Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Modern Spirit of AsiaThe Spiritual and the Secular in China and India$

Peter van der Veer

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780691128146

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691128146.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM PRINCETON SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.princeton.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Princeton University Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in PRSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 24 May 2022

Muslims in India and China

Muslims in India and China

(p.193) Chapter 8 Muslims in India and China
The Modern Spirit of Asia

Peter van der Veer

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter scrutinizes some of the elements of the “minoritization” of Muslims in India and China. Indian Muslims have a history that gives them a centrality in processes of state formation in India, as exemplified by the Mughal Empire, but also by the postcolonial formation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which cannot be found in the history of Chinese Muslims. In the comparison between India and China, the chapter highlights that despite the differences in numerical strength it is the transformation of Muslims from a variety of different groups into a “minority” that in both cases require scrutiny in relation to the construction of a national majority.

Keywords:   Muslims, India, China, Indian Muslims, Chinese Muslims, Mughal Empire, Pakistan, Bangladesh, national majority, minoritization

The situation of Muslims in India is almost entirely different from that of Muslims in China. The idea that today prevails especially among students of international relations and politicians after the publication of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is that Islam as a civilization creates a unity in the history and sociology of Muslims all over the world.1 The history of nationalist warfare between Muslim nations and that of endemic conflicts within Muslim nations defies such a notion. One of the best examples is the breaking away of Bangladesh from the Muslim nation of Pakistan in 1971 on grounds of linguistic and ethnic difference. Nevertheless, the notion of Islamic unity remains popular. Huntington has a particularistic understanding of “civilization” that emphasizes the irreducible differences between civilizations. However, one has to point out that Islam, like any other world religion, is widely variable in doctrine and practice and is only one, though significant, element in people’s cultural life. This criticism could be answered by the followers of Huntington by referring to Weber’s ideal-type methodology. Therefore, more important theoretically is that Huntington does not take into account the connection between the emergence of the notion of civilization and that of national consciousness that has been studied by Norbert Elias.2 Not only is the specific history of Muslims in India very different from that of Muslims in China, it is also precisely the relation to national Indian or Chinese civilization that has little to do with Islamic civilization, but much to do with the creation of national majorities and minorities. As is often the case with the construction of Muslim minorities the national question is directly related to international relations, since Islam is a world religion. This chapter attempts to disentangle some of the elements of the “minoritization” of Muslims in India and China.

(p.194) Indian Muslims have a history that gives them a centrality in processes of state formation in India, as exemplified by the Mughal Empire, but also by the postcolonial formation of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which cannot be found in the history of Chinese Muslims. Muslims in Xinjiang have been independent from Chinese empires for a very long time, but they have not taken over the center. The political sociology of Indian Muslims in the twentieth century is deeply connected to the breaking up of British India, where Muslims were about a quarter of the population, into India, Pakistan (157 million), and Bangladesh (120 million), forming a large majority in the latter two states, while remaining a sizable minority of 149 million, or almost 15 percent, in India. If one imagines that India had not gone through the partition, Muslims would constitute around a third of India’s population today. Again, this is entirely different from China, which has not broken up along communal lines and in which Muslims are a relatively small minority of 19 million, or 1.5 percent of the population. In the comparison between India and China I want to highlight that despite the differences in numerical strength it is the transformation of Muslims from a variety of different groups into a “minority” that in both cases require scrutiny in relation to the construction of a national majority.

There are three issues that are interesting in such a comparison: First, Muslims in both India and China problematize nationalist projects that are based on the unified civilizational spirit of the nation. In general I want to argue that the conceptualization and political treatment of a minority sheds light on the construction of the national majority. The comparison therefore is not so much of Muslims in India and China but of the place of Muslims and Islam in Indian and Chinese national imaginaries. The case of Muslims can be used to analyze political configurations in both societies. Second, Muslim populations are central to minority politics, since they are not only a minority, but also belong to a global community that has a strong political presence in the region. In that sense they are (p.195) different from Christians whose geopolitical significance lies in their ties outside the region. Specifically Kashmiri and Uyghur separatism are quite comparable.

Third, as I have been arguing throughout this book, one of the most important differences between Indian and Chinese nationalism seems to be the place of religion in it. Chinese nationalism (and that includes both Kuomintang and communists) appears to be radically secular in the sense that it takes science as the core of its ideology, while Indian nationalism has taken religion (alternatively in the form of plurality and in the form of singularity) as the core of its civilization ideology. To compare the impact of these different forms of nationalism on the position of Muslims can help us to better understand the differences between Indian and Chinese secularism and nationalism. The construction of a “religious and ethnic minority” is directly tied to the construction of a civilizational or national majority.

