Islam in South Asia

Overview of Islam in the subcontinent

Muslims of South Asia
South Asia UN.png
Total population
c. 600+ million approx. (2020)[1][needs update]
(32% of the population) Increase
Regions with significant populations
Pakistan Pakistan234,923,000[2][a]
India India209,000,000[3][4][b]
Bangladesh Bangladesh150,400,000[5][c]
Afghanistan Afghanistan40,000,000[6][d]
Sri Lanka Sri Lanka1,970,000[7][e]
Nepal Nepal1,160,000[8][f]
Maldives Maldives560,000[9][10][g]
Bhutan Bhutan727[11][12][h]
Predominantly Sunni Islam

Islam is the second-largest religion in South Asia, with more than half a billion Muslims living there, forming about one-third of the region's population. Islam existed in South Asian communities along the Arab coastal trade routes in Sindh, Bengal, Gujarat, Malabar, and Ceylon as soon as the religion originated and had gained early acceptance in the Arabian Peninsula. South Asia has the largest population of Muslims in the world, with about one-third of all Muslims being from South Asia.[15][16] Islam is the dominant religion in half of the South Asian countries (Pakistan, Maldives, Bangladesh and Afghanistan). In India, Islam is the second-largest religion while in Sri Lanka and Nepal it is the third-largest religion.

The Barwada Mosque in Ghogha, Gujarat built before 623 CE, Cheraman Juma Mosque (629 CE) in Methala, Kerala and Palaiya Jumma Palli (630 CE) in Kilakarai, Tamil Nadu are three of the first mosques in South Asia.[17][18][19][20][21] According to the Legend of Cheraman Perumals, the first Indian mosque was built in 624 AD at Kodungallur in present-day Kerala with the mandate of the last the ruler (the Cheraman Perumal) of Chera dynasty, who converted to Islam during the lifetime of the Islamic prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632). On a similar note, Tamil Muslims on the eastern coasts also claim that they converted to Islam in Muhammad's lifetime. The local mosques date to the early 700s.[22]

The first incursion occurred through sea by Caliph Umar’s governor of Bahrain, Usman ibn Abu al-Aas, who sent his brother Hakam ibn Abu al-Aas to raid and reconnoitre the Makran region[23] around 636 CE or 643 AD long before any Arab army reached the frontier of India by land. Al-Hakim ibn Jabalah al-Abdi, who attacked Makran in the year 649 AD, was an early partisan of Ali ibn Abu Talib.[24] During the caliphate of Ali, many Hindu Jats of Sindh had come under the influence of Shi'ism[25] and some even participated in the Battle of Camel and died fighting for Ali.[24]

After the Rashidun Caliphate, role of Islam was significantly diminished throughout the Muslim world as the Muslim political dynasties came to power.


A small Muslim presence in South Asia was established on the southern coasts of India and Sri Lanka in the early eighth century.[22] A commercial Middle Eastern presence on South Asia's western coasts pre-dated the emergence of Islam. With the rise of Islam the Arab arrivals became Muslims.[26] The Muslim mercantile community received patronage from the local non-Muslim rulers. Intermarriages with the local population in addition to further arrivals and conversions increased the Muslim population.[22] The Muslim population became more indigenous with the birth of children to Arab merchants married with local women.[26] Moreover, local non-Muslim authorities sent children to the Arabs to have them learn maritime skills.[27]

A rebuilt structure of the old Cheraman Juma Mosque at Kodungallur, Kerala

According to popular tradition, Islam was brought to Lakshadweep islands, situated just to the west of Malabar Coast, by Ubaidullah in 661 CE. His grave is believed to be located on the island of Andrott.[28] A few Umayyad (661–750 AD) coins were discovered from Kothamangalam in the eastern part of Ernakulam district, Kerala.[29] According to the Legend of Cheraman Perumals, the first Indian mosque was built in 624 AD at Kodungallur in present-day Kerala with the mandate of the last the ruler (the Cheraman Perumal) of Chera dynasty, who converted to Islam during the lifetime of Muhammad (c. 570–632).[30][31][32][33] According to Qissat Shakarwati Farmad, the Masjids at Kodungallur, Kollam, Madayi, Barkur, Mangalore, Kasaragod, Kannur, Dharmadam, Panthalayini, and Chaliyam, were built during the era of Malik Dinar, and they are among the oldest Masjids in Indian Subcontinent.[34] It is believed that Malik Dinar was died at Thalangara in Kasaragod town.[35] On a similar note, Tamil Muslims on the eastern coasts also claim that they converted to Islam in Muhammad's lifetime. The local mosques date to the early 700s.[22]

