Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religions and over the centuries have both peacefully coexisted and violently clashed. In this lesson, we’ll examine the origins of this conflict and see what it means to the world today.

Religious Conflicts of India

We tend to think of the United States as a pretty diverse place, and it is, but it’s nothing compared to the nation of India. With dozens of ethnic groups, roughly 15 commonly spoken languages, and 8 substantially practiced religions, India is a diverse place. However, this diversity can often turn into conflict, particularly between clashing religious groups. In particular, the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus have been a defining feature of India’s history, even to the point of influencing the very shape and size of the nation today.

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The Muslim-Hindu Conflict Origin

Muslims and Hindus have very different religious beliefs. Muslims follow a monotheistic religion called Islam, which worships a single God, called Allah in this context, as interpreted through the prophet Muhammad. Hindus, on the other hand, adhere to the polytheistic Hinduism, one of the oldest religions in the world, with several deities and a complex cosmological framework featuring cycles of death and rebirth. So, they’re different religions, but why don’t they get along?

The origins of the conflict between these groups dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries CE, when Islam was first introduced into the kingdoms of India from the Middle East. At this time, many of the world’s most prominent traders were Arabic Muslims, and Islamic trade networks stretched across Eurasia. As Muslim merchants established trade centers in India, the religion came with them, and grew rapidly in several areas, seen by many Hindus as threatening their way of life. With the rise of Islamic caliphates, essentially meaning Islamic empires, Indian kingdoms were subject to military invasion by Islamic forces for centuries. In fact, in the early 13th century, an Islamic kingdom called the Delhi Sultanate was founded in modern-day India as a result of Islamic imperial expansion into the subcontinent. While Muslims and Hindus did peacefully coexist in many parts of India for a long time, the two groups could, and did, turn against each other as a result of the economic, social, and military conflicts of the age.

Conflict Since the 20th Century

Now, unfortunately this conflict didn’t go away with the end of the medieval world. In fact, it reached some of its most extreme heights in the 20th century, when the Indian subcontinent was part of the British Empire. At this time, most Hindu Indians lived in the central and eastern parts of the colony and were largely peasants and laborers. Muslim Indians lived predominantly in the West, and a great number belonged to the upper class. In 1906, they formed the Muslim League, a political organization to protect their rights as Muslims against the growing power of the Hindu working class. However, as more and more Hindus began pushing for independence from the British Empire, they joined another political organization called the Indian National Congress, which became essentially Hindu-controlled by 1930.

Moving into WWII, British imperial control was quickly failing, and despite the promise of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi that India would be a place of religious tolerance, the Muslim League was getting very nervous. So, they started demanding that the colony be divided and part given to the Muslims to form their own country. That’s exactly what happened. After WWII, Britain accepted Indian independence, but partitioned off a piece of the subcontinent and gave it to the Muslim nationalists of India to form their own country, a country called Pakistan.

India and Pakistan still butt heads frequently, and unfortunately, the creation of Pakistan didn’t end the tensions between Muslims and Hindus in India itself. In many ways, they only got worse. The creation of Pakistan drew a line through Indian society suggesting that Hindus and Muslims were really different people who could not coexist.

There have been violent clashes propagated by both sides, but the biggest recent movement is the ideology of Hindutva. This is a nationalist policy which is pushing for a consolidated Hindu identity for India. Technically, Hindutva does not mandate the practice of the Hindu religion; it’s meant to incite more of an ethnic/cultural unity, but the movement is highlighting the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus in India to this day. Since nationalist Narendra Modi was appointed Prime Minister in 2014, there has been a sharp increase in claims accusing Muslims of forcing Hindus to convert to Islam, often in violent and brutal ways. So, the religious tensions are still there, still an issue that India is figuring out today.

Lesson Summary

Let’s take a few minutes to review what we’ve learned. India is a very diverse place, but this has led to some tensions throughout the lengthy history of the subcontinent. In particular, the conflict between the foreign, monotheistic religion of Islam and the indigenous polytheistic religion of Hinduism has been a continual source of conflict. The struggle between these groups dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries CE, when Islam was introduced into Indian kingdoms, first through Muslim trade merchants and later through Islamic empires, known as caliphates.

For centuries, Muslims and Hindus coexisted in India, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not. Tensions escalated during the 20th century as India, then a colony in the British Empire, started pushing for independence. To protect their rights, Muslim members of the upper class formed a group called the Muslim League, which later fell into conflict with the Hindu-dominated organization known as the Indian National Congress.

After WWII, Britain relinquished its control of the Indian subcontinent and partitioned the colony into two new nations, India and Pakistan, which were created for the Muslim League to have its own country. This was despite Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi‘s efforts to create a state founded on religious tolerance. In recent years, the Hindu nationalist movement of Hindutva has highlighted the continual tensions between these religious groups. India may support incredible diversity, but along with that come conflicts that have defined the nation to this day.