India Table of Contents

Islam is India's largest minority religion, with Muslims officially comprising 12.1 percent of the country's population, or 101.6 million people as of the 1991 census. The largest concentrations--about 52 percent of all Muslims in India--live in the states of Bihar (12 million), West Bengal (16 million), and Uttar Pradesh (24 million), according to the 1991 census. Muslims represent a majority of the local populations only in Jammu and Kashmir (not tabulated in 1991 but 65 percent in 1981) and Lakshadweep (94 percent). As a faith with its roots outside South Asia, Islam also offers some striking contrasts to those religions that originated in India.

Origins and Tenets

Islam began with the ministry of the Prophet Muhammad (570-632), who belonged to a merchant family in the trading town of Mecca in Arabia. In his middle age, Muhammad received visions in which the Archangel Gabriel revealed the word of God to him. After 620 he publicly preached the message of these visions, stressing the oneness of God (Allah), denouncing the polytheism of his fellow Arabs, and calling for moral uplift of the population. He attracted a dedicated band of followers, but there was intense opposition from the leaders of the city, who profited from pilgrimage trade to the shrine called the Kaaba. In 622 Muhammad and his closest supporters migrated to the town of Yathrib (now renamed Medina) to the north and set up a new center of preaching and opposition to the leadership of Mecca. This move, the hijrah or hegira, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar and the origin of the new religion of Islam. After a series of military engagements, Muhammad and his followers were able to defeat the authorities in Mecca and return to take control of the city. Before his death in 632, Muhammad was able to bring most of the tribes of Arabia into the fold of Islam. Soon after his death, the united Arabs conquered present-day Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Iran, making Islam into a world religion by the end of the seventh century.

Islam means submission to God, and a Muslim is one who has submitted to the will of God. At the center of the religion is an intense concentration on the unity of God and the separation between God and his creatures. No physical representation of God is allowed. There are no other gods. The duty of humanity is to profess the simple testimony: "There is no god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is his Prophet." Obedience to God's will rests on following the example of the Prophet in one's own life and faithfulness to the revelations collected into the most sacred text, the Quran. The Five Pillars of Islam are reciting the profession of faith; praying five times a day; almsgiving to the poor; fasting (abstaining from dawn to dusk from food, drink, sexual relations, and smoking) during the month of Ramazan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, known as Ramadan in Arab countries), the holy month when God's revelations were received by Muhammad; and making the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once during one's life if possible. People who obey God's commandments and live a good life will go to heaven after death; those who disobey will go to hell. All souls will be resurrected for a last judgment at the end of the world. Muslims view themselves as followers of the same tradition preserved in the Judaic and Christian scriptures, accept the prophetic roles of Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), and Isa (Jesus), and view Islam as the final statement of revealed truth for the entire world.

Regulation of the Muslim community rests primarily on rules in the Quran, then on authenticated tales of the conduct (sunna ) of the Prophet Muhammad, then on reasoning, and finally on the consensus of opinion. By the end of the eighth century, four main schools of Muslim jurisprudence had emerged in Sunni (see Glossary) Islam to interpret the sharia (Islamic law). Prominent among these groups was the Hanafi school, which dominated most of India, and the Shafii school, which was more prevalent in South India. Because Islam has no ordained priesthood, direction of the Muslim community rests on the learning of religious scholars (ulama) who are expert in understanding the Quran and its appended body of commentaries.

Early leadership controversies within the Muslim community led to divisions that still have an impact on the body of believers. When Muhammad died, leadership fell to his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, who became the first caliph (khalifa , or successor), a position that combined spiritual and secular power. A separate group advocated the leadership of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, who had married his daughter Fatima. Leadership could have fallen to Ali's son Husayn, but, in the power struggle that followed, in 680 Husayn and seventy-two followers were murdered at Karbala (now in modern Iraq).

