Authored by Umran Khan
‘There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.’1 E. H. Carr, What is History? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 43. – E.H. Carr
In his TED Talk in 2017, Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan spoke of his experience in India and his gratitude towards ‘the people of this ancient land’ for having embraced him despite his being, as he described, ‘the Muslim son of a broke freedom fighter.’ While he delivered an entertaining and informative talk, his wording indicated a subconscious endorsement of an ideology that is widespread in India today which frames Muslims of the subcontinent as outsiders. It has been noted that Shah Rukh ‘framed himself as an outsider, a guest of this imagined Hindu nation and not part of the fabric of a secular India.’ Understanding the reasons for this framing requires a deeper look into the development of historical accounts of Islam in the Indian subcontinent. This essay looks at the region comprising the modern nation-states of Pakistan and India and argues that accounts of the history of Islam in this region have primarily been shaped by three factors: British colonial interest in the region and the historiography that emerged from this, and the two distinct religious-nationalist historiographies that subsequently developed in the nation-states of India and Pakistan, respectively.
British Colonialism in South Asia: The Framing of Muslims as Perpetual Outsiders
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British colonial interest in South Asia led to an interest in the history of the region. This had a significant impact on the historiography of Islam in the subcontinent, specifically regarding the foreign origin of Islam and how it contrasted with native Hinduism. This is also seen in accounts of the supposedly religiously motivated oppressiveness of previous Muslim rulers in the region against their Hindu subjects.
The British colonial state developed the idea that religion was the primary means of identification for the population of South Asia, and colonialist historiography focused on the foreignness of Islam to South Asia, thereby emphasizing the purported divide between it and native Hinduism. Peter Gottschalk has demonstrated ways in which British imperialism—through censuses and other ‘ways of knowing’—shaped understandings of religious categories by classifying diverse religious practices as either Hindu or Muslim and then argued that religion ‘represented the fundamental quality of every Indian.’2Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India (New York, Oxford University Press, 2013), 191. Furthermore, it has been argued that the colonial power ‘intensified and solidified the sense of religious difference within the subcontinent.’3Catherine B. Asher and Cynthia Talbot, India Before Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 291. According to Romila Thapar, European scholars only found one particular work that dealt with the history of India, written in the twelfth century, in a manner that was similar to the style of history writing they were accustomed to.4Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003), 1. Thapar argues that since this work focused on Hindu Sanskritic civilization, it convinced European scholars that Muslim Turkic and Persian culture was to be treated as foreign.5Ibid, 2. This would have a lasting impact on the British perspective of Indian history, particularly as they began to write the first narrative works about the region. Among the most famous and influential of the early attempts at this form of narrative history was by Scottish historian James Mill with his History of British India. Mill divided pre-colonial Indian history along religious lines, with an early period of indigenous Hindu rule being followed by a period of foreign Muslim rule, beginning his book on ‘the Mahomedans’ by stating: ‘it appears that the people of Hindustan have at all times been subject to incursions and conquest.’6James Mill, The History of British India: Volume 1 (1817; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 481. Mill appears to have promoted the idea that religious difference was fundamental to Indian history, as he projects the ‘people of Hindustan’ as somehow united by their religious affiliation, and likewise for the foreign Muslim invaders. Later generations of Muslims in the region are afforded the same treatment and are deemed perpetual outsiders. This is despite the fact that there were often marriages between members of the two religions, and Cynthia Talbot has demonstrated that conversion to Islam for the sake of political expediency was also a common occurrence amongst Hindu nobility.7Cynthia Talbot, “Becoming Turk the Rajput Way: Conversion and Identity in an Indian Warrior Narrative,” Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 1 (January 2009): 241-243.
