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Modern European and Muslim explanations of conversion to Islam in South Asia: A preliminary survey of the literature

  • P. Hardy

Even among Muslims, the growth of Muslim population in South Asia excited little attention before the later 19th century when the British—Indian administration began to number the population of the Indian Empire according to declared or imputed religious allegiance. In medieval times, Muslim rulers and their aides, Muslim historians and literati, although often mindful that in “South Asia” they lived among a predominantly non-Muslim population, did not conceive the stability of Muslim dynastic rule or the continuation of political and financial advantages for Muslim élites, to be related to or dependent upon the size of the aggregate of those who would deem themselves as, and be regarded by others to be, Muslims. The very few references, over a period of 500 or 600 years, in the religious literature to “conversions” suggest in their contexts and perhaps in their very rarity, that the Muslim religious did not postulate the quality and strength of man's response in South Asia to the call of Islam to be proportionate to the numbers of those calling themselves, or called by others, Muslims.

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1 The author was prompted to this particular undertaking by the stimulating Seminar on Conversion to Islam led by Professor N. Levtzion and held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, under the auspices of the Centre of International and Area Studies, in the academic session 1972–3.

2 Quoted in Beverley, H., Report on the Census of Bengal, 1872, Calcutta, 1872, 130.

3 A history of the military transactions of the British nation from the year MDCCXLV, I, London, 1763, 24.

4 Mr.Grose, J. H., A voyage to the East Indies, 3rd ed., I, London, 1772, 337.

5 Robertson, William, An historical disquisition concerning knowledge which the ancients had of India, London, 1791, 230.

6 The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, ch. lxv, Modern Library edition, III, New York, n.d., 661.

7 Observations on the state of society among the Asiatic subjects of Great Britain, particularly with respect to morals. House of Commons Papers, etc. (East India Company). Fourth Part: Session 24 Nov.–22 July 1812–1813, X, p. 69 of volume numbering.

8 The modern part of an universal history, VI, Book IX, ch. 3, “The inhabitants of Hindustan”, London, 1759, 240.

9 Robert Orme, Military transactions, 24.

10 Scrafton, Luke, Reflections on the government of Hindustan, London, 1763, 21.

11 Orme, Robert, General idea of the government and people of Indostan, printed in Historical fragments of the Mogul Empire, London, 1805 ed., 422.

12 The modern part of an universal history, Book IX, 240.

13 Scrafton, Reflections, 18–19; see also p. 21 for a comparison of these converts with those the Portuguese make to their religion.

14 Martin, R. Montgomery, The history, antiquities, topography, and statistics of Eastern India, II, London, 1838, p. 19 of “Appendix of Statistical Tables”. (Martin's work, when compared with the original Buchanan-Hamilton MSS in the India Office Library, proves to be a collection of bowdlerized transcripts of the originals.)

15 e.g. Martin, II, 445, for Bengal; Buchanan, Francis, A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara, and Malabar, II, London, 1807, 420, 426.

16 Duncan, Jonathan, “Historical remarks on the coast of Malabar”, Asiatick Researches, V, 1799, 78, 16, 33.

17 Vol. II, London, 1841, 239.

18 3rd ed., London, 1953, 190–3. (First published 1936.)

19 Vol. XIII, Tirhut and Champaran, London, 1877, 49; Vol. XVIII, Districts of Cuttack and Balasore, London, 1877, 80, 278. These are admittedly not districts of “Bengal proper”, but over a decade later at a lecture entitled “The religions of India” given at the Royal Society of Arts Hunter was still quoting other civil servants' reports that since 1872 in both Bengal and the North-Western Provinces “no” conversions “can have taken place since 1872”. Cf. The Times for 25 February 1888, 5, col. 4.

20 The preaching of Islam, Westminster, 1896, 232–8 passim.

21 W. Crooke, The North Western Provinces of India, London, 1897, 261. It should be remarked that those who advance such explanations have never yet done so on the basis of a comparison of the birth and child-survival rates among those groups of Muslims who eat meat, practise widow-remarriage or polygamy, and those (and they are many in India) who do not.

