Search WWW Search

From Qasim to Qasim:A Brief Survey of Islamic Orthodoxy in the Indian Subcontinent

A Brief Survey of Islamic Orthodoxy in the Indian Subcontinent from the Warrior Muhammad ibn Qasim to the Philosopher-Theologian Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi

By Ali Altaf Mian

Islam Reaches India
A unique civilization, encompassing many sub-civilizations, is suffused in the Indian Subcontinent. Many of the world’s famous religions flourish in this part of the world. India is home to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and became a receptive host for the Abrahamic religions as well. The apostlehood of the Prophet Muhammad and the revelation of the Qur’an were, notes Stanley Wolpert, “destined to divert fundamentally the course of Indian history.”[1] Expeditions aimed at India were deliberated, and to some extent carried out, without ever materializing, during the reign of the second Caliph of Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab.[2] Historians of India report that the first Arab attack was on the coastal regions near present-day Mumbai around the year 636.[3] In 660, when Ali ibn Abi Talib was the Caliph, there was another attempt to seize Sind, and again in 664, Muawiya, the first Umayyad ruler, sent Abdullah ibn Sawad with a “more organized expedition” that was “repulsed by the Hindus.”[4] In 711, Muhammad ibn Qasim led the first successful expedition towards India responding to the “piratic plundering of a richly laden Arab ship as it passed the mouth of the Indus.[5] Ibn Qasim’s conquest resulted in the incorporation of Sind into the Umayyad Empire and marked the beginning of Islam’s strong foothold in the Indian Subcontinent. It was not until the invasions from Transoxiana in the tenth century, however, that Islam would spread throughout North India.

Mahmud Ghaznawi to Akbar
The Abbasid caliphs, who had replaced the Umayyads and had shifted the Muslim capital from Damascus to Baghdad, had begun enlisting large numbers of central Asians into their army. One of them was Alptigin, “who seized the Afghan fortress of Ghazni in 962,” thereby becoming the founder of the first Turkish Islamic kingdom.[6] His grandson, Mahmud (971-1030), led many attacks on the Northwestern part of India, finally incorporating a large portion of North India into the Muslim World. For the next century and a half, the Ghaznavids ruled parts of present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were sacked when “Sultan Muhammad of Ghur and his slave lieutenant Qutb-ud-din Aybak led their first raid into India in 1175, destroying the Ghaznavid garrison at Peshawar in 1179, capturing Lahore in 1186 and Delhi in 1193.”[7] Qutb al-Din Aybak became the ruler of this kingdom in 1206, and the founding of his “‘Slave’ (Mamluk) dynasty transformed North India into Dar-ul-Islam (“Land of Submission”) from Dar-ul-Harb (“Land of War”).”[8] For about the next 300 years, the Delhi Sultanate (1193-1556), encompassing “five successive Turko-Afghan dynasties,” were to rule most of North India.[9]

            The brief historical sketch above paints only the political side of the story, the more important part of this fascinating page of history entails the spiritual aspects, which were more efficacious in Islamicizing India. The comprehensive approach to studying Islam in India includes the political side of history as well as the spiritual side of culture. Annemarie Schimmel is thus quite accurate in the following excerpt:

The history of Indian Islam is, however, not only a history of political facts, of conquests and wars, of expansion and breakdown, but is a spiritual history as well. It is the history of the century-long conflict between the Islamic concept of tauhid, strict monotheism, and Hinduism in its different manifestations which constituted, in the eyes of the pious Muslims, the very essence of idolatry and polytheism which had been condemned by the Quran.[10]

It was thus Divine decree to open new fields for, in the language of Shah Wali Allah, Qur’anic polemics (Ilm al-mukhasima) to address its convincing argument (hujjat) towards proper addressees.[11] As a result, millions of Hindus submitted to the Qur’an, manifesting once more the victory of this Holy Scripture.

