Richard M Eaton professor of history, University of Arizona, has authored several books, and is widely regarded as an authority on pre-modern India. In this interview with, he busts several myths on religious conversion, temple desecration, and the role the Sufis played in spreading Islam. He discusses the craft of history writing, and the chasm that exists between mainstream and historians’ discourses. This interview was conducted through a series of email exchanges.

Hindutva ideologues claim Hindus were converted to Islam and Christianity either forcibly or through promise of economic advantages. In your essay, "Religious Conversion in India", you challenge this notion thus: “Nagas as a whole converted most dramatically after the dismantling of the colonial state and the expulsion of foreign missionaries by the newly independent government of India.” What explains the surge in Naga conversion post-Independence?
We are accustomed to explaining religious change as a product of the exertions of agents such as missionaries, rather than considering the total environment of those who actually experienced such change. Robert Ricard’s Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, for example, attempts to explain the growth of Christianity in Mexico mainly in terms of the preaching of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries, without considering the needs or the world-views of the native Americans themselves.

The decennial census data for the Naga Hills (later, Nagaland) between 1881 and 1981 shows that the most dramatic religious change occurred after 1947, when foreign missionaries had left the field. Moreover, some communities of Nagas who were least exposed to foreign missionaries were among the earliest to convert to Christianity.  (I should add that discovering this made me question the facile assumption that Sufis were the principal agents of conversion to Islam in India.)

By reading studies of religious change among the Yoruba of West Africa, I realised how the theories of anthropologist Robin Horton could help explain what was happening in the Naga Hills. The Yoruba were a preliterate society with a two-tiered religious cosmology: a lower tier composed of a host of lesser spirits that were near-at-hand, clearly-defined, and required regular interaction; and an upper tier composed of a single high god that was distant, vaguely defined, and seldom approached.  As Yoruba communities became progressively integrated into a wider, global reality with the advent of colonial rule, their attention shifted from the lower to the upper tier of their cosmology, since their high god was understood as controlling the larger universe that they were now experiencing.  Moreover, since the deity of both Muslims and Christians was a high god ruling their entire cosmos, the Yoruba began to identify their own high god with that deity – a process that Christian missionaries called “conversion”, but which one could also call “identification”.

The Nagas in colonial India had a similar experience. They, too, had been a pre-literate people with a two-tiered cosmology, and they also experienced external shocks in the 20th century brought on by colonial rule, together with the disruptions caused by the Japanese invasions in World War II.  Like the Yoruba, these disruptions disposed Naga communities to shift attention from the lower to the upper tier of their cosmology at the very time that ideas of the Christian deity had been elaborated in terms of indigenous terminologies and cosmologies.  Contributing to these changes was the revolution of literacy among largely pre-literate communities, the fact that Christian scripture was often the first writing in their own languages that Nagas had ever seen, and the decisive role played by Naga youths who had been educated in mission schools.  Most of these factors did not come fully into play until after 1947.

In your paper, "Approaches to the Study of Conversion to Islam in India", you say theories such as Islam being the “religion of the sword”, or it being a “religion of social liberation” can only explain partially why indigenous Indians embraced Islam. Nor do you think political patronage can explain Islam’s spread in India. On what basis do you describe these theories as inadequate explanations? Is it possible to roughly quantify the conversions secured through these three competing strategies of apostasy?
The principle reason these theories are inadequate has to do with geography.  Islamisation in India occurred mainly on the far eastern and western ends of the Indo-Gangetic plain, along the margins of both the stronghold of Indo-Muslim rule (the Delhi Doab), and of the heartland of Brahmanical culture (Aryavarta).  Since the power of both the Delhi sultanate and Mughals was greatest in the Delhi Doab and weakest at the margins, the “sword” thesis cannot explain the growth of Islam in the margins.  The same is true of the “patronage” argument, for the same reason.  Similarly, the argument that low-caste Hindus found in Islam an escape from Brahmanical and upper caste oppression is unconvincing, since the greatest movement to Islam occurred in areas where Brahmanical power was weakest.

I do not think it is possible to quantify conversions secured through these modes of explanation.  It is true that scattered references in the original sources mention individuals who converted to Islam after receiving some sort of favour or patronage from the court of Sultan Firuz Tughluq.  But these few instances cannot explain Islamisation among the millions who lived far from the centres of court patronage.

