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Sunday, November 26, 2023

Muslim emperors of Subcontinent: Selfish invaders or founders of the Great Indian civilization?

According to Saleha Anwar a Lahore-based political analyst, the Muslim rule in the subcontinent greatly contributed to the development of the region in all respects like politics, culture and economy. The Muslim emperors set up one of the great and rich empires of the world in India. Similarly, their architectural development in India had no parallel so can we really call them selfish invaders?

Were the Muslim emperor rulers of the subcontinent responsible for the destruction and backwardness of the subcontinent? This is an important question to be explored to set the historical record straight for several significant political and cultural reasons. In this piece, I analyze the Muslims’ legacy in South Asia.

My main contention is that the history of Muslims’ rule fell prey either to propagandists who relentlessly defended the British Empire despite all its sins and crimes against humanity or to Muslim historians who were utterly biased against Hindus. Or it played in the hands of arrogant Hindu nationalist historians who eventually played a significant role in modern Hindu-Muslim conflicts. Consequently, the people of the subcontinent are left with confusion as to whom they should hold responsible for ruining their land; Muslim, Hindus, or British?

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The first Muslims

At the beginning of the 8th century, the Indian subcontinent was ruled by many big and small regional powers. Sindh then was part of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom and was conquered by an Arab Muslim who arrived in India in 711 AD. It was the first time a Muslim leader landed in India and from then onwards Muslims ruled India for centuries. Initially, the Arab power in India was only limited to Sindh. For 300 years Sindh was led by the governors appointed by the first the Umayyad and then by Abbasid dynasties. After Arabs, Muslims from Afghanistan and Central Asia came, settled and built their empires in India.

Muslims ruled India for over 600 years. Notably, before their arrival, a great number of Hindu and Buddhist population was living in India. The rule of Muslims over India was smart and pragmatic. Unlike the English who came to the subcontinent with a clear goal of loot and plunder, the majority of Muslims, on the other hand, came here and got settled. They accommodated themselves with the locals and their culture. Exemplary intercultural harmony was established among Muslims and non-Muslims in the subcontinent. Although efforts were made by both sides, Muslims being in power initiated for peace and locals reciprocated them.

Muslim kings often faced pressure from the orthodox Muslim ulema for developing relations with Hindus but they managed to maintain it.BurjorAvari in his book Islamic civilization in south Asia wrote that none of the Delhi sultans ever officially proclaimed the Hindus as kafir,whatever they might have thought about them in private.”

Besides the ulema’s pressure, the Emperors gave Hindus and Buddhists the status of dhimmis (which were the status of people of the book, including Jews and Christians in the time of the prophet). Hindu labor was appointed at the emperors’ courts, many important admirative roles including the collection of tax (jizya) were given in the hands of Hindu officers.

The Muslim rule in the subcontinent greatly contributed to the development of the region in all respects like politics, culture and economy. The Muslim emperors set up one of the great and rich empires of the world in India. Similarly, their architectural development in India had no parallel.“The British came to one of the richest countries in the world when the GDP was almost 27% in the 17th century, 23% in the18th. But, over 200 years of exploitation, loot and destruction reduced India to a poster child for third world poverty”, said Dr. Shashi Tharoor in reply to a question about the British rule in India during his visit to Australia for Melbourne Writers Festivals 2017.

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A constructed (unreal) reality

The dominant historical narrative tends to present the Muslim emperors as ‘religiously inspired invaders”.They have been portrayed as brutal conquerors, selfish foreigners and insane anti-Hindu beasts. The fact of the matter is that the rigidly colonialist interpretation of the Muslim rule in India serves a greater political purpose: it gives a cover to the English to hide their face from their past and from what they did to this region. Quite annoyingly, through their propaganda and careful control, they made us believe in their constructed reality.

It is also important to recall that the English men were the first ones to study the history of the subcontinent. In their popular imagination, all Indians were very religious thus all conflicts that took place in the past had to be communal and must have religious grounds. The Hindu nationalist historians took notes from these imperialist historiographers and declared Muslims as “enemies of Hinduism”. Their tons of writings further strengthen the narrative in Hindu majority regions, dwelling hate against Muslims.

Muslims demolished temples?

The question of the destruction of Hindu temples by the Muslim rulers has also been exaggerated many times in terms of numbers and purpose. It has been portrayed that the iconoclastic acts are a) specific to the Muslim rulers b) doing against non-Muslims c) and are based on some particular theology.

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Contrary to popular scholarship, Sunil Kumar a renowned scholar, explains that the temple desecration is not only limited to the Muslim rulers. For instance, he argues, in the 9thcentury, the golden image of Buddha in Anuradhapura was looted by the Pandyan ruler of Madurai. Similarly, an image of Vitthala at the Pandharpur temple in the Adil Shahi kingdom was looted by the Vijaynagar ruler. Richard Davis also concluded that looting images and destroying rival insignia marks the defeat of the enemy and this practice was very much common in medieval Indian rulers.

Moreover, Richard Easton explained in his research that Turks and Mughals demolished only those temples that were perceived as a challenge to their authority.
This clearly shows that the practice of the temple destroyed by the Muslim rulers in the medieval era was not religious protestation but a political and cultural imperative. Regrettably, in the subcontinent, various such incidents from the past have been made the basis to target the Muslims and their contributions to the development of this region.

Defending the Inglorious Empire?

Many Victorian-era writers and politicians projected Muslims as foreigners or occupiers, and the East India Company as an emancipator for Hindus. This policy was drafted and practiced in order to justify the British Raj. The 19th century’s British historiographers like Elliot, Elphinstone and Smith presented Muslims as selfish conquerors and violent religious warriors to serve the Inglorious Empire as Shashi Tharoor rightly terms it.

This imperialist view was extended and many Indian historians such as Sarkar and Majumdar got influenced by the British historiographers and presented Muslims as brutal conquerors and invaders.

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Muslims’ role in murdering their own history

It is very unfortunate that some Muslim historians and so-called intellectuals have further complicated the historical narratives. For instance, Al-Utabi a renowned Muslim scholar while writing about the Turkish raids in India explained it through the religious lens and praised violent actions. Writing about the Muslim rulers Mahmud Ghaznavi he argues that he “heconquered it and set fire to the places…which were inhabitedby infdels, and demolishing the idol-temples, he established Islamin them. He killed the polluted wretches, destroying the idolatrousand gratifying the musulmans.”

Unfortunately, still there are many contemporary Muslim writers who take pride in the distorted history of Indian Muslims. They feel pride in the idea of demolishing temples and killing non-Muslims. They justify this history on a religious pretext. This is when I sadly recall Voltaire’s famous line: “common sense is not so common.”


The writer is a Lahore-based political analyst. She is interested in Political Islam, Democracy and Authoritarianism; her comments and articles appear in Pakistan’s leading English language newspapers. She tweets at anwar_saleha. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.