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Demolishing a Myth: New Book Traces Peaceful Expansion of Islam in India

Date:

Syed Ubaidur Rahman explores the forgotten narrative of non-coercive Islamisation in India

Mohammad Alamullah | Clarion India

Syed Ubaidur Rahman has made a notable mark in the historical genre over the past decade, earning recognition from history enthusiasts and the wider readership. Based in New Delhi, he has produced a substantial body of work exploring various aspects of medieval and modern Indian history.

His latest book, ‘Peaceful Expansion of Islam in India’, joins a collection of well-received publications including ‘Forgotten Muslim Empires of South India’ (2022), ‘Biographical Encyclopaedia of Indian Muslim Freedom Fighters’ (2021), and ‘Ulema’s Role in India’s Freedom Movement with Focus on Reshmi Rumal Tehrik’ (2019), among others.

In addition to his authored works, Rahman has contributed chapters to various books. He has been a voice in opinion pieces for newspapers in India and abroad, including The Hindustan Times, Economic Times, Sify, Arab News, Gulf News, The Quint, Nation & The World, Indian Currents, Meantime, and other newspapers and news portals.

Recently, Clarion India interviewed Rahman about his latest book, delving into its content, motivations, and implications for the future. 

Here are excerpts:

Clarion India: Recently, your book “Peaceful Expansion of Islam in India” has become a topic of discussion. How did you get the idea to write this book?

Syed Ubaidur Rahman: This was in the making for a long time. I was working on it for quite some time as I realized that the false notion of ‘forced conversion’ of the local population to Islam in India was a narrative that must be debunked and refuted in a thoroughly scholarly fashion. I am fortunate that I was able to work on such an important theme and was able to do justice to the subject, Alhamdulillah.

Clarion India: You mentioned that Islam’s arrival in India predates the common perception. What are some key findings or discoveries you made during your research that surprised you the most?

Syed Ubaidur Rahman: If you follow the common narrative, you tend to believe that Islam came through the Khyber Pass and northern regions and that the locals were converted through the use of force. However, there is no evidence of large-scale forced conversion anywhere in the Indian Subcontinent. On the contrary, many historians, including Eton and T.W. Arnold, besides many others, have rejected this theory and suggested that Islam spread through peaceful means in most cases in the Indian Subcontinent. There are innumerable surprising aspects. However, one will have to go through the book to have that feeling of surprise and astonishment. One of them is the fact that the rajahs of Malabar asked many families to convert one or two male members of their families to Islam.

Clarion India: Please elaborate on the role of Arab merchants in spreading Islam in India. How did their mercantile activities contribute to the dissemination of the faith?

Syed Ubaidur Rahman: Islam’s peaceful and early arrival in India has been completely forgotten. Islam spread across much of India through peaceful means. There are many regions in the country where Islam prospered without a single sword ever being used for the propagation of Islam. And this happened for hundreds of years and across a huge swath of land. Even in North India, Islam spread not through the use of swords but through the intermingling of Muslims with the local population and also by the influence of Sufis, whose role in the spread of Islam across the Indian Subcontinent hasn’t been explored much.

Muslim traders influenced a large number of people across the Western and Eastern Ghats. A large number of locals embraced Islam without any use of force after being influenced by these traders and their religion. Traders came to India much before Sufis. And in the case of Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Konkan, Goa, Lakshadweep, and even Bengal, they came hundreds of years before the arrival of Sufis. The Arab traders had a longstanding relationship with the western coast of India even before the Christian era. The Arab traders and presumably many local Muslims were already there in large numbers in the eighth century, not just in Malabar, but also in Chaul, Mangalore, Konkan, Gujarat, and many other coastal regions and towns when Muhammad bin Qasim hadn’t even heard the name of Sindh.

Traders and saints have impacted India much beyond what has been appreciated thus far. The oft-repeated assertion that Islam spread in the South Asian nation by the use of the sword or through the brutal use of power has been overdone in such a manner that almost everyone tends to believe it.

Clarion India: In your book, you discuss the peaceful spread of Islam in various regions of India. Can you provide examples or anecdotes illustrating this peaceful coexistence and conversion process?