It is said the writings of colonial historians have contributed to the perception that Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. On what kind of evidence were such claims made? Why has this theory of forcible conversion persisted even to this day?
There is no evidence that significant numbers of Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam. Emperor Jahangir issued many edicts admonishing his nobles not to convert anybody by force.  Of course, the very fact that such orders were issued suggests that such conversions must have occurred.  We know, for example, that when the son of Bir Singh of Orccha rebelled against Jahangir, the rebel’s sons were spared execution on the condition that they convert to Islam.  So there are these scattered references to forced conversion. But for the most part, the Mughals were scrupulously secular in outlook. They focused on stability, loyalty, and revenue, not on religious change among their subjects.  On one occasion, the Mughal governor of Bengal actually demoted a high-ranking officer for having converted his personal servant to Islam.

In the face of such evidence to the contrary, one is led to wonder why the trope of forced conversion has found such a secure hold in popular perceptions of Indian history.  I suspect that the answer lies in how the British justified their occupation of India.  They did this, in part, by contrasting their claims to ruling with justice, virtue, and integrity with the alleged tyranny and violence of the Indo-Muslim states they had replaced. The notion that Muslim rulers had forcibly converted Indians served the colonial need to portray Muslim rule as violent, tyrannical, and hence illegitimate and deserving of removal.

The trope of forced conversions has persisted into the present mainly because of the pervasive Islamophobia of our own times.  This is by no means confined to India, of course. Ben Carson, a leading candidate for the American presidency, has recently declared that a Muslim should be unqualified to serve as president because, so he claims, Islam is not consistent with the US Constitution.

Did the spread of Islam in India elicit any kind of counter-response from Brahmanical Hinduism? Why did this happen in the late 19th century?
No, there never occurred a “counter-response from Brahmanical Hinduism” to the growth of Indo-Muslim communities. In the first place, precolonial Muslim states generally practiced a hands-off policy with respect to proselytisation.  As a result, there was no identifiable political agent towards which one might direct such a response. Second, precolonial populations did not think of society in terms of a collection of mutually exclusive and antagonistic religious communities, such as happened in the colonial era.  While premodern Indians were certainly aware of religious difference, not a single communal riot is known to have occurred for almost all of medieval history.   And third, the growth of Muslim populations in India was so gradual, and so subtle, that indigenous sources were unable to perceive that any change had taken place.  Nobody could mount a “counter-response” to something they couldn’t see.

In fact, the very idea that there might have been – or even should have been – a precolonial Brahmanical counter-response to the growth of Muslim communities seems to be a back-projection of the sort of counter-responses that did take place in the 19th and 20th centuries. I refer to the Protestant missionary movement to convert Indians to Christianity. There you had an organised, institutionalised plan of converting Indians, which also enjoyed the implicit support of the colonial state. You also had new and visible communities of Christian converts arising in the sort of competitive political atmosphere that the colonial state fostered. None of those factors were present in precolonial times.

As a historian, how do you see the politics of conversion that is playing out today? Is this an outcome of imposing a very rigid definition of what Islam is, or what Hinduism is, or what Christianity is, in contrast to how India’s religious traditions were earlier?
There are many reasons for rigid understandings of particular religious traditions, and for drawing sharp boundaries around religious communities. One of them surely has to do with an increased exposure to, and reliance upon, the authority of the written word, and in particular, the unalterable, unchallengeable authority of scripture. There were antecedents to this in precolonial times, as when paper-production came to India in the 13th and 14th centuries (in many Indian languages the words for “paper” and “pen” are derived from the Perso-Arabic kaghaz and qalam).  But a more dramatic movement in this direction came in colonial times with the technology of the printing press.  With each new advance in the technology of knowledge – first, paper, then printing – the written word gained authority and power.

Another factor was the heightened awareness of a community’s numerical strength relative to that of others, which accompanied the decennial census reports in the 19th and 20th centuries. Still another was the sense of competition that was injected in Indian society as the colonial government expanded the voting franchise to include ever widening elements of the population. All of these factors were facilitated by the state’s increasingly intrusive reach into the affairs of local communities, and they were all characteristic of the modern era.

