The Glories of India: Indian Patriotism in Islamic Discourse

Professor Yoginder Singh Sikand

Centre for Studies on Indian Muslims,

Hamdard University,

New Delhi



Article published in The Asianists' ASIA Edited by T. Wignesan Centre de Recherches sur les Etudes Asiatiques Paris France



In Hindutva discourse, Muslims are routinely projected as the great, menacing ‘other’. Hindutvawadis claim a monopoly of India nationalism, insisting that Indian nationalism is synonymous with their understanding of Hinduism. Accordingly, those who fall outside the pale of Brahminical Hinduism are deemed to be ‘anti-national’ and ‘traitors’, and, consequently, are said to have no right to exist in India on their terms. Muslims, in particular, are singled out as the ‘enemies’ of the Indian nation. The allegation of Muslim perfidy, of Muslims being inveterate foes of ‘Bharat Mata and as conspiring to destroy India from within, is tirelessly repeated in Hindutva propaganda. The same message is often put across, although somewhat less crudely, in ‘secular’ ‘nationalist’ discourse, which, while claiming to speak for the entire ‘Indian nation’, is overwhelmingly dominated by ‘upper’ caste Hindu, north Indian, male voices.

The claims of the Hindutvawadis to monopolise nationalist discourse can easily be dismissed. If nationalism is not to be reduced to ‘nation-worship’, but, instead, is understood as a firm commitment to the cause of the people of the ‘nation’, particularly to the oppressed and the marginalized, Hindutva, which reflects the interests and worldview of the Brahminical minority elites, can be said to actually be unambiguously ‘anti-national’ in its ethos. After all, Brahminism has operated for centuries as a thoroughly anti-people ideology, reducing the vast majority of the inhabitants of this country to ritually sanctioned slavery.

Likewise, the claim that Muslims are necessarily disloyal to India because of their religion can be easily countered. This claim is often articulated in the context of discussions about the Partition of India. Without going into the complex factors behind the Pakistan demand, suffice it to say that the Muslim League did not receive the support of the majority of the Indian ‘ulama, nor even of the majority of the Indian Muslims, who, in any case, did not have any voice in deciding the political future of the country. The League was led by western-educated Muslims, mainly from the landlord and middle classes, who were largely hostile to the claims of the ‘ulama. They tended to see the ‘ulama as hopelessly ‘obscurantist’ and as major rivals to their own claims to speak on behalf of all the Muslims of India. They envisioned Pakistan to be a Muslim state, but were opposed to the notion of an Islamic polity.  It is, however, another matter that they did manage to win over some ‘ulama to back their cause. On the other hand, many among the ‘ulama, particularly the majority of those associated with the Deoband school, the largest and most influential madrasa in the country, were vehemently opposed to the League and its Pakistan scheme. Clearly, if the Hindutva argument that Muslims cannot be loyal citizens of India because of their commitment to Islam had any validity at all, this could not have been the case.

The role of a major section of the Deobandi ‘ulama in opposing the League and in supporting the demand for a united India, where all communities would enjoy equal rights, is conveniently glossed over in Hindutva and even ‘secular’ ‘nationalist’ narratives of India’s anti-colonial struggle. Although these Deobandi ‘ulama were thoroughly conservative in religious and social matters, they were unflagging in their commitment to a form of Indian nationalism that transcended religious boundaries. In doing so, they insisted that there was no contradiction between being Muslim and Indian at the same time.

