Muslim girls in Kargil, India

There are around 180 million Muslims in India (13 percent of the population). The make up the second largest Islamic population in the world. Only Indonesia has more. There are more Muslims in India than in Bangladesh (which has about 150 million Muslims) and more than in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia combined. Pakistan and India have roughly the same number of Muslims. If India's Muslims lived in a single country that country would rank as the world's tenth most populous nation. There are about 500 million Muslims in South Asia, which includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

India’s Muslim population is spread out over a wide area and is a diverse group. They may share general beliefs but they speak different languages and belong to different sects. Those in Kashmir are Shiites. Those in West Bengal speak Bengali. Those in Bombay speak Hindi and Urdu. Sometimes Muslim weddings and burials have more in common with those of local Hindus than Muslims in other parts of India.

The languages spoken by South Asian Muslims are the local languages of the people—Urdu, Hindi and Bengali—not Arabic or Persian. Those who read the Koran can understand classical Arabic because only Arabic language versions of the Koran are available. It is considered sacrilegious to translate the Koran into other languages. Muslims can often quickly be identified by their Muslim clothing or Arabic first names.

Muslims comprised 12.1 percent of the country's population, or 101.6 million people, in the the 1991 census. The largest concentrations — about 52 percent of all Muslims in India — live in the states of Bihar (12 million), West Bengal (16 million), and Uttar Pradesh (24 million), according to the 1991 census. Muslims represent a majority of the local populations only in Jammu and Kashmir (not tabulated in 1991 but 65 percent in 1981) and Lakshadweep (94 percent). As a faith with its roots outside South Asia, Islam also offers some striking contrasts to those religions that originated in India. [Source: Library of Congress]

History of Islam in India

Indian Muslims claim the first mosque in India was raised during Mohammed's lifetime. A.D. 570 to 632 The first Muslims to reach South Asia, for which there is historical evidence, arrived in A.D. 711. The Arabian peninsula, where Islam was born, is not very far from South Asia. Oman lies about 200 kilometers across the Gulf of Oman from Pakistan. The first Muslims to arrive in South Asia were sea-borne Arab traders. They were followed over the centuries by sword-wielding Arab, Turkish and Mogul invaders from the south, west and north.

Most of South Asia’s Muslims are not the descendants of invaders or traders but rather descendants of Hindus that converted to Islam. Many converted during different period often associated with different Muslim invasions and dynasties. The fact that most South Asia Muslims are descendants of Hindu converts explains why the Islam of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is culturally different and has a tradition, soem say, of being more tolerant than the Islam of the Arab world.

Even when the Muslim Moguls ruled India, the majority of their subjects where Hindus. These Hindus were included in society, the arts and the government. They served in the military, the court and contributed to literature, art and cultural life. Society as a whole was multi-religious. Some Muslims even regarded Hindus as “people of the Book.”


Indian Forms of Islam

Mosque in Delhi
Most South Asian Muslims are Sunnis. Religious observances are pretty much in line with orthodox Islam. In recent years Indian Islam, Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek, has been “turned into a dour, puritanical faith, policed by petty theocrats and religious commissars.” In the old days, Indian Islam was regarded as easygoing, pluralistic and colorful. While South Asians have traditionally been Orthodox followers many aspects of their daily lives outside religion had more in common with their Hindu neighbors than Muslims living outside of South Asia. Both mosques and Hindu temples use crackling loud speakers to blare chants and prayers.”

Islam in India and Pakistan is influenced by Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that incorporates ecstatic experiences and the veneration of Muslims pirs” or saints. In Delhi, many people visit the tomb of Hazrat Nizamamuddin, a pacifist Muslim holy man who told his father that helping the poor and hungry is more positive than saying prayers.