Syed Ubaidur Rahman: There are too many anecdotes to share. Sufis have been an important factor in the spread of Islam in India, even though they never consciously tried to convert people. There has been very little evidence about Sufis acting as proselytisers for their faith during the years when the country was under the rule of different Muslim dynasties. However, the history of Sufism in India is much older than the history of Muslim dynasties in the country and so is their influence on Indian society and the people. Sufis started arriving in the country centuries before the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. There were Sufis and their khanqahs across the country including in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as early as the ninth and tenth centuries.

While Sufis might not have made conscious efforts to convert people, what is equally true is the fact that they caused the peaceful conversion of a large number of people. Their asceticism, simplicity, charisma, kiramat, and non-discriminatory behaviour, irrespective of people’s caste or religious background, attracted a large number of people to them and their hospices.

Clarion India: Sufism played a significant role in popularising Islam across India. How did Sufi saints influence societal norms and attitudes towards religion during that period?

Syed Ubaidur Rahman: Sufis were influential not just during their lifetime, they were useful even after their death. They continued to influence the local population and became a constant source of influence across the region wherever their tombs were. Richard Eton rightly says, “If a living Sufi had only minimal influence in the religious life of non-Muslim Indians, a deceased Sufi, especially one blessed with sainthood by the local population, could work miracles. This was because the charisma or baraka of a spiritually saturated Sufi saint became, with time, transferred to his tomb. And since brick and mortar shrines have much greater longevity than flesh and bone Sufis, self-sustaining centres of religious power were able in this way to grow and span many centuries”.

This is the reason that the influence of the Sufis hasn’t diminished even now and their hospices and khanqahs have remained a constant attraction for people of all faiths. From Shaikh Hujwiri’s mausoleum in Lahore to Hazrat Nathar Shah Wali’s dargah in Trichurapalli in Tamil Nadu, they continue to be among the greatest attractions for people of all faiths. Both the Sufis, from the tenth century, were among the oldest Sufis in the Subcontinent and influenced people during their lifetime and continue to do so even now.

Clarion India: Your book highlights the economic and social incentives that attracted people to Islam. Could you elaborate on how these incentives facilitated the peaceful expansion of the religion?

Syed Ubaidur Rahman: It is said that some rulers had a particular liking for Muslims. Zamorin of Malabar, Kadamba Kings of Goa, and the Balhara dynasty in the north not only supported the Muslim community, especially the traders who controlled the trade across the world in the medieval period, but Muslims also became indispensable for the welfare and survival of these kings and their kingdoms. I have written in detail as to how the support by these kingdoms helped not just the traders from faraway lands, but also the kingdoms of these sovereigns. Not just Muslim traders were allowed to practice their religion freely, but they were also provided full state security, and in the case of Malabar Kings, Zamorins, some people were prompted by the state to actually convert. This sounds unbelievable, but it is true.

Clarion India: How do you address the commonly held belief that Islam spread in India primarily through force and coercion? What evidence or arguments do you present to challenge this notion?

Syed Ubaidur Rahman: This is a fallacious notion and has nothing to do with reality. Some overzealous Muslim chroniclers too have played a role in perpetuating this false notion. It has been very well documented that Shaikh Hujwiri converted not one or two tribes, but as many as eleven tribes in and around Lahore in the tenth century. Conversions at the hands of Sufis in Tamil Nadu, Deccan, Gujarat, Bengal, and Awadh have been well documented.

Clarion India: Please discuss the reception of your book thus far. Have you encountered any criticisms or pushback against your reinterpretation of Indian Islamic history?

Syed Ubaidur Rahman: It is too early to talk about numbers, but so far it has been decent, though not very good. To be fair, I was hoping for a much more impressive reception. However, these are very early days as the book was launched merely three weeks ago. Hopefully, it will get better, in sha Allah.

Clarion India: What do you hope readers will take away from your book, and how do you envision it contributing to a broader understanding of Islam’s history in the Indian subcontinent?

Syed Ubaidur Rahman: My book, ‘Peaceful Expansion of Islam in India’ will, hopefully, help in making it easy to understand the history from a proper perspective. Historiography hasn’t been a strong point for us. However, this book is going to make a strong pitch for understanding the history of the community in the region through proper historical evidence and not through the false narrative that has been largely followed thus far.

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