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American Academy of Political and Social Science

Influence of Islamic Culture on Indian Life

Author(s): Humayun Kabir
Source: The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 233, India
Speaking (May, 1944), pp. 22-29
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of
Political and Social Science
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Influence of Islamic Culture on Indian Life

FROM immemorial times, India has founder or lawgiver. According to Mos-

been the meeting place of conflict- lems, each country and age had its own
ing races and civilizations. From im- prophet, and Mohammed was only the
memorial times, it has tried to achieve a last of a long line who had all preached
unity for the heterogeneous elements Islam to their own people in their own
which make up the totality of its life. language. Moslems must therefore re-
Different races have met and fought and vere all prophets of former faiths and
fraternized on its soil. Conflicting cul- climes. There is, however, one impor-
tures have struggled for supremacy and tant difference between former revela-
in the end been fused in new syntheses tions and the last. All former prophets
that have marked new levels of achieve- have appealed to man's devotion and
ment for the human spirit. They all faith and the sense of mystery evoked
appeared on the scene as victors, but by the grandeur of the universe. Proph-
were soon absorbed in the ranks of the ets have been not only holy men but
vanquished. Each fresh incursion of men possessed of superhuman vision who
race or idea found the Indian tempera- compelled obedience from their follow-
ment more malleable than before, anders. Miracles and supernatural mani-
accelerated the process of assimilationfestations of power have therefore been
and synthesis. At its worst, the process an essential ingredient in such faiths.
led to a mechanical juxtaposition; at itsIslam discarded this appeal to the
best, it brought to birth a new and or- transcendental. Mohammed was a man
ganic way of life. The seething caldron among men, and asserted more than
never cooled, for new ingredients were once that he was subject to all the laws
continually added and in turn added to that govern ordinary human beings. He
the richness and complexity of Indianclaimed no miracle, and his appeal was
life. The same process of conflict and to the human reason.
synthesis, but intensified a thousand The universality of reason was a di-
times, occurred with the advent of Islam rect corollary to Islam's emphasis on
in India. the unity of God. Since God is one and
reason seeks to express His nature, the
THE UNITY OF GOD laws of reason cannot but be the same
for all. It is therefore no accident that
The first and foremost characteristic the triumphant progress of science be-
of Islam is its emphasis on the unity of gins with the advent of Islam. Pre-
God. From this follows its universality. Moslem civilizations had also produced
All Moslems believe that, as a universalbrilliant scientists, but the scientific tem-
religion valid for all times, it must revealper requires for its growth a belief in
the eternal nature of truth. As such, it the unfailing uniformity of nature.
can have no individual founder; andLaws of nature cannot, however, be
when, on the analogy of Christianity,uniform unless the nature they seek to
European writers characterize it as theexpress is itself uniform. Belief in the
religion of Mohammed, Moslems repudi- uniformity of nature requires a back-
ate the description. In passing, it mayground of a monistic world based on
be noted that this is also true of Hin- the unity of God and governed by strict
duism, which recognizes no individual necessitarian laws which neither recog-

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nize nor allow any exception through