Islamic Expansion in Asia

One of the major elements in the notion of a national civilization is that it is assumed to be rooted in the people and in the soil. It is important for nationalism to show that civilization does not come “from elsewhere,” but that it is the product of a particular region and its population. Indeed, there are continuities and sometimes really deep histories. First, protonationalist formations in ethnicity, language, or religion provide the material of nationalism. National traditions can be “invented” and nations are “imagined,” but this is not done from scratch. Moreover, they do not form a seamless whole, a monolithic culture, but rather a discourse in which different versions compete with each other in social debate and conflict. But, deeper than protonationalism that precedes nationalism, there are ancient understandings of linguistic, religious, and ethnic unity, coupled with notions of territorial sovereignty that can be found among the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, Indians, and Chinese, for instance.3 These ancient understandings of sacred geographies together with sacred (p.196) histories of particular peoples provide much of the material used in nationalist imagination. All of this material has to be transformed to serve the nationalist cause. Religion thus has to be nationalized in the modern period.

In plural societies where religions can be pitted against each other religions have to be either cleaned of their divisive potential by being encapsulated in national civilization or made into something totally different, located outside of national civilization—in other words, potentially into another nation. They have to be made part and parcel of national identity, and histories of religious conflict have to be tailored to fit a tale of national unity or they have to be excluded from the nation. Even when processes of homogenization and assimilation are dominant, they are never entirely successful, because nationalism not only unifies but also diversifies by sprouting alternative nationalisms or regional identities. Since in modern nation-states a politics of numbers, producing majorities and minorities, is important, religion can be used as the foundation of majority nationalism as well as the foundation of minority identities.

Islam in India and China is seen as “coming from outside,” as not entirely belonging to national civilization. To an extent Indian and Chinese Muslims concur with this opinion by valorizing connections with the Arabic heartland, and especially the Hejaz, the holy region where Mecca and Medina are located. While this valorization is intrinsic to Islam, it has gained in significance through the expansion in popular participation in the hajj in the nineteenth century.4 Historically, it is obvious that Islam was brought into India “from elsewhere,” but something similar could be said about Brahmanism that was brought by Indo-European peoples that wandered into India. The externality of Brahmanism, however, is not valorized, and Brahmanism is regarded as indigenous in opposition to Islam, although Indians would not deny the connections of Sanskrit and Brahmanical culture with Indo-European languages and cultures and are generally proud of them. It is British scholarship that discovered these connections in the eighteenth century, and they are not (p.197) part of common understandings of Brahmanism and Hinduism. In China we find a strong civilizational discourse emphasizing the unity of the Han ethnic majority and the continuity of its civilization. Minorities are recognized and seen as dependent on Han civilization as well as tributary to the Chinese imperial state. Uyghur Muslims form only one of these ethnicities that had a regional autonomy. The extent to which Uyghur Muslims stress their connection with Central Asia and Turkey is directly related to political relations with Beijing. Hui Muslims are dispersed throughout China and generally do not constitute sizable groups in any given region. Clearly, also for Chinese Muslims the reference to the Hejaz is important.

Historically, saints, traders, and soldiers were the agents of Islamic expansion in South Asia. These three categories are sometimes difficult to distinguish. Sufi centers were at the same time centers of religion, trade, and political power. In the coastal areas Arab traders from the Persian Gulf were the first to introduce Islam, while Turkish armies brought Islam to the North. Sufi brotherhoods and their tombs were central to this expansion and continued to be central in South Asian Islam till the Islamic reform movements of the late nineteenth century. Sufi saints played a crucial part in converting South Asians to Islam. Given that Sufi practices are syncretistic in the sense that they include rather than exclude people from it, devotees of a particular saint did not have to distance themselves too much from nondevotees. When Sufi cults became more central to tribal arrangements and to control of land and people, such cults gradually made Islamic identity a more central part of social life in what amounts to really long-term processes of several centuries. This entails that a great number of practices—for instance, of purity and hierarchy—that are typical for Indian society and therefore often interpreted as Indic (or, if you like, Hindu), continued to be practiced by Muslims unto the twentieth century and by some of them to today. The forms of boundary maintenance connected to Islamic identity have differed greatly from place to place in South Asian history, but one may justifiably (p.198) argue that it is only in the twentieth century in the process of nationalist struggle that they have become more unified and politicized. In that sense its development is closely related to that of its significant other, Hindu identity.

