MDI Comment: It is common to hear in Islamophobic and Hindu Ultra-Nationalist discourse, the myth that Hindus were massacred and thousands of temples destroyed by Muslim rule in India. However, some of the foremost scholars of Indian history have examined the sources and they skillfully debunk the myth. Islamic rule, generally, was tolerant to non-Muslims and did not force convert them from their religion, nor arbitrarily destroy their places of worship.
Below has been reposted three articles negating the myths of deliberate and targeted temple demolitions and massacres against Hindu populations by historical Muslim rulers of India:
- ‘It’s A Myth That Muslim Rulers Destroyed Thousands Of Temples’ by Revati Laul (interview with Dr Richard Eaton)
- It is High Time to Discard the Pernicious Myth of India’s Medieval Muslim ‘Villains’ by Professor Audrey Truschke
- Mythification of History and ‘Social Common Sense’ By Dr Ram Puniyani
A summary of the History of Islamic India can be found here.
The next time you are stuck in a conversation on whether India was ruled by oppressive Muslim kings or not, whether Hindus were converted en masse to Islam in medieval India, just ‘Richard Eaton’ the phenomenon and you will get your answers
Richard Eaton is the Wikipedia, the Google and, many would argue, the last word on medieval and Islamic history in India. His bibliography is too vast to list, but the vast repertoire includes Islamic History As Global History, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 and Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives. After the destruction of the Babri Masjid and a myriad speculative conversations around how many temples Muslim rulers had destroyed in India, Eaton decided to count. That became a book titled Temple Desecration and Muslim States in Medieval India. In other words, he is the best myth-buster there is and that’s precisely what he did to the audiences at THiNK. Eaton explains why it’s crucial today for us to get our history right. Especially on the period he writes about.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
You are now working on a magnum-opus history of medieval India, often construed as ‘the Muslim period’. Can you explain why the descriptor ‘Muslim period’ doesn’t work for you?
The book I’m working on now is called The Lion and the Lotus. The lion represents Persia and the Lotus, India. It’s the story of two intersecting megapolises — Persian and Sanskrit. The idea is to escape the trap of looking at this period as the endless and dreary chapter of Hindu-Muslim interaction, if not conflict, which is the conventional and historically wrong approach.
Can you explain why this is historically wrong?
Because religion is anachronistic. Contemporary evidence does not support the assumption that religion was the primary sign or indicator of cultural identity. That is a back projection from the 19th and 20th centuries, which is not justified by the evidence. For example, a word that was typically used to describe rulers who came from beyond the Khyber Pass was not ‘musalmaan’ but rather Turushka or Turk. An ethnic, not religious, identity. What’s fascinating is that the early Turkish rulers, the Ghaznavids, began as foreigners and conquerors; over time, they were behaving more and more like Rajput dynasties. Like Mahmud of Ghazni, for instance. He took the basic credo of Islam — “There is no god but Allah” — translated that into Sanskrit and put it down on the coinage to be freely minted in north-western India. It was an attempt to take Arabic words and structure them into Sanskrit vocabulary. This is a history of assimilation and not imposition. In Vijayanagar in the Deccan, you will find that most of the government buildings were built with arches and domes. You think you are inside a mosque but you are not. Vijayanagar had Hindu kings. This means that the aesthetic vision of Iran has seeped into India so much now that it’s accepted as normal.
What about the masses in this period from 1000 to 1800 AD, who were Hindu?
Okay, let’s talk about ordinary people. You find that languages like Telugu, Bengali, Kannada and Marathi have absorbed a huge amount of Persian vocabulary for everyday concerns. Take another example from the Vijayanagar empire in the south. I talk about south India because that’s where Islam did not have as long a penetration as in the north. The Vijayanagar kings had these long audience halls described as hundred-column and thousand-column palaces — hazaarsatoon. A concept that goes all the way back to Persepolis where you literally do have a hundred columns. You take the floor plan of Persepolis, Iran, in the 4th century BC, which is pre-Islamic, and place it side by side with the floor plan of a palace at Vijayanagar. It’s exactly the same. Neither was built by Muslims. Persepolis was built by Zoroastrians in the 3rd or 4th century BC. And Vijayanagar was built by Hindus in the 14th century AD. Neither has anything to do with religion, but both have everything to do with power. It’s like the present day spread of Coca Cola or Tuborg beer. It’s aspirational but not religious. And it all happens over a period of time.