            Conquest served as the initial of the four processes through which Islam solidified in India. As Khaliq Ahmad Nizami has pointed out, “The growth of Muslim society in India took place through four processes—conquest, conversion, colonization and migration.”[12] India and its inhabitants welcomed the sufis à bras ouverts (“with open arms”). Mass conversions to Islam, and sometimes instruction “without demanding formal conversion,” was common from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. “Muslim society grew in India through conversions which took place voluntarily at tribal levels, and often through the peaceful persuasions of Muslim mystics,”  writes Nizami, summarizing how Islam permeated India.[13] The spiritual teachings, universal parables, charismatic style of reformation, and lessons of love of the sufis attracted a large number of Hindus to Islam.[14] It was not the Muslim rulers who drew the masses to Islam, but the spiritual sages. Sufism was the first Islamic discipline to undergo a process of synthesizing institutionalization in India.[15] Indian Muslims also excelled in disciplines such as Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), and hadith studies (ulum al-hadith).[16]

            Returning to the political side of the story—the impact of the great Mongol invasions cannot be undermined at this juncture. The political landscape that resulted from the Mongol invasions and conversion of their progeny to Islam shaped much of the Islamic world for the next three centuries. The Mongol invasion led to the formation of three kingdoms, all with their origins in the Mongols and Turks: the Ottomans in present-day Turkey, the Safavids in Persia, and the Moghuls in India. India saw the beginning of the Moghul Empire in 1526 when Babur (1483-1530) conquered Delhi. Babur’s son, Humayun (1508-1556), and his son, Akbar (1542-1605), would extend Mughal rule over much of India. This empire lasted, in various sizes, until 1857.

The Mujaddid Alf Thani
During the reign of Akbar (1556-1605), the mission of the Prophet Muhammad reached its first millennium. The start of the second millennium posed a challenge to all Muslims; they were introduced to new ideas that demanded serious rethinking of the creedal tenets of Islam as mentioned in the Qur’an and explicated by the Prophet. Akbar suggested a rough, underdeveloped, adulterated vision for the second millennium: the concept of din-i ilahi or divine religion, which was a mixture of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Aziz Ahmad has noted that Akbar himself, as well as his disciples, was not really serious about this heretical worldview.[17] Akbar’s syncretism was countered on the orthodox side by Mujaddid Alf-i Thani (“The Reviver of the Second Millennium”) Shaykh Ahmad Sirhidni (1564-1624).[18] Sirhindi’s revivalist efforts included correcting the beliefs of the Muslims, a great stress of sharia, reprimanding reverential prostration (sajda al-tazimi) in front of Kings and sufis, outlawing mystical audition (sama), and disapproving the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday (milad). His presence was felt at all levels of medieval Indian society, and within a short span of time, his sufi tradition, the Naqshbandiyya-Mujadidiyya, etched out a permanent place for itself in the sufi landscape of not only South Asia, but also present-day Turkey and parts of central Asia.

In the political realm, the main addressee of the Mujaddid was not Akbar, but his son Jahangir. Earlier in his reign, Jahangir had imprisoned Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, a decision he later reversed, after which he revered the Mujaddid as a great protégé of Allah (wali Allah) and bestowed gifts upon him. The fact that Jahangīr did not adhere to his father’s din-i ilahi suffices to illustrate that the Mujaddid had become victorious in the battle between orthodoxy and heresy. The teachings of the Mujaddid and his likes reached their climax when they were strictly adhered to by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (1659-1707). At the same time, signs indicating the decay of Muslim power appeared in the last years of Alamgir’s rule and became fully manifested after his demise. As Muslim power saw deterioration, their religious life and tradition also experienced its consequences. In these chaotic times, Indian Muslims had to rethink how to maintain their allegiance of their ideal Islamic lifestyle. These conditions paved the way for Shah Wali Allah of Delhi, the eminent Islamic reviver of eighteenth-century Muslim India. Kenneth W. Jones points out that Wali Allah “linked the decline of Muslim power and morality to ignorance that resulted in an inability to comprehend the true nature of Islam.”[19] 

