Sociology and Anthropology

Conversion to Islam in South Asia: Problems in Analysis

From the earliest times, South Asia has been a scene of invasion. It is a long tale of incursion, conquest, settlement, and then assimilation. The Greek& Sakas, and Eushanas forced their way in as dominant groups and established kingdoms and dynasties, only to be assimilated by what Dr. Spear called “the Hindu sponge.” The push by Muslims into the sub-continent was by well-worn routes and to a familiar pattern of conquest and rule, first of Sind and the Punjab, then of the Gangetic Plain, and, finally, of almost the whole of South Asia.

Conquest and settlement were not followed by assimilation, however. Muslims retained a separate identity and their numbers, proportionate and absolute, grew until today a quarter of all Muslims in the world are to be found in South Asia. In 1975, they formed some 97 percent of the population of Pakistan, 85 percent of that of Bangladesh, and 13 percent of that of
India.

But these Muslims come from different roots and origins, they speak different languages, and their understanding and practice of Islam differs according to their educational and social background and to their regional and geographical setting. Many of them are of Arab, Afghan, Mughal and Persian descent, but the majority of them are descendants of South Asian converts to Islam.

The spread and expansion of Islam and its acceptance by such large groups of people of a variety of ethnic, historical, and cultural backgrounds and across a range of diverse geographical areas can scarcely be the outcome of any simple uniform process. Conversion to Islam is thus a challenging and absorbing subject for research. Yet it has attracted the attention of scholars only since the last decade of the nineteenth century.

What follows does not claim to be more than a preliminary and rather hurriedly prepared survey of the main theories about conversion to Islam propounded by Asian and Western scholars. The dearth of source material presents difficulties as “medieval Islam” produced no missionaries, bishops, baptismal rites, or other indicators of conversion that could be conveniently recorded by the Muslim chronicler. Hopefully the subject will be a spur to the detailed review and analysis of sources, modern and medieval, which the subject both deserves and requires.

The fact that conversion in South Asia was a subject which demanded investigation followed h m the administrative needs and practices of the British government of India in the later nineteenth century’ and from the religious experiences and structures of the Christian West. It was the need to survey and map the resources of the Raj which led to the holding of censuses, effective from 1871 onward, and the writing of provincial and district gazetteers from about the same date. The codification of law, the recording of custom and revenue settlement, the process of enumeration, and the classification and analysis of information about Muslims had three effects. First it made the size and numerical importance of the Muslim element in South Asia startlingly apparent, it demonstrated the social diversity of its components, and it drew attention to the very varied degree of acceptance and understanding of orthodox Islam among those who professed to be Muslims when questioned by census officials. Once it was clear that a majority of South Asian Muslims must be converts6 rather than immigrants, then European writers could begin to ask how conversion had been effected and what meaning should be given to the process.

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