Nizamuddin Auliya’s most famous disciple, the poet Amir Khusro had read in a Hadith that South Asia was the place where Adam descended to earth after being expelled from paradise. Azad Bilgrami, a seventeenth-century Islamic scholar, described India as the place where the eternal light of Muhammed first manifested in Adam, while Arabia is where it found its final expression in the physical form of the Prophet.

The Mughal emperor Akbar sponsored caravans of pilgrims to Arabia for many years, but few commoners undertook hajj. In any case, no Mughal emperor ever went for hajj. They patronised the Sufi shrines, and the Sufis in turn accorded spiritual and moral legitimacy to the emperors. On the strength of this legitimacy, Akbar assumed the position of the leader of the faithful. Akbar even went as far as challenging the Ottomans, who were the caretakers of the holy lands of Mecca and Medina, and considered the leaders of the Islamic world at that time.

“In early September 1579, a group of theologians, including the Shaikh ul-Islam, were pressured into signing a text claiming for Akbar a special status of Padshah-i-Islam, beyond that even of a Sultan-i-Adil…one of the epithets used for him was now Mujtahid, as also Imam-i-Adil…Indeed, the challenge was directed in good measure at the Ottomans, who had claimed superior status as the Khalifas of the east, with their conquest of Egypt.”

In addition to challenging the Ottomans, Akbar assumed these grand titles to keep the conservative ulema from interfering in governance, especially in matters pertaining to the treatment of non-Muslims.

Yet, despite this desire for the leadership of the Muslim world, Muslim rulers in India worked towards greater synthesis between Islam and Hinduism.

Of course, this was driven by pragmatism rather than altruism, but the effect was that the two communities were able to not only coexist in harmony but also developed several similar customs and traditions.

The pinnacle of this collaboration was suhl-e-kul, a new creed for universal peace and coexistence that Akbar propounded that celebrated what he believed was common to all religions. Suhl-e-kul, also referred to as Din-i-Ilahi, did not live on beyond Akbar’s reign, but the idea of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence survived.

Even Aurangzeb, his zealousness notwithstanding, did not disrupt the balance between the two communities and neither did his successors. However, the most interesting aspect of this six-and-half-century-long Muslim rule in India, which started with the founding of the Slave Dynasty in 1206 CE was that none declared India an Islamic state and none ruled by Quranic law or Shariah.

Even as late as the nineteenth century, Muslim rulers remained sensitive to the religious sensibilities of the Hindus. William Dalrymple writes of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, that “when a party of two hundred Muslims turned up at the Palace demanding to be allowed to slaughter cows – holy to Hindus – at Id, Zafar told them in a ‘decided and angry tone that the religion of the Mussalmen did not depend upon the sacrifice of cows’.”

But in 1857, when the first war of Independence against the British ended in ignominious defeat and the collapse of Muslim power in India, coexistence came under attack.

Though the war was symbolically led by the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, under whose “command” Hindus and Muslims fought the British, the truth was that it was largely a Muslim–British affair, which brutally ruptured the delicate balance between Hindus and Muslims that had thrived for nearly seven centuries through mutual tolerance and economic interdependence. Three possible factors worked in tandem to cause this breach.

One, though the sepoys rose against the British quite spontaneously, irrespective of religion, once they were ensconced in Delhi, the radical Muslims, the products of the Madrassa-e-Rahimiya, saw an opportunity to reclaim Muslim power. As a result, fatwa were issued declaring jihad against the British and likening the revolt to an Islamic war.

The debilitated Mughal court did not sense the polarising impact of this call. After all, the early Mughals had labelled their military campaigns jihad to motivate the soldiery. Incidentally, even in today’s Indian Army, all pure regiments (as opposed to mixed regiments like artillery or armoured) of the infantry have religious war cries. However, in 1857, overt and frequent references to jihad led to unease amongst non-Muslim sepoys.

Two, since the war was being waged in the name of the Mughal emperor and with the hope of restoring Muslim power, Muslims of all classes and status threw their weight behind the revolt, thereby exposing themselves and their leanings. This was the not the case amongst non-Muslims, where the rich and upper castes either stayed away or covertly supported the British, as they saw this as a war between the Muslim and the British.

Three, the British were quick to sense this chasm and worked to widen the rift. This was partly because of their own prejudice borne of centuries of Crusades against the Muslims further fanned by the Evangelical Christians in India; and partly from their own experiences with Muslims in various continents, from North Africa to Asia in the nineteenth century.

“From around the middle of the nineteenth century,” Christopher de Bellaigue writes in The Islamic Enlightenment, “when European colonial interests ran up against Muslim resistance from North Africa to India, it is possible to say that a rolling agenda of conflicts between an expanding Western imperium and the Muslims in its path became inevitable. India’s subjugation by the British had produced a situation of almost chronic religious revolt, of which the rebellion of 1857, or Indian Mutiny, was a virulent spasm.”

In addition to the wholesale retributive killings of the Muslims, the British fanned the narrative of Hindu victimhood of several centuries.

This narrative continued to get more traction over the years as several right-wing Hindu ideologues emerged from the embers of 1857. The Hindus believed that the Muslims had finally got their comeuppance after several centuries of ruling over them; the Muslims felt let down by their leaders, cheated by their Hindu neighbours, and disillusioned by their faith. They had believed the ulema who told them that, as in the historic Battle of Badr, Allah would intervene to ensure their victory. And so as a defeated people tend to do, they became despondent and inward-looking.

The ulema were quick to turn this to their advantage They claimed that while the Muslims’ cause was just, their faith was weak. Hence, the faith needed to be strengthened. The growth and eventual rise of Sunni Muslim sects like Deobandi and Barelvi were the consequence of this new dependence of the ordinary Muslims on the ulema.

“By the turn of the century,” Bellaigue writes, “the word ‘pan-Islamism’ had become a portmanteau term to explain the political solidarity that seemed to extend across the Muslim lands in opposition to imperialism. From Cambridge the late-Victorian scholar and Islamophile EG Browne deprecated the term as unfairly connoting fanaticism. In his view it was ‘certainly no more fanatical than Pan-Germanism, or Pan-Slavism, or British Imperialism, and indeed, much less so, being, in the first place defensive, and, in the second, based on the more rational ground of a common faith, not on the less rational ground of a common race’.”

The responders in India to this supposed global awakening were the religious scholars and ulema, who had assumed the role of “rehnumah” or one who shows the way for the community. As a result, ordinary Muslims started shrinking away from the national mainstream, increasingly identifying with the idea of the global ummah.

Besides this development, one of the effects of the 1857 revolt was the erosion of the economic and educational foundations of the Muslims. This idea of lost glory and victimhood had a cascading effect on their collective psyche leading to inertia and loss of hope – afflictions that linger on in some way or the other even today.

Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India

Excerpted with permission from Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India, Ghazala Wahab, Aleph Book Company.