Islam in South Asia

The history of Islam in South Asia is as diverse as the millions of individuals across India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh who consider themselves Muslim. There nonetheless are significant and controversial debates over the nature of Islam's expansion in South Asia - whether Hindu communities were forced into conversion, whether it was a peaceful process of intermarriage, whether it was the desire for freedom from the Hindu caste system, or the influence of Sufi missionaries.

Although most texts focus on the Arab conquest of Sind in 711 as marking Islam's arrival in South Asia, in fact Muslims had been living and trading up and down the western coast of India since the 640s. Starting in the eleventh century, conquests led by a series of Afghanistan-based political groups led to the assertion of Muslim political authority over much of the region that now constitutes Pakistan. Building on these endeavors, later Muslim rulers would extend their control across northern India beginning in the last decade of the twelfth century. Under a succession of Muslim dynasties, ones that were either ethnically Turkish or Afghan, Delhi gradually emerged as the most important city in northern India. Consequently, the period between 1206 and 1526 is often referred to as the period of the Delhi Sultanate(s).

Even as various Muslim dynasties sought to extend their political control beyond northern India and into central India, the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed the simultaneous expansion of sufi religious institutions and networks. These sometimes worked in conjunction with Muslim political authorities, sometimes in opposition. Sufis played an especially important role in spreading knowledge about Islam as well as suggesting ways in which Islamic and non-Islamic religious systems might be brought in conversation with one another. As the power of Delhi-based kings weakened in the fifteenth century, a number of important regional Muslim kingdoms emerged in places like Malwa, Gujarat, Bengal, Kashmir, Jaunpur and the Deccan. All were eventually swept away with the rise of the Mughal dynasty.

In 1526, Babur, a Kabul-based, ethnically Turkish prince who claimed to be descended from Genghis Khan and Tamerlane invaded India and conquered Delhi. He established the Mughal dynasty. It would dominate much of northern and central India for almost two hundred years. Although there are no precise figures, the Muslim population in India seems to have risen rapidly during the Mughal period. According to Richard Eaton and others much of the growth occurred in the context of agricultural expansion and the key role played by Sufis in facilitating this process. By the nineteenth century, Muslims were a majority in both the northwestern and northeastern parts of South Asia. In the heartland of the former Mughal empire-namely Hindustan-they remained a minority, however.

Although Mughal decline in the eighteenth century is not linked to the rise of the British, the latter were key beneficiaries of the political fragmentation that followed the weakening of Mughal control. By the early nineteenth century the Mughal ruler based in Delhi had come under British protection. An increasingly uneasy relationship between the Mughals and the British eventually culminated in a decision to abolish the Mughal Empire following a massive anti-British rebellion that encompassed large parts of northern India in 1857-58. Queen Victoria-the then-ruling British sovereign-was now proclaimed empress of India.

During the era of British colonial rule, relations between India's two dominant religious groups-Hindus and Muslims-were gradually transformed. Driving this transformation was British interest in creating what they believed to be "authentic" versions of Islam and Hinduism. As a result, not only were adherents of either religion pitted against one another but more conservative and reified notions of what it meant to be a "Hindu" or "Muslim" also emerged. As religion increasingly became the central axis along which people defined themselves, other previously significant markers of identity, such as ethnic, regional or tribal, lost ground.

In response to growing opposition to British rule towards the end of the nineteenth century, a core of Muslim elites sought refuge in Muslim nationalist politics. Although the idea of a Muslim homeland in South Asia had little currency until the early-to-mid 1940s, the gradual alienation of men like Muhammad Ali Jinnah from the then dominant Indian nationalist party, the Indian National Congress, led them to gravitate towards the idea of an independent Muslim nation-state called "Pakistan." Ultimately, however, it was the agreement of all the major parties in British India that enabled the partition of South Asia to go ahead in 1947.

The creation of an independent India and Pakistan was accompanied by horrific violence and mass migrations as most Hindus and Sikhs fled Pakistan and many Muslims fled India. There also were unresolved political disputes between the two nations. None was more significant than the decision of the Hindu ruler of Kashmir to join India. This was despite the fact that the majority of his population was Muslim. Kashmir's status led to the first war between India and Pakistan in 1948 and the region's partition between Indian and Pakistani-held parts. Instability within the Pakistan eventually resulted in the independence of East Pakistan in 1971, which is now referred to as Bangladesh.