Turkic, Afghan, Irani, and Mongol nomadic groups have over centuries constantly expanded into the South Asian subcontinent. Although ethnically different and often in conflict with each other, they brought their Sunni and Shi’a beliefs with them and developed them both in relation to the centers of learning in the Islamic heartland as well as in interaction with Hindu beliefs and practices. The great variety of Indo-Islamic practices is probably best understood if one pays attention to art and poetry that developed under the patronage of Muslim rulers. Most significant, obviously, is the Mughal Empire, if one acknowledges that this was not a monolithic modern state, but rather, following Tambiah, a galactic state with a number of different centers of political and economic power.5 Whatever the attempts of Muslim rulers to spread Islam over the subcontinent—and obviously there is a lot of nationalist debate about that—the main conclusion is that most people did not become Muslim, although many people went and still go to Sufi shrines, and, second, that Islam was Islam of Indian converts and thus was deeply influenced by Indian practices.

Turning to China, some basic elements of the South Asian story return. Central Asian nomads with various ethnic identities wandered into the vast area which is now Xinjiang (one-sixth of the current territorial space of the People’s Republic of China). Arab traders sailed to the coastal areas and connected China to a vast maritime trading network. Tombs of ancestors and Sufi saints play a central role in Chinese Muslim identity. Given that lineage and ancestors are generally quite central in Chinese society the tomb is a marker of difference that is recognized in the wider society, in which ancestor worship is dominant. Sufi lineages of Qadariya and Naqsbandiyya have spread over China, and from the nineteenth century one finds the usual debates about the place of saint worship in Islam that one also finds in India.6

(p.199) A major difference between India and China is that Muslim groups have never captured the central state in China. The state was captured by a Manchu group that came “from outside” like the Moghuls, but the difference was that the Manchu were not Muslims. The Manchu Qing dynasty spent great efforts to show that they had become fully civilized by adopting and promoting Confucian values. Their ethnicity, however, continued to play a role and was responded to in recurrent anti-Manchu uprisings, until the end of the Qing dynasty. The complexities of Manchu history in China are a good illustration of how the so-called unity of Chinese civilization covers up the enduring significance of ethnic difference.7

It was only Xinjiang, the Far West, that was controlled by a Turkic-speaking Muslim majority of Uyghur (a generic name proposed in the diaspora at Tashkent in 1921). Dongans or Hui Muslims dominated Gansu and Shaanxi. Many of the other Muslims lived as Hui minority thinly spread in the vast expanse of the Chinese empire. Muslims in China therefore cannot claim the centrality to political imagination that Indian Muslims can. Also in the rise of nationalism there is nothing quite similar to the political challenge posed by the Muslim League in India with its demand for Pakistan. This also means that Muslims are less important as the threatening Other in homogenizing nationalist imaginaries in China. The place of Turkic Uyghur in Xinjiang in the Chinese imagination is perhaps more comparable to that of the Pathans of the Northwest Frontier in India who are romanticized in Kipling’s work. It is the romantic image of the tribal robber in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Quite similar to the Northwest Frontier Xinjiang has been a region difficult to control in the past as well as in the present, resisting centralizing projects of the Chinese state.8

Chinese-speaking Han Muslims are known as Hui. As such they are seen as a religious group following the teachings of Islam, Hui Jiao (回教‎), and in communist China the cultural or religious definition is taken as the basis of declaring the Hui an ethnic or national minority, Hui Min (回民‎). The most recognizable feature of an authentic follower of Islamic precepts is that (p.200) he refrains from eating pork. Those people who have genealogical claims of descent from Arab traders, for instance, are not recognized by the state as Hui, when they do not follow Islamic precepts. To that extent the state actually promotes identification with Islam as a basis for recognition as a nationality, an ethnic minority. Moreover, by its politics of recognition the state transforms what often have been localized Hui identities to a national Hui identity. Being part of a recognized minority carries some benefits, such as preferential treatment in schooling.

The spatial distribution of the Hui makes it difficult to see them as a national minority. In Gansu, however, they constitute a majority of the population. The greatest Muslim rebellion against the Qing government did not come from the Uyghur in Xinjiang, but from the Dongan or Hui of Gansu in 1862, and it spread over a wide region. The rebellion had an ethnoreligious element to the extent that rumors were spread that the Han and Manchu Chinese wanted to kill off all the Muslims, triggering the inverse when the Muslim rebellion succeeded. The rebellion solidified under the leadership of Yakub Beg, who declared himself king in 1866 and ruled until 1877, when he was routed by an imperial army. The rebellion is often invoked today to show a legacy of independence from the People’s Republic of China by Muslim nationalists. The great obstacle for any potential Muslim separatism is that Muslim groups are ethnically different and live quite dispersed. The only way to unite them might be to use Islam in a Muslim majority region, as Yakub Beg in the 1850s did by imposing the shari’a in the region he controlled and Syed Ahmed Barelvi in the 1830s did with the Pathans in the Northwest Frontier of India. In that way the Western Frontier of China resembles the political situation of Afghanistan and Central Asia in which ethnic divisions can—at least momentarily—be overcome by reference to a unifying Islam, as the Taliban are trying to do today in Afghanistan. Yakub Beg’s revolt coincides more or less with the Mutiny in India of 1857, and this reminds us of the geopolitical situation in the second half of the nineteenth century. The British were involved in a Great Game (as Rudyard (p.201) Kipling called it) to control India, to weaken the Qing government further after the Opium Wars, to keep the French out of Southwest China and the Russians at bay in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Despite the obvious differences between the two rebellions there is a global history of British imperialism that undermines the political hegemony of both the Mughal and the Qing empires.