Another significant impact of colonialist historiography was in its presentation of Muslim rulers as bigoted oppressors of the Hindu population. In his work titled The History Of India As Told By Its Own Historians, Sir Henry Elliot supervised several translations of Persian texts into English. When speaking of the ‘Muhammadan period of rule,’ following the earlier mentioned classification of Mill, Elliot laments that ‘the common people must have been plunged into the lowest depths of wretchedness and despondency.’8Sir Henry Miers Elliot, The History Of India, As Told By Its Own Historians: The Muhammadan Period, Volume 1 (1867; repr., Delaware: Adamant Media Corporation, 2006), xxi. He speaks of ‘intolerant measures, of idols mutilated’ and, notably, ‘of temples razed.’9 Ibid, xxi. These depictions of tyrannical Muslim rule were conveniently contrasted with seemingly benign British rule, as Elliot states that his work will ‘make our native subjects more sensible of the immense advantages accruing to them under the mildness and equity of our rule.’10Ibid, xxii. By recounting the purported malevolence of the foreign Muslim rule over India, foreign British rule was supposed to be seen as a relatively superior option for the native Hindu population. Historian Richard Eaton looked closer into the claim made by earlier British historians of wholesale temple destruction at the hands of Muslim rulers. Eaton carefully analyzed the sources for these claims, such as a text which he argues is actually ‘a richly textured legend elaborated over many generations of oral transmission.’11Richard Eaton, “Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States,” in Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia, eds. David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000), 249. He concludes by stating that the allegations of wanton temple desecration by Muslim rulers between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries cannot ‘be sustained by evidence from original sources for the period after 1192.’12Ibid, 269-270. Eaton also argued that the translations of Persian chronicles by Elliot were relied upon by Hindu nationalists as a source of indisputable evidence, as will be elaborated upon in the next section of this essay. So along with emphasising the foreignness of Muslims to the region, colonial historiography also presented Muslims in India through the lens of oppressive rule against its Hindu subjects.
Hindu Nationalist Historiography: The People of This Ancient Land
The partition of India facilitated the development of religious-nationalist historiographies. Hindu nationalist historiography has been a key factor in shaping accounts of Islam in the subcontinent by adopting and expanding the earlier-mentioned colonialist understanding of the division between Muslims and Hindus and of the accounts of oppression faced by Hindus at the hands of Muslim rule.
The colonialist propagation of the foreignness of Islam to South Asia and the division between Muslims and Hindus were significantly developed by Hindu nationalist historiography. Cynthia Talbot notes that, in the city of Ajmer, a memorial park monument to a famous medieval Indian king named him as ‘the last Hindu emperor,’ a term first used within colonialist historiography, and that an inscription at the park claims he ‘prevented foreign invaders,’ an allusion which Talbot says is a reference to Muslims as part of a campaign by Hindu nationalists which actively ‘appropriates medieval warrior heroes.’13Cynthia Talbot, The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 1-3. Furthermore, Indian nationalist historian R. C. Majumdar titled one of his key works as The Arab Invasion of India, but his introduction states that ‘the Muhammadan conquest of India may naturally be divided into three phases.’14R. C. Majumdar, The Arab Invasion of India (1931; repr., Lahore: Sheikh Mubarak Ali, 1974), 2. Thus, for Majumdar, the key feature of the invading armies, even when speaking of later Turkic invaders, is their religious affiliation. Contrarily, it has been noted that epigraphic evidence from various parts of the Indian subcontinent dating back to the time of the Turkic invaders are ‘silent about Islamic religion and the Islamic affiliation of the Turks’ because the ‘sense of difference was not grounded primarily on a religious base.’15Cynthia Talbot, “Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu-Muslim Identities in Pre-Colonial India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37, no. 4 (October 1995): 701. In another work, of which Majumdar was the general editor, the earlier mentioned categorization of Indian history by James Mill is adopted. In the third volume of Majumdar’s monumental series titled The History and Culture of the Indian People, the beginning of the eleventh century is considered the end of the age of expansion and the beginning of the age of resistance, thereby providing an image of a united India which, despite internal conflict, formed a united front against foreign Muslim invasion.16R. C. Majumdar, ed., The History and Culture of the Indian People: The Classical Age (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1954), viii. The Gupta period is called ‘the Golden Prime of India’ and the state emperors are said to have made the state ‘powerful, stable, dynamic and happy.’17Ibid, xii-xiv. Former professor of history at Delhi University D. N. Jha describes the first three volumes in Majumdar’s set as ‘revivalist and Hindu chauvinist in approach.’18D. N. Jha, Ancient India: In Historical Outline (New Delhi: Manohar, 1977), 176. The purpose of Majumdar’s approach is clear—to enable the reader to contrast an idealized period of early Hindu rule with depictions of Muslim rule in later volumes of the series, which stress their foreignness and brutality against Hindus. This is particularly clear in the volume on the Mughal Empire, about which historian John F. Richards contends that ‘although detailed, [it] has a decidedly anti-Muslim bias.’19John F. Richards, The Mughal Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 304. About the landmark five-volume History of Aurangzib by Jadunath Sarkar, Professor Manan Asif of Columbia University has noted that ‘Sarkar’s study of the Muslim past incorporated Elliot’s framework,’ specifically on the issue of the separation of communities based on religion.20Manan Ahmed Asif, A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016), 172. Sarkar offers a religiously based explanation for the deeds of the emperor, claiming in his introduction that ‘Islam made its last onward movement in India in this reign.’21Sir Jadunath Sarkar, History of Aurangzib: Volume I & II (1912; repr., Karachi: South Asian Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1991), xi. He later states that the ideal of the Muslim state is to extinguish all forms of dissent, and that ‘a true Islamic king is bound to look on jubilantly when his infidel subjects cut each other’s throats.’22Sir Jadunath Sarkar, History of Aurangzib: Volume III (1916; repr., Karachi: South Asian Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1991), 164.