Which is why you also don’t like the use of the word ‘conversions’ for this period? You say conversions suggest a pancake-like flip, which is not how Islam spread. What do you mean by that?
I hate the use of the word ‘conversions’. When I was studying the growth of Islam in Punjab, I came across a fascinating text on the Sial community. It traces their history from the 14th to the 19th century. If you look at the names of these people, you will find that the percentage of Arabic names increased gradually between the 14th and 19th centuries. In the early 14th century, they had no Arabic names. By the late 14th century, 5 percent had Arabic names. It’s not until the late 19th century that 100 percent had Arabic names. So, the identification with Islam is a gradual process because the name you give your child reflects your ethos and the cultural context in which you live. The same holds true when you look at the name assigned to god. In the 16th century, the words Muslims in Bengal used for god were Prabhu or Niranjan etc — Sanskrit or Bengali words. It’s not until the 19th century that the word Allah is used. In both Punjab and Bengal, the process of Islamisation is a gradual one. That’s why the word ‘conversion’ is misleading — it connotes a sudden and complete change. All your previous identities are thrown out. That’s not how it happens. When you talk about an entire society, you are talking about a very gradual, glacial experience.
You also examined at length the destruction of temples in this period. What did you find?
The temple discourse is huge in India and this is something that needs to be historicised. We need to look at the contemporary evidence. What do the inscriptions and contemporary chronicles say? What was so striking to me when I went into that project after the destruction of the Babri Masjid was that nobody had actually looked at the contemporary evidence. People were just saying all sorts of things about thousands of temples being destroyed by medieval Muslim kings. I looked at inscriptions, chronicles and foreign observers’ accounts from the 12th century up to the 18th century across South Asia to see what was destroyed and why. The big temples that were politically irrelevant were never harmed. Those that were politically relevant — patronised by an enemy king or a formerly loyal king who becomes a rebel — only those temples are wiped out. Because in the territory that is annexed to the State, all the property is considered to be under the protection of the State. The total number of temples that were destroyed across those six centuries was 80, not many thousands as is sometimes conjectured by various people. No one has contested that and I wrote that article 10 years ago.
Even the history of Aurangzeb, you say, is badly in need of rewriting.
Absolutely. Let’s start with his reputation for temple destruction. The temples that he destroyed were not those associated with enemy kings, but with Rajput individuals who were formerly loyal and then become rebellious. Aurangzeb also built more temples in Bengal than any other Mughal ruler.
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 10 Issue 47, Dated 23 November 2013)
Posted on the Wire, 9th January 2016
It is High Time to Discard the Pernicious Myth of India’s Medieval Muslim ‘Villains’
Whatever happened in the past, religious-based violence is real in modern India, and Muslims are frequent targets. It is thus disingenuous to single out Indian Muslim rulers for condemnation without owning up to the modern valences of that focus.
The idea that medieval Muslim rulers wreaked havoc on Indian culture and society – deliberately and due to religious bigotry – is a ubiquitous notion in 21st century India. Few people seem to realise that the historical basis for such claims is shaky to non-existent. Fewer openly recognise the threat that such a misreading of the past poses for modern India.
Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal Emperor (r. 1658-1707), is perhaps the most despised of India’s medieval Muslim rulers. People cite various alleged “facts” about Aurangzeb’s reign to support their contemporary condemnation, few of which are true. For instance, contrary to widespread belief, Aurangzeb did not destroy thousands of Hindu temples. He did not perpetrate anything approximating a genocide of Hindus. He did not instigate a large-scale conversion program that offered millions of Hindu the choice of Islam or the sword.
In short, Aurangzeb was not the Hindu-hating, Islamist tyrant that many today imagine him to have been. And yet the myth of malevolent Aurangzeb is seemingly irresistible and has captured politicians, everyday people, and even scholars in its net. The damage that this idea has done is significant. It is time to break this mythologized caricature of the past wide open and lay bare the modern biases, politics, and interests that have fuelled such a misguided interpretation of India’s Islamic history.
