to name a few. All those who
adopted Islam accepted, in principle, the five “pillars”
of the faith: that there is one God, Allah, and Prophet
Muhammad is his messenger (shahada); offering
prayers five times a day (namaz/salat ); giving alms
(zakat); fasting during the month of Ramzan (sawm);
and performing the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).
However, these universal features were often
overlaid with diversities in practice derived from
sectarian affiliations (Sunni, Shi‘a), and the influence
of local customary practices of converts from different
social milieus. For example, the Khojahs, a branch
of the Ismailis (a Shi‘a sect), developed new modes
of communication, disseminating ideas derived from
the Qur’an through indigenous literary genres. These
included the ginan (derived from the Sanskrit jnana,
meaning “knowledge”), devotional poems in Punjabi,
Multani, Sindhi, Kachchi, Hindi and Gujarati, sung
in special ragas during daily prayer meetings.
Elsewhere, Arab Muslim traders who settled
along the Malabar coast (Kerala) adopted the
local language, Malayalam. They also adopted
local customs such as matriliny (Chapter 3) and
matrilocal residence.
The complex blend of a universal faith with local
traditions is perhaps best exemplified in the
architecture of mosques. Some architectural features of mosques are universal – such as
their orientation towards Mecca,
evident in the placement of the mihrab
(prayer niche) and the minbar (pulpit).
However, there are several features
that show variations – such as roofs
and building materials (see Figs. 6.9,
6.10 and 6.11).
5.3 Names for communities
We often take the terms Hindu and
Muslim for granted, as labels for
religious communities. Yet, these
terms did not gain currency for a very
long time. Historians who have studied
Sanskrit texts and inscriptions dating
between the eighth and fourteenth
centuries point out that the term
musalman or Muslim was virtually
never used. Instead, people were
occasionally identified in terms of
the region from which they came.
So, the Turkish rulers were designated
as Turushka, Tajika were people from
Tajikistan and Parashika were people
from Persia. Sometimes, terms used
for other peoples were applied to the
new migrants. For instance, the
Turks and Afghans were referred to
as Shakas (Chapters 2 and 3) and
Yavanas (a term used for Greeks).
A more general term for these migrant
communities was mlechchha, indicating that they did
not observe the norms of caste society and spoke
languages that were not derived from Sanskrit. Such
terms sometimes had a derogatory connotation, but they
rarely denoted a distinct religious community of Muslims
in opposition to Hindus. And as we saw (Chapter 5),
the term “Hindu” was used in a variety of ways, not
necessarily restricted to a religious connotation.