In recent times, such ideas have spread outside the halls of academia. In a recent reappraisal of Aurangzeb, it is mentioned that Sarkar’s religious-based explanations of Mughal decline are no longer taken seriously by historians, but they remain popular amongst the public.23Audrey Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth (Haryana: Penguin Random House, 2017), 133. Similarly, the infamous narrative of the Rajput queen who chose self-immolation rather than captivity by an invading Muslim Sultan from Delhi is still popular in modern-day Rajasthan as an example of ideal Rajput womanhood, and such popular narratives have been used by Hindu majoritarian organizations in India to illustrate ‘their alleged humiliation by Muslims in medieval times’ to justify violence against Muslims living in the region today.24 Ibid, 2. In recent times, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the leading member, has rewritten school textbooks in accordance with their ideologically driven view of Indian history.25Shreya Roy Chowdhury, “BJP’s Major Achievement in Rajasthan: Rewriting School Textbooks to Reflect RSS Worldview,” Scroll.in, 14 November 2018, https://scroll.in/article/901001/bjps-major-achievement-in-rajasthan-rewriting-schools-textbooks-in-the-rss-worldview (Accessed 6 March, 2020). The foundations for this deadly ideology are best summarised in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s Hindutva, in which he states that the heroes of the Muslims are ‘not the children of this soil’ and that their names and outlook ‘smack of a foreign origin.’26“Extract from Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” in Hindu Nationalism: A Reader, ed. C Jaffrelot (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2007), 95. Rizwan Ahmad has explained that even the Urdu script and language, after having been associated with an exclusively Muslim identity post-partition, have been presented as foreign for having links in Semitic languages and cultures, with the complete denial of the reality that the language is Indo-Aryan in its origin and occupies indigenous sociolinguistic space.27Rizwan Ahmad, “Chapter 5: Hindi is perfect, Urdu is messy: The discourse of delegitimation of Urdu in India,” in Orthography as Social Action: Scripts, Spelling, Identity and Power, eds. Alexandra Jaffe, Jannis Androutsopoulos, Mark Sebba and Sally Johnson (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2012), 103-134. In sum, knowledge of the influence of colonial historians on Hindu nationalist historiography and the spread of Hindu nationalism is crucial to understating ideas of perpetual Muslim foreignness in South Asian history.
Pakistani Nationalism: Guests of the Nation
Pakistani Muslim nationalism and its historiography also developed after the partition of India and also inherited much from the works of colonialist historians, giving it far more in common with Hindu nationalist historiography than is often acknowledged by its leading figures. Pakistani nationalist historiography has shaped accounts of Islam in South Asian history by portraying the state of Pakistan as a natural consequence of distinctive Muslim identity in the region, and by relying on a ‘great men’ understanding of history to justify modern views and policies.