Muslims in India and China Today

The partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 put Muslims in large parts of India into a situation in which they had the choice to stay on in secular India or to leave as muhajirs for Pakistan, the newly created homeland for Muslims. Radical Muslim leaders, such as Maududi, the leader of the Jama’at-i-Islami, had been against the idea of Pakistan (a homeland for Muslims) promoted by the Muslim League and its leader Jinnah, but found themselves forced to choose for Muslim-majority Pakistan. The Jama’at-i-Islami branch that stayed on in India gradually discovered that Muslims wanted to participate in democratic elections and not stay away from them as they had proposed. The Jama’at in India therefore changed its strategy and chose for India’s secular democracy, since it saw this as the strongest bulwark against majoritarian Hindu nationalism.9 The majority of Muslims in India, however, does not vote for an Islamist political party, but for the Congress Party that has in general ruled India after independence and has been somewhat protective of the Muslim minority. In doing so they follow the example of Maulana Azad, a Muslim scholar who was born in Mecca in 1888 and became one of the central politicians in the Congress Party. It is secular Muslim elites who have been instrumental in building Muslim educational institutions, like Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, and who are fully participating in Indian political and cultural life.

Radical political Islam is found among students who were inspired by the Iranian Revolution and founded small revolutionary (p.202) cells very much in the way their leftist fellow-students were doing in the wake of the Maoist movement in China. In terms of numbers these radical groups are tiny. The really important movement among Indian Muslims is the avowedly apolitical Tablighi Jama’at, which is ultra-conservative in its pietism. The Tabligh is a transnational movement of great consequence, and it penetrates in previously Sufi dominated spaces at the grassroots level. Its ijtema (prayer-days) draw millions of devotees, and its view of a worldwide Umma (community of believers) is of far greater importance for many Indian Muslims than national Indian politics in which they have only marginal influence.10 For the majority of Muslims in India (though not for its secular elites that are active in the Congress Party), withdrawal from politics seems the preferred position. This is exacerbated by the fact that Indian politics does not do much to improve the social and economic backwardness in which the majority of Indian Muslims find themselves. Muslims do not constitute a caste, but a religious community. Moreover, Islam’s strong egalitarian ideology cannot acknowledge the existence of castes or at least caste-like groups within their community, although in fact they do exist.11 This means that Muslims cannot be assisted by general Indian government policies of positive discrimination of untouchables and other backward castes. Muslims in India today are among the poorest groups in society, despite the constant sloganeering by Hindu nationalists that Muslims are a “pampered minority.” The conditions of poor Muslims, specializing in declining industries and crafts, in terms of literacy and health are abysmal.12 However, the nature of Hindu-Muslim relations in India is such that the government is severely hampered in its outreach to the Muslim community by Hindu nationalist agitation.

One of the most intractable issues that confronts the Indian state is that of the independence struggle in Muslim-majority Kashmir. This is one of the unsolved legacies of partition. The Hindu Maharaja of Kashmir signed a treaty of accession to India in 1947, despite the fact that the vast majority of the population of Kashmir is Muslim. Currently Pakistan holds possession over (p.203) northwest Kashmir (Azad, or Free Kashmir) and disputes Indian rule over the central and northern part. The Indo-Pakistani wars of 1947 and 1965 were fought partly over this issue.13 China is also active in the region through its control over Tibet, part of Ladakh, and the so-called Aksai Chin (阿克赛钦‎) region, which is largely an uninhabitable salt desert through which the Chinese have made a road that connects Xinjiang and Western Tibet. Chinese activity and Indian response to it led to the Sino-Indian War of 1962 that had far-reaching consequences for the relations between the two countries continuing to the present day. The military superiority of the Chinese army has been felt as a deep national humiliation by the Indians and hampers their confidence in dealing with China despite the fast-growing economic ties between the countries.