22 Appendix II: Extracts from district reports regarding causes of conversion to Muhammadanism, in Census of India, 1901, VI: The Lower Provinces of Bengal and their feudatories. Part I: Report, Calcutta, 1902.

23 Medieval India under Muhammadan rule (A.D. 712–1764), London, 1903, 4.

24 Miyān, Sayyid Muḥammad, ‘Ulamā’-i ḥaqq, II, Delhi, 1948, 340–1.

25 Ḥaqīqat, 109; English rendering, Calcutta, 1895, 113.

26 In his Essays Indian and Islamic, London, 1912, 266.

27 The making of India, London, 1925, 14, 89.

28 For example, Faruki, Zahiruddin, Aurangzib and his times, Bombay, 1935, 188; Ashraf, Kunwar Muhammad, “Life and conditions of the people of Hindustan (1200–1550 A.D.) (Mainly based on Islamic sources)”, JASB, (Letters), 1935, 191; Nadawi, Suleyman, “Muslim colonies in India before the Muslim conquest”, IC, 07 1935, 439.

29 SirElliot, Henry, Appendix to The Arabs in Sind (Vol. III, Part 1 of the Historians of India, Cape Town, 1853), 1.

30 The Imperial Gazetteer of India, II, London, 1881, 18.

31 Dictionary of Islam, London, 1895, 710.

32 Titus, Murray T., Indian Islam, London, 1930, 31.

33 Charles Grant, Observations, 41 and 68 of volume pagination.

34 Watts, William, Memoirs of the revolution in Bengal, London, 1764, 3, 4.

35 Hunter, William, “Narrative of a journey from Agra to Oujein”, Asiatick Researches, VI, 1799, 11.

36 Vol. VI, Book IX, 252.

37 Grose, A voyage to the East Indies, I, 131.

38 Campbell, George, Modern India, London, 1852, 17.

39 Wise, James, Notes on the races, castes, and trades of Eastern Bengal, printed but not published, London, 1883, 8. Twelve copies only were printed.

40 Quentin Craufurd, Sketches, 79, 94.

41 History of India, II, London, 1893, 48.

42 Indian Islam, 15.

43 History of India, I, London, 1841, 513.

44 SirLyall, Alfred, “The religious situation in India” (first published in Fortnightly Review, 1872), in Asiatic studies, London, 1881, 289.

45 Medieval India under Muhammadan rule, 63.

46 Orme, Robert, Historical fragments of the Mogul Empire, London, 1782, 102.

47 Jonathan Duncan, “Historical remarks on the coast of Malabar”, 33.

48 (House of Commons) Papers relative to slavery in India: Accounts and papers. (2) Colonies, 1834, XLIV, 179; Thomas, F. W., The mutual influence of Muhammadans and Hindus, Cambridge, 1892, 83.

49 e.g. Francis Buchanan, A journey from Madras, I, 70; Hamilton, Walter, The East India Gazetteer, London, 1815, article “Canara (South)”, 227.

50 Martin, R. Montgomery, The history etc. of eastern Bengal, II, London, 1838, 618.

51 Hewett, J. P., Statistical, descriptive, and historical account of the North-Western Provinces of India, XIV, Part 3, “Jaunpur”, Allahabad, 1884, 47.

52 Preaching, 214–5.

53 Indian Islam, 30–4.

54 Historical fragments, 102.

55 Short history of India, 192.

56 The Census of the North-Western Provinces, 1865, I: General Report, Supplement to Appendix B, Allahabad, 1867, 130.

57 Census of the Punjab, 1881, I: Report, Calcutta, 1883, 142.

58 Census of the North-Western Provinces, 1865, p. 5 of Appendix B.

59 Millett, A. F., Report on the settlement of the land revenue of the Fyzabad District, Allahabad, 1880, 263.

60 Cornish, W. R., Report on the Census of the Madras Presidency, 1871, I, Madras, 1874, 109.

61 Report on the Census of Bengal, 1872, Calcutta, 1872, 132.

62 Notes, 5.

63 Vol. I, Lucknow, 1877, xxiii-xxiv.

64 Crooke, W., The North-Western Provinces of India, London, 1897, 260; Sharīf, Ja'far, Islam in India: or Qanun-i Islam (ed. Crooke, W.), Oxford, 1921, 4.