By arguing for an inherent difference between Muslims and Hindus, Pakistani nationalist historians have sought to legitimize the existence of a separate Muslim state, thereby demonstrating a subconscious endorsement of the idea of perpetual Muslim foreignness to the region and the need to establish a separate polity. Despite the split between the Muslims of the region into two separate nations, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Bose and Jalal state that historiography in the region has ‘shown an inability to discard colonial definitions of majority and minority based on a system of enumeration privileging the religious distinction.’28Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal, Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2004), 204. Consequently, the approach of Pakistani nationalist historiography is derivative of colonial historiography in much the same way as Hindu nationalist historiography is. In the same way that Sayyid Ahmed Khan spoke of the Muslims and Hindus of the subcontinent as two separate nations, Mohammad Ali Jinnah himself is reported to have stated that Hindus and Muslims ‘belong to two different civilizations’ and ‘neither intermarry nor interdine.’29Cited in Asif, Chachnama, 3. This is in direct contradiction to the earlier mentioned historical reports of conversion from one faith to the other and of intermarriage between the two communities. Nonetheless, this concept has remained prevalent in Pakistani Muslim historiography. For Pakistani historian Ishtiaq Qureshi, Islamic nationalism that would ultimately result in the creation of Pakistan can be detected as far back as Mahmud of Ghazni’s arrival into the subcontinent in the eleventh century, and he claims that ‘the attitude of the Muslim community towards the idea of Pakistan was, therefore, the logical consequence of its history.’30 Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947): A Brief Historical Analysis (Delhi: Renaissance Publication House, 1977), 304. Furthermore, much like the aforementioned situation in India, school textbooks in Pakistan have also been employed to spread these ahistorical claims. When speaking of the system of education in the country, notable Pakistani historian K. K. Aziz observes that there are ‘textbooks which mislead the children and scholarly works which misguide the nation.’31K. K. Aziz, The Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan (Lahore: Vanguard Books, 1993) xvi. Aziz describes the content of these works as ‘prescribed myths’ and quotes one of the textbooks that speaks about Hindu-Muslim history by saying that ‘there was nothing common in religion, ways of living and customs and rites between the two nations.’32Ibid, 18. This example demonstrates the ideologically driven view of history that informs these works, which argue for an inherent difference between the two communities to support the idea of Pakistan as a natural consequence. This rhetoric adopts a ‘history from above’ approach by focusing on the lives of political elites, whereas Gyanendra Pandey looked at a work that he described as ‘an insider’s view’ of a small Muslim community in the nineteenth century, and demonstrated that class division was prominent within the Muslim community itself—contradicting the idea that Muslims represented a monolithic community in contrast to a monolithic Hindu one.33Gyanendra Pandey, Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 115. Recent research on the history of the region has focused on the lost notion of Hindustan, a source of shared regional identity for all inhabitants of the subcontinent which ‘was a place of territorial integrity that encompassed the entire subcontinent, and that diverse communities of believers lived in this place.’ The contention of Pakistani nationalist historians that the notion of a separate Muslim polity was somehow a natural consequence of a foreign Muslim presence in the region betrays this heritage.34Manan Ahmed Asif, The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2020), 3.
For modern historians, the view that history is simply the retelling of stories of great men is dismissed for its erroneous reductionism, yet this approach seems to remain popular within Pakistani religious nationalist historiography. In particular, a school textbook issued under General Zia-ul-Haq’s education reforms not only denotes the arrival of Muhammad bin Qasim to Sindh in the eighth century as the foundation of Pakistan, but even names Qasim as the first Pakistani citizen.35Asif, Chachnama, 14. This narrative is based on a text called the Chachnama, purported to be a thirteenth-century Persian translation of an earlier Arabic text detailing the conquest of Sindh by Qasim.36 Ibid, 12-13. However, Manan Asif has argued that the text does not offer an accurate account of Islam’s origins in South Asia, as it is actually an original text composed in the thirteenth century.37Ibid, 16. Another symbol of this approach to history by Pakistani nationalists is the character of the aforementioned Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who is seen as nothing less than a hero for many Muslims of the region and as a man who acted primarily as a religious warrior.38Masood Ghaznavi, “Recent Muslim Historiography in South Asia: the Problem of Perspective,” The Indian Economic & Social History Review 11, no. 2 (April 1974): 203. This depiction shares the same origin as the earlier mentioned one offered by the likes of Sarkar, as both Hindu and Muslim nationalists followed the precedent set by British colonialist historians who presented religious conviction as the primary motivation for the actions of the controversial emperor. Tellingly, Satish Chandra found that some nationalist historians in Pakistan deliberately sought to project discriminatory policies onto Aurangzeb—specifically against Hindus—in order to defend the existence of similar policies in modern-day Pakistan.39Satish Chandra, Historiography, Religion, and State in Medieval India (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1996), 154. Thus, Pakistani Muslim historiography has also been a key factor in shaping accounts of Islamic history in the subcontinent through its focus on a distinctive Muslim identity and the hero-worship espoused by some of its practitioners.