A recent article on this website cites a series of inflammatory claims about Indo-Muslim kings destroying premodern India’s Hindu culture and population. The article admits that “these figures are drawn from the air” and historians give them no credence. After acknowledging that the relevant “facts” are false, however, the article nonetheless posits that precolonial India was populated by “religious chauvinists,” like Aurangzeb, who perpetrated religiously-motivated violence and thus instigated “historical injustices” to which Hindus can rightly object today. This illogical leap from a confessed lack of reliable information to maligning specific rulers is the antithesis of proper history, which is based on facts and analysis rather than unfounded assumptions about the endemic, unchanging nature of a society.
A core aspect of the historian’s craft is precisely that we cannot assume things about the past. Historians aim to recover the past and to understand historical figures and events on their own terms, as products of their time and place. That does not mean that historians sanitise prior events. Rather we refrain from judging the past by the standards of the present, at least long enough to allow ourselves to glimpse the logic and dynamics of a historical period that may be radically different from our own.
Going back more than a millennium earlier, Hindu rulers were the first to come up with the idea of sacking one another’s temples, before Muslims even entered the Indian subcontinent. But one hears little about these “historical wrongs”
In the case of Indian Muslim history, a core notion that is hard for modern people to wrap our heads around is as follows: It was not all about religion.
Aurangzeb, for instance, acted in ways that are rarely adequately explained by religious bigotry. For example, he ordered the destruction of select Hindu temples (perhaps a few dozen, at most, over his 49-year reign) but not because he despised Hindus. Rather, Aurangzeb generally ordered temples demolished in the aftermath of political rebellions or to forestall future uprisings. Highlighting this causality does not serve to vindicate Aurangzeb or justify his actions but rather to explain why he targeted select temples while leaving most untouched. Moreover, Aurangzeb also issued numerous orders protecting Hindu temples and communities from harassment, and he incorporated more Hindus into his imperial administration than any Mughal ruler before him by a fair margin. These actions collectively make sense if we understand Aurangzeb’s actions within the context of state interests, rather than by ascribing suspiciously modern-sounding religious biases to him.
Regardless of the historical motivations for events such as premodern temple destructions, a certain percentage of modern Indians nonetheless feel wronged by their Islamic past. What is problematic, they ask, about recognising historical injustices enacted by Muslim figures? In this regard, the contemporaneity of debates over Indian history is crucial to understanding why the Indo-Islamic past is singled out.
For many people, condemnations of Aurangzeb and other medieval Indian rulers stem not from a serious assessment of the past but rather from anxieties over India’s present and future, especially vis-à-vis its Muslim minority population. After all, one might ask: If we are recognising injustices in Indian history, why are we not also talking about Hindu rulers? When judged according to modern standards, medieval rulers the world over measure up poorly, and Hindu kings are no exception. Medieval Hindu political leaders destroyed mosques periodically, for instance, including in Aurangzeb’s India. Going back more than a millennium earlier, Hindu rulers were the first to come up with the idea of sacking one another’s temples, before Muslims even entered the Indian subcontinent. But one hears little about these “historical wrongs” for one reason: They were perpetrated by Hindus rather than Muslims.
Religious bigotry may not have been an overarching problem in India’s medieval past, but it is a crucial dynamic in India’s present. Religious-based violence is real in modern India, and Muslims are frequent targets. Non-lethal forms of discrimination and harassment are common. Fear is part of everyday life for many Indian Muslims. Thus, when scholars compare medieval Islamic rulers like Aurangzeb to South Africa’s twentieth-century apartheid leaders, for example, they not only display a surprising lack of commitment to the historical method but also provide fodder for modern communal fires.
It is high time we discarded the pernicious myth of India’s medieval Muslim villains. This poisonous notion imperils the tolerant foundations of modern India by erroneously positing religious-based conflict and Islamic extremism as constant features of life on the subcontinent. Moreover, it is simply bad history. India has a complicated and messy past, and we do it and ourselves no justice by flattening its nuances to reflect the religious tensions of the present.
