Islam and ‘Syncretism’ in Indian History

Islam and ‘Syncretism’ in Indian History

…. if India is to be represented by her best and not by her inferior races…in accordance with…the past glories of [an]…ancient race, I call upon the Congress to rule, not that there shall be as many Mahomedans as Hindus in the councils, but that there shall always be three times as many Musalman as Hindu members.(1)

-Syed Wahid Ali Rizvi, a delegate to the 1889 annual session of the Indian National Congress, speaking on the proposed introduction of representative bodies in India.

A ‘Special’ People?

Like Mr. Syed Wahid Ali Rizvi, many Muslims in colonial India displayed a susceptibility to vainglory. The cultural memory of Mughal rule was still fresh and a lot of Indian Muslims imagined themselves to be descended from a superior ‘ruling race’. When Mr. Rizvi rose to speak in the annual session of the Indian National Congress in 1889, the last Mughal Emperor had been deposed by the British a mere thirty-two years ago.  People like Mr. Rizvi seemed to nurture memories of “privileges which Muslims as a dominant minority had once enjoyed and were unwilling to relinquish”(2).

To them Mughal rule was synonymous with ‘Muslim rule’. It did not seem to matter to them whether it was the objective truth or not. Rafiq Zakaria, for example, writes that whether the Indian Muslims “really were the privileged ones under the Mughals or not did not matter; they persuaded themselves and their children to believe that they were.” They thought that, says Zakaria, the Muslims “were the aristocracy of the country” (3). In the 1830s, during the travels he undertook while suppressing the Indian ‘thugs’, Colonel Henry Sleemen too frequently came across this “very common and very innocent sort of vanity” among the Indian Muslims(4). These observations go against the grain of what we are frequently told by the liberal academia about Indian Islam and Muslims. We generally learn that they are of a ‘syncretic’ temperament and their historical tendency is to completely assimilate, socially and spiritually, with the non-Muslims. We are also told that the Muslim ruled imperial systems that existed in India before the establishment of British rule were in no manner specially inclined to favoring the Islamic faith. But it seems like the colonial era Indian Muslims thought otherwise. They regarded themselves a special people and the inheritors to an Islamic imperial legacy. What is the truth? Let us see.

What was this Legacy?

Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, wasn’t queasy about making a belligerent show of his piety. We learn from Satish Chandra, one of the most important historians of medieval India, that he declared the battle against Rana Sanga (fought at Khanwa, Rajasthan, in 1527) to be a ‘jihad’. Following the battle, he also erected a heap of the skulls of the ‘pagans’ he had slaughtered (5). However, despite its founder’s religious zeal, the Mughal Empire did not quite grow to be a theocracy in the strict sense of the term. Nonetheless, Marshall G.S. Hodgson, the historian of Islam, writes that its “high culture was Islamicate (sic) in that it was a development, on the whole, within Islamicate traditions” (6). This is true for the Mughal Empire even under Akbar, the Mughal ruler supposedly most given to ‘syncretism’. Even under Akbar this essential character of the Mughal Empire did not change, though he tried to make the non-Muslims genuine stake-holders in the Empire by promoting the ideal of sulh-i-kul (amity among faiths).  According to historians Shashi Joshi and Bhagwan Josh, Akbar sought to “go beyond the attempt to secure passive loyalty and reconciliation; to achieve a new sense of accommodation, symbiosis and participatory loyalty by addressing the balance of power between communities.” Yet, they write, “the cultural environment” of the Mughal Empire “remained suffused with Islam” (italics mine)(7). The Cambridge historian C.A. Bayly too echoes his Indian counterparts when he suggests that “what Akbar was perhaps trying to do was build a specifically Indian imperial patriotism in the context of the broader sovereignty of Islam” (italics mine) (8).