In conclusion, accounts of Islamic history in the Indian subcontinent were initially shaped by colonialist historians, who propagated the foreignness of Muslims to the region and depicted Muslim rule as particularly disadvantageous for the Hindu population. Hindu nationalist historiography adopted the understanding of colonial historians and developed these views further. Finally, the religious nationalist historiography that developed in Pakistan constructed a united Muslim identity for the region’s past inhabitants to legitimize the existence of their state. These factors have collectively shaped and reinforced the idea that Muslims are, and always will be, perpetual outsiders to the region.
– Ahmad, Rizwan. “Chapter 5: Hindi is perfect, Urdu is messy: The discourse of delegitimation of Urdu in India” In Orthography as Social Action: Scripts, Spelling, Identity and Power, edited by Alexandra Jaffe, Jannis Androutsopoulos, Mark Sebba and Sally Johnson, 103-134. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2012.
– Asher, Catherine B., and Cynthia Talbot. India Before Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
– Asif, Manan Ahmed. A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016.
– Asif, Manan Ahmed. The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2020.
– Aziz, K. K. The Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan. Lahore: Vanguard Books, 1993.
– Bose, Sugata, and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2004.
– Carr, E. H. What is History? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.
– Chandra, Satish. Historiography, Religion, and State in Medieval India. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1996.
– Eaton, Richard. “Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States.” In Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia, edited by David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence, 246-281. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.
– Elliot, Sir Henry Miers. The History Of India, As Told By Its Own Historians: The Muhammadan Period, Volume 1. 1867. Reprint, Delaware: Adamant Media Corporation, 2006.
– Ghaznavi, Masood. “Recent Muslim Historiography in South Asia: the Problem of Perspective.” The Indian Economic & Social History Review 11, no. 2 (April 1974): 183-215.
– Gottschalk, Peter. Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
– Jha, D. N. Ancient India: In Historical Outline. New Delhi: Manohar, 1977.
– Malik, Jamal. Islam in South Asia: A Short History. Brill: Leiden, 2008.
– Majumdar, R. C. The Arab Invasion of India. 1931. Reprint, Lahore: Sheikh Mubarak Ali, 1974.
– Majumdar, R. C, ed. The History and Culture of the Indian People: The Classical Age. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1954.
– Mill, James. The History of British India: Volume 1. 1817. Reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
– Pandey, Gyanendra. Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
– Qureshi, Ishtiaq Hussain. The Muslim Community of the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent (610-1947): A Brief Historical Analysis. Delhi: Renaissance Publication House, 1977.
– Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
– Sarkar, Sir Jadunath. History of Aurangzib: Volume I & II. 1912. Reprint, Karachi: South Asian Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1991.
– Sarkar, Sir Jadunath. History of Aurangzib: Volume III. 1916. Reprint, Karachi: South Asian Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1991.
– Savarkar, Vinayak Damodar. “Extract from Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?” In Hindu Nationalism: A Reader, edited by C Jaffrelot, 87-96. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2007.
– Sreenivasan, Ramya. The Many Lives Of A Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts In India C.1500-1900. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2007.
– Talbot, Cynthia. “Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu-Muslim Identities in Pre-Colonial India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37, no. 4 (October 1995): 692-722.
– Talbot, Cynthia. “Becoming Turk the Rajput Way: Conversion and Identity in an Indian Warrior Narrative.” Modern Asian Studies 43, no. 1 (January 2009): 211-243.
– Talbot, Cynthia. The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
– Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003.
– Truschke, Audrey. Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth. Haryana: Penguin Random House, 2017.
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