The arbitrary nature of the border in this Himalayan area leads to constant conflicts. A good example of this is the Kargil conflict in 1999. India and Pakistan share a 740 kilometer line of control along the Jammu-Srinagar, Srinagar-Leh roads in the Kashmir region. This is an uninhabitable area of ice and snow. There are a number of outposts that become snowbound and have to be “abandoned” by both sides until the snow melts. This leads to a game in which one party or the other tries to seize an “unoccupied” post. In 1999 Pakistan infiltrated across a 100 kilometer or so frontier in the Kargil area. In reply the Indian army conducted what it called “one of the biggest anti-militancy operations in recent years.” Highly successful air strikes by India were followed by the shooting down of two Indian jet fighters and an armed helicopter. An open war seemed unavoidable, but Pakistan decided after a number of skirmishes to withdraw. The struggle over this uninhabitable swath of mountainous land was closely followed by the media and threw the Indian nation into a patriotic frenzy that was amazing considering that the stakes seemed so low. It showed, however, how sacred territorial sovereignty is for the modern nation-state.

Since the 1990s there has been a growing militancy of Muslim activists in Kashmir who have responded to a series of human rights abuses by the Indian army by seeking the independence (p.204) of Kashmir. This issue is primarily one of regional separatism, but religion, as it often does, plays a role in connecting militants with Pakistani and other outside funders and activism, while providing them with an anti-Indian, anti-Hindu ideology. The question of regional separatism combined with Islam makes it interesting to compare the Kashmir issue in India with the Xinjiang issue in China. Again, the identity of the inhabitants of Xinjiang, like that of the inhabitants of Kashmir, is not primarily Muslim, but ethnic: Turkic Uyghur and Kirghiz and Kazakhs. Xinjiang is crucial to the Chinese state for its mineral wealth in terms of gas and oil and coal, but also because of its location as gateway to Central Asia, where even more mineral wealth may be tapped. Like American geopolitics, Chinese geopolitics is often driven by energy demands, and the repression of Uyghur and the flooding of Xinjiang by Han Chinese immigrants is directly related to this.

Both the Kashmir and the Xinjiang issue are regional issues in which regional and ethnoreligious identities are central to movements for independence or autonomy that are squashed by the central state. In Kashmir an important role is played by neighboring Pakistan, and the geopolitical considerations of Delhi have more to do with the relation with Pakistan than with the potential contribution of Kashmir to India’s economy. This is all very different in the case of Xinjiang, where mineral resources are of major importance to Beijing and where one does not have an international conflict with a neighboring state. However, even if Xinjiang did not have rich resources, China would still assert its political power. As the case of the Kargil conflict shows nation-states tend to assert their territorial sovereignty even when there are no economic interests. When the national map has been established there is a paramount desire to maintain its integrity.

Both the Kashmir and the Xinjiang issue involve Muslim populations that are not fully integrated in the national story of civilizational unity. Although ethnicity and regional identity are the dominant elements in the response to state power Islam does (p.205) play a role in establishing ideas of martyrdom, holy war, and connections with Muslim insurgency elsewhere. In these regions there are connections with transnational militancy, connecting Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and Xinjiang. Like global trading networks they have a flexibility that allows them access to resources and opportunities that are difficult to control by singular nation-states. Especially the cult of martyrdom, mainly inspired by Shi’a traditions but easily appropriated for national and transnational causes, connects them to global Islamic discourse.14

Much of this militancy has hardly anything to do with the Muslim populations that live outside these conflict-ridden regions, but the currently pervasive language of “national security” means that they are often suspected by the central authority as being ideologically (religiously) connected. Nevertheless, Muslims have also suffered from the extreme secularist attacks by the Maoist state against their religious institutions, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when Buddhist, Daoist, and Muslim shrines were destroyed. What we see in China is very similar to what we see in India: a process of ethnic identification with a religion that is intimately tied up with state policies and the political process. Many Hui were hardly conversant with Islam and had blended in almost seamlessly with their non-Muslim neighbors except for some culinary peculiarities, such as their special noodles. In contrast to India Muslims in China did not have to confront the construction of a majority religion through the political process, but instead they had to relate to the construction of an ethnic majority, the Han. In fact Muslims did not differ much from followers of other religions in being confronted with an aggressive secularism and were perhaps somewhat better off, since they could derive some protection from their minority status. In some cases Islamic heritage was seen by the authorities as a regional asset. To highlight the presence of Muslims and Islamic heritage has been a local and provincial state policy in Fujian, for instance, making it possible to invite Kuwaiti businessmen to witness the age-old (p.206) legacy of Arab traders as a step toward funding large-scale projects in the province.

Muslims as Outsiders

In his major work on the civilizing process Norbert Elias connects the emergence of the concept of “civilization” to the rise of national consciousness in Europe.15 The concept of civilization emerges when the social and political significance of the ancien régime had declined in the process of the making of nation-states. This makes it immediately clear that narratives of nationalism that extol the superiority of national civilization refer to civilization as the essence of the nation, the transcendent spirit that moves history. This is clear in Hegel, and it greatly influences Marx and Weber.

