Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Why aren't all Desis Muslims?

Why did the Muslim kings not encourage greater conversions? If Muslim kings were bad zealots as portrayed by Hindutva historians, why did so many people remain Hindus?

I kept wondering while reading some counter-orientalist-revisionist history, in print as well as electronically, the other day. According to people­ like this, Muslim kings usually didn’t promote conversion anywhere. This was because of the idea, institutionalised by Muslim political thinkers of the golden age of Islam (9th to 12th century) who drew from Greek and Persian traditions as well as Quranic injunctions, that forced submission (Islam means submission) isn’t really valid, and the only legitimate acceptance of faith was the one done voluntarily (free will). The accepted notion of how a good Muslim ruler should rule simply said that proselytizing should be left to preachers.

A more interesting argument is that Muslim kings had reasons to oppose conversion. Muslim kings were happy for non-Muslim subjects to keep their religion as long as they paid their taxes. Apparently, non-Muslim subjects were less likely to indulge in violent palace coups. Sure there were a few who would go and raze temples and stuff, that apparently had more to do with booty and show of force than winning hearts and mind and saving souls.

This line of argument is completely contrary to the orientalist view of the sword of Islam and all that. If this argument is correct, most people became Muslim voluntarily, anywhere in the world.

But this just deepens the puzzle. Why, despite 1000 years of exposure, didn’t 70% or so Desis take up Islam, when most Indonesians, for example, warmed to it lot quicker?

As it happens, within Desh, with one major exception, there is a positive relationship between the number of centuries of exposure to Islam and the proportion of population that is Muslim. Punjab and Kerala have proportionately more Muslims than Bihar for example. And cities throughout Desh have proportionately more Muslims than countryside: Delhi, Agra and Lucknow were Muslim cities as late as 1940s. But even in Muslim majority areas that became Pakistan and Bangladesh, there were lots of non-Muslims until partition. Why?

One argument put forward is that pre-Islamic Desi society was very well organized, and no one really had much incentive to convert. It seems that caste system was pretty good at maintaining social order. But then, Persia, Andalusia and lands around the eastern Mediterranean also had well organised ancient societies, and they adopted Islam very quickly.

And then there is the exceptional case of Bengal under the Mughals. Bengal had been under Muslim rule since 1206, as part of Delhi sultanate until 1320s, and then as an independent sultanate for 250 years. It came under Mughal dominion in the 1570s, and became Muslim majority only around 1700, when Mughal empire begun to crumble. So, somehow, under the Mughals, a lot of people became Muslim in Bengal. What happened? Apparently Bengal, particularly the eastern bit that is now Bangladesh, was a frontier land, kind of a wild east, in the 17th century. It was relatively sparsely populated until then. Changes in river flows, probably caused by earthquakes, turned previously uninhabited forests and swamps into fertile delta, where people from all over Desh settled under the guidance of Sufis and preachers. This resulted in the largest geographically isolated Muslim community in the world. This is the central thesis of this fascinating book.

Reading all this, I started thinking what might have happened if Desh became overwhelmingly Muslim? Would there have been demands for a separate Shia homeland?