require that all Moslems all over the
any natural or supernatural agency. world must show a dead uniformity in
Emphasis on the unity of God also
thought, speech, and behavior. The
broke down the distinction between the unity of truth is not incompatible with
empirical and the transcendental. Thisdifferences in manifestation in different
is the obverse of the prophet's repudia- contexts. On the contrary, such unity
tion of miracles and the supernatural.demands that truth cannot be identified
The empirical acquired a new dignity, with any of its special manifestations.
and men's attention was turned from the Differences of language prove that the
consideration of unearthly glory to the same truth not only may but must have
contemplation of the grandeur of the different forms for peoples of different
universe. Nature began to be valued, lands. The truths of religion also show
not merely as a symbol of some hiddenlocal variations. The very universality
truth, but for its own sake. We have of religion demands that it must domi-
seen how the belief in uniformity of na- nate and give a tonal unity to differences
ture was a necessary condition for the based upon geographical, climatic, and
birth of the scientific temper, but it historical considerations. In the days
could not by itself have led to the phe- of its vitality, Islam did not seek to
nomenal growth of science without the destroy the tradition or historical in-
new spirit of reverence for the empirical heritance of any race. Elements of the
fact. past in direct conflict with the funda-
The equality and brotherhood of all mental tenets of Islam were alone sought
Moslems was equally a consequence of to be rejected. Elements capable of
the emphasis on the unity of God. The assimilation and synthesis were taken
universality of reason demanded from up and led to the growth of a new civi-
all rational beings the same behavior in lization and culture. There existed dif-
the same circumstances. So far as men ferences in customs and traditions
are rational, they are equal in the sight among Moslems in different countries,
of God. There is no distinction between but these did not disturb the unity of
man and man on the plane of humanity. atmosphere which Islam spread over a
The absence of any priestly class in Is- major portion of the contemporary
lam followed from the insistence on the world for over five centuries.
universality of reason. The Moslem law
of inheritance has often been criticized PROCESS OF ASSIMILATION AND
by jurists as tending to the division of SYNTHESIS
property and constant changes in social The impact of Islam on India was
stratification. It is in fact an expression deep and profound. The contact be-
of Islam's passionate insistence on social tween new and old modes of thought
democracy, and acts as an instrumentcompelled acute and sensitive minds to
for preserving the fluidity of the social think afresh about the eternal problems
system. Along with the law for com- of the universe. Men's minds were
pulsory payment to the Communal freed from the tyranny of old traditional
Fund, the law of inheritance operates ways. New religions and philosophies
against the stagnation of wealth in fam- appeared to mark the rapprochement be-
ily pools, and frees property from the tween Hindu and Islamic modes of
bonds of birth and vested interests. thought. Yet the assimilation and syn-
thesis between the two systems was not
complete, for the facts of physical dis-
Islam's claim to universality does not tance and inaccessibility remained. The

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interchange of thought and culture be-

as early as the time of Baber, the proc-
tween the capital and the country re-
ess of assimilation had gone so far that
mained imperfect. The small,he compact,
could characterize it as a new and
and, on the whole, homogeneous Moslem
unique mode of life, a mode to which he
aristocracy gave the tone togave
civic cul- of the "Hindustani way."
the name
ture. In the country it was Those
who seek to boast today of the
Difficulties of communicationpurity preserved
of Hindu or of Moslem culture in
some of the independence of the
India arelocal
therefore ignorant of history
units. Without constant interchange or else they of
lack the capacity to under-
men and ideas, the inherent rigidity of
stand the nature of historical processes.
social forms was able to assert itself.
The result was that Moslems in the INTELLECTUAL INFLUENCE

provinces were influenced by the pres-

It is not possible in a short article to
sure of Hindu forms of life. Rural cul- trace every phase of the new transforma-
ture, in spite of large-scale changes in tions and developments. Only a few as-
religion, remained dominantly Hindu,pects can be indicated, of which perhaps
for men changed their creed but notthe most fundamental is the transforma-
their way of life. tion in mental outlook and philosophy
In the extant textbooks of Indian his- of life. It is impossible to separate to-
tory the record of difference and con-day the different strands which consti-
flict is kept alive, but the story of fu-tute Indian culture. It is even difficult
sion and synthesis is either forgotten or to say how much of the present Hindu
ignored. We are told the story of thephilosophy of life is derived from the
rise and fall of dynasties, of invasionsVedas and the Upanishads and how
by new hordes from outside, and grue- much is the resultant of direct or indi-
some accounts of oppression, pillage, rect influences of Islam. It is equally
and rapine. There is hardly any men-difficult to differentiate between the con-
tion of the growth of social or cultural tributions of Indian and Saracenic ele-
institutions or the emergence of newments in the constitution of the men-
social forms. tality of Indian Moslems. The influence
The history of India in the Middle of India was not in fact confined to In-
Ages is in fact a story of assimilation dian Moslems, but affected the develop-
and synthesis. At first under the Pa- ment of Moslem theology in Persia and
thans and later on a wider scale under Arabia as well. Buddhist modes of
the Moguls, this is unmistakable in the
thought had penetrated as far west as
evolution of customs and conduct, fash-
Egypt, and there are scholars who find
ions and festivals, in the very prepara- anticipations of the Sermon on the
tion of food and in social and household Mount in the earlier writings and edicts
affairs. In the matter of dress, a newof Buddhism. Sufism has its foundation
costume was evolved which shows in the Koran, but it is clear that its de-
hardly any trace of Arab or central velopment was influenced by Christian-
Asian influence. That period also ity saw
and neo-Platonism, while its attempt
the growth of a new language to which
submerge the individual in the Ab-
serves to this day as a medium of com-
solute suggests the influence of Buddhist
munication between Indians of different modes of thought.
races and regions. In music and art, in Such intellectual influences are, how-
sculpture and architecture, in social hab- ever, always mutual. We find traces of
its, life, and manners, the effects of the Moslem influence in quarters where they
synthesis are visible to this day. Even can be least expected. Sankara is usu-