Audrey Truschke is a historian at Stanford University and Rutgers University-Newark. Her first book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court will be published by Columbia University Press and Penguin India in 2016. She is currently working on a book on Aurangzeb that will published by Juggernaut Books.
Published in the Milli Gazette
Mythification of History and ‘Social Common Sense’ By Ram Puniyani
The discipline of history has come to the center stage of social debate for last two decades. We have witnessed a worsening of inter-community relations and spreading of derogatory myths against minority communities in particular and weaker sections of society in general. The rising tide of communal violence is standing on the myths against the minority community, which are based on a particular interpretation of history.
These myths are very peculiar. When scratched a little, one can see the falsity of the same. In our context the period of medieval times is the one maximally misused for manufacturing such myths. It should be noted that the bias of our history is towards the kings and heroes of the past and toilers, women, slaves, shudras, the poor peasants, the sections which make the history by providing the very ground on which these ‘nobles’ stand, are missing from the discourse of history.
In today’s parlance many a myths have assumed the status of unshakable facts. Generally it is assumed that Muslim kings destroyed Hindu temples to spite the Hindus. Today’s ‘social common sense’ believes that not only Somnath temple but also Ram Janm bhumi temple, Kashi Vishwanth temple, the Mathura Krishna Janmasthan and thousands of other temples have been destroyed by the Mughal aggressors. The general and sweeping statement apart let us have a look at some of these demolitions. Mahmud Gazni on way to Somanth encountered the Muslim ruler of Multan (Abdul Fat Dawod), with whom he had to have a battle to cross Multan. In the battle the Jama Masjid of Multan was badly damaged. Further on way he struck compromise with Anandpal, the ruler of Thaneshwar who escorted his army towards Somanth with due hospitality. Gazni’s army had a good number of Hindu soldiers and five out of his 12 generals were Hindus (Tilak, Rai Hind, Sondhi, Hazran etc). Before proceeding to damage the temple he took custody of the gold and jewels, which were part of the temple treasury. After the battle he issued coins in his name with inscriptions in Sanskrit and appointed a Hindu Raja as his representative in Somnath. Similarly Dr. Pattabhi Sitarammaiya in his History of India describes the circumstances under which the Kashi Vishwanth temple had to be razed to the ground. He states that when Aurangzeb’s entourage was on way from Delhi to Kolkata the Hindu queens requested for the overnight stay in Kashi to enable them to have the Darshan of Lord Vishwananth. Next morning one of the queens who had gone to have the holy prayer did not return and was found in the basement of the temple, dishonored and raped by the Mahant of the temple. The Mahant was punished and the temple was razed to the ground as it had become polluted due to this ghastly act. Aurangzeb gave land and state support to build another temple.
It should be noted that Hindu Kings were not far behind in attacking and damaging temples when it became a political necessity for their rule or for the lust of wealth. Retreating Maratha armies destroyed the temple of Srirangtatanm, to humiliate Tipu Sultan whom they could not defeat in the battle. Parmar kings destroyed Jain temples. A Hindu king called Shashank cut off the Bodhi tree where Lord Gautam Buddha got his Nirvana. Similarly Kalhan a Kashmiri poet describes the life of King Harshdev of Kashmir, who appointed a special officer, Devotpatan Nayak (An officer who uproots the images of Gods) to usurp the gold from the temples. Aurangzeb did not hesitate to destroy the Jama Masjid in Golconda as Nawab Tanashah refused to pay him tribute for three consecutive years and hid his wealth underneath a mosque, which was damaged by Aurangzeb to recover his ‘dues’. Also many a Muslim kings gave Jagirs to the temples to keep their subjects happy. It is clear that kings from both the religions destroyed the places of worship for the sake of amassing wealth or for other political purposes.
Similarly the myth that Islam spread on the point of sword is equally baseless. It is true that many a ruling nobles and Rajas adopted Islam to rise in the hierarchy of the Mughal emperors. Also some families must have adopted Islam out of fear of the Muslim kings. But this conversion is a small trickle compared to the majority of Dalits (then called untouchables), the poor toiling peasants who took to Islam to escape the tyranny of Brahmins and zamindars. This was out of a longing for social justice, which prompted them to interact with the Sufi saints who unlike Ulama were mixing with the poor and the deprived of the society and adopted local idioms. It was in response to the appeal of peaceful Sufis and the longing to achieve social justice that majority of Shudras got converted to Islam.