A recently reprinted Urdu booklet, bearing the revealing title of ‘Hamara Hindustan Aur Uske Faza‘il’ (‘Our India and Its Glories’), brilliantly articulates this commitment of leading Deobandi ‘ulama to the cause of composite Indian nationalism.  The booklet consists of two essays, one each by Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni, rector of the Deoband madrasa and head of the Jami‘at ul-‘Ulama-i Hind (‘The Union of the ‘Ulama of India’), and his disciple and the general secretary of the Jami‘at, Maulana Syed Muhammad Miyan. The two essays were first published sometime in the early 1940s, in response to the Muslim League’s demand for a separate Muslim state and to counter the claim articulated by many ‘upper’ caste Hindu leaders that Indian nationalism was necessarily synonymous with ‘Hindu nationalism’, thus effectively excluding the Muslims from the Indian nationalist project. Challenging the League’s claims of speaking for Islam and on behalf of all the Muslims of India, they argued, from within an Islamic framework, for a united India, while also critiquing the Pakistan demand. At the same time, they stridently questioned the Hindu ‘nationalist’ insistence that Muslims had no place in the free India unless they agreed, for all practical purposes, to abandon their allegiance to Islam and be submerged in the Hindu fold. Both essays were based on the argument that India had a special, revered place in the Islamic tradition. Hence, they insisted, the Muslims of the country should consider themselves particularly honoured to have been born in the country. Because India had been specially blessed by God, they argued, the Muslims must work for the welfare, including the unity of the country. Contrarily, to demand the partition of the country, they suggested, would be to defy the Divine Will itself. At the same time, using the motif of India being specially blessed by God, for which they drew upon resources within the larger Islamic tradition, they sought to counter the assertion put forward so aggressively by ‘upper’ caste Hindu ‘nationalists’ of Islamic identity being necessarily contradictory to Indian nationalism.

Madni’s essay, titled ‘Hamara Hindustan’ (‘Our India’), draws upon narratives contained in the works of classical Islamic scholars to illustrate the ‘glories’ (faza‘il) of India. He writes that Islamic tradition has it that God directed Adam, the first man and the first prophet, to be sent down to earth to India. It was thus from India that the human race sprang from Adam’s progeny. This implies, Madni argues, that the Indian Muslims must consider India as their ‘ancient home’ (watan al-qadim). In addition, Madni refers to the Qur’an as mentioning that God has sent prophets to every nation, and Madni takes this to mean that prophets must have also been sent to India as well. This, he says, is further suggested by the fact the numerous Muslim saints (awliya-i allah) have ‘discovered’, through ‘spiritual encounters’ (ruhi mulaqat), the graves of various prophets in India. Since, as the Qur’an says, the religion (din) taught by all the prophets of God, including those who were possibly sent to India, was one and the same—al-Islam (‘The Surrender’), it is obvious that from ancient (i.e. pre-Muhammadan) times onwards Islam has been present in India. In fact, Madni argues, ‘it is an unchallengeable fact that from the very beginning India has been the land of Islam (islam ka watan)’.

Madni’s appeal to Muslims to oppose the Pakistan demand was rooted in his insistence that Islam itself required Muslims to love their country and work for its unity and prosperity. India was as much the motherland of the Muslims as it was of other communities in the country. In a rhetorical statement that might appear as somewhat quixotic, Madni went so far as to claim that Muslims do, or at least should, display an even greater concern for India’s welfare than other communities because while many Hindus burn their dead and throw their ashes into rivers, and the Parsis let vultures feed on their dead, the Muslims bury their dead in the bosom of the earth, in the very soil of their motherland. In contrast to the Hindus and the Parsis of the country, the mortal remains of the Muslims remain in India in their graves and shall remain so till the Day of Judgment. The Hindus believe in reincarnation of the dead, and there is no guarantee that their dead would be reborn in India, while the Muslims believe they shall remain in their graves till the Day of Judgment. Hence, Madni argues, it is only the Muslims who remain faithful to India even after their death. This itself means, he writes, that Muslims are, or should be, more attached to India and concerned about its welfare than people of other communities.  

No community can, therefore, claim a monopoly of Indian patriotism, Madni insists, challenging Hindu assertions to the contrary. Just as the Aryans, the Huns and the Greeks came to India and settled here and made this their home, he writes, so did the early Muslims. The only difference between the Muslims and the others is that the former arrived in India earlier. In fact, Madni argues, the Muslims, as a whole, can be more legitimately said to be the original inhabitants of India, since the vast majority of the Indian Muslims are descendants of converts from India’s pre-Aryan aboriginal people. Hence, he asserts, it is completely misleading to claim that India is not the land of the Muslims or that it belongs to the Hindus alone. The welfare of all the communities of India, including the Muslims, depends on the overall welfare of the country, and this is yet another reason why the Indian Muslims must love and serve their country. Madni insists that the Muslims cannot not leave India and depart for any other country, nor would any other country accept them. The Indian Muslims would have to live and flourish in India itself. While recognising that the Indian Muslims have a spiritual bond with Muslims elsewhere owing to adherence to a common religion, Madni argues that this does not come in the way of their patriotism. Nor are the Indian Muslims alone in sharing such spiritual ties with their co-religionists elsewhere. The Indian Hindus, Madni notes, are linked through a common religion with Hindu communities outside India, such as in South Africa, Mauritius and Fiji. If that does not lead to their patriotic credentials being questioned, he asks, why should the Indian Muslims’ spiritual links with Muslims elsewhere be regarded as suspect?