65 Preaching, 220.

66 Jonathan Duncan, “Historical remarks on the coast of Malabar”, 16. The Arabic original has been printed in: Historia dos Portugueses no Malabar por Zinadīm, manuscripto arabo do seculo XVI publicado e traduzido por David Lopes, Lisboa, 1898; see Arabic text, pp. 31–2 (Portuguese translation, pp. 29–30); cf. also S. Muhammad Husayn Nainar, “Tuḥfat al-Mujāhidīn: An historical work translated into English”, Annals of Oriental Research, University of Madras (Islamic section), VI, 1, 1941–2, 47–8.

67 Duncan, “Historical remarks”, 16 n.

68 A journey from Madras, II, 426.

69 ibid., 553.

70 Marshman, J. C., Outline history of Bengal, 5th ed., Serampore, 1844, 24. (The first edition was published in 1838.)

71 Hunter, W. W., A statistical account of Bengal, IX: District of Murshidabad and Pabna, London, 1876, 61.

72 Appendix II: Extracts from district reports regarding the causes of conversion to Muhammadanism, x–xii.

73 e.g. Buchanan-Hamilton MSS, Gorakhpur district (India Office Library MSS EUR D. 91 (K 168/1)), p. 97 of Part II, “The people”; Appendix II: Extracts from district reports regarding the causes of conversion to Muhammadanism, Census of India, 1901, IV: Bengal, Part I: Report, p. xviii of Appendix.

74 Preaching, 239.

75 Roe, C. A. and Purser, W. E., Report on the revised settlement of the Montgomery district in the Mooltan Division of the Punjab, Lahore, 1878, 4243.

76 Steedman, E. B., Report on the revised settlement of the Jhang district of the Punjab, 1874–1880, Lahore, 1882, 33.

77 Ibbetson, Denzil Charles Jelf, Report on the Census of the Punjab taken on 17 Feb. 1881, I, Calcutta, 1883, 142.

78 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, V: Cutch, Palanpur, and Mahi Kaitha, Bombay, 1880, 89, 93.

79 Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, col. XXI, “Belgaum”, Bombay, 1884, 218.

80 Report on the settlement operations in the district of Azamgarh, Allahabad, 1881, 35.

81 cf. Arnold, Preaching, 238, with Titus, Indian Islam, 52–3. But Titus uses the same historical material from a gazetteer of the North-Western Provinces, merely adding a mention of his own observation of Hindus paying their devotions at Muslim shrines.

82 Ḥaqīqat-i Musalmānān-i Bangala, Calcutta, 1891, 113. The Urdu original appeared later in an English rendering by Muslims under the title The origin of the Musalmans of Bengal, Calcutta, 1895. This rendering significantly contains many nuances peculiar to the Victorian Englishman's conception of his own and of Indian society. Thus, when in the original such occupations as those of weaving or of washing clothes are listed, the enumeration in the translation is prefaced by interpolations such as “that is the lower orders” (pp. 108–9 of the text, p. 113 of the translation); sharīf Hindū is rendered as “a Hindu of superior caste”, text p. 67, tr. p. 61

83 Translation, The origin of the Musalmans of Bengal, by Rubbee, Khondkar Fuzli, Calcutta, 1895, 58.

84 loc. cit.

85 Ḥaqīqat, 66–7, tr., 60–1.

86 op. cit., 66, tr., 60.

87 “Thoughts on the present situation”, in Essays Indian and Islamic, 266.

88 Habibullah, A. B. M., “Historical writing in Urdu: A survey of tendencies”, in Philips, C. H. (ed.), Historians of India, Pakistan, and Ceylon, London, 1961, 492.

89 Ali, A. Yusuf, The making of India, London, 1925, 89; Habib, Muhammad, Mahmud of Ghazna, Aligarh, 1927, 83; and idem, “The Arab conquest of Sind”, IC, October 1929, 611.

90 Nazim, Muhammad, The life and times of Sultān Maḥmūd of Ghazna, Cambridge, 1931, 161 .

91 Kunwar Muhammad Ashraf, “Life and conditions of the people of Hindustan (1200–1550 A.D.), art. cit. n. 28 above.

92 art. cit., 194.

