Muslim reactions to the shuddhi campaign in early twentieth century North India

♦ Yoginder Sikand

The 1920s may be regarded as a crucial watershed in the history of inter-communal conflict in northern India. Communal rioting saw a sudden upsurge in this period , playing a key role in the political dynamics that later culminated in the Partition of India.

One of the most salient developments in the 1920s was the launching of the shuddhi movement by the Arya Samaj to bring into the Hindu fold various groups considered outside the pale of what had now come to be defined as ‘Hinduism’, including untouchables and, later, Muslim, Christian and even Sikh communities. The Arya shuddhi campaign provoked Muslim leaders and groups to respond, and this took the form of various tablighi or Islamic missionary initiatives intended to counter the Arya Samaj’s conversion drive and, going further, to attempt to spread Islam among non-Muslims as well.

Unlike Christianity or Islam, what is today known as ‘Hinduism’ has historically not been an organized missionary religion. However, as the spread of Brahminical Hinduism from its centre in north Indian Aryavarta to the south and the east of India and among tribal and other groups living on the margins of caste Hindu societies clearly illustrates, the process of Hinduization has had a long history and is, in fact, a continuing phenomenon. Since ‘Hinduism’ lacks any defining set of tenets or beliefs, the Hinduization process, the Hindu parallel to conversion in Christianity and Islam, has taken the form of absorption of non-Hindu groups into the caste system. The extent to which this could be regarded as religious conversion, understood in the usual Christian or Islamic sense, is, however, debatable. While the ‘Hinduized’ groups were accommodated within the caste order, the process did not necessarily result in a total or even a very significant change in religious beliefs. Access to Vedic scriptural resources remained a closely-guarded Brahminical monopoly, and the Hinduized groups carried on with many of their earlier practices and beliefs, although, over time, they, too, were gradually transformed. Thus, for instance, the distinctly non-Aryan deity Shiva was appropriated as a member of the Hindu Trinity and various tribal goddesses were explained away as different forms of the devi, Durga.

The emergence of shuddhi as an organized missionary project, therefore, is a distinctly modern development, and one that must be seen as a product of and a response to the colonial Indian context. The crystallization of the notion of ‘Hinduism’ as a well-defined religion with its own set of scriptures in the manner of Christianity and Islam, conversion to which was indeed possible, was a product of several forces, in which Orientalists, British administrators and Christian missionaries, besides Hindu elites, had their own critical roles to play. Seeking to model itself on the lines of Christianity and Islam, the Arya Samaj, founded in 1875 by the Gujarati Brahmin Dayanand Saraswati, accorded the Vedas the position of the Hindu Bible or Qur’an. Conversion to this newly defined Vedic Hinduism was made possible through undergoing the shuddhi or purificatory rite, for which ancient scriptural sanction was sought to be manufactured. The first shuddhi ceremonies performed by the Aryas were of caste Hindu individuals who were believed to have lost their caste status or ritual purity by crossing the seas or by partaking of food cooked by Christians or Muslims. By the early twentieth century, however, shuddhi began being directed at entire social groups outside or on the margins of the caste order, including untouchables and recent as well as nominal converts to Islam, Christianity and Sikhism.

The transformation of shuddhi from conversion of individual caste Hindus who were believed to have been rendered ritually impure to the conversion of entire social groups outside the Hindu fold is a process that was inextricably linked to the changing nature of colonial rule and the Indian political context by the turn of the twentieth century. The institution of the census in 1871, which further lent legitimacy to the notion of a homogenous pan-Indian Hindu community identity transcending caste differences, proved to be a major catalyst in this regard. Alarmed by the revelation of declining Hindu proportions in various provinces in successive censuses, one cause of which was conversion of ‘low’ caste groups to Christianity and Islam, ‘upper’ caste elites were increasingly goaded into a race for numbers, to prevent further depletion in Hindu ranks. The gradual introduction of reforms in the bureaucratic and political machinery of the colonial state from the late nineteenth century onwards, which allowed limited Indian participation in the lower and middle ranks of the administration, made the race for numbers a particularly crucial one. Access to the benefits of colonial largesse, including jobs and representation in local bodies, was to be determined on the basis of the numerical proportion of each community, defined on the basis of a reified notion of religious identity. Middle class Hindus, seeing themselves as the ‘natural leaders’ of their ‘community’ so defined and being considered as such by the colonial state, were now increasingly concerned to bolster the number of their co-religionists, or at least to prevent further depletion in their ranks, as access to power, position and privilege came increasingly to depend on numerical strength. The logic of democracy was, in this way, employed to promote the interests of a dominant minority.