The principle of creating a national identity based on a religious one resulted in divisions within the Muslim community. Some did not agree with the formation of a secular Muslim homeland, believing instead that Islam was a way of life. Muslims in India and Sri Lanka would similarly find themselves questioning their identities as the minority group in their respective countries. Islam in South Asia today, therefore, combines a multitude of histories and experiences.


As the nation deemed to be the South Asian "homeland" for Muslims, Pakistan is the second largest Muslim nation in the world, with 97 percent of its population practicing Islam. Within the Muslim population, around 75 percent are Sunnis and 25 percent are Shi'as. Since independence in 1947, debates surrounding the relationship between Islam and the state remain unresolved; various religious-minded political parties continue to push forcefully for the establishment of a true Islamic state. The nation's gradual Islamization since the 1970s has neither been fast enough nor comprehensive enough for many of them. Islamists are themselves deeply divided, however, between those groups that want to continue working through the existing political system and those that reject its legitimacy. Since 2001, radial Islamist politics has increasingly intersected with and grafted itself upon tribal, regional and class grievances against the Pakistani state.

Population: 176,242,949 (July 2009 estimate)
Head of State; President Asif Ali Zardari
Head of Government: Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani


Muslims are a minority in India; they make up around 14 percent of the population. Most are Sunnis. Less than 10 percent are Shi'as. Indian Muslims are as diverse in region and language, as they are in economic status and political views. Barring important individual exceptions, the Indian Muslim community as a whole has been increasingly marginalized and alienated since the 1970s. The rise of Hindu nationalism and the accompanying communal riots have played an important part in this process. As attested during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, the vast majority of victims tend to be Muslims. The Indian state's continuing inability to fully conciliate Kashmir's Muslim population is another sore point for many Indian Muslims.

Population: 1,166,079,217 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of state: President Pratibha Patil
Head of government: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Sri Lanka

Islam in Sri Lanka developed in relative isolation from the Islam on the subcontinent. First introduced by Arab traders in the seventh century, Islam flourished over the subsequent centuries. Sri Lanka's occupation by successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and British invaders starting in the sixteenth century did not severely impact Islam's continued growth on the island. The Sri Lankan civil war, which began in 1983 and ended in May 2009, caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. The Tamil Tigers, a separatist group who sought to create a Tamil homeland in the north, succeeded in harassing and forcing Muslims out of the region, where they were one-third of the population. Because of Sri Lanka's proximity to southern India, there are powerful Hindu influences on both the cultural and religious history of Islam. Sri Lankan Muslims comprise eight percent of the population. Most are Sunnis although there is a small Shia minority. The main the ethnic categories encompass Moors, Indians, and Malays.

Population: 21,324,791 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of State and Head of Government: President Mahinda Percy Rajapaksa


Prior to its independence, Bangladesh was part of a united Pakistan. Due to a lack of political and economic unity between West Pakistan and East Pakistan, rebellion by the separatist Awami League led to creation of an independent nation in 1971. It is estimated that more than two million people were killed during the struggle for independence. For much of its subsequent history, Bangladesh has been ruled by various military strongmen. Reflecting similar developments in Pakistan, various military rulers sought political legitimacy by recourse to Islamization. Approximately 85 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims. A significant Hindu population continues to live in Bangladesh. For most the past decade, Bangladeshi politics has been dominated by two women-Shaikh Hasina and Begum Zia.

Population: 156,050,883 (July 2009 estimate)
Chief of state: President Zillur Rahman
Head of government: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed

Further Reading

  • Akhtar, M. Saleem and Waheed-uz-Zaman (editors), (1993), Islam in South Asia 
  • Eaton, Richard M, (1993), The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 
  • Esposito, John L. (editor), (2005), South Asia." In The Islamic World: Past and Present 
  • Esposito, John L. (editor),(1995),  Islam in South Asia. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol 2 
  • Lorenzen, David N. (editor), Religious Movements in South Asia, 600-1800
  • Ludden, David, (2002), India and South Asia: A Short History
  • Metcalfe, Barbara, (2009), Islam in South Asia in Practice 
  • Metcalfe, Barbara D. and Thomas R., (2006), A Concise History of Modern India