Shah Wali Allah of Delhi[20]
The ancestors of Shah Wali Allah were among the Quraishite families to settle in
India during the reign of the Delhi Sultans. The family had the honor of serving as religious judges (qadis) in royal courts. His father, Shah Abd al-Rahim, was a genuine Muslim theologian and sufi, who, according to Wali Allah, was blessed with many divine inspirations and frequently had the honor of the Prophet’s visit in his dreams. Wali Allah notes in Anfas al-arifin that his father had been informed through divine inspiration that their spiritual descendants will survive until the Day of Judgment. The indelible impact of Wali Allah’s religious contributions, fresh thought, and harmonizing method etches out a monumental place for him as the Muslim philosopher for contemporary times. His unique understanding of the Qur’an and Sunna offers promising solutions to the multi-dimensional problems of contemporary Muslims. Wali Allah’s worldview, notes Akbar Ahmed, “were to shape the Islamic college at Deoband and influence Muslims of all opinions.”[21] Describing the relationship between the Deobandi theologians and Wali Allah, Hafeez Malik states, “The Deoband School, as the institution is known in the subcontinent, stood for definite religio-political goals. Shah Waliullah was their religious mentor, his works their textbooks. Their plan was to train enough ulama to be able to send them out into the country where they would teach Shah Waliullah’s philosophy in the mosques.”[22]

The efforts of Shah Wali Allah’s family saw overwhelming success at the theoretical level, they were instrumental in safeguarding Muslim tradition and theology and attenuated immediate consequences of British imperialism; moreover, they led to institutionalizing the systematic study of Qur’an and Hadith. In the political domain, however, his successors saw no immediate fruition, but their jihad movement in northwest India did “forecast the ideology of Pakistan.”[23] The British had seized most of India by divide et impera. By 1857, the year of the Mutiny, majority of the Indian subcontinent was under British rule. The Muslims, who had ruled Delhi for about the past eight centuries, feared that their religious life would soon fall prey to annihilation. This fear was felt even before 1857.  The famous verdict (fatwa) of Shah Abd al-Aziz (1746-1824) describes India’s shift from dar al-Islam to partibus infidelium:

In this city [of Delhi] the Imam al-Muslimin wields no authority, while the decrees of the Christian leaders are obeyed without [fear of consequences]. Promulgation of the command of kufr means that in the matter of administration and the control of the people, in the levy of land-tax, tributes, tolls and customs, in the punishment of thieves and robbers, in the settlement of disputes, in the punishment of offences, the kafirs act according to their discretion. There are indeed certain Islamic rituals…with which they do not interfere. But that is of no account. The basic principle of these rituals is of no value to them, for they demolish mosques without the least hesitation and no Muslim or dhimmi can enter the city or its suburbs except with their permission...From here [Delhi] to Calcutta, the Christians are in complete control.”[24]

When the jihad efforts of two of the main successors of Shah Abd al-Aziz, Sayyid Ahmad Shahid of Bareilly and Shah Ismail Shahid, did not yield immediate results, Muslims of colonial India  turned to the mediums of education and instruction in moral tutelage for the preservation of Muslim tradition. The deteriorating Muslim power and degenerating Muslim life created the grounds for new Islamic revival movements.

Institutionalization of Islamic Learning in the Colonial Period
Continuation of legacy, religious excitement, despair and hope all describe the nineteenth century Muslim sentiment in India.[25] In the first three decades of the 1800s, Shah Abd al-Aziz and the other sons of Shah Wali Allah continued the legacy of their father, serving as living prototypes of Islam’s intellectual heritage. Muslims were excited by the “Return to the Basics,” the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyya movement of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid of Bareilly and Shah Ismail Shahid. Their physical defeat in Balakot (1832), and the failure of the Mutiny of 1857, led to vast despair. Towards the end of the century, Muslims felt a sense of relief and hope with new educational institutions, such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College in Aligarh, Mawlana Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi’s Dar al-Ulum Deoband, and Mawlana Mongiri’s Nadwat al-Ulama in Lucknow. Colonial rule heightened the Muslim concern with their religious identity. This concern became the chief cause of a new institutionalization of Islamic learning in India. These institutions carried on the tradition of earlier Islamic academies of the nineteenth century.

