Today, there are over 500 million Muslims throughout the
Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), making
it one of the largest population centers of Muslims in the
world. Since Islam first entered India, it has contributed
greatly to the area and its people. Today, numerous theories
about how India came to be such a largely Muslim land exist.
Politically, some (such as the Hindutva movement in India) try
to make Islam seem foriegn to India, by insisting it only exists
because of invasions by Arab and Persian Muslims. The truth,
however, is far from that.
The Earliest Muslim Indians
Even before the life of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon
Him) in the 600s, Arab traders were in contact with India.
Merchants would regularly sail to the west coast of India to
trade goods such as spices, gold, and African goods.
Naturally, when the Arabs began to convert to Islam, they
carried their new religion to the shores of India. The first
mosque of India, the Cheraman Juma Masjid, was built in 629
(during the life of Prophet Muhammad) in Kerala, by the first
Muslim from India, Cheraman Perumal Bhaskara Ravi Varma.
Through continued trade between Arab Muslims and Indians,
Islam continued to spread in coastal Indian cities and towns,
both through immigration and conversion.
Muhammad bin Qasim
The first great expansion of Islam into India came during the
Umayyad Dynasty of caliphs, who were based in Damascus.
In 711, the Umayyads appointed a young 17 year old man
from Ta’if to extend Umayyad control into Sindh: Muhammad
bin Qasim. Sindh is the land around the Indus River in the
Northwestern part of the subcontinent, in present-day
Pakistan. Muhammad bin Qasim led his army of 6,000
soldiers to the far eastern reaches of Persia, Makran.
He encountered little resistance as he made his way into
India. When he reached the city of Nerun, on the banks of the
Indus River, he was welcomed into the city by the Buddhist
monks that controlled it. Most cities along the Indus thus
voluntarily came under Muslim control, with no fighting. In
some cases, oppressed Buddhist minorities reached out to the
Muslim armies for protection against Hindu governors.
Despite the support and approval of much of the population,
the Raja of Sindh, Dahir, opposed the Muslim expansion and
mobilized his army against Muhammad bin Qasim. In 712, the
two armies met, with a decisive victory for the Muslims. With
the victory, all of Sindh came under Muslim control.
It is important to note, however, that the population of Sindh
was not forced to convert to Islam at all. In fact, for almost
everyone, there was no change in day-to-day life. Muhammad
bin Qasim promised security and religious freedom to all
Hindus and Buddhists under his control. For example, the
Brahman caste continued their jobs as tax collectors and
Buddhists monks continued to maintain their monastaries.
Due to his religious tolerance and justice, many cities
regularly greeted him and his armies with people dancing and
Patterns of Conversion
The successive waves of Muslim armies penetrating into India
followed much the same pattern. Leaders such as Mahmud of
Ghazni and Muhammad Tughluq expanded Muslim political
domains without altering the religious or social fabric of Indian
Because pre-Islamic India was entirely based on a caste
system in which society was broken into separate parts,
conversion to Islam happened in a step-by-step process.
Often, entire castes would convert to Islam at a time. This
would happen for many different reasons. Often, however, the
equality Islam provided was more attractive than the caste
system’s organized racism. In the caste system, who you are
born to determines your position in society. There was no
opportunity for social mobility or to achieve greater than what
your parents achieved. By converting to Islam, people had the
opportunity to move up in society, and no longer were
subservient to the Brahman caste.
Buddhism, which was once very popular in the subcontinent,
slowly died out under Muslim rule. Traditionally, when people
wanted to escape the caste system, they would move to the
major population centers and convert to Buddhism. When
Islam became an option, however, people began to convert to
Islam instead of Buddhism, while still leaving the caste
system. The myths of Islam violently destroying Buddhism in
India are simply false. Buddhists were tolerated under Muslim
rule and no evidence exists that shows forced conversions or
violence against them.
Wandering teachers also had a major role in bringing Islam to
the masses. Muslim scholars traveled throughout India,
making it their goal to educate people about Islam. Many of
them preached Sufi ideas, a more mystical approach to Islam
that appealed to the people. These teachers had a major role
in bringing Islam to the masses in the countryside, not just the
upper classes around the Muslim rulers.
Did Islam Spread by Force?
While some claim that Islam’s huge population in India is a
result of violence and forced conversion, the evidence does
not back up this idea at all. Although Muslim leaders replaced
Hindu kings in most areas, society was left as is. Stories of
forced conversion are very few and often not credible enough
to warrant academic discussion.
If Islam spread through violence and warfare, the Muslim
community today in India would exist only in the areas closest
to the rest of the Muslim world. Thus only the western part of
the subcontinent would have any Muslim population at all.
What we see instead is pockets of Islam throughout the
subcontinent. For example, Bangladesh and its 150 million
Muslims are in the far east, separated from other Muslim-
majority areas by Hindu lands in India. Isolated communities
of Muslims exist also exist in western Myanmar, central India,
and eastern Sri Lanka. These communities of Muslims are
proof of Islam spreading peacefully throughout India,
regardless of whether or not a Muslim government existed
there. If Islam spread by force as some claim, these
communities of Muslims would not exist.
Islam is an integral part of India and its history. As the Indian
subcontinent remains today a multi-ethnic and multi-religious
place, it is important to understand the position Islam has in
the region. The political claims that some making regarding
Islam as if it is an invading religion and foriegn to the people
of India need to be defied with the truth of Islam’s peaceful
spread throughout India.