93 Habibullah, A. B. M., The foundation of Muslim rule in India, Lahore, 1945, 282 .

94 op. cit., 283.

95 Āb-i Kausar, 7th printing, Lahore, 1968, 189190 .

96 op. cit., 385.

97 op. cit., 191.

98 op. cit., 195.

99 The Muslim community of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent (610–1947), 's-Gravenhage, 1962, 75–8.

100 The Muslim community, 42–54 passim. The thesis that conversion should be seen as a gradual process of acculturation and gravitation has since received reinforcement in Eaton, Richard M., “Sufi folk literature and the expansion of Indian Islam”, History of Religions, XIV, 2, 11 1974, 117127 . Eaton argues that the singing Ṣūfī folk songs by women at their household tasks suffused non-Muslim family life with Ṣūfī values.

101 The Muslim community, 50.

102 op. cit., 70–1.

103 op. cit., 74.

104 loc. cit. Qurayshī's supporting citation from SirSarker, Jadunath (ed.), The history of Bengal, II: Muslim Period, Dacca, 1947, 68, 70, does not, however, carry the meaning or significance he suggests .

105 Not so, however, Rahim, Muhammad Abdur, Social and cultural history of Bengal, Volume I, 1201–1576, Karachi, 1963, 5568, where on the basis of unverified figures for numbers of settlers of different ethnic groups from outside India, multiplied by a wholly speculative figure for the rate of natural increase founded on a belief, derived from two 16th-century references, that polygamy was general among all classes of Bengal's Muslims, the author arrives at the conclusion that only 35 per cent of the Bengali Muslim population is descended from converts from the lower ranks of Hindu society . Rahim ignores E. A. Gait's discussion of Faẓl-i Rabbī's similar (but not similarly-based) contentions.

106 For example, by Karim, Abdul, Social history of the Muslims in Bengal, Dacca, 1959, 134–9 .

107 Tarafdar, Momtazur Rahman, Hussain Shahi Bengal, Dacca, 1965, 1819 .

108 Evans-Pritchard, E. E., Theories of primitive religion, Oxford, 1965, 24 .

109 Hunter, W. W., The Imperial Gazetteer of India, II, London, 1881, 16 .

110 Preaching, 2.

111 Ibbetson, Denzil Charles Jelf, Report on the Census of the Panjab taken on the 17th Feb. 1881, I, Calcutta, 1883, 178 .

112 With acknowledgements to Derrett, J. Duncan M., Religion, law, and the state in India, London, 1968, 58 .

113 Bausani, A., “Note per una tipologia del monoteismo”. Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni, XXVIII, 1957, 81 .

114 Bausani, Alessandro, “Can monotheism be taught?”, Numen, X, 12 1963, 174–5 .

115 art. cit., 165.

116 Hunter, W. W., The Indian Musulmans, London, 1871, 1011 .

117 H. Beverley, Report of the Census of Bengal, 1872, 132, 133, 134.

118 (The late) Dr. James Wise, The Muhammadans of Eastern Bengal”, JASB, LXIII, Part III, 1, 1894, 61 .

119 Report on the Census of the Punjab, 178.

120 Appendix II: Extracts from district reports regarding causes of conversion to Muhammadanism, to the Census of India, 1901, VI: The Lower Provinces of Bengal and their feudatories, Part I: The Report, by E. A. Gait, Calcutta, 1902, p. xvii of Appendix II.

121 James Wise, Notes on the races, castes, and trades of Eastern Bengal, 2.

122 Blochmann, H., “Contributions to the geography and history of Bengal”, originally printed in JASB, XLII, 1873, Part I, No. 3, and reprinted by the Asiatic Society (Calcutta), 1968 (pp. 56, 58–61).

123 Rizvi, Saiyid Athar Abbas, Muslim revivalist movements in Northern India, Agra, 1965, 18 .

124 Cohn, Bernard S., “Notes on the history of the study of Indian society and culture”, in Singer, Milton and Cohn, Bernard S. (eds.), Structure and change in Indian society, Chicago, 1968, 2324 .

125 Israel Oriental Studies, V, 1975, 233258 (the article includes the Arabic text of the story) .

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