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Fluid faith, medieval time

People converted to other religions for reasons that were independent of the coercive powers of the state

Written by Harbans Mukhia |
July 28, 2018 12:18:13 am
Muslim state over-exerted itself to forcibly convert people in regions where its presence was the weakest or short lived. (File)

Ask any “historian” doling out the Sangh version of history on TV channels — without any training in history — how did a massive population of the Indian Subcontinent get converted to Islam, pat would come the answer: The Muslim state of medieval India converted them at the point of the sword. Simple. Or is it?

A look at the demographic distribution of the Muslim population in medieval or undivided India clearly locates them in their highest density in the four geographical peripheries of the Subcontinent: Present day Pakistan in the west, Bangladesh in the east, Kashmir in the north and the Malabar region of Kerala in the south. These were also mostly the political peripheries of the medieval Indian state where its hold was sporadic and often tenuous, with Kerala always outside its ken.

We are thus faced with the queer logic that the Muslim state over-exerted itself to forcibly convert people in regions where its presence was the weakest or short lived and in the heartland of the long-lasting empire, East Punjab, Delhi, UP and Bihar, the Muslim population at its height was less than 12 to 15 per cent. It follows then that conversions to Islam in different regions were inversely proportional to the hold of the Muslim state. More interestingly, Bishop Heber visiting India in the 1830s observes that one in every six Indians was a Muslim. In the 1941 census just before the Partition, the Muslim population was recorded at 24.7 per cent.

There was thus a 50 per cent rise in Muslim population in these 110 years when the British were the rulers. It becomes hard to hold on to the view that conversions were a one time or two-time massive event where the state was its chief agency. In fact, it was a very long drawn process stretching over centuries where many agencies, including the state, and many reasons, were involved.

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Interestingly, even as medieval Indian history is remembered by some only for the demolition of Hindu temples and the conversion of Hindus to Islam, we hardly notice some instances to the contrary — when mosques were demolished and replaced by temples and when Muslims were converted to Hinduism, either by way of the medieval version of ghar wapsi or directly. Surely that’s something the Sangh Parivar can feel happy about.

Sher Shah, who had snatched the Mughal empire from Humayun in 1540, vowed to punish the Hindu zamindars who, according to him, had, “after destroying the mosques and places of worship of the Mussalmans converted them into places of idol-worship”. Earlier, in the port city of Cambay in Gujarat, the Parsis “instigated the Hindus to attack the Mussalmans, and the minaret atop [a mosque] was destroyed, the mosque burnt and eighty Mussalmans killed”. To the credit of the Hindu ruler, who checked the facts and found them to be true, he had the mosque restored to its old state.

In Akbar’s time, the theologian Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi complained that “the Hindus are demolishing mosques and are building their own places of worship in their stead”. Shah Jahan is also on record for having seized seven mosques “from their unlawful proprietors” who had “violently seized and appropriated them for their own use in Punjab”. Aurangzeb too refers to one of his two Rajput officials with the highest mansab (official rank) of 7,000 given to any noble — Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur — who had, around 1658-59, “destroyed mosques and built idol-temples in their place”. Yet, the two worked together for the next 20-odd years until the Rajput’s death in 1679. Similarly, there is testimony for reverse conversions from Muslims to Hinduism, unthinkable in a theocratic Islamic state. It must be kept in mind that the scale of these reverse conversions is minuscule and no parity is proposed here.


Mahmud bin Amir Ali Balkhi, a Central Asian traveler to India in Jahangir’s reign was horrified to see 23 Muslims in Banaras who deserted their religion and turned Hindu, having fallen in love with Hindu women. “For some time”, he records, “I questioned them about their mistaken way. They pointed towards the sky and put their fingers on their foreheads. By this I understood that they attributed it to Providence”, Balkhi concludes ruefully. Zain-al-Abidin, the pre-Mughal ruler of Kashmir, permitted Muslim converts to return to their Hindu faith. As did Akbar later, who also decreed that a Hindu converted against his will at any age “could return to the religion of his forefathers”. The eminent 15th-16th century saint-poet Chaitanya Mahaprabhu reconverted the Muslim governor of Odisha and converted a group of Pathans, who were not Hindus in the first instance, even though Hinduism is not a proselytising religion — they earned the sobriquet, “Pathan Vaishnavas”.

The Persian language text of the 17thcentury, Dabistan-i Mazahib, written by a Zoroastrian, implies the considerable phenomenon of reconversion at the higher levels and mentions, among others, two high nobles of Shah Jahan’s court — Mirza Salih and Mirza Haidar — who had converted from Hinduism and then returned to their original religion. Neither was punished.

At the mass level, Shah Jahan discovered that in the Bhimbhar region of Kashmir, it was common for Muslim boys to marry Hindu girls, the boys then converting to Hinduism. He tried to stop it but found that his diktat had no effect. He also discovered that some 5,000 inter-faith mixed marriages had taken place with no conversion of either the husband or the wife. And after her death, the wife was cremated or buried according to the husband’s faith. His diktat to check this was also in vain. The Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind, also reconverted a large number and the Dabistan mentions this with some hyperbole: “Not a Muslim was left between the hills of Kiratpur in Punjab and the frontiers of Tibet and Khotan’. History is never simple.


The writer taught medieval history at JNU; among his books is Mughals of India

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First published on: 28-07-2018 at 12:18:13 am
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