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The Arrival of Islam in India and Its Impact

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    Arab merchants were active in India before the birth of the prophet Muhammad and Islam. It is less than five hundred nautical miles from the Arabian Peninsula to the mouth of the Indus River and the trip can be completed without leaving sight of land. Thus in the first century after the death of Muhammad, Islam first entered India with these traders.

    However, the dramatic expansion of Islamic military and political power into India didn’t occur until the eighth century. In 711, in response to the activity of Indian pirates the Muslim ruler in Iraq invaded Sind and established an Islamic state in the upper Indus valley. At this point Islamic military and political conquest temporarily stalled. According to William J and Jackson J Spielvogel Duiker, “For the next three centuries, Islam made no further advances into India.”

    In the first years of the eleventh century Mahmud of Ghanzi (997-1030) pressed into the Punjab. According to Marshall G S Hodgson the conquest of the Punjab provided the key to invading northern India. “Once many of the mountaineers had become Muslim and were led by well-organized Turkic troops in the name of a jihad war that could override local feuds, the plains were at their mercy.” 2 Contemporary historians described the situation in the Punjab under Mahmud as a disaster and Mahmud as a man who “utterly ruined the prosperity of the country.”

    Again, Muslim advances temporarily halted. Following the death of Mahmud the Ghazni were reduced to the Punjab region and displaced in the region by the Ghurid. In 1191 the Ghurid advanced on Lahore and down the Ganges River. By the end of the century they had reached western Bengal and by the middle of the twelfth century their effective authority extended through the Ganges River valley to the Indian Ocean.

    The Mongol threat from the northeast again delayed Muslim expansion. However, by the fourteenth century the Delhi sultanate had expanded southward in to the Deccan Plain. 5 At this point, in political and military terms Muslim influence in India was at its peak.

    The Muslim states that extended their military dominion into the Indian subcontinent were considerably different than the resident populations. The monotheistic, mercantile Muslim states that invaded India encountered a Hindu population that was rigidly stratified socially yet diverse even polyglot in terms of religion and philosophy. Each of these characteristics differentiated the Muslim invaders from the Hindu residents of India. Most importantly, these differences were also handled differently. The Muslim invaders were not absorbed into Hinduism, rather they “retained their Islamic identity and created new legal and administrative systems that challenged and usually superceded the existing systems of social conduct and ethics.”

    In other words, the Muslim invaders left their mark on India in a way that other cultures had not. Some of these differences proved beneficial. By the thirteenth century Islamic dominion extended from the Atlantic Ocean through to the Indian Ocean in a contiguous line of settlement and civilization. This geographic breadth coupled with a highly developed commercial system had a profound impact on India. The South Asia History Project states, “it was in the expansion of trade where Islam’s impact was the greatest.”

    The arrival of Islam was also accompanied by an unprecedented increase in technological development. These included improvements in artisanship, the development of small factories and the introduction of the waterwheel. Additionally, in practical terms these more centralized Muslim states were more inclined to invest in irrigation, waterways and other projects that would be described as infrastructure today. 8 In other words, in terms of technological and commercial development the Islamic invaders brought more advanced techniques and practices: developments that enhanced the material condition of Indians (although one can legitimately question the distribution of these improvements).

    The most overwhelming negative impact of Islam, particularly according to Hindu scholars, was the introduction of monotheism. The theocratic Islamic state could not tolerate heterogeneity and religious pluralism as the Hindu states of India had. According to Gurumurthy Christianity, Judaism and Islam all endeavour “to enforce uniformity.” 9 This contrasted sharply with Hinduism.

    That said it is important to note that Gurumurthy is an advocate of the Hindu renaissance and a member of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that has been accused of the very intolerance that he attributes to Islam. Regardless, of the roots of exclusion the fact is that the Muslim incursion into India remains topical today for even as I write this paper India is undergoing another round of Muslim/Hindu violence as the dispute in Gurajuat continues to fester.


    • Duiker, William J and Jackson J Spielvogel World History 3rd edition Wadsworth Thomson Learning Toronto: 2001.
    • Gurumurthy, S “Semitic Monotheism: The Root of Intolerance in India” New Perspectives Quarterly 11: March 22, 1994, pp. 47-54.
    • Hodgson, Marshall G S The Venture of Islam Vol 2 “The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods” The University of Chicago Press Chicago: 1974.
    • Hodgson, Marshall G S The Venture of Islam Vol 2 “The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods” The University of Chicago Press Chicago: 1974.
    • South Asia History Project “Islam and the Sub-Continent—Appraising It’s Impact”. Accessed March 2, 2002.

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