Muslims are considered to be outside the civilizational core in both Indian and Chinese forms of nationalism. Indian civilization contains a host of religious and philosophical traditions that were “discovered” in the eighteenth century by the British and named Hinduism. These traditions are local, regional, and sometimes understood and practiced over the entire subcontinent. The most widely spread traditions are carried by Brahman priests, use Sanskrit as sacred language, and are sometimes collectively called Brahmanism. As I have argued earlier, Brahmanism is connected to caste hierarchy, in which some racial elements, like Aryan versus non-Aryan, can be either encompassed in a hierarchical fashion or used for political mobilization. Particular Brahmanical traditions, such as those centering around the God-King Rama, may have been used in order to resist the Muslim Other.16 Hinduism and especially the Brahmanical variant of it are identified as the “traditional order” of India by the British and later by social scientists like Max Weber and Louis Dumont.17 Nationalism similarly addresses Hinduism as Indian civilization while at the same time using it as a source for resisting Western civilization. There is a concern among intellectuals that Hinduism is not modern enough to be nationalized, but (p.207) this is seen as a problem that can be solved through reform. Hinduism is portrayed by some of the nationalists as superior to the secular West because of its spirituality but in need of reform for its backward magic and ritualism. In this kind of imperialist and nationalist thought about Hinduism, “other” religious traditions, such as tribal and untouchable traditions as well as Islam, are branded as essentially “foreign” to Indian civilization. This reasoning has been influential in Muslim separatism and anti-Muslim nationalism, and it continues to be important in majority-minority relations today.

After independence by far the most important movement that has pitted Hindus and Muslims against each other in India has been the movement to remove a sixteenth-century mosque built by the Mughal emperor Babar in the North India pilgrimage center Ayodhya and replace it with a temple for the god Rama, who was allegedly born on the spot on which the mosque had been built. This movement was, to an extent, successful in 1992, when it was able to destroy the mosque but not (yet) replace it with a temple. The destruction of the mosque was followed by widespread rioting in India, in which thousands of people have died (the majority of whom were Muslims). The failure of the central government that in 1992 was under the control of the secular Congress Party to protect the mosque has deeply alienated Muslims and at the same time led Hindu chauvinists like Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, into power. The state of Gujarat combines, in an interesting way, high foreign investment and neo-liberal development while discriminating against Muslims and even leading pogroms against them. The political party BJP, which is behind the anti-Muslim movement, has led a coalition government at the union level from 1999 to 2004.

The destruction of the Babar mosque in Ayodhya and its violent aftermath has led in cities like Mumbai to an anti-Muslim atmosphere that in turn has been responded to by bomb attacks, allegedly by Muslim gangsters in the city, on strategic locations in the city. If this was not enough to exacerbate relations between (p.208) Hindus and Muslims, a state-led pogrom against Muslims in the Western Indian state of Gujarat left more than a thousand Muslims dead. Finally, in 1998 the world was shocked to witness an attack in Mumbai on 5-star hotels and other locations in the city by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, a movement that is primarily connected to the struggle for independence in Kashmir. The retaliations following anti-Muslim violence in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babar mosque and the attacks on the Indian state (including on the Indian Parliament in 2001), engineered by Pakistan-supported Kashmiri militants, are now in the general opinion inextricably intertwined as “Muslim violence.” A further development in this regard is the recent arrest of a Hindu sadhu (“holy man”), Swami Asimanand, who has admitted that his group was behind some of the bombings in India that were earlier seen as part of “Muslim violence.” In short, the general atmosphere of Hindu-Muslim relations in India continues to deteriorate.

Nothing on this scale has happened in China, but the position of Muslims in Xinjiang has deteriorated since strivings for autonomy have led to bomb attacks both in Xinjiang and in Beijing, widespread unrest before the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, culminating in days of violent attacks by Uyghur on Han Chinese as well as retaliations for them in 2009. While the government wanted to use the games as a sign of China’s new rise to world power, and largely succeeded, both in Tibet and in Xinjiang activists saw this moment of global attention as offering a good platform for their grievances.

In a recent monograph on Muslims and ethnic minorities in China Dru Gladney has argued that Chinese scholarship is so committed to the idea of an integrated Han society that it faces problems in questioning the category of the “Han majority” in ways that would be common in Indian scholarship on the “Hindu majority.”18 Indeed, the construction of majority and minority is part of the nationalization of culture. Like the religious-ethnic construction of “the Hindu majority” in India the civilizational-ethnic construction of “the Han majority” needs to be examined. The Han majority is thought to make up (p.209) more than 90 percent of the Chinese population. Linguistically there is an enormous diversity among the Han. There are eight mutually unintelligible language groups: Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Xiang, Hakka, Gan, Southern Min, and Northern Min, but even within these language groups there are subdivisions whose speakers are mutually unintelligible.19 Mandarin (called Hanyu, or language of the Han, or Putonghua, common language) is the North Chinese dialect that has been made into the national language and imposed by the state through education. It is in fact not the spoken language but a state-promoted script that has created a unity all over China over a long period of history. The unifying function of the script, however, has to be understood as limited as literacy was until the 1950s.