Many Muslims in Bengal—in eastern India and Bangladesh—are descendants of relatively recent converts to Islam and many of them still cling to customs rooted in Hinduism and pay homage to Hindu gods even though its is forbidden by the Koran. Some say they will go to hell because they passed a mosque and didn't pray and then worshiped the Hindu monkey God. Islam—particularly Sufism—has also had an influence on Hinduism. Sufism in northern India affected the rise of the Hindu “bhakti” (“devotional”) cults and the special worship of Krishna.

Muslims practice a series of life-cycle rituals that differ from those of Hindus, Jains, or Buddhists. The newborn baby has the call to prayer whispered into the left ear, the profession of faith whispered into the right ear, honey or date paste placed in the mouth, and a name selected. On the sixth day after birth, the first bath occurs. On the seventh day or a multiple of the seventh, the head is shaved, and alms are distributed, ideally in silver weighing as much as the hair; a sacrifice of animals imitates the sheep sacrificed instead of Ishmael (Ismail) in biblical times. Religious instruction starts at age four years, four months, and four days, beginning with the standard phrase: "In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful." Male circumcision takes place between the ages of seven and twelve. After death the family members wash and enshroud the body, after which it is buried as prayers from the Quran are recited. On the third day, friends and relatives come to console the bereaved, read the Quran, and pray for the soul of the deceased. The family observe a mourning period of up to forty days. [Source: Library of Congress]

Sufi Saints and Fakirs in South Asian Islam

A significant aspect of Islam in India is the importance of shrines attached to the memory of great Sufi saints. Sufism is a mystical path (tariqat ) as distinct from the path of the sharia. A Sufi attains a direct vision of oneness with God, often on the edges of orthodox behavior, and can thus become a pir (living saint) who may take on disciples (murids ) and set up a spiritual lineage that can last for generations. Orders of Sufis became important in India during the thirteenth century following the ministry of Muinuddin Chishti (1142-1236), who settled in Ajmer, Rajasthan, and attracted large numbers of converts to Islam because of his holiness. His Chishtiyya order went on to become the most influential Sufi lineage in India, although other orders from Central Asia and Southwest Asia also reached to India and played a large role in the spread of Islam. Many Sufis were well known for weaving music, dance, intoxicants, and local folktales into their songs and lectures. In this way, they created a large literature in regional languages that embedded Islamic culture deeply into older South Asian traditions. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In the case of many great teachers, the memory of their holiness has been so intense that they are still viewed as active intercessors with God, and their tombs have become the site of rites and prayers by disciples and lay people alike. Tales of miraculous deeds associated with the tombs of great saints have attracted large numbers of pilgrims attempting to gain cures for physical maladies or solutions to personal problems. The tomb of the pir thus becomes a dargah (gateway) to God and the focus for a wide range of rituals, such as daily washing and decoration by professional attendants, touching or kissing the tomb or contact with the water that has washed it, hanging petitions on the walls of the shrine surrounding the tomb, lighting incense, and giving money. *

The descendants of the original pir are sometimes seen as inheritors of his spiritual energy, and, as pirs in their own right, they might dispense amulets sanctified by contact with them or with the tomb. The annual celebration of the pir 's death is a major event at important shrines, attracting hundreds of thousands of devotees for celebrations that may last for days. Free communal kitchens and distribution of sweets are also big attractions of these festivals, at which Muslim fakirs, or wandering ascetics, sometimes appear and where public demonstrations of self-mortification, such as miraculous piercing of the body and spiritual possession of devotees, sometimes occur. Every region of India can boast of at least one major Sufi shrine that attracts expressive devotion, which remains important, especially for Muslim women. *

Muslim Holidays and Festivals in India

20120509-Eid_crowds India.jpg
Eid crowds in India
The main Muslim holidays and festivals in India are: 1) Ramazan, the Muslim month of fasting (called Ramadan in much of the Muslim world); 2) Id-Ul-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of Ramazan; 3) Id-Uz-Zuha, a Muslim festival that celebrates the sacrifice of the Prophet Abraham; and 4) Ashura, a 10-day Muslim holiday that celebrates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, is marked in Kashmir.