Maulana Syed Muhammad Miyan’s article, titled ‘Sarzamin-i Hindustan Ke Faza‘il’ (‘The Blessings of India’), echoes the spirit of Madni’s article, arguing that Muslims are bound to love and serve India primarily because Islam commands them to do so. As in the case of Madni’s article, Miyan’s piece is directed at both the Muslim League as well as Hindu ‘nationalists’, for both of whom Islam and Indian nationalism are seen as somehow mutually contradictory.

Like Madni, Miyan insists that India has been accorded a special status by God Himself. Hence, he argues, Muslims are required by their faith to work for India’s unity and welfare. His thesis is based on an Arabic text written by the eighteenth century north Indian Muslim scholar, Ghulam Azad Bilgrami, which puts together Hadith reports attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and Qur’anic verses that are said to refer to the ‘glories’ (faza‘il) of India. Quoting Bilgrami, Miyan writes that while undoubtedly Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem are the ‘most holy’ places in the world, Islamic tradition has it that India, too, is a ‘blessed land’ (mutabarruk sarzamin). According to such revered Muslim figures as Imam ‘Ali (cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet), Ayesha (one of the Prophet’s wives), and leading companions of the Prophet such as Ibn ‘Abbas, Anas and ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar, Adam was sent down to earth to India, to the island of Serendip or modern-day Sri Lanka, while Eve was sent to Jeddah. Adam then travelled to Arabia, where he met Eve at a place near Mecca. After building the Ka’aba at Mecca, Adam took Eve with him and returned to India, where they settled down and had children. The famous incident involving the sons of Adam, Cain (Qabil) and Abel (Habil), occurred, or so Miyan says, in India. After Abel was killed by Cain, Adam had another son, Sheesh, who, according to some accounts, is buried in the town of Ayodhya, which is sacred to many Hindus today. Adam is said to have undertaken forty pilgrimages (haj) from India to Mecca on foot.  He is also said, some ‘ulama claim, so Miyan tells us, to have died in India and to have been buried here. 

This close connection between Adam and India points to what Miyan claims to be the obvious fact that Islamic tradition accords to India the status of a ‘blessed land’. This suggests, Miyan writes, that India had a special place in God’s scheme of things for the world, which Muslims living in the country need to recognise. The fact that Adam first appeared in the world in India means that the world’s first dar ul-khilafa (‘abode of the Caliphate) was India, because this was where God’s first khalifa or deputy was sent down. The island of Serendip, which can be said to be, in some sense, a part of ‘greater India’, was the first place in the world where God sent his revelation. Adam, the first man and the first prophet, was made out of Indian soil. Since Adam is the father of all human beings, including all the other prophets and the saints, the rest of humanity was also fashioned out of the mud of India, or so Miyan claims.

To reinforce his argument of India being accorded the status of a ‘blessed land’ in the Islamic tradition itself, Miyan notes that some Muslim scholars believe that the oath (ahad) of ‘alast’, which the Qur’an refers to, also took place in India. On that occasion, God gathered all the souls of men who would appear in the world till the Day of Judgment and addressed them, asking them if He was not their Lord (alasto bi rabbikum). All the souls answered that He indeed was. This shows, Miyan writes, that India was the country where the ‘slaves’ (bande) of God first acknowledged Him as Sustainer (rububiyat), from which started the long chain of spiritual advancement of humanity. Through this incident the land of India was ‘brightened (munawwar) by the ‘light of all the prophets’. According to the Qur’an, Miyan adds, at the time of taking the above-mentioned oath, another oath was taken from all the prophets, in which each prophet testified to the prophet who would succeed him. Since the chain of prophets ended with Muhammad, every other prophet testified on that occasion to Muhammad being a prophet, reposing faith in him and promising to help him. This second oath, too, was taken in India. Hence, Miyan writes, ‘India is that holy (muqaddas) land where the chain of religious instruction (rashd-o hidayat), and knowledge of the closeness of God (ma‘arif-i qurb-i ilahi) and salvation in the hereafter (nijat-i akhiravi)’ had its origins.