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ally regarded as a product of purely In- in the Hindu mind. Social at-
dian modes of thought, but even titudes,
in hisreligious faith, and even the
Hindu philosophy of life were pro-
philosophical constructions, extraneous
influences are not altogether absent.
foundly affected. The new philosophies
There are reasons for holding which
that he
were born in that period have left
was influenced by the impact of new
a permanent impression on the Indian
thoughts which came in the trainmind.of
They show one remarkable dif-
Islam. From the earliest times to the ference from the modes of thought which
eighth century, changes in religious prevailed before the eighth century.
thought and developments in philosophyThe old conception of religious faith
originated in northern India. Ancient was characterized by moderation, intel-
traditions and new reforms flourished lectual subtlety, and a contemplative
there side by side. The eighth centurypantheism. The mentality which we
reveals a sudden transformation. The find emerging in the south is simple,
leadership of Indian thought goes downeager, and full of emotional explosive-
to the south. Sankara and Ramanuja, ness. The progressive simplification of
Nimbaditya and Madhavacharyya are faith and increasing emphasis on the
all men of the Deccan. The rise and unity of God cannot be developments
due to internal causes alone. The ele-
development of the Vaishnava and Saiva
modes of thought are to be found in taken singly may be derived from
this narrow tract in space and time.
ancient systems, but in their composi-
tion -and emphasis they exhibit a re-
Political and social changes in the north
cannot alone explain this sudden trans-
markable approximation to the Islamic
formation. We must also take account outlook on life. Sankara's absolute
of the fact that it was in the south that
monism rejects the external world as
Islam first came into contact with Hin-
mere illusion. At first sight, this is
duism. completely alien to Islam's acceptance
Long before the conquest of Sind by
of the empirical universe. But at the
Muhammad bin Kasim, Arab traderssame time his passionate insistence upon
had come into contact with the people
the unity of the Brahman reveals a se-
of Travancore. This peaceful penetra-
cret source of affinity with Islam which
tion went so far that the last of the is as strange as it is interesting.
Cheramon Perumal Kings of Malabar
was converted to Islam and left his king- ARCHITECTURAL INFLUENCE
dom on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Kaladi, The development of architecture in
where Sankara was born, belonged northern
to a India in the Middle Ages offers
small principality whose king alsoanother
ac- evidence of synthesis between
cepted Islam. There is no indication ancient Indian and Saracenic styles. In-
that these conversions were the result stances of a purely Hindu style are to
of military conquest. Nor is there anybe found mainly in the south. The tem-
indication that the change of faith byples of southern India exhale an atmos-
the king resulted in any large-scale con- phere entirely different from that of the
versions among the people. Such con- north. This does not imply that there
versions, however, indicate that Islam is any single style which can be char-
must have been a living influence, andacterized as northern or southern. It
as such, could not but affect an acuteonly implies that, in spite of differences
and sensitive intellect like Sankara. and variations, the southern structures
The contact and conflict of the two show a basic identity in conception and
modes of thought quickened new ques-execution. This is equally true of the