The annual festivals of Islam are based on a lunar calendar of 354 days, which makes the Islamic holy year independent of the Gregorian calendar. Muslim festivals make a complete circuit of the solar year every thirty-three years. The beginning of the Islamic calendar is the month of Muharram, the tenth day of which is Ashura, the anniversary of the death of Husayn, the son of Ali. The last day of Ramazan is Id al Fitr (Feast of Breaking the Fast), another national holiday, which ends the month of fasting with almsgiving, services in mosques, and visits to friends and neighbors. Bakr Id, or Id al Zuha (Feast of Sacrifice), begins on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah and is a major holiday. Prescribed in the Quran, Id al Zuha commemorates Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice Ishmael (rather than Ishaq — Isaac — as in the Judeo-Christian tradition) according to God's command, but it is also the high point of the pilgrim's ritual cycle while on the hajj in Mecca. All of these festivals involve large feasts, gifts given to family and neighbors, and the distribution of food for charitable purposes. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The "looting of the pot" is a ritual that takes place in Ajmer near Jaipur at a shrine for the Muslim saint, Khwaja Muni-ud-din Chisti. Rich Muslim pay for rice, sugar, coconut, barley and lentils, which are cooked in a large caldron. Followers of the saint dressed in heat-resistent clothing leap into the cauldron with buckets and fight for food, which is sold for small amounts of money.

The Ashura festival is a big Shiite ritual in Srinigar, Kashmir. On the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram (Ashura) participants take part in a procession in which symbols of Husayn are exhibited and worshippers beat themselves with their fists, cut themselves with knives and flagellate themselves on their backs and chests until they dripping with blood. During this festival Shiites fly black flags and imams tell the story of the brutal death Imam Husayn at the battle of Karbala to weeping worshippers.

During Ashura, devotees engage in ritualized mourning that may include processions of colorful replicas of Husayn's tomb at Karbala and standards with palms on top, which are carried by barefoot mourners and buried at an imitation Karbala. In many areas of India, these parades provide a dramatic spectacle that draws large numbers of non-Muslim onlookers. Demonstrations of grief may include bouts of self-flagellation that can draw blood and may take place in public streets, although many families retain personal mourning houses. Sunni Muslims may also commemorate Husayn's death but in a less demonstrative manner, concentrating instead on the redemptive aspect of his martyrdom. *

Muslim Marriage

Muslims have their own marriage code and separate civil laws that govern marriage and divorce that are different from those of Hindus and other Indians. Wealth and names have traditionally been passed down on patrilineal lines and married couples have traditionally lived with the groom’s parents. Parallel cousin marriages are common among Muslims in India. Cross cousin marriages are also common. Muslims frequently marry cousins to keep wealth in their family and to maintain the purity of lineage and family solidarity.

Marriage requires a payment by the husband to the wife and the solemnization of a marital contract in a social gathering. Marriage ceremonies include the donning of a nose ring by the bride, or in South India a wedding necklace, and the procession of the bridegroom. In a traditional wedding, males and females attend ceremonies in different rooms, in keeping with the segregation of sexes in most social settings. [Source: Library of Congress]

Elderly women usually act as marriage go-betweens and conduct searches for prospective mates. In the old days girls often married off young. These days an effort is made to make sure they get at least some education first. Certain attributes are looked for in desirable marriage candidates: similar status, good family and no hints of scandal. Usually the proposal process is initiated by the young man’s side. For the girls’ family to initiate the process is considered humiliating. If both sides reach an agreement arrangements for a wedding are made.

The wedding ceremony is considered complete after the “Istikhara”, the settlement of the marriage contract. The groom’s mother, her female friends, and relatives give sweets to the bride. The bride’s guardian accept them and offers refreshment to the groom’s party. Often times the bride’s face is concealed behind a veil during the ceremony and is revealed to the groom and his family after the ceremony. Then a “Iman Zamin”, coin wrapped in silk, is wrapped around the bride’s right arm.