Shuddhi Among the Muslims
The first recorded shuddhi of a born Muslim was reported in 1877, when Dayanand Saraswati performed the shuddhi of a Muslim man from Dehra Dun, giving him the name of Alakhdhari. Individual conversions of this sort were few and far between, for such converts not only severed all social ties with their relatives but were also not fully accepted as equals not just by the Sanatani Hindus, who vociferously opposed the shuddhi project, but even by members of the Arya Samaj, who Ghai says, ‘behaved like most of the traditionalists and conservatives, fearing the wrath of their caste biraderi’. Clearly then, the Aryas realized, shuddhi among the Muslims would have to take the form of conversion of entire Muslim social groups if it was to really succeed. As a prelude to the actual launching of this ambitious missionary drive, towards the end of the nineteenth century Maharaja Ranbir Singh, the Hindu ruler of the largely Muslim state of Kashmir, is said to have commissioned the preparation of a 21-volume encyclopaedia by the name of Ranbir Karit Prayaschit Mahanibandh [‘Ranbir’s Great Essay on Repentance’], which argued the case and suggested strategies for the mass conversion of all the ‘neo-Muslim communities’ [nau Muslim aqwam] of India to ‘Hinduism’. This book, Muslim leaders were to later allege, had been secretly circulated among leading Hindus so that the Muslims remained unaware of the plot.

The first attempts by the Aryas at mass conversions of Muslim groups date to 1908, when Arya missionaries began touring the area around Deeg in the Bharatpur State in eastern Rajputana, calling upon Muslims there to renounce Islam, which, they alleged, had been forcibly imposed on their ancestors.

Some years later, Arya missionaries found active among the neo-Muslim Malkanas, a Rajput group who claimed to be Muslim but followed several Hindu customs and beliefs, in Etawah, Kanpur, Shahajahnpur, Hardoi, Meerut and Mainpuri in the western United Provinces, exhorting them to return to what they called their ‘ancestral religion’. In 1910, shuddhi sabhas were set up in several places in these districts, and although it was claimed that they had converted some 1000 Malkana Muslims to the Hindu fold, they were wound up the following year. As in the case of Deeg, the Aryas are said to have met with little success, being successfully countered by the intervention of local Muslim bodies working in association with the Anjuman Hidayat-ul Islam, a Delhi-based Muslim missionary organization.

A decade later, however, the Aryas were to launch the shuddhi campaign in the Malkana belt on a war-footing. In August 1922, in the wake of grossly exaggerated reports of forced conversions of Hindus in Malabar in the course of the Mappilla rebellion, the Kshatriya Upakarini Sabha [‘Kshatriya Upliftment Society’], an organization of Hindu Rajputs patronized by Rajput princes and landlords, passed a resolution at a meeting in Allahabad calling for the conversion of the Muslim Rajputs to the Hindu fold. In December that year, the Sabha met once again, and decided to launch a campaign to convert the Malkanas to ‘Hinduism’. This provided the stimulus to the Aryas to start shuddhi work among the Malkanas. In August 1923, Shraddhanand, the leading Arya shuddhi advocate, presided over a meeting to discuss strategies for the shuddhi of the Malkanas. The fact that the meeting was attended by leading Sanatani, Jain and Sikh spokesmen, all of whom vociferously supported the shuddhi campaign, clearly suggests, as Muslim leaders were to allege, that the race for numbers and political interests, rather than the propagation of the Arya brand of ‘Hinduism’, were the motivating factors behind the planned missionary drive. The meeting approved the setting up of the Bharatiya Hindu Shuddhi Sabha, an all-India shuddhi council, whose objective was said to be the conversion of all non-Hindu groups all over India to the Hindu fold.