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structures of the north, and differenti-

This is not surprising, for all the finest
ates them from similar architectural ex-
structures of the north are informed by
periments in other countries of the a spirit of harmony and fusion of the
world. The palaces, forts, and tombs two styles.
of northern India during the Middle Economy of sculpture and other deco-
Ages show traces of Persian influence, ration in the north is not a mere acci-
but in spite of their similarity to Per- dent. The emphasis is on symmetry
sian models, they reveal features that of lines and balancing of masses. Vol-
are alien to the ideals of Persian archi- umes have been so disposed as to create
tecture. Though influenced deeply by an impression of uniformity. Architec-
Persian tendencies, they have their basis ture in the north centers around a basic
in the traditions of ancient India. idea. Its value lies in harmony of struc-
In the temples of the south, it is the tural achievement rather than in the
straight line that dominates. All elabo- splendor and variety of the constituent
ration is based on the composition of units. It is remarkable that this syn-
lines and angles. Another striking fea- thesis could be achieved even in the
ture of this temple architecture is the case of temple architecture. Though
exuberance of its sculptural decoration. foreign influences may be adopted in
Each pillar is carved out of solid rock other spheres, the usual tendency is to
and embellished with a hundred forms. resist its application to the religious
The variety is so great that there is field. The fact that Hindu architectural
hardly the repetition of a single theme.genius could even in the religious field
In the famous temple at Cangeeverum adapt Moslem ideals to its own pur-
there are about a thousand pillars. Not poses is evidence of its strength and vi-
one pillar is a replica of any other. tality.
Even in the smaller temple at Sim- The influence was not and in fact
hachalam, the pillars are all of different could not be one-sided. While Sara-
forms and motifs. The aim of this cenic styles influenced old Indian tra-
architecture seems to be to overwhelmditions, they in their turn profoundly
our minds through an abundance of affected the character of Moslem archi-
forms and splendor. tecture in India. One of the main char-
The contrast with the architecture of
acteristics of Moslem architecture was
the north is so glaring that it does not
its simplicity and severity. Line meets
escape the merest amateur. Even theline with an austere grace in which there
temples there have broken away from is hardly any room for superfluous deco-
the domination of the straight line.
ration. Even where there are embellish-
They exhibit a composition of the arch
ments, these take the form of geometri-
and the circle which subtly transforms
cal patterns or calligraphy raised to a
the atmosphere. It is true that domesfine art. In the architecture of northern
are rare, but even the turrets are dif-
India this general principle undergoes
ferent from those of the south. Thosean almost revolutionary change. Per-
familiar only with the north cannot fully
fect fusion of the Saracenic emphasis on
realize this. To them, the difference harmony and form with the Indian em-
between the temple and the mosque
phasis on splendor and decoration has
seems more prominent than their under-given us miracles of architecture like the
lying similarity. But to those who have
Taj Mahal. More often the two sys-
seen only the temples of the south, tems
all have not been perfectly fused, and
architecture of the north seems imbued
we find domination of the one or the
with a subtle aroma of the mosque.
other style. Architectural curiosities

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like Fatehpur Sikri or the Itmaddoula