Muslim Women in India

Muslim wedding in India
Muslim women in India generally have the right to an education and pursue a career. There are some restrictions in freedom of movement, choices in marriage and freedom to pursue a divorce that are in line with restrictions found in other Muslim societies. But these restrictions generally hold true for non-Muslims as well.

Some believe that the Islamic custom of veiling is derived from Hindu custom of purdah. Some Muslim women in central India wear a burka, a ghost-like cloak that covers their entire face, and also wear gloves to cover the hands. Modern Muslim sometimes get by with a headscarf and a pair of sunglasses.

Muslim women have been locked up in shelters for destitute women from planning to marry to a Hindu, refusing to follow the wishes of their parents and refusing to marry a Muslim.

In Hyderabad, there are female Muslim scholars who answer questions by Muslim women about a host of different things, including cosmetics, leg waxing, creams for lightening facial hair and tinted contact lenses. The scholars tell the women things like some blush and eyeliner is okay but everything else is frowned upon because it changes the form that Allah gives a person.

The Hyderabad precedent is considered revolutionary because in the past women had to rely of the advise from male Muslim scholars on such matters. The female scholars, who are overseen by male scholars, have stated that cutting ones nails during menstruation is not recommended and a husband is not obliged to pay the travel expenses of a wife who visits her parents without his permission. They also say wearing high heels is not forbidden but no advised because Muslims should not “walk with arrogance.”

Muslim Society in India

Many of the Muslims that left for Pakistan after partition were relatively well off. They had enough money to pay for the journey. Many of those that remained in India were so poor they couldn't afford to leave.

Muslims are generally poorer than Hindus, who regard Muslims as members of a separate, inferior quasi-caste. The purity requirements of Hinduism, discourages Hindus from marrying, sharing meals and even drinking the same water as Muslims. Many Muslims lives with Hindus in the same village. The lives of the two groups are set up so they can interact socially and economically while following their religious practices.

One journalist compared the status of Muslims in India to that of black American in the 1940s and 1950s. Even though Muslims make up 13 percent of the population, they fill less than 4.5 percent of government job, have 7 percent of the seats on the nations high courts. They receive only 2 percent of government industrial licenses, 3.7 percent of the available financial assistance and 5 percent of the loans approved by private banks. Only 4.4 percent of the members of parliament are Muslim and only one major company—Tata Steel—has a Muslim on its board of directors.

Muslim Society and the Caste System

Even though Islam is regarded as egalitarian and Islam forbids hereditary distinction based on social rank, hierarchies exits. The traditional South Asian Muslim system of social rank distinguishes between nobles (“ashraf”) and lower ranks (“ajlaf” or “atraf”, some of which are based on occupations). The four-part varna categories of the Hindu caste system has Muslim equivalents. The highest category includes four caste of Near Eastern origin: Sayyid (descendants of the Prophet), Sheiks, Moguls (descendants of the Mogul rulers) and Pathan.

Below them are “Ashraf” (of foreign origin). These include the Muslim Rajputs, who do not marry above or below their caste. The third group is made up of members of lower-ranking castes. At the bottom are Muslim sweepers, who are the equivalent of Hindu untouchables and are believed to be descendants of untouchables. Some traditionally Hindu castes are occupied exclusively by Muslims. Muslims have traditionally been weavers, tailors and butchers.

In many Muslim communities, most of the residents are farmers and caste-like distinctions are not strong. When stratification occurs it based more on wealth than anything else. The social system as a whole is more fluid and provides more opportunities for social mobility. Rather than having caste councils, Muslims have traditional councils called “smaj” that fill a similar function. They are composed of village elders. Unlike Hinduism ,where only some men can become priests by their birthright, any Muslim can be a iman if he undergoes the training, religious study and requires knowledge of Arabic and the Koran.