This leadership dispute formed the most crucial dividing point in Islamic history: the victorious party went on to found the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), which had its headquarters at Damascus, leading the majority of Muslims in the Sunni path. The disaffected Shiat Ali (or Party of Ali) viewed only his line as legitimate and continued to follow descendants of Husayn as their leader (imam--see Glossary). Among the followers of this Shia (see Glossary) path, there is a party of "Seveners" who trace the lineage of imams down to Ismail (d. 762), the Seventh Imam and eldest son of the Sixth Imam. The Ismailis are the largest Shia group in India, and are concentrated in Maharashtra and Gujarat. A second group, the "Twelvers" (the most numerous Shia group worldwide), traces the lineage of imams through twelve generations, believing that the last or Twelfth Imam became "hidden" and will reappear in the world as a savior, or Mahdi, at some time in the future.

The division between Sunni and Shia dates back to purely political struggles in the seventh century, but over time between the two major communities many divisive differences in ritual and legal interpretations have evolved. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni, and in contemporary India 90 percent of Muslims follow this path. Sunnis have recognized no legitimate caliph after the position was abolished in Turkey in 1924, placing the direction of the community clearly with the ulama.

Public worship for the average Muslim consists of going to a mosque (masjid )--normally on Fridays, although mosques are well attended throughout the week--for congregational prayers led by a local imam, following the public call to prayer, which may be intoned from the top of a minaret (minar ) at the mosque. After leaving their footwear at the door, men and women separate; men usually sit in front, women in back, either inside the mosque or in an open courtyard. The prayer leader gives a sermon in the local regional language, perhaps interspersed with Arabic or Farsi (sometimes called Persian or Parsi) quotations, depending on his learning and the sophistication of the audience. Announcements of events of interest that may include political commentary are often included. Then follow common prayers that involve responses from the worshipers who stand, bow, and kneel in unison during devotions.

Islamic Traditions in South Asia

Muslims practice a series of life-cycle rituals that differ from those of Hindus, Jains, or Buddhists. The newborn baby has the call to prayer whispered into the left ear, the profession of faith whispered into the right ear, honey or date paste placed in the mouth, and a name selected. On the sixth day after birth, the first bath occurs. On the seventh day or a multiple of the seventh, the head is shaved, and alms are distributed, ideally in silver weighing as much as the hair; a sacrifice of animals imitates the sheep sacrificed instead of Ishmael (Ismail) in biblical times. Religious instruction starts at age four years, four months, and four days, beginning with the standard phrase: "In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful." Male circumcision takes place between the ages of seven and twelve. Marriage requires a payment by the husband to the wife and the solemnization of a marital contract in a social gathering. Marriage ceremonies include the donning of a nose ring by the bride, or in South India a wedding necklace, and the procession of the bridegroom. In a traditional wedding, males and females attend ceremonies in different rooms, in keeping with the segregation of sexes in most social settings. After death the family members wash and enshroud the body, after which it is buried as prayers from the Quran are recited. On the third day, friends and relatives come to console the bereaved, read the Quran, and pray for the soul of the deceased. The family observe a mourning period of up to forty days.

The annual festivals of Islam are based on a lunar calendar of 354 days, which makes the Islamic holy year independent of the Gregorian calendar. Muslim festivals make a complete circuit of the solar year every thirty-three years.

The beginning of the Islamic calendar is the month of Muharram, the tenth day of which is Ashura, the anniversary of the death of Husayn, the son of Ali. Ashura, a major holiday, is of supreme importance for the Shia. Devotees engage in ritualized mourning that may include processions of colorful replicas of Husayn's tomb at Karbala and standards with palms on top, which are carried by barefoot mourners and buried at an imitation Karbala. In many areas of India, these parades provide a dramatic spectacle that draws large numbers of non-Muslim onlookers. Demonstrations of grief may include bouts of self-flagellation that can draw blood and may take place in public streets, although many families retain personal mourning houses. Sunni Muslims may also commemorate Husayn's death but in a less demonstrative manner, concentrating instead on the redemptive aspect of his martyrdom.