The story of God having chosen India to send Adam, the first man and the first prophet, has other crucial implications, Miyan suggests, which reinforce the special place that India is said to occupy in the Islamic tradition. Miyan writes, echoing a view held by many Sufis, that the first thing that God created was the nur-i muhammadi or the ‘light of Muhammad’. This light was first put into Adam and was then transferred through all the prophets till it reached Muhammad when he appeared in Mecca. Because Adam lived in India, the first time that the nur-i muhammadi appeared on earth was in India, and the last time that it appeared was in Arabia, this establishing a firm spiritual link between the two lands. In support of this argument, and to underline his assertion of India being a particularly ‘blessed land’, Miyan quotes a verse by Ka‘ab bin Zaheer, a famous poet and a companion of the Prophet: ‘Undoubtedly, the Prophet is a light (nur) from which light is obtained. [He] is God’s naked sword which was made in India (hindustani sakhit ki hai)’.

In this regard, and to further stress his point, Miyan refers to another story, one related by Abu Huraira, a companion of the Prophet, according to which the Prophet is said to have declared that when God sent Gabriel to comfort Adam, Gabriel mentioned to Adam the name of Muhammad, telling him that Muhammad would be the last prophet from among Adam’s children. This shows, Miyan writes, that it was in India that for the first time the Holy Spirit (ruh-i muqaddas) appeared on earth, that the glory (‘azmat) and unity (tauhid) of God was mentioned, and that Muhammad’s prophethood was announced. This further stresses the need, Miyan says, for the Indian Muslims to recognise that ‘it is our good fortune that this India is our beloved country (watan-i ‘aziz)’.

Because India is said to have held a special place in God’s plan for the world, Miyan argues, God has blessed it with numerous assets. The source of all good things (ni‘mat) is heaven, and whatever good things are found on earth are a limited reflection of their heavenly counterparts. All good things that are found in the world were first brought by Adam to India, from where they spread to the rest of the world. This explains, Miyan argues, why India has the ‘largest store of heavenly blessings in the world’, including sweet-smelling plants, spices and fruits. Adam, Miyan tells us, was also taught various crafts, which is the reason why India has always excelled in these fields and hence can rightfully claim to be the ‘first teacher’ ‘ustad ul-awwal’ of the world in many crafts and industries. Besides the Adam connection, Miyan marshals other ‘evidence’ to put forward his claim of India’s special status in Islamic terms. Thus, he writes that some Muslim scholars believe that Noah built his ark in India, and that India was unaffected by the Great Flood in Noah’s time. In addition, several companions of the prophet, thousands of Muslim saints (awliya, ‘abdal), martyrs (shuhada) and pious ‘ulama made India their home and died and were buried here. All these facts clearly suggest, Miyan contends, that from the Islamic point of view the ‘greatness’ of India is ‘undeniable’. Hence, he stresses, it is the religious duty of the Muslims of India to work for the sake of the unity and prosperity of the country as a whole. Hence, too, he suggests, the claim of Hindu ‘nationalists’ to have a monopoly of Indian patriotism and their arrogating to themselves the authority to define the Indian nationalist project must be challenged and countered.

As Deobandi ‘ulama, Madni and Miyan might well be faulted for their conservatism in social matters, such as in matters of gender relations, but their commitment to India’s unity and welfare can hardly be doubted. The two were far from being isolated voices among the ‘ulama of their times. Numerous less well-known ‘ulama also spoke in similar terms, forcefully opposing both the Muslim League as well as the Hindu Mahasabha and Hindu ‘nationalists’ within the Congress. These voices have been deliberately suppressed, however, in order to create the misleading impression of Muslims as inveterate foes of ‘Mother India’. At a time when there is much discussion about the ‘de-saffronisation’ of our textbooks, there is an urgent need to bring voices such as Madni’s and Miyan’s back into our classrooms.



Article published in The Asianists' ASIA Edited by T. Wignesan Centre de Recherches sur les Etudes Asiatiques Paris France



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