Muslims have traditionally worked as butchers because Hindus and Buddhists consider butchering as dirty, distasteful and cosmically and religiously uncool. Many Muslim butchers are forced to lie about their profession if they want to get their children into a good school. If the lie is found out the kid risks getting kicked out of school.

Muslim areas in India

Muslim Culture in India

Islamic culture is most evident in architectural treasures such as the Taj Mahal and other Mogul buildings. Miniature painting, calligraphy, jewelry and other arts and crafts for which India is famous were introduced by Muslim Persians and Turks.

Islam, particularly Sufism has had a strong impact, on Indian literature. This is most evident in the poetry of great masters such as Kabir (1440-1518) who helped introduce Sufi mysticism to wide audience of both Muslims and Hindus.

Among the famous Muslims in India are A.P.J. Abdel Kalam, the "Father of the Indian Nuclear Bomb" and Mohammed Azharuddin, a long time the captain of the Indian cricket team. The greatest India leaders arguably were the Muslim Mughul shahs. Muslim science has a lasting effect on India. The observatories built by Muslim astronomers under Maharaja Jai Singh II in the early 18th century were more advanced than those built by European contemporaries.

Many of India’s most successful actors have been Muslims, including the three Khans: Shah Rukh, Aamir and Salman. Shah Rukh told National Geographic, “It’s so strange that in a Hindu nation like India they think of me as God...Muslims just rock in the film industry.” He said. “The Hindu-Muslim partition never happened in the Indian film industry. It is completely secular—it welcomes everybody with open arms.”

North Indian cuisine owes much to Persian ingredients and preparation. Muslim styles of female dress have been widely adopted by Hindus, particularly in the Punjab and Rajasthan. Some Muslim men are identifiable by their beards and sometimes skullcaps

Muslims, Politics and Government in India

Muslims are generally under-represented in the civil service and elected government. They Muslims are generally too poor, disorganized and fearful to present any kind of real threat to Hindus. However, Muslims make up 12 percent of voters and it is estimated that their votes can tilt the balance in about 200 of the 545 constituencies that make up the lower house of parliament.

The Muslim population is spread out over a wide area. This means they are relatively weak politically. As of 1999, they had only 11 seats in the 545-seat Parliament. If they were concentrated more in a particular area they could dominate politics there and gain more seats. The Muslim League, the Muslim political party behind the creation of Pakistan, still exists as a political part in India.

Government policy towards Muslims in India, in some ways, is accommodating. Books deemed offensive to Islam such as Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” are banned. Trips to Mecca are subsidized by the government, which keeps a fleet of planes on hand for that purpose. Within certain limits Muslims are allowed to follow their own laws.

The leadership of the Muslim community has pursued various directions in the evolution of Indian Islam during the twentieth century. Several national movements have emerged from this sector of the Muslim community. The Jamaati Islami (Islamic Party), founded in 1941, advocates the establishment of an overtly Islamic government through peaceful, democratic, and nonmissionary activities. It had about 3,000 active members and 40,000 sympathizers in the mid-1980s. The Tablighi Jamaat (Outreach Society) became active after the 1940s as a movement, primarily among the ulama, stressing personal renewal, prayer, a missionary and cooperative spirit, and attention to orthodoxy. It has been highly critical of the kind of activities that occur in and around Sufi shrines and remains a minor if respected force in the training of the ulama. Other ulama have upheld the legitimacy of mass religion, including exaltation of pirs and the memory of the Prophet. [Source: Library of Congress]

Muslims and Education in India

Muslims in India have lower literacy rates than Hindus. They traditionally have not put as much emphasis on education as Hindus, and have been pushed into going into trades at an early age. Some Muslim children go to madrassahs (Islamic schools) but some also attend Christian schools and most are enrolled in public schools.