Since the Mughal Empire was suffused with, or upheld the sovereignty of Islam, the non-Muslims’ right to cultural self-assertion were somewhat limited in it. Shahjahan, for example, disallowed the construction of new temples in the Mughal domains. In his “Sixth Regnal Year (1633), he ordered that no temple whose foundation had been laid in Jahangir’s time, but had not been completed would be allowed to be completed.”(9)

His son, Aurangzeb, too continued with the policy of not allowing the construction of new temples. Further, as his reign grew embattled and he had to ‘pacify’ rebellions by the Jats and the Marathas, he came to consider it to be “legitimate to destroy even long standing Hindu temples as a measure of punishment and as a warning.”(10)

Along with a curtailed space for cultural self-assertion, the non-Muslims were also saddled with markers of conspicuous inferiority. The most prominent of these was the need to pay the jizyah tax. Removed by Akbar, the jizyah was later reinstated by Aurangzeb. In fact, there is evidence that under Aurangzeb the injunctions of shariat even influenced mundane, every day administration. Irfan Habib, the author of a classic agrarian history of Mughal India, points out that everywhere in the revenue literature of Aurangzeb’s reign we find it prescribed that the land revenue extracted by the state should amount to half a cultivator’s produce. Habib informs us that this was done out of a formal regard for the shariat, which sets the maximum kharaj (land tax) as fifty percent of the produce (11).

Then there was the Persian language which the Hindu literate elite, the Brahmans and the Kayasthas, had to perforce adopt. They did not have an option if they wanted jobs under the Mughal dispensation as it was the language of the court and administration. This also intimately linked the Persian with the Empire and its might. It was the tongue of the conquerors, of the dominant. As Muzaffar Alam, another prominent historian of medieval India, says, Persian “was held to be the only effective language to express cultural accomplishments.” But, more importantly, he observes(12), “long association of the Mughals, their supporters and successors with Persian in political and military management, created a memory of the language as an instrument of conquest.”  So, we ought not to assume that for the non-Muslims learning Persian was a mere literary choice, it amounted to political and cultural subordination.

The Mughal state, thus, variously limited the cultural autonomy of its non-Muslim subjects. Very possibly, this is why one notices such fervent temple building activity in north India when the Mughal Empire began to weaken. Many, if not most, extant shrines in today’s Varanasi are datable to that time. The sacred city had been majorly vandalized by the puritanical Aurangzeb. He had destroyed, writes Harvard professor and historian of Hinduism, Diana L. Eck, some of its greatest temples – Vishwanatha, Krittivasa and Bindu Madhava – and built mosques upon their foundations.  But, as the Mughal Empire started to unravel after Aurangzeb’s death and the Marathas came to control large swathes of North India, Varanasi’s fortunes revived. Now the city received the “wealth, and the energy of the Marathas.” They constructed several ghats of Varanasi and rebuilt many temples including the Vishwanatha. Modern Varanasi is a creation of the Marathas(13).

Varanasi was by no means a standalone case. In Ayodhya, another sacred city that fell within the limits of a Muslim ruled state, the Kingdom of Avadh, rajas and zamindars fervently built temples following the British take-over in 1856. This is attested by a colonial report dating to 1870, which mentions a marked increase in temple building in the city since the 1850s. The new political aegis, apparently, allowed for a “relatively fuller expression of cultural activities of Hindus” (14).

Thus, it seems that it was not usual for the pre-colonial Muslim dynastic states to consciously create and inhabit a ‘syncretic’ cultural matrix. But, wait! Does not a recent biography of Aurangzeb by Audrey Truschke (Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King) tell us that he made financial grants to Hindu temples? The year before last, the same author had produced a book on the Sanskrit scholarship that was produced in the Mughal court (Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court). Both the works have been hailed and toasted by the liberal academia and cited as conclusive evidence of the ‘syncretic’ nature of the Mughal polity. How do we reconcile Ms. Truschke’s narratives with the observations about the character of the Mughal state we have made above?

