History is not a subject which depends on one’s reading abilities or the ability to learn by heart. It’s a very simple subject with simple understanding. Learning history though, does depend on the thinking capacity of a person. The ability to ‘think’ is basically a prerequisite for anything that benefits the human race. But often, I experience that thinking is the last thing people refer to. In fact, “thinking” has far left many of us. Our brains are not prone to thinking.
In contemporary history, Muslims rulers along with Muslims are narrated as ‘others’. Rulers like Tipu Sultan and Aurangzeb are labeled as “religious bigots” and truncated popular history. History narration has to be suited to the partisan agendas due to the political motivations. Many fables were started in the British era since it suited to the British agenda after their arrival into India. They surely did the work of communalising history.
In recent times, the issue of ‘ghar wapsi’ was initiated by a right wing group which claimed to revert back the Muslims to Hinduism. In one hand the Hindu right wing claimed previous Muslim conversions to be void because they must have been forced in some way or violently converted by Muslim Rulers. On the other hand, Muslim groups tries to prove they were not Indian racially. Today, a large chunk of Muslim population still believes that they must’ve migrated from Central Asia. Yes, migration did occur on a large scale, but the extent of ethnic and racial background ought to be known. Also, it is extremely necessary to know the reasons and means behind conversion to Islam. False knowledge is the worst form of knowledge. It’s better to be ignorant than to be dependent on false knowledge and understanding.
Does anyone ever wonder about the religious past of our subcontinent? Why does the right wing always want the history to be their domain? (Though, it isn’t literally possible). What do we know about spread of Islam in the subcontinent?
We as individuals must have given a thought into it. Maybe, conclusion hasn’t really approached us but there are certain hypothesis amongst the general masses which needs to be addressed. The most credible theory has been suggested by Richard M Eaton, an American historian. His theory of conversion is further divided into two sub process of Accretion and Reform and is generally accepted by the scholars and researchers. Accretion literally means ‘natural growth’ or it could be said that its gradual. As Eaton suggested, “An understanding of mass conversion as a process whereby preliterate peoples on the ecological and political frontier of an expanding agrarian society became absorbed into the religious ideology of that society.” Max Weber calls this ‘Religious Rationalisation’.
Before we begin with his theory of conversion, let’s engage with the ‘Sword Theory’. The most frequently occurred theory about Islam’s popularity is always related to sword. Initially emphasized by Crusader European historians, this isn’t just an invalid but rather an illogical approach. One thing that must be bored in mind is the physical and geographical map of the subcontinent. The areas with highest concentration of Muslims are the Northwest frontier region or the modern day Pakistan and East Bengal. The Sultanate and Mughal rulers lived near the Doab region, which to the date remains a Hindu majority region. As we go in the peninsular India, the pattern is same. Muslims are sparse in comparison to Hindus in the mainland India. How did Islam then reach Northwest Frontier and penetrated Bengal, which was barren until 12th c. A.D. ? And if was sword, then why did it convert selectively? Why not the mainland region?
The simple reason is that ‘sword’ was not the factor of conversion. Infact, it must be duly implied that the word ‘Conversion’ is not sufficient when one talks about Islam in India and the subcontinent. A well read person would prefer to pronounce the term “Islamization” instead of conversion, because conversion means a sudden or radical change in the religious habits. Islamization would imply the nature of gradual changes through which the Muslims of India passed for centuries. It is not true that newly “Converts” started practising namaz and roza from the day they inclined towards Islam. It takes time, an enormous amount of time to change habits. Here is when the gradual nature becomes evident.
The second theory is that of ‘liberation’ given by Muslim intellectuals and British anthropologists. They believe that the major factor for the spread of Islam was caste inequality and monotheism. This is rather a major misconception that Indians went towards Islam because it offered equality. Indians have always lived under caste and for them ‘homo hierarchus’, not ‘homo equalis’ was a way of life. They did not read Jefferson’s theory of equality. Secondly, the majority of the people Islamised were not from the Aryavrata (Doab Region) and they weren’t Sankritised. Western Frontier was pre dominated by the people from Iranian plateau who were tribals in nature and Bengal was primarily tribal too. As mentioned earlier about the geographical considerations, the picture becomes much more clearer.
Therefore, even this theory isn’t much reliable.
There are three characteristics of religious conversions, first is the changing of names, second is the religious structures (place of worship) and the third is actual practices. Richard Eaton researched a Jat group from Haryana and tribals in Bengal from 12th century to the 19th century. He primarily studied the names along with the worshipping structures and found out that by 13th century only 10% of the names resembled Persian-Arabic name structure, most significant feature among Muslims. By the end of 18th century almost 100% names resembled Muslim names, thereby confirming the gradual nature of conversion. The another significant feature that of worshipping places is also gradual since in the 13th century, two congregational mosques were constructed, whereas in 16th century eighteen mosques came to being. This is another gradual feature. This is what is known as the theory of Accretion. Sufi saints played a vital role in the reformation process. Reformation was also not sudden, it required not only time this time but also understanding capabilities of the people who were gradually becoming Muslim. The tribals initially included ‘Allah’ into their pantheon as another god. Slowly Islamic mystical and theological concepts replaced their gods and thus the supremacy of Allah was established. But this was very slow and not forced by physical means, rather by the needs of society and economy.
After the 18th century, when visiting Mecca became easier due to open trade routes, the Muslims from India encountered the Arabic Islam which was very different from what they practised. With the advent of time, Indian Islam went towards the Arabian Islam and thus shaped the present condition of the Muslims.
Clearly this is a complex phenomenon involving a number of distinguishable processes, some of which did not concern conversion at all. Eaton says, “I maintain that for India, at least, mass conversion to Islam was a very gradual process involving two discernible aspects, accretion and reform.” Gertz observed that Islam functioned as a “model for” behaviour, and was significant not because it described the social order, but because it shaped it.