The deeper issue, however, is the way religious “conversion” is understood today.  This, too, was a product of colonial rule.  Christian missionaries to India brought with them a Protestant understanding of conversion, which involved a sudden and total change of identity.  On the other hand, religious change in precolonial India had for the most part been a gradual, almost glacial process – so gradual and unconscious as to go unnoticed either by local chroniclers or foreign travellers. It is therefore a mistake to project modern, Protestant understandings of “conversion” onto India’s precolonial history.

Your writings, as also of others, ascribe the spread of Islam to the popularity of Sufi saints. What explains their popularity?
Ironically, one of the few things that Indian and Pakistani textbooks seem to agree on is in fact a falsehood: namely, that Islam grew in precolonial India through the agency of Sufi saints. There is little contemporary evidence for such a thing.  Generally speaking, Sufis were not interested in converting Hindus.  Most Sufi orders propounded four stages of mystical evolution – shari`at (law), tariqat (spiritual path), mu`arafat (true knowledge), and haqiqat (true reality) – and focused on guiding their disciples beyond the initial stage of simply being Muslim, that is, adhering to Islamic law (shari`at).  Their primary goal was to help people who were already Muslim to attain the higher states of the spiritual quest.

On the other hand, there is considerable evidence of colonial-era Muslim communities attributing to Sufi shaikhs – or in many cases, men who were retroactively given a Sufi identity -- the conversion of their ancestors. District gazetteers compiled in the 19th and 20th centuries are full of such narratives.  However, such attributions are not supported by contemporary evidence.

Fine, the Sufis might not have wanted to convert people in the way the term means today, but didn’t they want to spread, say, the idea of Islam by setting an example or providing proof of their charisma?
Yes.  Most Sufis certainly wished to set an example for others to follow.  Both the letters (maktubat) of prominent shaikhs and their recorded sayings (malfuzat) show a desire to help Muslims act in ways more closely aligned with Islamic Law, and also to assist their inner circle of devoted mystics to attain higher stages of divine awareness.

How do we read the Sufi saints’ acceptance of royal patronage?  Doesn’t this suggest a kind of joint project between the king and the saint?
The correct relationship of Sufi shaikhs to royal courts was always a contested issue, on which different orders took different positions.  Some scorned such association, believing that it compromised their devotion to the ideals of poverty and austerity, which were believed necessary for undertaking the mystical path to divine awareness. But other orders, such as the Suhrawardi, rationalised their close ties to the Delhi sultanate or other Muslim courts by imagining that by doing so they could improve the behaviour of their patrons, which in turn would benefit the entire kingdom – a sort of “trickle-down piety”.  For Sufis of this sort, then, acceptance of royal patronage does indeed suggest a kind of joint project between the king and the saint.

In one of his radio broadcasts, a monthly feature now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was ecstatic about his meeting with Sufi saints and scholars. He went on to say:
“…Perhaps, it has become the foremost need for the world to know the true picture of Islam…  I am confident that Sufi culture, which is associated with love, generosity will spread this message far and wide. It will benefit Islam as well as humankind." 

What does this statement tell you about Modi’s idea of Islam?
I am encouraged by the positive experience he seems to have had.

Hindutva ideologues claim that 60,000 temples were demolished under Muslim rule in India. You have countered this in your essay, "Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim states", saying “one may identify 80 instances of temple desecration whose historicity appears reasonably certain.” However, there have been objections to your method of counting, accusing you of counting as one an instance in which 70 temples were destroyed in Banaras; that you did not include a temple which was destroyed in Anantnag, Kashmir. How do you respond to this charge?
I feel that we can get too swept up in a numbers game here.  Yes, there is a huge discrepancy between 60,000 and 80.  But as I mentioned in my published essay, the tables and maps I presented “by no means give the complete picture of temple desecration after the establishment of Turkish power in upper India.”  And I concluded that “we shall never know the precise number of temples desecrated in Indian history.”  All we can talk about are instances for which there is contemporary evidence, whether it appears in the archaeological record, in the epigraphic record, or in contemporary chronicles. And even those data must be closely interrogated.

Think of trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle in which 30% to 50% of the pieces are missing, and you have no border pieces at all.  The best you can do is to fit together the few pieces you have in order to construct a reasonable approximation of what the whole picture most likely looked like.  An honest historian will admit that the evidence is almost always fragmentary, incomplete, or even contradictory.  But what one cannot do is to try to fill in the blank spaces with pieces that don’t exist, or that you think “must have” existed.

