Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Islam in India
Islam is India's largest minority religion, with Muslims officially comprising 12.1 percent of the country's population, or 128 million people as of 2004. The largest concentrations--about 52 percent of all Muslims in India--live in the states of Bihar (12 million), West Bengal (16 million), and Uttar Pradesh (24 million), according to the 1991 census. Muslims represent a majority of the local populations only in Jammu and Kashmir (not tabulated in 1991 but 65 percent in 1981) and Lakshadweep (94 percent). As a faith with its roots outside South Asia, Islam also offers some striking contrasts to those religions that originated in India.
Islamic Traditions in South Asia
Muslims practice a series of life-cycle rituals that differ from those of Hindus, Jains, or Buddhists.
A significant aspect of Islam in India is the importance of shrines attached to the memory of great Sufi saints. Sufism is a mystical path (tarika) as distinct from the path of the sharia. A Sufi attains a direct vision of oneness with God, often on the edges of orthodox behavior, and can thus become a pir (living saint) who may take on disciples ([murid]s) and set up a spiritual lineage that can last for generations. Orders of Sufis became important in India during the thirteenth century following the ministry of Muinuddin Chishti (1142-1236), who settled in Ajmer, Rajasthan, and attracted large numbers of converts to Islam because of his holiness. His Chishtiyya order went on to become the most influential Sufi lineage in India, although other orders from Central Asia and Southwest Asia also reached to India and played a large role in the spread of Islam. Many Sufis were well known for weaving music, dance, intoxicants, and local folktales into their songs and lectures. In this way, they created a large literature in regional languages that embedded Islamic culture deeply into older South Asian traditions.
In the case of many great teachers, the memory of their holiness has been so intense that they are still viewed as active intercessors with God, and their tombs have become the site of rites and prayers by disciples and lay people alike. Tales of miraculous deeds associated with the tombs of great saints have attracted large numbers of pilgrims attempting to gain cures for physical maladies or solutions to personal problems. The tomb of the pir thus becomes a dargah (gateway) to God and the focus for a wide range of rituals, such as daily washing and decoration by professional attendants, touching or kissing the tomb or contact with the water that has washed it, hanging petitions on the walls of the shrine surrounding the tomb, and giving money.
The descendants of the original pir are sometimes seen as inheritors of his spiritual energy, and, as pirs in their own right, they might dispense amulets sanctified by contact with them or with the tomb. The annual celebration of the pir's death is a major event at important shrines, attracting hundreds of thousands of devotees for celebrations that may last for days. Free communal kitchens and distribution of sweets are also big attractions of these festivals, at which Muslim fakirs, or wandering ascetics, sometimes appear and where public demonstrations of self-mortification, such as miraculous piercing of the body and spiritual possession of devotees, sometimes occur. Every region of India can boast of at least one major Sufi shrine that attracts expressive devotion, which remains important, especially for Muslim women.
The leadership of the Muslim community has pursued various directions in the evolution of Indian Islam during the twentieth century. The most conservative wing has typically rested on the education system provided by the hundreds of religious training institutes (madrasa) throughout the country, which have tended to stress the study of the Qur'an and Islamic texts in Arabic and Persian, and have focused little on modern managerial and technical skills. Several national movements have emerged from this sector of the Muslim community. The Jamaati Islami (Islamic Party), founded in 1941, advocates the establishment of an overtly Islamic government through peaceful, democratic, and nonmissionary activities. It had about 3,000 active members and 40,000 sympathizers in the mid-1980s. The Tablighi Jamaat (Outreach Society) became active after the 1940s as a movement, primarily among the ulama, stressing personal renewal, prayer, a missionary and cooperative spirit, and attention to orthodoxy. It has been highly critical of the kind of activities that occur in and around Sufi shrines and remains a minor if respected force in the training of the ulama. Other ulama have upheld the legitimacy of mass religion, including exaltation of pirs and the memory of the Prophet. A powerful secularizing drive led to the founding of Aligarh Muslim University (founded in 1875 as the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College)--with its modern curriculum--and other major Muslim universities. This educational drive has remained the most dominant force in guiding the Muslim community.
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