The shuddhi campaign among the Malkanas, which was launched in early 1923, reached its peak by the end of 1927, by which time some 1,63,000 Malkana Muslims are said to have been brought into the Hindu fold. Significantly, although the Aryas played the leading role in the drive, the shuddhi-ed Malkanas, by and large, did not convert to the Arya faith as such. Other than renouncing some of their Islamic practices, such as burial of the dead or male circumcision, there seems to have been little change in their own beliefs and practices. If they chose not to accept the Arya brand of Vedic ‘Hinduism’, orthodox Hindus seemed reluctant to accept them, considering them as ritually impure and inferior. Having ‘rescued’ them from their Islamic past, the Aryas and the Sanatanis were quite content to leave the Malkanas to their own devices. De-Islamization, and not an impelling urge to spread Arya beliefs, seems to have been the fundamental impulse behind the Arya shuddhi drive among the Malkanas.

Shuddhi emerged as a powerful mobilizational symbol and tool to consolidate Hindu ranks, helping galvanize the process of the construction of a pan-Indian Hindu community rigidly set apart from the rest. It is hardly surprising that Shradhhanand, the leading force behind the Malkana shuddhi, was also the most ardent advocate of sanghathan, the consolidation and militarization of all Hindudom. As testimony to the success of the shuddhi campaign in mobilizing and consolidating the Hindus, both Aryas as well as the Sanatanis who had initially been vehemently opposed to shuddhi, as one, transcending deep-seated caste, sectarian, racial, linguistic and regional divisions, the Tribune of Lahore, in its editorial of 2 May, 1927, remarked: ‘The shuddhi… propaganda is no longer the exclusive concern of the Arya Samaj; an overwhelming majority of the Hindus are identified [with it]’.

The success of the Aryas in their campaign among the Malkanas led them on to attempt to spread their work among several other neo-Muslim groups in northern India, including Muslim Jat, Gujjar and Rajput communities in the Punjab and the United Provinces. Soon, appeals began being issued calling for the shuddhi of virtually all the Muslims of India. At a public rally in Lahore, Shraddhanand delivered a fiery speech, appealing to the Hindus to convert to the Hindu fold 65 million Indian Muslims. Bhaskarteertha, the Sanatani Shankaracharya of the Sharada Peetha, went even further and declared that barring ‘a few hundred thousand’ Indian Muslims whose forefathers had come from ‘Afghanistan and Baluchistan’, the rest of the Muslims of the country were descendants of Hindu converts and that they should, therefore, be all made Hindu once again.

The Muslim reaction to the prospect of mass desertions of large numbers of only partially-Islamised Muslims, perhaps the majority of the Indian Muslim population, to the Hindu fold, was, naturally, one of shock and panic. Leading Muslims now appealed for frantic efforts to be made to rescue the Malkanas, to prevent further conversions to ‘Hinduism’, and even to begin counter-missionary drives among the Hindus themselves. They were unanimous in asserting that the need of the hour was to launch an India-wide missionary drive, to purge Muslim groups of what were seen as their Hinduistic customs, to spread awareness about the teachings of Islam among them and to bring their practices and life-styles in conformity with the Islamic law [shar’iat] and thereby create clear boundaries between Muslims and others, to prevent Muslims from easily being absorbed into the Hindu fold. As a leading Deobandi ‘alim of the Jami’at-ul Ulama-i-Hind asserted, the need of the hour was to ‘dye the Hinduistic society [hinduana mu’ashrat] deep with the colour of the culture of the Hijaz’.