In my opinion, suggesting that the Mughal Empire was ‘syncretic’ in its essential character since a Mughal Emperor made an occasional grant to a temple or patronised Sanskrit learning is lazy casuistry. Such casuistry abolishes the distinction between ‘concession’ (made by a ruler since it might be politically expedient), ‘indulgence’ (on the part of a ruler) and the fundamental ‘character’ of the state by conflating them all. A Mughal ruler could make an occasional concession to the Hindus by providing financial or landed endowments to their shrines, he could sometimes indulge in Sanskrit literature, but neither acts, unless elevated to the status of sustained policies, could change the character of the Mughal state. About two years ago, when our Prime Minister visited the UAE, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi (one of the Emirates constituting the UAE), Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, allotted a plot of land for the construction of a temple in his Emirate. The gesture was a concession to the local expatriate Indian community and was inspired by the goodwill for Mr. Modi and India. However, it did not change the character of Abu Dhabi. Last heard, it was still an Islamic Emirate. Similarly, till the very end of its existence, to borrow from Marshall Hodgson’s nomenclature, the Mughal Empire remained an ‘Islamicate’ political and cultural entity. The concessions made by, or the indulgences of, individual Mughal Emperors notwithstanding.

Let us now turn our gaze upon the understanding and practice of Islam that prevailed among the average Muslims of pre-colonial India. How ‘syncretic’ was that? I will try to dwell on this question by drawing upon my own research upon the medieval literary heritage of a certain part of India – Bengal. I choose this part of our country in order to imagine the popular Islamic piety that might have prevailed in the medieval age because of some persuasive reasons. Since medieval Bengal was only intermittently controlled by the Muslim ruled imperial systems that emerged from Delhi (the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire), it hardly had a Muslim aristocracy of foreign (Turkish or Mughal) extraction and a numerous Arabic knowing clergy. So, Islamic piety in this corner of medieval India was phrased and articulated entirely in the local language, Bengali, by the indigenous, converted population. It did this without the guidance of a foreign origin Muslim aristocracy and a clergy literate in the ‘correct’ Quranic Islam. This appears like an ideal historical situation wherein ‘syncretism’ could flourish.

‘Ill Fate has Bred Bengalis in Bengal’

In the year 1586, when Akbar was ruling Mughal India, a Bengali-Muslim man called Saiyad Sultan finished writing a long narrative poem. It is a genealogy of the prophets of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions and is called Nabibangsha. At a point in the poem Saiyad Sultan makes the following lament –

Karmadoshe Bangalae Bangali utapan

Na bujhe Bangali shob Arabi bachan

Apana diner bol ek na bujhilo

Pashur chartitra hoi she shab rahilo

Shadae pathae Ram Krishner je katha

Shunia moher mane lage ati betha

[Ill fate has bred Bengalis in Bengal; they do not understand the Arabic word. Not comprehending a word of their own (Muslim) faith, they remain as animals. My heart pains hearing them always read the tales of Rama and Krishna.] (15)

The above verse hints that a section of the population of sixteenth-century Bengal stood at an interesting stage of socio-religious transformation (in other words, conversion). It seems that it had formally adopted a new faith, Islam, but being ignorant of its scriptural language, Arabic, was prone to lapsing into an older (Hindu) cultural mould – one in which it was the norm to read the tales of the deities Rama and Krishna. In the eyes of the local, literate cultural leaders such as Saiyad Sultan such behavior was both invalid and evil. It was, as he says unambiguously, simply animal-like. This medieval versifier did not like at all what the contemporary liberal would today approvingly term ‘syncretism’. The further irony is that this poet himself appears to have suffered censure for choosing the Bengali language as the means of literary expression. Apparently, certain of his co-religionists in those days regarded Bengali a ‘Hindu’ tongue and hence unworthy of adoption by a Muslim as the medium of his poetry. This is indicated by what Saiyad Sultan writes in another of his poems called Shab-i-Miraz –

Panchali rachilung kari achie doshite

Monafeq bole more kitabet padhi

Kitaber katha dilum Hinduani kari

[They cast aspersions at me after reading my panchali (poem). They call me a false Muslim (monafiq) as I have made the language of this book Hinduani (Bengali, or more literally, the ‘speech of the Hindus’).] (16)

So, we see that when ‘syncretism’ did objectively manifest itself in a society made up of converted Muslims – in the form of some of them taking joy in the stories of the Hindu deities, or one of them composing poetry in the ‘Hindu’ tongue of Bengali – it failed to earn the approval of all of its members. What we might recognise as ‘syncretism’ had no social or religious validity in medieval Bengali-Muslim society. Its members were all too anxious lest their own exclusivity is ‘contaminated’ by the stories and a language they identified with another society and culture – that of the Hindus. In fact, the literate representatives of medieval Bengali-Muslim society such as Saiyad Sultan appear all too confident that their own faith is ‘correct’ while that of their neighbors, the Hindus, is not. In the Nabibangsha, for example, he insinuates that the Hindu deity Vishnu is a friend of Satan (Iblis) –