nificence and splendor of Hindu India.
remain as unfulfilled experiments instory
syn- of Indian expansion and colo-
thesis. One need not refer to nial
conquests is today a mere legend.
The manifold activities of the human
instances of Hindu patterns incorpo-
rated in the Moslem architecture of the mind which characterized the life of
period. The lotus and the pitcher sup-ancient India were reduced to a dull
ply a constant motif in the constructionsascetic gray by the time of the Middle
of the Hindu period, but we find its Ages. Emphasis upon the Absolute
skillful use in the tombs of Moslem made men indifferent to inequalities in
kings as well. the material world. In consequence, the
indignities of the individual in empirical
life could be ignored or explained away
The contact of Hindu and Moslem as mere illusions which would disappear
cultures in the south was responsible
on for
the cessation of this transitory life.
The impact of Islam shook this as-
the birth of a new philosophy. It is not
surprising that the impact shouldceticism first to its very foundations. Islam
be felt in the sphere of the intellect. was essentially a religion centered on
First acquaintance attracts the intellectthis world, and gave equal value to em-
more than the heart. Truths accepted pirical and transcendental considera-
by the intellect do not immediatelytions. in- It brought a dynamic message
fluence behavior. The time lag between of social democracy that few systems of
intellectual acceptance and emotional existing political or social civilization
assimilation has often been noticed. But could resist. It taught men that equal-
once a truth sinks into the conscious- ity and fraternity must be realized in
ness, it begins to mold our emotions theas
life of day to day, and could not be
well, and to give rise to new experi- relegated to some remote and unearthly
ments in art. Because this requires future. The oppressed and destitute
time, we find that Indo-Saracenic art responded to that appeal everywhere
flourished mainly in the north. and co-operated in its victories. It was
We have pointed to the synthesis of this message of freedom for the indi-
Hindu and Moslem models in the vidual in his daily life that made its
achievements of Indian architecture. advance so swift and irresistible.
The Vaishnava songs and lyrics of Ben- In the Vaishnava poetry of Bengal we
gal offer another instance of suchfindas- an artistic representation of this
similation and synthesis. The elements
conflict and its resolution. Its central
for the emergence of a successfulmotifart is love and its attitude towards
love is an exquisite expression of the
were present in Bengal from early times.
The advent of Islam acted as a catalytic
synthesis achieved. Love is not merely
a physical or mental state. Still less is
agent which fused the elements together
and brought Vaishnava poetry to it itsa mere sensation. Perhaps it can be
birth. best understood as an adventure of the
The Vaishnava poetry of Bengalindividual
is a into the uncharted future
miracle of synthesis, for it fusedfrom an the certainties of his past and
active mentality with a passive philoso-
present. Activity is the essence of such
phy of illusion. The spirituality which
adventure, and the bolder the adven-
is often regarded as a distinguishing ture,
fea- the purer the activity. Such ac-
ture of Hindu mentality has in ittivityan frees itself from the bonds of
element of passivity and quiescence. purpose and is an expression of the
There are few records today of the mag-
sheer joy of life. The manifestation of

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unpurposive energy constitutes pure

on the other, through its emphasis on
play. the unity and equality of all life, it pares
We find that all analyses of love away empirical inequalities. A concep-
finally lead to its conception as a mode tion which seeks to give the same value
of play. In Vaishnava poetry this is to insects and birds and beasts and men
expressed as Leela, but in the Leela of cannot, consistently with its assump-
Vaishnava poetry we still find traces tions, emphasize either progress or hu-
of the old passivity of mind. Through- man superiority. On the other hand,
out the variations of emotion and senti- Islam insisted upon the excellence of
ment, the poet is always a passive ob-man and declared him to be the lord of
ject of love. Nowhere is he the lover. creation. He is subject only to the gov-
Everywhere he is the beloved. On theernance of God. This is echoed in the
level of common experience, the questwords of the Vaishnava poet, who pro-
of the human soul for the infinite must claims that man is the highest truth and
take this form. From the point of view there is nothing higher than realization
of common sense, this quest is, however,of this fact.
symbolic and possesses merely meta-
phorical validity. When the quest INFLUENCE ON MUSIC AND PAINTING
ceases to be an illusion and becomes the
Some of the aspects of Islamic cul-
sole reality of the soul, we reach a level
of experience where the distinction ofture and its influence on Indian life
subject and object is lost. It is no and thought have been indicated above.
longer tied down to the common-sense The account must from the very nature
conception of the human soul as de- of the case remain incomplete. When
pendent and limited. At such levels the
two powerful currents meet, there is no
difference between the lover and the question of the absorption of the one in
beloved disappears. In Vaishnava po-
the other. The two streams join to cre-
etry, the distinction persists. This
ate a new form, and their separate con-
shows that the philosophy of illusion tributions can hardly be distinguished.
has not been completely overcome. On The same thing happens when two liv-
the other hand, the emphasis is on love
ing organisms unite. A new organism
as Leela, or pure activity. This showsis born which shares in the character-
that the fatalistic conception of reality
istics of the parents and is yet a unique
has been shaken to its very foundations.individual. Interpenetration is com-
This fusion seems to be the result of plete, so that no element can remain
synthesis between the Hindu and the unchanged in the new synthesis.
Moslem outlook on life. All manifesta- This is what largely happened in the
tions of the Indian spirit in the pre- evolution of a new culture in India.
Moslem period are tinged with the note Old values were transmitted and even
of maya. Such a conception allows lit-ancient themes were informed with a
tle scope for the development of indi-new spirit. We have referred to the
viduality. The consciousness of differ-changes in intellectual outlook and the
ence between individuals is faint. The achievements in the fields of architec-
philosophy of maya explains why menture and poetry. These, however, touch
suffered the inequalities and indignities only the fringe of the problem, for the
of life so patiently. Belief in rebirthsame story of synthesis is repeated in
is also a direct consequence of this atti-every sphere of life. The growth of a
tude of mind. On the one hand, thenew language is by itself enough to
theory of rebirth denies progress; andoccupy the attention of a lifetime, while

