How Islam reached the Indian Subcontinent?

India, a land mass comprising of 1.2 billion people today accounts for 17% of the world’s population with around 14% of Indians following Islam. What most people don’t realize from this statistic is that, it means that around 177 million Muslims live in India, making it the 3rd largest Muslim populated country in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan.

Islam's route to India - Click to enlarge
Contrary to popular belief, there are not one but three main routes that brought Islam to India. The most well-known among these was the invasion coming in from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan around the 11th century. These dynasties and their descendants form a large part of North India and Pakistan as we know it today. The Mughals of India also trace their lineage through Turkish-Mongol warriors who used this route. There are however lesser known routes that outdated the Northern occurrence of Islam and this was primarily through sea routes bordering the south western coast of India and South eastern coast of India (via Sri Lanka known as Ceylon at the time). Even before the advent of Islam, Arab and Middle Eastern sailors used to trade with Indian ports on the Western Coast for spices and other amenities.  Significant proof of this can be found in early maps and documents that mention ports in Western India such as Manjarur ( Mangalore), Qaliqut (Calicut) and Kawlam (Kollam). Thus the route to India was a well-known one. 

The Cheruman Perumal Mosque (7th century) as seen in 1905 on India's West Coast
Masjid Al-Abrar (7th century) in Sri Lanka

Shortly after the rise of Islam in Saudi Arabia, the Prophet (PBUH) sent missionaries to spread the word of Islam, and it is through this initiative that Malik Deenar, a close companion of the prophet set out to capturing the minds and hearts of Indians looking for an escape from the ugly face of the caste system that was prevalent at the time. But it was not only the lower castes who were mesmerized with the religion and its teaching. The Chera king Cheruman Perumar who ruled parts of modern day Kerala, is considered by many Islamic historians to be the first Muslim in India. The story of his miraculous conversion to Islam and his visit to see the holy prophet can only be speculated. However, historians relate that he changed his name to Tajuddin and died on his voyage back from Makkah when his ship sank near the coast of Oman due to severe weather. They support this theory by citing evidence relating to a tomb in Oman that bears his name. Other accounts of this episode state that Tajuddin was in fact a local Chieftain whose descendants would go on to form the Zamorins of Calicut. In either case, the contingent, who escaped the storm, reached the coasts of the Indian Subcontinent and Sri Lanka. From here the contingent split, one focusing on the western coast of India and another focusing on Ceylon, the name by which Sri Lanka was historically known.  In Sri Lanka, Masjid Al Abrar located in the town of Beruwala (loosely translated as ‘lower the sails’) is the first mosque that was built a few years after the Sri Lankan contingent arrived. The Western Indian contingent arrived on the Malabar plains and built their first mosque there, today called the Cheruman Perumal Mosque in honor of the Chera King Cheruman Perumal.  A small settlement of Yemeni Muslims also landed on the east coast of India during this time however, it was much later around the 12th-13th centuries that an influx of Muslims starting settling in the Eastern Coast of India primarily arriving from Sri Lanka and the North India. 

KilaKarai Masjid (8th century) on India's East coast built by Yemeni Merchants 
One of the best evidences in my opinion of understanding how Islam spread in any geographical area is to look at the Islamic schools of thought that Muslims in these regions follow as of today.  For the unaware, Sunni Muslims primarily follow one of four schools of thought founded by theologians who interpreted the holy books and put in place laws that govern Islamic society.  These are interesting anthropological indicators only because very rarely do Muslims over generations tend to change their school of thought as in most cases; the school of thought is associated with language, culture and customs. Accordingly, in the case of India and Sri Lanka, it is clearly seen that in land areas close to the sea such as the coastal belts of India, and Srilanka, ‘Shafism’ ,the school of thought propagated by Imam Shafi is prevalent while in North and Central parts of India, ‘Hanafism’, a school of thought propagated by Imam Abu Hanifa is the prevalent school of thought. Similarly, in the case of the other sect of Islam i.e Shiaism that was brought from Persia, it is widely prevalent in the Northern parts of India while being almost absent from coastal areas. This trend is also seen among other South East Asian Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. It follows from this that Indian Muslims who live along the coastal belt of India especially the west have high chances of having an Arab /Middle Eastern lineage whereas Muslims in the Northern part of India are most likely descendants of  Afghani – Uzbek or Persian Heritage.

In addition to the Northern Invasions and the sea trade routes, we must not forget the contributions of one more channel that spread Islam in India to a large extent i.e. Sufism. Sufism is said to have arrived in India from Turkey and Iran (Persia) early in the 10th-11th centuries and captured Indian audiences with its mysticism, peacefulness and simplicity. To prove the point on how influential Sufism is, historians point out that during the travels of Sufi Saint Moinuddin Chishti in the 12th century, he is known to have convinced more than 90,000 followers to embrace Islam! To put that in perspective, that’s equivalent to the population of an entire city at the time!

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