Harir shane rahi Iblis dubar

Dharia achila papi munir akar

Iblis Narad papi Harir shahit

Harir shane jei rupe achila durachar

[Hari was trailed by Iblis (Satan) in the form of the sage Narada. Thus, Iblis, sinful and the doer of foul deeds, lived with Hari.] (17)

Saiyad Sultan belonged to an indigenous Islamic milieu whose members appear to be desperately looking for social, religious and cultural individuality.

Was Saiyad Sultan an exception? No, he was not. He, as a matter of fact, appears to be the bearer of quite old religious and cultural anxieties. Shah Mohammad Saghir, a literary predecessor of Sultan who lived in the cusp of the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries, too had hinted that orthodox opinion in his society does not approve of Muslims composing verses in the Bengali language. He, thus, wrote the following in defiance –

Na lekhe kitab katha mane bhae pae

Dushiba shakale take eha na juae

Gunia dekhilun amhi eha bhae micha

Na hai bhashae hai katha shacha

[They are, in their hearts, fearful of writing books (in Bengali) as they would not like to be blamed by all. But I have contemplated (the matter) and realized that the truth of the word does not depend on the language (it is written in).]  (18)

There is unequivocal textual evidence that the disapproval of the Bengali language as a tongue of the Hindus persisted in Bengali-Muslim society in the centuries that succeeded Saiyad Sultan’s. When the seventeenth century poet Shaikh Mutalib composed his didactic poem Kifaetul Musallin, he abjectly confessed that he has erred in choosing to express himself in Bengali –

Musalmani shastra katha Bangala karilu

Bahu pap hae mor nishchae janilu

Kintu matra bharasha acheye manantare   

Bujhiya momin doa kariba amare

[I have rendered in Bengali the words of the Musalmani shastra, I have incurred great sin. But in my heart I have the hope that fellow Muslims (momin, literally believers) will understand and pray for me.] (19)

This was, of course, a supremely ironical moment of cultural history because the Bengali-Muslim spoke nothing but Bengali in every-day life. But, presumably, the irony of the moment was lost on its author and the audience that he was addressing. Both were engaged in a combined effort of seeking religious and cultural ‘purity’ and exclusivity. As in the case of Saiyad Sultan again, this effort could sometimes result in an aggressive censure of the Hindus. Sultan had stopped at calling a Hindu deity a friend of Satan. But in the eighteenth century, Sheikh Sadi, the author of a catechism called Gada-Malika Sambad, declared that all Hindus are deluded by Satan –

Kafir haila Hindu kahe kitabete

Chari jati beshi tabe Hindu na janmiche

Aar jata bholaia Iblise kariche

Shei shastra dharia chalae Hindu shab

Narake padiya papi paibe laghab

[The books say that the Hindus are kafirs. The Hindus are born into four castes; they all have been deluded by Satan. The Hindus hold on to Satan’s scriptures, they will lighten their sins in hell.] (20)