Linguistic criteria therefore cannot be easily used to distinguish majority from minority. When in the People’s Republic of China minorities had to be officially identified more than 440 groups applied for minority status and 41 were recognized. At this moment there are 56 officially recognized nationalities, including the Han majority. The term “nationalities” is used to translate minzu, in accordance with the Soviet Russian term “natsionalnost” and generally following Stalin’s definition of it: a group with four common characteristics: language, territory, economy, and psychological nature manifested in culture.20 Many groups continue to petition for recognition as minority (shaoshu minzu), since that recognition gives them privileged access to such state resources as education. This aspiration, however, is ambivalent, since civilizational quality and modern progress are identified with the Han majority. Gladney argues that, while the notion of the Han person had been around for many centuries, the notion of Han nationality (minzu) as national majority originated with Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-Sen), the leader of the nationalists in the early twentieth century.21 The notion of Han majority is thus connected to Chinese nationalism in ways rather similar to the notion of Hindu nationalism in India.

The main difference between the construction of a Han majority and the construction of a Hindu majority is that the first is based on ethnicity and the second on religion. Muslims in India (p.210) are primarily seen as a religious minority, while in China they are primarily seen as an ethnic category. There are no sharp and definite boundaries between religion and ethnicity, and one can point at processes that ethnicize religious identity or make ethnic identity more determined by religion, as one sees in minority formations in Europe today. In such processes of identity formation larger political developments play a significant role, and that is clearly the case with Muslims both in India and China. Clearly, the proportion of the Muslim population before and also after independence to the total population is also an important factor in identity formation. Islam could be used as a major basis for political mobilization in the anti-colonial freedom struggle in India and in gaining a separate homeland for Muslims. Again, this is significantly different in China, where Muslims are only one of many relatively small minorities.

In addition to the Muslim minority we have both in India and in China another major religious minority, the Christians. Christianity had considerable success in China, but to today remains seen essentially as “foreign” and “imperialist,” in the sense that it is seen to be connected to outside power, primarily the United States. After 1949, since it could not be expelled (although missionaries were expelled) or eradicated, it needed to be brought under control. This is very similar to the Indian case, where Christian proselytization is forbidden by law and where missionaries are seen as “foreign agents” and subject to attacks. Christians, however, are not seen as an ethnic group in either India or China. In some areas in India there are, however, connections between Christianity and ethnicity. For example, the Nagas in Nagaland (East India) have been in majority converted to Christianity and are now in conflict with the Indian state about demands ranging from autonomy to independence.

Islam, as the religion of one of the five great Chinese ethnicities (Han, Mongol, Manchu, Hui, Tibetan) and of 10 of the 56 recognized nationalities in the People’s Republic of China, was always more a subject of political colonization and internal orientalism than a constituting element of China’s civilizational (p.211) essence. A major difference with the Indian case is that Chinese nationalism did not focus on religious identity and difference as its main marker. Both the nationalists and the communists have reinforced the notion that China is inhabited by a large Han majority and that minorities, such as Muslims and Tibetans, are gradually civilized and incorporated into Chinese civilization. The communist state has not singled out Muslims for attack, but rather it has continued a long-term effort to assimilate them from foreignness into Chineseness. These efforts had the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the sense of being an ethnically and religiously different community. Together with global processes of Islamization that are not leaving Chinese Muslims untouched the state-efforts to address the Hui as a separate nationality through policies of positive discrimination make the Muslim identity of the Hui in particular more prominent.

Muslims as Outsiders in India and China

Both Indian and Chinese nationalisms see Muslims as external to their civilizational core. Despite centuries of interaction and Muslim contributions to common history, such as in the case of the Muslim Chinese admiral Zheng He, who sailed to Africa long before the European era of expansion and has recently become a culture hero, Muslims are “foreign” and need to be assimilated. Assimilation, however, is a contradictory process, since Muslims have to be first identified as “foreign” before they can be targeted by state policies of assimilation. In China the Hui are seen as having a distinctive religion and thus are recognized as a minority with certain privileges. This induces some Hui who do not practice Islam to become more Muslim than they were before. This concerns particularly those merchants and restaurant owners who live dispersed in China’s cities. It concerns less those Hui who live in larger communities in particular provinces. The efforts of the government to make Islam the marker of this ethnic minority are also contradictory in the sense that Islam has to be brought more firmly under state control. (p.212) Muslim imams are constantly monitored, and there is a fear of fundamentalist influences among the Hui. This fear is enhanced by the perceived possibility that the Hui link up with Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang. However remote this possibility may be, one should not underestimate self-fulfilling prophecies in state policy.