According to Derryl N. Maclean, a link between Sindh and early partisans of Ali or proto-Shi'ites can be traced to Hakim ibn Jabalah al-Abdi, a companion of Muhammad, who traveled across Sind to Makran in the year 649AD and presented a report on the area to the Caliph. He supported Ali, and died in the Battle of the Camel alongside Sindhi Jats.[36] He was also a poet and few couplets of his poem in praise of Ali ibn Abu Talib have survived, as reported in Chachnama:[37]


ليس الرزيه بالدينار نفقدة

ان الرزيه فقد العلم والحكم

وأن أشرف من اودي الزمان به

أهل العفاف و أهل الجود والكرم [38]

"Oh Ali, owing to your alliance (with the prophet) you are truly of high birth, and your example is great, and you are wise and excellent, and your advent has made your age an age of generosity and kindness and brotherly love".[39] However this translation is incorrect, a correct translation is:

"Calamity is not by the dinar and its loss

Calamity is the loss of knowledge and wisdom/justice

And the most honored time brought by

The people of piety, goodness, and generosity"

During the reign of Ali, many Jats came under the influence of Islam.[40] Harith ibn Murrah Al-abdi and Sayfi ibn Fil' al-Shaybani, both officers of Ali's army, attacked Sindhi bandits and chased them to Al-Qiqan (present-day Quetta) in the year 658.[41] Sayfi was one of the seven partisans of Ali who were beheaded alongside Hujr ibn Adi al-Kindi[42] in 660AD, near Damascus.

Political history (Umayyads onwards)

Under the Umayyads (661 – 750 AD), many Shias sought asylum in the region of Sindh, to live in relative peace in the remote area. After the Islamic conquest of Persia was completed, the Muslim Arabs then began to move towards the lands east of Persia and in 652 captured Herat.[43] In 712 CE, a young Arab general Muhammad bin Qasim conquered most of the Indus region for the Umayyad empire, to be made the "As-Sindh" province with its capital at Al-Mansurah.[44][45][46][47][48] By the end of the 10th century CE, the region was ruled by several Hindu Shahi kings who would be subdued by the Ghaznavids. Islam arrived in North India in the 12th century via the invasions of Ghurids conquest.

The Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire have ruled most of South Asia and the Bengal Sultanate, the Deccan sultanates and the Sur Empire have played major economic and political roles.[49][50] The peak of the Islamic rule in India was marked under the sharia and proto-industrialised[51] reign of emperor Aurangzeb, the world's largest economy, upon the compilation and establishment of the Fatawa Alamgiri.[52][53][54] Muslim power quickly vaporized in the early 18th century after their defeat in wars[55] and attacks.[56] Mughals were replaced with Rajputs, the Marathas, Sikhs in Punjab, the Jats and smaller Muslim states competing for power with the British East India Company. Islamic scholars reacted slowly to the British rule. The British authorities' westernisation policies effectively destroyed the exclusive hold of the ulama over education and curtailed their administrative influence. After Mughal India's collapse, Tipu Sultan's Kingdom of Mysore based in South India, which witnessed partial establishment of sharia-based economic and military policies i.e. Fathul Mujahidin, replaced Bengal ruled by the Nawabs of Bengal as South Asia's foremost economic territory.[57][58] Later, the partition of India displaced between 10 and 20 million people along religious lines with estimates of the loss of life up to two million in the newly constituted dominions. Hyderabad, the last major Muslim princely state was annexed in 1948 by the modern Republic of India.[59]

The ideological character of Pakistan has been disputed, with Jinnah's 11 August speech apparently supportive of the notion that the state was formed simply to protect Muslim interests but the ulama envisioning Pakistan as an Islamic state. After Pakistan's general election, the 1973 Constitution was created by the elected Parliament,[60] which declared Pakistan as an Islamic Republic and Islam as its state religion. In the years preceding Zia-ul-Haq's coup, Pakistan's leftist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto faced vigorous opposition under the revivalist banner of Nizam-e-Mustafa ("Rule of the prophet").[61] After Zia-ul-Haq's Islamisation and Musharraf's military rule, the 2008 election brought back regular political parties instead of the religious parties.