I have no doubt that more than 80 temples were desecrated by Muslims, just as there were probably more temples desecrated by Hindus than are in the record.  Again, to quote myself, “Undoubtedly some temples were desecrated but the facts in the matter were never recorded, or the facts were recorded but the records themselves no longer survive.  Conversely, later Indo-Muslim chroniclers, seeking to glorify the religious zeal of earlier Muslim rulers, sometimes attributed acts of temple desecration to such rulers even when no contemporary evidence supports the claims.”

It’s always that jigsaw puzzle.

Do we have vivid Hindu accounts of the destruction of temples, conveying trauma, as some tend to believe it must have been?   If not, why? Why are descriptions of temple destruction largely in Persian sources?
We have very little by way of vivid Hindu accounts of such activity, or of reports of trauma across the general population.  Located in a kingdom’s capital and containing an image of a ruling dynasty’s cosmic overlord, royal temples were highly charged political sites. For it was there that kingship was established, celebrated, renewed, and contested.  For that reason, they were also attacked by outside enemies. Well before Muslim ruling houses arrived on the scene, kings would attack an enemy king’s royal temple as a necessary part of undermining that king’s sovereign rule.  This much is clear both from normative Sanskrit texts and from the inscriptional record. Later on, Muslim kings intending to establish their own rule in India simply followed this tradition.

The desecration of royal temples was surely traumatic for defeated kings, the Brahmins they had patronised, and court functionaries. But because it was such a well-established practice across South Asia, it did not elicit much comment. Nor do we have evidence of any trauma that might have been felt beyond the immediate environs of defeated courts and those they patronised.

Finally, temple desecration that we know of was carried out by men acting on behalf of a state, and after the 14th century the most expansive Indian states were those that had inherited a Persian tradition of keeping records and writing chronicles.  This would explain why most descriptions of temple desecrations appear in Persian.

Why is it that several instances of temple desecration, plundering of temples, even their destruction, by Hindus kings barely figures in the popular consciousness? Does this represent, in a way, historians’ disconnect with mainstream discourse?
Well, I suppose there’s always a disconnect between historians’ discourse and mainstream discourse.  But in this particular case, I suspect that the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 played an important role.  As I remember, one of the arguments used to rationalise that event went like this:
“Since Muslims had destroyed so many temples when they were in power, why should one get upset at the demolition of just one single mosque?”

In the absence of any serious inquiry into the facts of the matter, it therefore became logically necessary for those that made that argument to focus on the earlier desecration of temples by Muslim rulers, and not, of course, on the desecration of temples by Hindu rulers.

In Delhi recently, Aurangzeb Road was renamed, largely because he is deemed to have tyrannised Hindus, demolished temples, imposed the jizya tax, etc. In other words, he is looked upon as an unjust, cruel ruler. How do you look upon this portrayal of his?
Aurangzeb was certainly a more competent commander than his brothers, especially Dara Shikoh, who was widely regarded as haughty and immature, as well as incompetent.  His execution of Dara followed the standard Timurid practice of eliminating one’s rivals for succession to supreme power. It was very likely to atone for his unusually violent ascent to the Peacock Throne, which included imprisoning his father, that Aurangzeb embraced a strict and austere understanding of Islam.  Moreover, for the first seven years of his reign, the Sharif of Mecca refused to acknowledge his legitimacy as emperor on the grounds that his father, Shah Jahan, was still living – a snub that may also have contributed to his posture of strict piety.

But was he “an unjust, cruel ruler”?  He was certainly Machiavellian in his tactics and mode of governance, but hardly more so than other Mughal emperors, including Akbar, with whom he is conventionally contrasted.  Aurangzeb’s reign was longer than that of other Mughals, and it witnessed more rebellions. Since temples in Mughal domains were understood as state property, those that were patronised by rebels who had formerly been loyal officials were subject to destruction, just as their patrons were subject to severe punishment. This probably explains why more temples were desecrated in his reign than in others. And he did re-impose the jizya tax.

Nonetheless, it is hard to argue that he harboured any personal animus against non-Muslims. The French physician Francois Bernier, who was attached to the emperor’s court for about 12 years and observed the emperor at close quarters, noted that Aurangzeb, “though a Mahometan, permits these ancient and superstitious practices; not wishing, or not daring, to disturb the Gentiles [Hindus] in the free exercise of their religion”.