            Madrasas have always played important roles in Islamic societies, the Madrasa Nizamiyya in Baghdad, for instance, was the center of religious scholarship for many centuries, where Ghazali also taught for some years.[26] As Aziz Ahmad has noted that there were three centers of traditional Islamic studies in nineteenth-century India: “Most preeminent of these was the school of Wali-Allah in Delhi, where his son Shah Abd al-Aziz and his grandson Shah Muhammad Ishaq continued his tradition with a consistently increasing shift in emphasis from speculative fundamentalism towards eclectic traditionalism.”[27] The madrasa at Faranghi Mahal was the oldest and tended to solely focus on “scholarship rather than society or politics,” and had preserved the “sixteenth-century Transoxianian emphasis on rationalism and jurisprudence, counterbalanced by a penchant for mysticism.”[28] The third center, which focused on “studies of medieval philosophy and logic,” was located northwest of Lucknow in the city of Khairabad.[29]

It was about this time, roughly ten years after the Mutiny of 1857 that the beginnings of a new traditionalist revival movement are laid down in the small North Indian town of Deoband. For many centuries, large urban areas, particularly Delhi, were the centers of Muslim scholarship. After the Mutiny, the ulama, viewing smaller towns and villages as their refuge, as Thomas R. Metcalf has indicated that the “‘village community’ came to define an ordering of Indian society which was at once unchanging and unthreatening,” diffused scholarship throughout the Gangetic core.[30] Towns and villages that hosted madrasas or sufi hospices (khanqahs) included Deoband, Gangoh, Kirana, Kandhla, and Thana Bhawan. Believing to be divinely inspired, Mawlana Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi (1833-77) and Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (1829-1905), under the guidance of their Shaykh, Haji Imdad Allah, founded the madrasa at Deoband in 1867 which would become renowned as the Dar al-Ulum (“House of Sciences”).[31] These ulama trained their students as active theologians equipped to preserve traditional Islamic learning through their madrasas and khanqahs. The beginnings of the madrasa at Deoband mirrored the simplicity and the informal instruction style found in the Prophet’s mosque in Madina. Deoband started with two Mahmuds under a pomegranate tree—one teacher, Mulla Mahmud, and the other his student, Mahmud Hasan, who would later become popularly known as Shaykh al-Hind (The Shaykh of India). The Dar al-Ulum Deoband, points out Peter Hardy, was the “most vital school of ulama in India in the second half of the nineteenth century.”[32] Shedding further light on the significance of the Dar al-Ulum Deoband, Aziz Ahmad writes:

Deoband…rose to the stature of one of the most outstanding theological seminaries in the Muslim world. It received a visit from Rashid Rida, and forged links with the ulama of al-Azhar…Within the subcontinent it produced most of the great ulama of the second quarter of the twentieth century: Ashraf Ali  Thanawi, who popularized traditional Islam among the less educated, apart from his authorship of monumental theological works…”[33]

This madrasa at Deoband not only produced leading Islamic scholars, but also fostered traditional Muslim life and provided the Muslims with religious leadership and instruction. From Muhammad ibn Qasim to Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi therefore is a summary of the unfolding of Islamic orthodoxy in the Indian milieu.


                [1] Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 105. 

                [2] Mawlana Said Ahmad Akbarabadi, Musalmano ka uruj-o zawal (Lahore: Idara Islamiyyat, n.d.), 212. Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 3.

                [3] Mawlan Sayyid Sulayman Nadwi, Arab va Hind ke taalluqat (Karachi: Karim Sons, 1972), 14.

                [4] Aziz Ahmad, 3.

                [5] Wolpert, 106.

                [6] Wolpert, 107.

                [7] Wolpert, 108-9.

                [8] Wolpert, 110.

                [9] Wolpert, 110.