In Conclusion

Mughal Empire, the pre-colonial Muslim ruled imperial system per excellence, was not ‘syncretic’, if by that we mean that it allowed an unrestricted and consistently legitimate space to the non-Muslims to project their faith and culture. It had, instead, enforced a broad hegemony of Islam. Individuals such as Syed Wahid Ali Rizvi had apparently inherited and nurtured a cultural memory of this. This memory, as the gentleman’s remark displayed, could produce a Muslim ‘supremacist’ mindset. It naturally assumed that Muslims, on account of their superiority over the non-Muslims, are entitled to special political privileges. One must not assume that Mr. Rizvi was an unusual nutcase who had somehow infiltrated the Congress ranks. His views were in obvious consonance with what Farzana Shaikh, fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a policy institute located in London, terms an “Indo-Muslim moral discourse”. She suggests that it derived from the “Mongol-Mughal heritage” of the Indian Muslim elite (they regarded themselves the custodians of Mughal culture) and the belief that Muslims are endowed with “peculiar moral attributes” which makes them specially entitled to political power (21). This belief in the special moral endowments of the Muslims, when combined with the average Indian Muslims’ search for social and religious individuality (as displayed by the few Muslim authored medieval Bengali texts we studied above), carried the potential of developing into a quest for political sovereignty – an explicit statement of not wishing to co-exist with the ‘ethically inferior’ non-Muslims in a multi-denominational state. A large number of Indian Muslims did eventually make this statement by raising the demand for Pakistan in the last years of colonial rule. It is not a surprise that this demand was raised the loudest by the North Indian Muslim aristocratic elite, the inheritors to the ‘Mongol-Mughal heritage’, and the teeming Muslim masses of Eastern Bengal (present day Bangladesh) who by then had almost fulfilled their search for social and religious individuality. The Indian Muslim aristocracy feared that it won’t be even remotely ‘special’ in a post-colonial, democratic India, while the Muslims of Eastern Bengal sought to preserve the Islamic ‘individuality’ they had acquired after centuries’ effort. The two concerns naturally coalesced to demand an Islamic State and undermined the unity of India in 1947.


1. Detailed Report of the Proceedings of the Fifth Indian National Congress Held at Bombay on the 26th, 27th and 28th of December, 1889, p.12, National Archives of India, Indian National Congress Proceedings’ Microfilm Roll No. 1433.

2. Farzana Shaikh, Community and Consensus in Islam. Muslim Representation in Colonial India, CUP, 1989, p.80.

3. Rise of Muslims in Indian Politics: An Analysis of Developments from 1885-1906, Somaiya Publications, 1970, p.2.

4. He writes this in the second volume of his memoirs, Rambles and Recollections. Quoted by Zakaria in the Rise of Muslims in Indian Politics, p.3.

5. Medieval India. From the Sultanat to the Mughals. Part Two (1526-1748), Har-Anand Publications, New Delhi, 2000, p.44.

6. The Venture of Islam. Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Volume 3, The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times, The University of Chicago Press, 1974, p.60.

7. Struggle for Hegemony in India, Vol. 3, Culture Community and Power, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1994, p.171.

8. Origins of Nationality in South Asia: Patriotism and Ethical Government in the Making of Modern India, OUP, New Delhi, 2001, p.38.

9. Satish Chandra, Medieval India, pp.254-255.

10.Satish Chandra, Medieval India, p.278.

11. The Agrarian System of Mughal India, OUP, New Delhi, Second Revised Edition, 1999, p.235.

12.‘The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics’ in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (May, 1998), pp. 330-331.

13. Banaras. City of Light, Penguin Books, 1983, p.90.

14. Struggle for Hegemony in India, Vol. 3, p.161.

15. Ahmed Sharif (ed.), Saiyad Sultan Birachita Nabibangsha. Pratham Khanda, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, p.479.

16. Dr. Mohammad Enamul haq, Muslim Bangal Sahitya. Bangal Sahitye Muslim Abadaner Sankhipta Itihas, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1991, p.308.

17. Saiyad Sultan Birachita Nabibangsha, p.469.

18. Dr. Mihammad Enamul Haq (ed.), Shah Mohammad Saghir Birachita Usuf-Jolekha, Moula Brothers, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1998, p.115.

19. Ahmed Sharif (ed.), Madhyajuger Kabya-Sangraha, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1962, p.131.

20. Ahmed Sharif (ed.), Soal Sahitya, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1976, p.62.

21. See the chapter ‘Mughals and Muslims: Muslim attitudes to representation. 1860-1900’ in Community and Consensus in Islam.

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Saumya Dey

Saumya Dey is an associate professor of history at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. His primary research interests are intellectual and cultural history. He has, till date, authored one monograph and a collection of essays - Becoming Hindus and Muslims. Reading the Cultural Encounter in Bengal. 1342-1905 (Munshiram Manoharlal, 2015) and The Cultural Landscape of Hindutva and other Essays. Historical Legitimacy of an Idea (Shubhi Publications, 2019). He earned his PhD at the Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.