The creation of Pakistan has made it possible in India to further propagate a civilizational core from which Muslims are excluded. This has been successful to the extent that Bengali intellectuals today are sometimes not even aware that Bengal had a majority Muslim population before partition. Much history writing about Bengal excludes the Muslims altogether. Secularist India has recognized religious difference and sometimes politically reinforced it—for example, by creating separate civil codes. The main purpose of secularist policy has been to prevent civil strife, and this has been quite successful until the rise of Hindu nationalism in the 1980s. Muslims who have chosen to stay in India are considered to be “foreign” and perhaps more so than in China, because of their often-alleged links with Pakistan. As in China with the Uyghur and the Hui there is always a suspicion in India that Kashmiri Muslims will find allies among Indian Muslims in threatening India’s sovereignty. The narrative of civilizational assimilation is quite similar in the Indian and Chinese cases, but in India it is punctuated with the fear that the signs might be turned around and Hindus would be assimilated to Islam.

In the end the construction of minorities is logically connected to the construction of majorities. The case of the Muslim minorities in India and China reminds us forcefully of the always unfinished business of creating Hindu or Han majorities. The arbitrariness of the religious identification of Indians as Hindus and of the construction of Hinduism as the majority religion and thus the basis of national identity is paralleled by the arbitrariness of the ethnic identification of the Chinese nation as Han. Who is a Hindu or who is a Han is a question that is produced not only through state policies of identification, however important, (p.213) but also through popular mobilization around religious or ethnic signifiers. It is remarkable that these signifiers of religious or ethnic identity, Hindu or Han, acquired their contemporary significance through relatively recent political processes. That is definitely not to say that they did not have significance in earlier periods before the imperial encounter, but that these identifications of Hindu versus Muslim or Han versus Muslims (or more significantly versus Manchu) are transformed into something quite new and different in the modern period. More than any other minority Muslims show up the process through which the nation creates its civilization and its civilizational Others. This is because Islam provides its believers with a global utopia that cannot be contained by any nation. Moreover, the actual location of its believers in India and China is the result of forms of expansion that are not only very old but have also resulted in concentrations in geographically marginal regions that have become politically (and sometimes economically, in the case of natural resources) central to notions of sovereignty in China and India. While some of these elements are reminiscent of the spread of Buddhism and Christianity, it is the combination of them—a people of the book without a church, strong concepts of “just war” connected to nomadic groups, strong egalitarianism combined with statecraft and legalism—that makes Islam specially fit to challenge the confines of the nation-state.


(1.) Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

(2.) Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

(3.) Aviel Roshwald, The Endurance of Nationalism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006); see my review essay “Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas,” American Historical Review 113, no. 4 (2009): 1100–1101.

(4.) Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Travelers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

(5.) Stanley Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976). See also J. C. Heesterman, The Inner Conflict of Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

(6.) Dru Gladney, “Muslim Tombs and Ethnic Folklore: Charters for Hui Identity,” Journal of Asian Studies 46, no. 3 (Aug. 1987): 495–532. Peter van der Veer, “Playing or Praying? A Saint’s Day in Surat,” Journal of Asian Studies 51, no. 3 (1992): 545–564.

(7.) Pamela Crossley, The Manchus (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

(8.) James Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

(9.) See Irfan Ahmad, Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

(10.) Khalid Masud, ed., Travellers in Faith: Studies of the Tablīghī Jamāʿat as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal (Leiden: Brill, 2000).

(11.) Charles Lindholm, “Caste in Islam: The Problem of Deviant Systems: A Critique of Recent Theory,” Contributions of Indian Sociology, n.s., 20, no. 1 (1986): 61–73.

(12.) The social, economic, and educational status of the Indian Muslim community has been extensively investigated by a high-powered committee under the chairmanship of Justice Rajinder Sachar that submitted its report to the Indian Parliament in 2006.

(13.) Mridu Rai, Hindu Ruler, Muslim Subjects: Islam and the History of Kashmir (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

(14.) Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi, “Frontline Mysticism and Eastern Spirtuality,” ISIM Newsletter 9 (January 2002), 13 and 38.

(15.) Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); originally published as Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation, 2 vols. (Basel: Verlag Haus zum Falken, 1939).

(16.) Sheldon Pollock, “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India,” Journal of Asian Studies 52 no. 2 (1993): 261–297.

(p.251) (17.) Peter van der Veer, “The Foreign Hand,” in Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament, ed. Carol A. Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 23–45.

(18.) Dru Gladney, Dislocating China: Muslims, Minorities, and Other Subaltern Subjects (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

(19.) Ibid., 7.

(20.) Steven Harrell, Ways of Being Ethnic in Southwest China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001, 39