Similarly the glorification of Shivaji and Rana Pratap for establishing Hindu Kingdoms is a total myth. Rana Pratap was longing for a higher status in the Mughal administration and having been denied that, entered into a battle with Mughal king Akbar. Now this was by no means a fight between Hindus and Muslims. Akbar was represented in the battle by Raja Mansing and an army, which was a mix of Rajput soldiers and Muslim soldiers, while Rana Pratap’s army also had Muslim (Pathan) and Rajput soldiers. His second in command was Hakim Khan Sur, whose mazar is the place of annual festival in Haldi Ghati even today. After Rana Pratap, his son Amar Singh was granted higher status in Mughal administration and he became a close ally of Jehangir. Similarly Shivaji was struggling for removal of corruption and a higher control of local resources, His confidential secretary was Maulavi Haider Ali, and the chief of his cannon division was Ibrahim Gardi.
Also his close ally at the time of his escape from Agra forte was none other than Madari Mehtar, a Muslim prince in whom Shivaji reposed all his trust.
His respect for other religions is legendry. He had built a mosque near the temple in front of his fort in Raigadh. He paid obeisance to Muslim seers (Hazrat Baba Yakut Bahut Thorwale) and Fr. Ambrose Pinto of Surat. The battles of Guru Govind Singh were far from religious. Though the torture of his children and the carrot of pardon in lieu of conversion to Islam are true, it was more to humiliate the enemy than to spread the religion by the Muslim kings. It must be remembered that Govind Singh had proceeded to Deccan to strike a compromise with Aurangzeb but when on way he came to know of Aurangzeb’s death. Later the compromise was struck with Bahadur Shah in return for higher status in administration. We also cannot forget that when most of the Indian kings felt the stifling policies of British rulers they requested Bahadushah Zafar, who despite his old age accepted the leadership of the rebellion at great personal cost. Also it is worth remembering that many a ideologues regard this anti British rebellion as the ‘First war of Independence’.
We cannot ignore the fact that kings were primarily rulers out to expand their empires or to aspire for a higher status in the administration or to garner more wealth through whatever means.
Some of the myths from the ancient Indian period are also worth recounting. It is asserted that women had a place of honor in ancient India where they were worshipped. This ‘Indian value based place of woman’ is offered as a contrast to the ‘Western campaigns’ of Women’s Liberation movement. Now we know that Manusmriti, the 2-3rd century AD text, makes the position and treatment of women in ancient India very clear for us. As per this: Women (and also shudras) were denied access to sacred learning, and the substitute offered to them was marriage and serving the husband. Also for women performance of household duties was identified with the worship of sacred fire i.e. total domesticity was the domain of women. They were to be under control of father, husband or son depending on the stage of their life, and even in her own house she was not supposed to do anything on her own.
The other myth from this period is about the untouchability. It is being propagated that Untouchability is the creation of Islam. Communities escaped to Jungles etc. to avoid conversion by the tyrannical Mughal rulers, became poor and untouchables. Contrary to this, in fact, the truth is something else. The truth exposes the brutality of Brahminical ideology. First of all, untouchability became the accompaniment of `caste’ system, somewhere around first century AD. That is from first century itself untouchability is the social practice prevalent here. Manusmriti, codifies the then existing practices, which show in utmost clarity the type of despicable social practices, which the upper castes were imposing upon the weaker, lower castes. Now the major incursion, invasions of Muslims began in the subcontinent from 11th century AD. Much before the invasion of Muslim Kings shudras were, treated as untouchables.
The discipline of history is a double-edged weapon. When developed in a rational way with the focus on the lives of the people and communities at large it acts as a cementing force between different communities, in the hands of communalists the same History becomes a mechanism to spread hatred against the ‘other’ community.
(Dr. Ram Puniyani teaches at IIT Mumbai and is member of EKTA, Committee for Communal Amity, Mumbai)
Below is a video by Dr. Ram Puniyani detailing counter-arguments to historical misinformation by ultra-nationalists in India.