                [10] Annemarie Schimmel, Pain and Grace: A Study of Two Mystical Writers of Eighteenth-Century Muslim India (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976), 3.

                [11] See Shah Wali Allah, Al-Fauz al-Kabir fī usul al-tafsir: The Principles of Quran Commentary. Islamabad: National Hijra Council, 1985. 

                [12] Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, “Hind, v. –Islam.” EI, 3: 428. The last quote is also from this source.

                [13] Nizami, “Hind, v. –Islam.” EI, 3: 428.

      [14] Hindu conversions to Islam are not a thing of the past, until today Islam holds an appeal for those suffering from untouchability within the caste system. For recent conversions, see Abdul Malik Mujahid, Conversion to Islam: Untouchables’s Strategy for Protest in India (Chambersburg, PA: Anima Books, 1989).

                [15] For a detailed study of sufism in the Indian Subcontinent, see Athar Abbas Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India. 2 vols (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1983).

                [16] An analysis of the intellectual contributions of Indian Muslims can be found in Aziz Ahmad, An Intellectual History of Islam in India (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Unviersity Press, 1969).

                [17] See Aziz Ahmad’s treatment of the whole episode, Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, 167-181.

                [18] For biographical material, see Mawlana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Tarikh-i Dawat-o Azimat, volume 4; Mawlana Muhammad Manzur Numani, Tazkira-i Imam-i Rabbani Mujaddid Alf-i Sani (Karachi: Dar al-Ishat, n.d.); Mawlana Sayyid Muhammad Mian, Ulama-i Hind ka shandar madi, volume I (Karachi: Maktaba-i Rashidiyya, 1991); Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari, Sufism and Shari‘ah: A Study of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi’s Effort to Reform Sufism (Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1986); and Yohannan Friedmann, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi: An Outline of His Thought and a Study of His Image in the Eyes of Posterity (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000).

                [19] Kenneth W. Jones, Socio-Religious Reform Movements in British India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 18.

                [20] For detailed surveys of the life and thought of Shah Wali Allah, see Mawlana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, Tarikh-i Dawat-o Azimat, volume 5; J. M. S. Baljon, Religion and Thought of Shah Wali Allah Dihlawi, 1703-1762. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986; Ghulam Hussain Jalbani, Life of Shah Waliyullah. Lahore: Ashraf, 1967; Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi. Shah Wali-Allah and His Times. Canberra: Marifat Publishing House, 1980; and Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi. Islamic Renaissance in South Asia (1707-1867): The Role of Shah Waliallah and His Successors. New Delhi: Adam Publishers, 2004.

                [21] Akbar Ahmed, Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim History and Society (London: Routledge, 2002), 78.

                [22] Hafeez Malik, Moslem Nationalism in India and Pakistan (Washington: Public Affairs Press,

1963), 192.

                [23] Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, 217.

                [24] Quoted in Barbara Daly Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 46.

                [25] Still the most comprehensive study of the ulama between Shah Wali Allah and Ashraf Ali Thanawi is Farhan Ahmad Nizami, “Madrasahs, Scholars and Saints: Muslim Response to the British Presence in Delhi and the Upper Doab, 1803-1857.” Ph.D. diss. Oxford, 1983. Unfortunately, this study has not yet been published.

                [26] A useful study of the traditional roles of a madrasa in Islamic societies is Gary Leiser, “Notes on the Madrasa in Medieval Islamic Society.” The Muslim World 76 (1986): 16-23. 

                [27] Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan: 1857-1964. (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), 103.

                [28] Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Modernism, 103.

                [29] Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Modernism, 103.

      [30] Thomas R. Metcalf, Ideolgies of the Raj (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.

                [31] For a scholarly study of the beginnings of the Dar al-Ulum Deoband, see Barbara Daly Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

                [32] P. Hardy, The Muslims of British India. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 170.

                [33] Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Modernism, 109.

  This site requires:- Macromedia's Flash 7 Player & 1024x768 Screen Resolution  
Copyright © 2005-2006 Central-Mosque All rights reserved. Comments and suggestions to