BOOK REVIEW: Understanding the history and heritage of Muslim India

25th Mar 2015

Islamic Civilization in South Asia: A History of Muslim Power and Presence in the Indian Subcontinent. By Burjor Avari. Abingdon: Routledge. Pp317. PB. 2013. £26.99

The story of Muslim presence in the Indo-Pak Subcontinent is truly fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly, although far away from the heartlands of Islam in Arabia and its neighbouring countries, Islam first made in-roads into the Subcontinent within a few decades after the death of Prophet (peace be on him). Secondly, the Muslim population of the Subcontinent is much higher in number than their Arabic-speaking brethren.

Thirdly, the Muslims of the Subcontinent have arguably contributed more to Islamic thought and scholarship than many other parts of the Muslim world including the Balkans, the Far East and even Africa. That is why awareness and understanding of how Islam entered this region and cultivated an intrinsically Subcontinental Islam that remained true to the fundamentals of the faith but became completely localised overtime is the key to appreciating the diversity that characterises modern Islam.
In the book under review, the author attempts to provide an overview of the history of Muslim power and presence in the Subcontinent surveying fourteen hundred years of history and heritage. According to the author, “my initial knowledge of the history of Muslims in South Asia was garbled in a haze of myths. One powerful, but dangerous myth was that the glory of ancient India was destroyed by the coming of Islam and that medieval North India, particularly then, was a ruinous place. A more critical study of the subject, however, brought home to me that medieval India was in fact enriched, not destroyed, by the Muslim presence; and gradually, over a period of time, I also came to appreciate what may be called the Muslim perspective in South Asian history.” (p.xvii)

Living as we do at a time when Hindu nationalists especially that of the BJP brand are busy rewriting the history of India in general and that of the Muslim presence in the Subcontinent as a whole, projecting Islam as a foreign religion even though it has been a part and parcel of the Indian history, culture, arts and architecture for more than fourteen centuries, it is refreshing to hear an objective voice that seeks to present the facts rather than peddle manufactured ideological disinformation.
According to the author, “Under Muslim rule, India came to be introduced to the wider world of trade and knowledge; and society in India went through profound changes as a result of interaction between Hinduism and Islam. The study of Islamic or Indo-Islamic civilization is therefore as vital in our understanding of Indian and South Asian history as that of the ancient Hindu-Buddhist culture or the colonial period.” (p.xvii)

Consisting of an Introduction, 10 chapters, and a useful Conclusion, List of Muslim dynasties, Glossary, Bibliography and Index, this book provides an informative and generally balanced overview of the history of Muslims in the Subcontinent. Beginning with ‘early Arab commerce and settlement in India’, the author covers the progress of Muslim history, the rise and fall of dynasties, development of Indian society, culture and outlook up to the modern period.

One criticism I have against the book is that it is primarily based on secondary sources because the author is not familiar with Persian, Urdu or Arabic, thus relying almost entirely on English sources for his information.

Nevertheless, it is an admirable book and needs to be widely read in India and around the world. The author deserves credit for his efforts. Recommended reading.

Muhammad Khan, author of The Muslim 100 (2008) and The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013)

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