In Afghanistan, the 1931 Constitution made Hanafi Shariah the state religion, while the 1964 Constitution simply prescribed that the state should conduct its religious ritual according to the Hanafi school. The 1977 Constitution declared Islam the religion of Afghanistan, but made no mention that the state ritual should be Hanafi. In Bangladesh, Islam became the state religion by a constitutional amendment in 1988. In India, the administration of Islamic affairs in each state is headed by the Mufti of the State under the supervision of the Grand Mufti of India.[citation needed]


The Islamic ambitions of the sultans and Mughals had concentrated in expanding Muslim power, not in seeking converts. Evidence of the absence of systematic programs for conversion is the reason for the concentration of South Asia's Muslim populations outside the main core of the Muslim polities[62] in the northeast and northwest regions of the subcontinent, which were on the peripheries of Muslim states.[63]

Another theory propounds that Indians embraced Islam to obtain privileges. There are several historical cases which apparently bolster this view. Ibn Battuta records that Khalaji sultans rewarded converts with robes. Old censuses report that many landed north Indian families became Muslim to avoid penalties for failure to pay taxes. This view could encompass Sind's Amils, Maharashtra's Parasnis and the Kayasthas and Khatris who fostered Islamic traditions under government service. However, this theory cannot resolve the large amount of conversions in the peripheral regions of Bengal and Punjab because state support would diminish further out from their main areas.[64]

One view among historians is that converts seeking to escape the Brahmin dominated caste structure were attracted to Sufi egalitarianism.[62] This notion has been popular among South Asian, particularly Muslim, historians.[65] But there is no relation between the areas with significant numbers of conversions and those regions with Brahminical influence.[62] The areas which the 1872 census found to have Muslim majorities had not only been distant from the core of the Muslim states but had also not been assimilated into the Hindu and Buddhist communal structures by the time of Islam's advent in those areas. Bengali converts were mostly indigenous peoples who only had light contact with Brahminism. A similar scenario applied with the Jat clans which ultimately made up the mass of the Punjabi Muslim community.[66]

The Sufis did not preach egalitarianism, but played an important role in integrating agricultural settlements with the larger contemporary cultures. In areas where Sufis received grants and supervised clearing of forestry they had the role of mediating with worldly and divine authority. Richard Eaton has described the significance of this in the context of West Punjab and East Bengal, the two main areas to develop Muslim majorities.[67] The partition was eventually made possible because of the concentration of Muslim majorities in northwest and northeast India.[68] The overwhelming majority of the subcontinent's Muslims live in regions which became Pakistan in 1947.[69]

The Islamisation of Bengal and South Asia in general was very slow. The process can be seen to comprise three different features. Richard Eaton describes them, in order, as inclusion, identification and displacement. In the inclusion process Islamic agencies were added to Bengali cosmology. In the identification process the Islamic agencies fused with the Bengali deities. In the displacement process the Islamic agencies took the place of the local deities.[70]

Punjabis and Bengalis retained their pre-Islamic practices.[71] The premier challenge to the purity of Islam in medieval South Asia had neither been from the court nor from the Maratha raids, but from the rural converts, who were ignorant of Islamic requirements, and from the influence of Hinduism in their lives.[72] Punjabis, in the words of Mohammed Mujeeb, relied spiritually on magic[73] while Bengali Muslims were reported to participate in Durga Puja, worship of Sitala and Rakshya Kali and resorting to Hindu astrologers[citation needed]. In both Punjab and Bengal Islam was viewed as just one of several methods to seek redress for ordinary problems.[74]

These nominal conversions to Islam, brought about by regional Muslim polities, were followed by reforms, especially after the 17th century, in which Muslims integrated with the larger Muslim world. Improved transport services in the nineteenth century brought Muslim masses into contact with Mecca which facilitated reformist movements stressing Quranic literalism and making people aware of the differences between Islamic commands and their actual practices.[74]

Islamic reformist movements, such as the Fara'izi, in the nineteenth century rural Bengal aimed to remove indigenous folk practices from Bengali Islam and commit the population exclusively to Allah and Muhammad.[75] Politically the reform aspect of conversion, emphasizing exclusiveness, continued with the Pakistan movement for a separate Muslim state[74] and a cultural aspect was the assumption of Arab culture.[76]


Muslims Percentage by Country[77][78][79][80][81][82][83][84][85]
Country Percent
 Sri Lanka

Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and the Maldives are Muslim-majority countries. India, a Hindu-majority country with a Muslim population of 14.5%, has the largest Muslim population outside of the Muslim-majority countries.[86]



The British authorities' westernisation policies effectively destroyed the exclusive hold of the ulama over education and curtailed their administrative influence. In an environment where the Muslim community lacked power, the ulama invested their efforts into maintaining the Muslim society. The most significant efforts were spearheaded by those ulama who followed Shah Wali Allah and were inspired by Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi's jihad. However, the failure of the 1857 rebellion and the British reaction ensured that their jihad would take a different form. Following Barelvi's reformism they emphasized sharia and study of the revealed rather than rational sciences.[87]

They shunned all British, Hindu and Shia influences and only permitted some Sufi practices while completely proscribing the concept of intercession at the shrines. These ulama concentrated at the Deoband madrasa which was established by Muhammad Qasim Nanawtwi and Rashıd Ahmad Gangohi in 1867. They stressed the scripture. According to them knowledge of divine law and expected Muslim behavior was a prerequisite for conserving the Muslim community in the British era.[87] Lacking state power, they also encouraged the role of the individual conscience to ensure compliance with the law.[88] They urged followers to ponder over their actions and evoked Judgement Day.[89]


A movement with Pre-reformist conceptions and fueled by resistance to reform, was founded in the late 19th century by Ahmed Raza Khan. He justified the traditional Sunni Islam associated with obtaining intercession to God from saints, with his scholarly Hanafi credentials. If Deobandis had wanted to preserve Islam as they perceived it to be in the Hanafi texts, the Barelvis desired to preserve Islam as they understood it in the nineteenth century subcontinent. They propagated their ideas eagerly and denounced, sometimes even with violence, the Ahl-i Hadith and Deobandis, rejecting their reformist ideas in favour of the Sufi practices that had been widespread in the Indian subcontinent for centuries.[89]

Ahmad Raza Khan sought to highlight even more highly the status of Muhammad. He emphasised the Sufi belief pertaining to Muhammad's light. By approving the shrines Ahmad Raza Khan catered to the needs of the illiterate rural population. He shared with his contemporaries the emphasis on Muhammad, who stressed emulation of his life.[90]

Ahl-e Hadith

The Ahl i Hadith shared the Deobandis' reformist and revivalist roots but believed that they did not do enough. Their religious ideas were more radical, more sectarian and they came from a more elite class. They shared the Deobandis' commitment to cleansing Muslim culture of acts not in compliance with the Sharia. But while the Deobandis espoused taqlid and embraced the Islamic scholarship they had inherited, the Ahl i Hadith repudiated it and directly used the textual sources of the Quran and Sunnah and advocated deploying the methodologies used by the original jurists of the Islamic schools of thought. This methodology meant that the followers would have a heavy individual duty. To enforce this duty the Ahl i Hadith completely spurned Sufism. They feared judgement day and the writings of Nawab Siddiq Hasan, a prominent member, reflected fear of doomsday.[91]


Muslim communities in India apply a system of social stratification. It developed as a result of ethnic segregation between the foreign conquerors (Ashraf) and the local converts (Ajlaf).

Indian Muslims were primarily divided ethnically between the Ashraf, descendants of Afghan and Middle Eastern arrivals, and the Ajlaf, who were descended from native converts. The ashraf were distinguished by their urbane culture and they included the Sayeds, Sheikhs, Mughals and Pathans. The highest percentage claiming foreign ancestry was in the UP (where 41.1 percent declared foreign roots in the 1931 census)[14] with Urdu as their language. The ashraf comprised landowning, administrative and professional echelons of society and are known to be the principal pioneers of Muslim separatism as they would have been impacted most by Hindu domination.[68] Most Indian Muslims were ajlaf and spoke regional languages such as Punjabi, Bengali, Sindhi, and Malayalam.[92] They were mainly peasants, merchants and craftsmen such as weavers.

See also

Islam by country
Islam percent population in each nation World Map Muslim data by Pew Research.svg
World percentage of Muslims by country
 Islam portal
  • v
  • t
  • e


  1. ^ 2022 est.
  2. ^ 2021 est.
  3. ^ 2022 Census
  4. ^ 2020 est.
  5. ^ 2012 Census
  6. ^ 2011 Census
  7. ^ 2021 Census
  8. ^ 2020 est.



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