The last day of Ramazan is Id al Fitr (Feast of Breaking the Fast), another national holiday, which ends the month of fasting with almsgiving, services in mosques, and visits to friends and neighbors. Bakr Id, or Id al Zuha (Feast of Sacrifice), begins on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah and is a major holiday. Prescribed in the Quran, Id al Zuha commemorates Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice Ishmael (rather than Ishaq--Isaac--as in the Judeo-Christian tradition) according to God's command, but it is also the high point of the pilgrim's ritual cycle while on the hajj in Mecca. All of these festivals involve large feasts, gifts given to family and neighbors, and the distribution of food for charitable purposes.

A significant aspect of Islam in India is the importance of shrines attached to the memory of great Sufi saints. Sufism is a mystical path (tariqat ) as distinct from the path of the sharia. A Sufi attains a direct vision of oneness with God, often on the edges of orthodox behavior, and can thus become a pir (living saint) who may take on disciples (murids ) and set up a spiritual lineage that can last for generations. Orders of Sufis became important in India during the thirteenth century following the ministry of Muinuddin Chishti (1142-1236), who settled in Ajmer, Rajasthan, and attracted large numbers of converts to Islam because of his holiness. His Chishtiyya order went on to become the most influential Sufi lineage in India, although other orders from Central Asia and Southwest Asia also reached to India and played a large role in the spread of Islam. Many Sufis were well known for weaving music, dance, intoxicants, and local folktales into their songs and lectures. In this way, they created a large literature in regional languages that embedded Islamic culture deeply into older South Asian traditions.

In the case of many great teachers, the memory of their holiness has been so intense that they are still viewed as active intercessors with God, and their tombs have become the site of rites and prayers by disciples and lay people alike. Tales of miraculous deeds associated with the tombs of great saints have attracted large numbers of pilgrims attempting to gain cures for physical maladies or solutions to personal problems. The tomb of the pir thus becomes a dargah (gateway) to God and the focus for a wide range of rituals, such as daily washing and decoration by professional attendants, touching or kissing the tomb or contact with the water that has washed it, hanging petitions on the walls of the shrine surrounding the tomb, lighting incense, and giving money.

The descendants of the original pir are sometimes seen as inheritors of his spiritual energy, and, as pirs in their own right, they might dispense amulets sanctified by contact with them or with the tomb. The annual celebration of the pir 's death is a major event at important shrines, attracting hundreds of thousands of devotees for celebrations that may last for days. Free communal kitchens and distribution of sweets are also big attractions of these festivals, at which Muslim fakirs, or wandering ascetics, sometimes appear and where public demonstrations of self-mortification, such as miraculous piercing of the body and spiritual possession of devotees, sometimes occur. Every region of India can boast of at least one major Sufi shrine that attracts expressive devotion, which remains important, especially for Muslim women.

The leadership of the Muslim community has pursued various directions in the evolution of Indian Islam during the twentieth century. The most conservative wing has typically rested on the education system provided by the hundreds of religious training institutes (madrasa ) throughout the country, which have tended to stress the study of the Quran and Islamic texts in Arabic and Persian, and have focused little on modern managerial and technical skills (see Education and Society, ch. 2). Several national movements have emerged from this sector of the Muslim community. The Jamaati Islami (Islamic Party), founded in 1941, advocates the establishment of an overtly Islamic government through peaceful, democratic, and nonmissionary activities. It had about 3,000 active members and 40,000 sympathizers in the mid-1980s. The Tablighi Jamaat (Outreach Society) became active after the 1940s as a movement, primarily among the ulama, stressing personal renewal, prayer, a missionary and cooperative spirit, and attention to orthodoxy. It has been highly critical of the kind of activities that occur in and around Sufi shrines and remains a minor if respected force in the training of the ulama. Other ulama have upheld the legitimacy of mass religion, including exaltation of pirs and the memory of the Prophet. A powerful secularizing drive led to the founding of Aligarh Muslim University (founded in 1875 as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College)--with its modern curriculum--and other major Muslim universities. This educational drive has remained the most dominant force in guiding the Muslim community.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress