Rethinking Culture: Islam in the Indian Subcontinent

An Exploration of South Asian Islamic Culture

8 min readNov 10, 2019

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“If there is a paradise on earth,

It is this, it is this, it is this.”

Amir Khusrow, Kashmir — Delhi Sultanate, 13th century AD

As a second generation Australian of Bengali origin, my relationship with my cultural roots is both remote yet so inextricably close. Whether it be an awkward sentence in Bengali said to greet an uncle, a hot plate of daal and rice for lunch or wearing a kurta (panjabi) on Eid, cultural hallmarks are scattered throughout my daily life. It can be difficult to navigate through this complex identity. On one hand, my social exposure has been largely restricted to the Australian milieu. On the other hand, the upbringing I received in my home and my phenotype are quintessentially Bengali.

Religion vs Culture?

Islam was inherited as part of my cultural upbringing. A question I often asked myself was if Islam had a conflicting relationship with the larger Indian Subcontinental culture?

Today we assume religion and culture are, for the most part, distinct. However, culture was classically understood by Islamic scholars to be the following four aspects:

  1. Practices of the indigenous people of the region
  2. Objects — e.g. the style of clothing, food
  3. Communication — how people interact
  4. Beliefs — understanding of good & bad, origin and purpose

Beliefs were an integral part of one’s cultural identity and thus, religion and culture were understood to be the same thing. In classical Arabic, the word دين (deen), loosely translating to ‘way of life’, was used not only to describe a community’s religious traditions but also their cultural ones, encapsulating the classical understanding of culture.

Today we have a very oriental relationship with our cultural heritage. The biryani we eat or the shalwar we wear are exotic symbols of a rich culture we feign allegiance to. The ideological separation between religion and culture was a consequence of the 17th century European Age of Enlightenment. Through the rise of secularism, religion was divorced from one’s life affairs. Colonialism brought these newfound ideas to the Orient, remoulding the indigenous psyche. Through the imposition of a Western model of nation states, culture was tied to a rigid geographical dominion and became underpinned by nationalistic sentiments as opposed to theological beliefs.

As a direct consequence of this, we ask the flawed question today; ‘Does religion conflict with culture?’.

The colonial legacy left a henious wound in South Asia, still vividly felt today

Cultural Nationalism

The modern nation states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh formed formed as a consequence of a hasty decolonisation by the British in 1947 (and Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971), eradicating the pre-existing institutional framework of the Mughal Empire and supplanting it with Western Secular Liberalism. This framework underpins cultural expression in these regions today and manifests itself as cultural supremacy.

The Prophet ﷺ said, ‘Whoever calls towards nationalism is not from us’ (Abu Dawood)

Bangladeshi culture is largely shaped by the 1971 Independence from Pakistan. National celebrations such as Victory Day and Independence Day commemorate key milestones in the Bangladesh Liberation War. Mujibur Rahman, a pioneering figure in Bangladeshi history, championed socialism, a secular constitution and a nationalistic sociopolitical identity. The fruits of his vision are reflected in today’s Bangladeshi culture where nationalistic symbols are rife and efforts for an Islamic revival are stifled by the wounds of the nation’s uneasy past with Pakistan.

A national holiday in Bangladesh with a poster of Mujibur Rahman

The story of Pakistan’s formation is a bit more complicated. The rise of the All-India Muslim League in the 1930’s witnessed the call for an independent Muslim nation, primarily focusing on the north-western region of the Indian Subcontinent. The seed was laid by Syed Ahmed Khan and Muhammad Iqbal and later spearheaded by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Thus in 1947, under the veneer of an Islamic refuge in the Subcontinent, Pakistan was formed in the mould of a Western nation state. Consequently, the strong Islamic ethos found within Pakistani culture is represented through ardent nationalistic sentiments.

Independence Day celebrations in Pakistan

The Turko-Persian Influence

Persia and Central Asia neighbours the Indian Subcontinent (1400's)

From Qutb al-Din Aibak in the 13th century to Babur in the 16th century, Turko-Persian ruling classes arriving from Persian and Central Asia had a monumental impact on the cultures of South Asia, integrating their own Persian and Central Asian cultures with the indigenous Vedic culture. This is reflected today not only by the prevalence of Islam but numerous other facets of the region. For example, the iconic Taj Mahal, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1653, drew from Timurid architectural tropes of large domes and ‘paradise gardens’, marrying indigenous and Persian cultures.

Taj Mahal, Agra

The Persian language had been an official court language throughout the numerous dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire. It was not uncommon to find the Hindu or Muslim upper class proficient in Persian during this era. The Hindustani language, from which Urdu and Hindi are descended from, incorporated many Persian and Arabic loanwords as did Bengali and other South Asian languages. Here are just some of the Persian loanwords that have been adopted by South Asian languages;

Sal (year), khargosh (rabbit), piyaz (onion), zindagi (life), fereshta (angel), ishq (love), khuda (God), dost (friend), dil (heart), beheshte (heaven), rang (colour), jaan (life), kagoj (paper), garam (hot), darja (door), naram (soft), rasta (road), sabzi (vegetable), shahr (city), ayna (mirror), angur (grapes), namaz (prayer) and much more.

A Stronghold for Sufism

Islam was a quintessential part of the Turko-Persian influence in the Indian subcontinent and a strong aspect of this identity was Sufism, a comprehensive spiritual discipline focusing on the inward dimensions of Islam. Inherited from classical Persian and Arab scholars, renowned individuals such as Moinuddin Chisti (d. 1236) and Nizamuddin Auliya (d. 1325) transmitted knowledge of Sufism to the Subcontinent and laid the underpinnings for the Chishti Tariqa, the most predominant Sufi order of the region. The Sufi scholarly hierarchy in India was integral to the community and provided legitimacy and support for the ruling class.

However, Sufism in the region was poisoned with beliefs and practices in direct opposition to core Islamic tenets, the foremost divergence being shirk (polytheism). Drawing from the pre-Islamic idea of a Turkic shaman who possessed magical powers and had an intimate connection with the unseen world, this belief trickled into Persian Sufism which then spread to the Indian subcontinent. Sufi pirs were believed to intercede on behalf of Allah and to this day, it is commonplace to see dargahs (shrines) where people supplicate directly to these deceased pirs. Many believe they have unparalleled access to the unseen and can perform spectacular miracles at will. These beliefs are clearly against the teachings Islam.

قُل لَّا يَعْلَمُ مَن فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ الْغَيْبَ إِلَّا اللَّهُ ۚ وَمَا يَشْعُرُونَ أَيَّانَ يُبْعَثُونَ

“Say, None in the heavens and earth knows the unseen except Allah, and they do not perceive when they will be resurrected.” (Quran 27:65)

The dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, Delhi. A place of extreme reverence for many Indian Muslims

A Gradual Conversion from Hinduism

Medieval Hinduism varied drastically across different regions of the Subcontinent, sharing some overarching core ideals. The conversion to Islam from Hinduism in South Asia was a gradual process and syncretism between the two different traditions was quite common. For example, translations of Perso-Islamic stories into the native languages incorporated elements of the indigenous Vedic culture. In Bengal, the Hindu deities of ‘Prabhu’ and ‘Niranjan’ were used to refer to Allah, the Arabian countryside was described as having mango trees and curried rice and motifs from the Hindu epic Ramayana were incorporated into Islamic stories. Thus, there was a synthesis between Islam and Hinduism in the medieval Subcontinent.

It is not surprising that today remnants of this synthesis remain in South Asian Islamic culture. Whether it be haldi (holud) which commemorates ‘Lord’ Shiva’s marriage to Sati or touching the feet of one’s elders which alludes to an ancient Vedic religious tradition, indigenous rituals have maintained a presence in the subcontinent’s practicing of Islam. The recent rise of nationalism has also meant celebrations deriving from Hinduism such as Vaisakhi (Pohela Baishakh — New Year) are commonplace amongst Muslim communities today. Muslims are often oblivious to the polytheisistic basis of many of our cultural practices which can jeopardise our Hereafter.

Pohela Boishakh (Bengali New Year) celebrations in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Bollywood’s Influence

The 2.3 billion dollar Bollywood industry is immensely influential for contemporary South Asian culture. It would be hard to find a desi wedding except that a Bollywood tune is played or a household that hasn’t heard of Shah Rukh Khan. However, Bollywood promotes a culture that conflicts with our Islamic values. For example, central to most plots are romanticised love stories which promote a liberal, hedonistic lifestyle. It paints a glamorised and hyper-extravagant version of South Asian culture which innocent viewers naively desire to replicate.

Often in Bollywood films, characters sponteneously break into dance. Featured here is Shah Rukh Khan

Furthermore, Bollywood is a Hindu-centric industry with many involved openly supporting the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is reflected in its films where Muslims are usually depicted as either violent radicals, such as Allaudin Khliji’s portrayal in Padmavati, or lackluster liberals such as the perennialist Akbar in Jodha Akbar. We gullibly watch Bollywood films and idolise its actors, not realising we have been duped into passively supporting the Hindu nationalist institution.

Prominent Bollywood actors and actresses posing with Narendra Modi, leader of the BJP

How to Approach Culture Today?

We live in a very unique cultural dimension. Our Islamic, ethnic and Australian identities can be confusing at times. We can feel pressured by society to be more Australian and by our parents to be more ethnic. However, the culture and identity which transcends ethnic and national boundaries and is central to our beliefs is Islam. Islam is free from mistakes that may be present in our ethnic cultures and Muhammad ﷺ is the best example to follow.

As Australian Muslims, we are part of a relatively new culture which consists of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds sharing a universal bond of faith. We can learn from each other’s languages, cuisines and way of dress and through our differences, build an identity predicated upon worshipping Allah together as one united Ummah.

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (Quran 49:13)

Rafa Rahman

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