The most conservative wing of Indian Islam has typically rested on the education system provided by the hundreds of religious training institutes (madrasa ) throughout the country, which have tended to stress the study of the Quran and Islamic texts in Arabic and Persian, and have focused little on modern managerial and technical skills. [Source: Library of Congress *]

A powerful secularizing drive led to the founding of Aligarh Muslim University (founded in 1875 as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College) — with its modern curriculum — and other major Muslim universities. This educational drive has remained the most dominant force in guiding the Muslim community. *

Unani Medicine

The Arab-Persian body of medical knowledge, known as the Unani school of medicine, remains influential. Unani (Greco–Arab medicine) is an ancient medical tradition that has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome and was developed under Muslims in the Middle East and was brought to the Indian subcontinent around the 10th century. Based on the principals of the Greek physician Galen and developed by the Arab philosopher Avicenna (A.D. 980-1037), it is based on the belief that food is transformed into natural warmth in the stomach with useful substances being distributed to parts of the body and waste eliminated.

According to Unani beliefs the main products of the food transformation process are the four humors: blood, mucus, yellow bile and black bile. These humors are combined with the four primary qualities: warmth, cold, moisture and dryness. If the four humors and four primary qualities are in balance a person is healthy. If there is disharmony among them then an ailment of some sort can occur. External factors such as climate, age, personal habits and professions can cause the dominance of one of the four humors. Early Muslim rulers built hospitals that were based on the unani system. The system was spread fare and wide by the Moguls, who lionized eminent physicians. Under the British unani and ayuvedic medicine were ridiculed and regarded as inferior to Western medicine. Unani and ayuvedic were neglected among the elite but continued to be practiced in the countryside. Both systems were given a boost when nationalist movements were launched in the late 19th century.

Muslim Justice System Versus Indian Law

Mogul law and administration based on established schools of Muslim law served as the basis of British law and administration in India. Persian was the language of the law courts and the civil service early in the British period.

In many cases, Indian Muslims follow their own laws rather than Indian law. Muslims have separate civil laws that govern marriage, divorce and property rights. Muslim laws are sometimes spelled out in the Koran. Other times they are simply Muslim tradition. The Indian government permitted the arrangement so that Muslims would be less fearful of being persecuted by the Hindu majority.

Even though Indian law prohibits teenage marriage, Muslim girls often marry when they are 15 or under because according to Muslim tradition a girl is allowed to marry once she has begun to menstruate. In most cases parents simply lie about their child's age, something that is easy to do because birth certificates are uncommon, and have Muslim clerics sanctify the marriage. In 2002, a board that oversees the details of Muslim personal laws, argued that the 1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act does not apply to Muslims.

Muslims can also obtain an divorce quickly and don’t have to pay alimony while Hindu have to go through an exhausting and expensive legal process to settle these matters. Muslim tradition often affords near total discretion in matters of marriage, family and divorce. Wife beating, for example, is considered a private matter that authorities should keep out of.

Muslim Groups

The Sayyids (Syed) are usually considered descendants of Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed and a major figure to Shiites. The ones in South Asia are descendants of religious teachers, soldiers and adventurers that came from Turkey, Arabia and central Asia centuries ago. They are at the top of the Muslim caste system and are landlords, religious teachers, soldiers, constables and servants. They usually marry within their group. Many have the last name “Ali,” or “Hussain,” and occasionally “Shah.” Despite their historical links to founders of the Shiite sects, most are Sunnis.

Sheiks are another group that occupies a high position in the Muslim caste system. Found throughout South Asia, they are ranked below Sayyids but above Pathans. Their descendant are Hindus that converted to Islam. Pathans are descendants of ethnic Pathans from Afghanistan. In the old days they often served soldiers and mercenaries.

Different Muslim Groups: 1) Mughals, See History; 2) Zamindars, See Washington Post Castes; 3) Rajputs, See Northwest India; 4) Mapillas, See Southwest India; 5) Bohra, See West India; 6) Bahra, Shiite Muslims, See Minorities.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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