Does the renaming of Aurangzeb Road subtly play on the sentiments that led to the changing of names of roads and buildings that had an echo of British rule? What parallels do you see here?
Yes, but it’s not very subtle.  Nor is it unique. Changing the names of streets for political purposes occurs all the time, everywhere, depending on how political winds are blowing at any particular moment. During World War I, when Germany was America’s enemy, the municipal government of Cincinnati, Ohio changed all German street names to English names.  For example, what became Republic Street in 1918 had formerly been Bremen Street, a name that is still faintly visible at its intersection with 15th St.

During the Vietnam War, the municipal government of Kolkata changed the name of the street of the American Consulate to Ho Chi Minh Sarani.  Similarly, after the Iranian Revolution, the name of the street of the British Consulate in Teheran was changed to Bobby Sands Street, while Eisenhower Avenue became Azadi Avenue. And so on.

You have been a student of history since the 1960s, did your Ph.D in 1972, and have written extensively on Indian history since then.  Do you think the way Indians look at their past has changed fundamentally in anyway? Or is there a chasm between how historians look at the past and how the people and the political class do, and if yes, why?
I have not seen a discernible change of the sort you suggest.  But yes, I do think there is a chasm between historians and “the people and the political class”. Such a chasm exists almost everywhere, but in India it seems more pronounced than elsewhere. While professional historians have produced fine monographs on specialised topics, the writing of serious biographies or accessible, narrative history for wider audiences has lagged behind.  Under such circumstances, unhistorical myths promoted by demagogues – and even politicians – can and do flourish.

History in India has become a site for waging political battles in the present. Often, issues are placed in a moral framework. Certain incidents in the distant past are deemed morally wrong and demands are made to "right the wrongs of history". In what ways is it possible to liberate the present from the past?
The historian’s proper job is to understand and to explain the past, which means connecting all the dots that collectively led an earlier past to evolve into a nearer past, and the nearer past to evolve into the present.  It is certainly not the historian’s business to determine who was “right” or “wrong”, as though we can be or should be judges.  In any event, it is impossible for historians or anybody else to “right the wrongs of history”, and any attempts to do so are fraught with danger. A glaring example: Hitler thought that he was “righting” the “wrongs” of the Treaty of Versailles.

In their imagining of the past, historians tend to emphasise a set of factors to the exclusion of others. For instance, Hindutva ideologies accord great primacy to religious motivation as a factor behind the decisions and actions of rulers. Some emphasise the political factor, others economics. Can we really think about religion/politics/economics as separate spheres in the pre-modern era? Or is it more a case of our world-views determining choices – that is, we unearth from the past what we are looking for?
It is a mistake to see religion, politics, economics, geography, etc. as operating in separate, self-contained spheres, whether in the premodern era or in any other era. This is why it is dismaying to see historians becoming over-specialised, with one scholar writing only environmental history, another only military history, another women/gender history, and so on.  In reality, all these things are mixed together, each influencing the other. It is useful to recall the old Indian legend of the elephant and the five blind men, none of whom could comprehend the nature of the beast since each perceived only one part of it.

So, to understand any particular event or process, the historian needs to factor in as many facets of the past as the data will provide.  Ideally, properly framed questions, not world-views, should determine one’s choices when conducting research. If you unearth from the past only what you are looking for, little will be gained.

Right-wing ideologues aligned with the ruling party in India have been decrying historians for using western categories and analyses emanating from the past to study India’s past. What sense do you make of their criticism?
This is an old and sterile argument. Before the colonial era, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, optics, and so forth were culturally neutral.  Knowledge was simply knowledge. Greeks, Indians, Italians, Arabs, and Persians all freely borrowed from each other with a view to forming a clearer understanding of how the world works.  Look at the writings of scholars like al-Biruni or Ibn Sina.

But with the rise of colonialism, and especially with that of identity politics, we have this misguided notion that knowledge must be authentically indigenous in order to be valid.  It is an argument that, in my view, leads to a dead end.  It is rather like saying that an entomologist has no right to study spiders, since only spiders can understand what it’s really like to be a spider.

Your writings seminally challenge the Hindutva brigade’s take on history. Have you been a recipient of hate mails or abuse of any kind?
Perhaps a few, but I do not recall the specific charges.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.