Tabligh was projected as a community-wide effort, and every Muslim individual, male as well as female, was seen as having a crucial role to play in this project. In the past, the Muslim ruler had been seen as the symbol of the supremacy of Islam and guarantee enough of Muslim power, although, as is well-known, no Muslim ruler in India had ever attempted to rule according to the shari’at in its entirety. Now, in the absence of Muslim political power and in the face of growing Hindu aggressiveness, the Muslim individual came to be seen as the guarantor of Islam. No longer was it enough that the ‘ulama, who traditionally, had little contact with the masses, remain confined to their madrasas. Access to scriptural resources, formerly largely the preserve of the ulama, now, it was asserted, must be made available to every Muslim. The duty of tabligh, or spreading Islam, of making Muslims ‘better’ Muslims and of spreading Islam among non-Muslims, was no longer to be a farz-i-kifaya, a responsibility of the ulama and the Sufis alone. Rather, every Muslim had to become a missionary [muballigh], and Islam was now seen as having commanded all Muslims to participate in its spread. The ‘ulama, traditionally close to the centres of Muslim political authority and aloof from ordinary Muslims, were now forced to reach out to the community at large, appealing to them to join in the campaign to counter the Aryas. Tabligh was also to have important consequences of understanding of the self. No longer was it enough for a Muslim to be defined as such simply by virtue of having been born in a Muslim family. On the contrary, it was now necessary for every Muslim to be a self-conscious believer, with his or her faith rooted in at least a basic understanding of the principles of the faith. The most effective counter to the shuddhi challenge, therefore, was seen as lying in spreading Islamic knowledge among neo-Muslim groups and in strengthening their faith.

This broad-basing of access to the Islamic scripturalist tradition is clearly evident in the tablighi programmes drawn up by key Muslim ideologues in the wake of the shuddhi offensive. In what emerged as a key controversial text in the shuddhi-tabighi affair, the Da’i-i-Islam [‘The Missionary of Islam’], Khwaja Hassan Nizami, a leading Delhi-based Muslim writer and Sufi, called for all classes of Muslims to join hands in opposing the Aryas, in spreading knowledge of Islam among ordinary Muslims vulnerable to the Arya onslaught and also to attempt to convert to Islam ‘low’ caste Hindus, who were seen as potentially the most receptive to the Islamic message of social equality. In Nizami’s tablighi scheme, the Sufis and the ‘ulama do have a central but not an exclusive role to play. The Sufis, he says, should use their large number of disciples [muridin] to tour the countryside to preach Islam, and their efforts should be supplemented by those of wandering faqirs. The ‘ulama must, he says, come out of their confines in mosques and madrasas and teach ordinary Muslims the basic practices and beliefs of Islam. Besides the Muslim elite, ordinary Muslims also must be fully involved in the project. Thus, Muslim farmers, traders and artisans, who come into daily contact with Hindus, can effectively preach Islam among them. So, too, can Muslim police officers, village record-keepers, postmasters and doctors. Muslim railway staff can engage in tabligh among non-Muslim train passengers. Muslim cooks and bearers employed in English homes can preach to other servants. especially sweepers. Muslim actors should be asked to stage plays in villages on various Islamic themes.