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the subtle changes in the tone and tem-

aims at decoration, prolixity, and splen-
per of Indian painting and music formdor. The other is dominated by the
an equally fascinating theme. The ideal
mu-of simplicity, economy, and se-
verity. The one seeks to overwhelm us
sic of ancient India reminds one at every
step of the temples of the south. by The
the profusion of form and the excess
of its material wealth. The other at-
same solidity of structure and profusion
of details stamp it with an unmistakable
tempts to influence us through economy
of material and the refinement of its
identity. The music of the north offers
a sharp contrast. The solidity is re- modes of expression. The former car-
placed by an airy grace. Wealth ofries de-
aesthetic experiment to its ultimate
tails gives place to spacing and har- limits and seeks to express everything.
mony. The same contrast and synthesis The latter leaves the greater portion un-
are seen in the world of painting. said Theand conveys its message through
frescoes of Ajanta preserve the memory the barest hints and suggestions. The
of an attempt to paint in timelessness. former expresses itself through the
An amazing plasticity of form conceals wealth of its achievement, the latter
the movement away from the solid and through the creation of a background
the tangible. The change to the sharp where our imagination finds free play.
precision of Mogul and Rajput painting These two modes of art express con-
is almost dialectical. Devoid of the in- trasted ideals of life. We find perfec-
tense aspiration of ancient Indian paint-tion of art where the rival streams of
ing, this world of courtly manners shows
romantic and classical tendency are held
an innate lyricism always mindful of
in an exquisite balance. We find a new
decorum. The abstraction of ancient excellence in life where the mentalities
Indian art arises out of the stretching
represented by these ideals fuse to cre-
of feeling beyond human capacity. ate In a new civilization and culture. The
Mogul and Rajput painting, the ab-
Indian and Saracenic styles supplied
stractness is the result of simplification
complementary elements whose fusion
and control. The one is ecstatic, the created not only great art but a deep and
other static, but even its staticnessabiding
is culture. The process of syn-
informed by the memory of former ec- thesis is not yet over. With the con-
stasy. densation of space and time, it will
There are in art two different and to lead to still higher achievements of the
some extent contrary tendencies. One human mind.

Humayun Kabir, M.A. (Oxon), is a professor at

Calcutta University. As a Member of the Bengal
Legislative Council (Upper House) and as one of the
leaders of the Indian Student Movement as well as
the Krishak Proja or Peasant Movement in Bengal,
he is keenly interested in public affairs. He is editor
of Chaturanga, a well-known quarterly in Bengali,
and is a writer in verse and prose.

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