Expat and Muslim in India
India is notoriously difficult to define or understand, so perhaps more than in other reviews, this piece is a reflection on my experiences rather than an overall judgment of the nation.
India is, in theory, a pluralistic, democratic and secular state where the population is overwhelmingly Hindu, but at least 14% are Muslim. This may sound like a small percentage, but with an overall population estimated at around 1.2 billion, this means around 180 million Muslims. Not surprisingly, Muslims feature heavily in the national psyche, and some of India’s most famous icons (such as the Taj Mahal) were built by Muslims.
Islam in India
Islam was first introduced to India in the 7th century AD, when Arab merchants intrigued the locals of southern India with their faith. In the 8th Century Arab invaders crashed into the northwest of India, in the area now known as Sindh, a province of Pakistan. These two events (and the histories that followed) shaped the experience of Islam in India today; in the south, people see Islam as being woven into the local fabric of life, a sense of ‘adopted’ religion, while in the north, it’s not uncommon to hear of Islam referred to as somehow foreign, and ‘forced’ upon the locals.
Whatever the perception, Islam is undoubtedly central to the idea of the modern Indian identity. Gandhi himself is known to have taken inspiration from, and to have held admiration for the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) and many of his family. One of India’s scheduled languages, Urdu, is a kind of Persianised Hindi, written in a modified Arabic script to aid recitation of the Quran for young learners. Music and films often lovingly hark back to the lavish, cultured Mughal Empire, the Muslim dynasty that ruled parts India for centuries.
No discussion of Islam in India would be complete without mentioning Sufism, the mystical practice of Islam, that largely aided the spread of Islam in the region. Sufi practice was quickly adopted by many, perhaps due to its parallels with existing Indian philosophy and spiritual practice.
India has also been the crucible for much Sufi thought, and thousands of shrines exist to pay tribute to these spiritual philosophers. In such a diverse and broad community, it’s inevitable that other groups would emerge, including Bohra, Khoja and Ahmadiyya, all with their own understanding of Islamic teachings.
Expat and Muslim in India
Being expat in India (particularly a white-skinned expat) is an identity unto itself – I was afforded special treatment while there, and religion was never really part of the discussion. I guess it was assumed that I must have been living a lavish life where God played no large role.
I occasionally had to explain to people that I was Muslim, or that my Hindi was inflected with certain Arabic words because it wasn’t Hindi at all – it was Urdu, the language of Muslim India. The reactions I would get were usually accepting, but uninterested. I got the feeling that was the general feeling towards Muslims from non-Muslims; “it’s fine to be Muslim, but I’m not, so no need to talk about it!” On one occasion I was told to say the Hindi “danyavad” for thank you, instead of the Urdu “shukriya”, because “this is India, and we hate Muslims”, but this was on just one occasion, and it didn’t escalate into anything more. I wonder if he would have said that, had he known I’m Muslim.
Additionally, there seems to be an assumption in some quarters that a white Muslim is simply a typical foreigner going on a temporary spiritual experience while on holidays (like so many do). I got this feeling from some people (who thought Islam was my “interest”), including men at mosques, who talked to me like they had “seen it all before”.
On the whole though, my experience of being expat and Muslim in India was one of being left alone, to “do my thing”, and not given much attention other than for the fact that I was a white-skinned foreigner.
Being Muslim in India is…
I often hear various slogans expressed about Muslims in India; “they’re free”, “they’re just as Indian as anyone else”, “they’re persecuted”, “they’re restricted”, “they’re oppressed”. All of them are true to some extent, however the level of acceptance or oppression seems to depend on a variety of elements, including level of society, level of education, region, city, part of the city, and the political climate of the time. Very occasionally discrimination flares into violence, although considering the demographics, this is less of an occurrence than the media would have us believe.
Sometimes India could be the easiest place on earth to be Muslim, because the number of Muslims and the lack of government diktat on religion allows each person to explore the religion themselves. Halal food is widely available and religious holidays like Eid are protected and celebrated. However, without the backing of a community, Muslims may find themselves discriminated against in Hindu-dominated areas.
On balance, it’s safe to say that being Muslim in India is a widely varied and complex experience, and there is probably one different definition for each Indian Muslim that exists.