Mendicants and blind beggars should sing Islamic songs while asking for alms. This strategy promises to be particularly effective, because, Nizami says, ‘In India song and music have a far more powerful effect than lectures and sermons’. Muslim writers should write tracts on methods of tabligh as well as stories about the brave feats of the Muslims. The latter, Nizami says, will have a special appeal for ‘martial groups’ such as the Rajputs.Nizami set up the Nizamia Sufi Mission to carry out his tablighi project. He does not, however, seem to have met with much success. More fruitful, however, were the efforts of Islamic groups opposed to the popular Sufism that Nizami represented. Such, for instance, was the Tablighi Jama’at, launched by a Deobandi ‘alim, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas in 1925, and which today has emerged as the single largest Islamic movement in the world, active in almost every country. The launching of the Tablighi Jama’at was a direct fall-out of the Arya shuddhi campaign. Apprehensive that the Meos of Mewat, a nominally Islamised group living in the vicinity of the Malkana belt, would also fall prey to the Aryas, Ilyas began a campaign aiming at what he saw as their fuller ‘Islamisation’. He instructed the Meos to give up their Hindu practices and beliefs and to strictly abide by the shari’at in their daily lives. Meo villagers, who hardly had any knowledge of Islam and whose practices were scarcely different from those of their non-Muslim neighbours, were formed into groups [jama’ats] and despatched to Deobandi madrasas in the western United Provinces and Delhi, there to learn the basics of Islam, such as the creed of confession and the five ritual prayers, from leading ‘ulama. On their return to Mewat, they transmitted this knowledge to their kinsmen, and exhorted them to join the jama’ats as well. Great rewards in heaven [sawab] were promised in return for this. According to Tablighi Jama’at sources, in a few years after the launching of Ilyas’ campaign, most Meos had given up worshipping at Hindu shrines, wearing Hindu-style clothes and sporting Hindu names.Like Nizami and Ilyas, other Muslim ideologues argued for the ‘ulama and Sufi divines to play a leading role in spearheading the tabligh counter-offensive. The Jamiat-ul Ulama-i-Hind, an organisation of leading, largely Deobandi ‘ulama, called for the setting up of a chain of madrasas all over the country to impart Islamic education to ordinary Muslims to prevent them from falling into the clutches of the Aryas. ‘No number of madrasas is too much, and nor is any amount of money to be spent on them’, declared Maulana Muhammad ‘Abdul Halim Siddiqui, the treasurer of the Department for the Propagation and Protection of Islam, set up by the Jami’at in 1923 in the wake of the shuddhi campaign among the Malkanas. A similar demand was voiced by the leading ‘alim of the Firangi Mahal madrasa of Lucknow, Maulana ‘Abdul Bari, who called for Sufi preceptors to instruct their disciples to form teams and tour the countryside preaching Islam to neo-Muslim groups. These teams would include, besides Muslim scholars, individuals with a good knowledge of medicine who would administer to the sick and thus play an important role in spreading Islam among non-Muslims.

This focus on spreading Islamic knowledge among the Muslims to combat the threat of the Aryas emerges as particularly salient in the writings of the period of one of the leading Islamic ideologues in recent South Asian history, Maulana Sayyed Abul A’la Maududi, who was later to go on to found the Jama’at-i-Islami. In a series of articles in 1925 of Al-Jami’at, the official organ of the Jami’at-ul Ulama-i-Hind, of which he was then the editor, Maududi argued the case for a more activist and broad-based tabligh campaign that fitted in with his own understanding of Islam as an all-embracing ideology that covered every aspect of life. Maududi stressed that the success of the Arya campaign was but a reflection and a consequence of Muslims having forgotten what he calls ‘the fundamental aim’ of a Muslim’s life and existence–the establishment of Islam in its entirety in accordance with the Will of God, through constant engagement in its tabligh, inviting others to the Truth. ‘The entire life of the Prophet Muhammad’, he wrote, ‘was a manifestation of this da’awat-i-haq [Invitation to the Truth’]’, and Muslims must follow in his footsteps. A Muslim’s entire life, he stressed, is a form of tabligh. For a Muslim to fulfil this divine mission, he or she must have at least a modicum of knowledge of Islam. Further, he or she must be a self-conscious believer. It is not enough, Maududi says, for someone to claim to be a Muslim simply because of birth in a Muslim family. The tablighi project of spreading knowledge of Islam among Muslims, Maududi suggests, must also be accompanied by efforts at social
reform on the lines of the shari’at. In particular, social inequalities and caste-like features within the Muslim community, taking advantage of which the Aryas had managed to make considerable headway in their shuddhi campaign, must be combatted. In this way, what Maududi calls for is a consolidated, homogenous, well-defined and closely-knit Muslim community, defined and set apart from the others by strict observance to the shar’iat.

The Arya shuddhi offensive was thus seen as a grave challenge by Muslim leaders, who responded to it by advocating a grand community-wide effort of Islamic reform, reaching out to hitherto neglected neo-Muslim groups, seeking to draw them into the fold of the emerging pan-Indian Muslim community, united on the basis of allegiance to common beliefs and ritual practices. In the changed socio-political context, ordinary people thus assumed far greater importance in elite-led mobilisational projects than they had hitherto been. In the process, individual Muslims, no matter how humble their station in life, were now seen as crucial symbols and representatives of Islam, assuming the place that the Muslim ruler had traditionally enjoyed. Tabligh and the defence of Islam as a duty of all Muslims, men and women, whatever their social position.

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