Did Islam Come to India with Invaders? No, It Didn’t

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The Arabs had been coming to the Malabar coast in southern India as traders for a long time, well before advent of Islam in Arabia. — A 20th century painting of a dhow sailing along the East African coast used for illustrative purpose. — Mary Evans Picture Library

They had been motivated by quest for power rather than any desire to spread Islam

A F KIRMANI | Clarion India

ON 7th of September 2021, RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, while speaking at an event said that ‘Islam came to India with invaders’.

However, according to historical accounts the first interface of Islam and the Indian sub-continent happened because of the trade (mainly of spices) that had been prevalent since pre-Islamic times. There had been brisk trade between the East coast of the Arabian Peninsula and the West coast of India and Sri Lanka. Ships from the Arabian Peninsula came riding the Eastern monsoon and returned riding on the Western monsoon. It was through these merchants that Islam first came to Kerala and Sri Lanka. At this time Islam did not spread inwards into the continent.

It was hundreds of years before Islam would find a place in the hearts of the people of the sub-continent and it wouldn’t happen by the force of sword. It is in fact a logical fallacy to believe that faith could be instilled by physical force. Physical force can compel the body to prostrate but it cannot cause the transformation of heart.

When Islam did enter the hearts of millions of men and women of the sub-continent it wasn’t out of fear or force of the invaders but through the selfless service of the Sufi sheikhs of the 13th Century. About them Dr Nazeer Ahmed in his book Islam in Global History, says, “They were men drunk with the love of God, giving of themselves for no gain but the prospect of divine pleasure, serving humanity irrespective of creed or nationality and sharing their spiritual bounty with whoever would partake of it. Power was not their goal; it was a byproduct of their selfless service. The sufi way strove to mend human behavior and to open up human vistas to the sublime peace that comes from proximity to God. Their “miracles” were the transformations of human hearts.”

These men of God and the disciples trained under them spread the message of Islam far and wide. Some of the well-known Sufi sheikhs of the 13th, 14th and 15th century were: Khawaja Qutubuddin Bhaktiyar Kaki (d. 1236), Baba Farid (d.1265), Nizamuddin Awliya (d.1325), Chirag-e-Dehli (d.1356) and Hazrat Gaysu Daraz (d. 1422). In the words of Dr Nazeer Ahmed, ‘together men like these moulded the continent into an Islamic crucible.’ Of the many Sufi orders the three that left lasting impressions on the sub-continent were the Chishtiya order, the Qadriya order and the Suhrawardi order. It must be borne in mind that the Sufi sheikhs over the centuries had made sure to keep their work free not just from patronage but even from the influence of the rulers of the time. At times these Sufi sheikhs have declined the generosity of the rulers and at other points in history they have borne extreme displeasure of antagonistic rulers.

As for the invaders and rulers, did they even have an interest in propagation of Islam? History testifies negatively in this regard. The invaders had been motivated by quest for power rather than any desire to spread Islam (which is in any case not possible to spread by force). Mohammad Ghori for example trundled into India after defeating the existing Muslim Ghaznavid dynasty on his way. Clearly his purpose could not have been the establishment of Islam here. Centuries later when Babur established his empire here, he specifically advised his son Humayun not to meddle in the religious and social system of the country. Humayun and his progeny did keep their nose out of socio-religious matters and a proof of that is the continuation of the practice of Sati throughout the Mughal rule in the sub-continent. Moreover, despite centuries of Muslim rule, Muslims continue to be in minority in the combined population of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

To reiterate the point, I have already mentioned in the write up, Islam came to India with traders and spread due to the work of Sufi sheikhs. Invaders had neither introduced nor spread the religion Islam into the Indian sub-continent.

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A F Kirmani is a Hyderabad-based writer. She tweets at @afkirmani

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