Muslim Cultures in South Asia

Islam in South Asia

A considerable number of Muslim migrants in Europe, especially in Great Britain, comes from countries in South Asia, notably from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Moreover, one of the world's largest concentration of Muslim population is situated in this region.

Hence, it is to the Chair's outspoken interest to build bridges with its research on Muslim cultures in South Asia between Muslim minority groups in Europe and the societies they originate from.

South Asia covers vast territories that are not only home to cultures influenced by Hinduism. Besides these, Muslims make up, as mentioned, a considerable group of population: ca. 500 million people on the Indian Sub-continent profess the Islamic faith, among them 174 million Pakistani and 145 million Bangladeshi Muslims in two predominantly Muslim countries, but also 161 million Indian muslims who, therewith, form the world's largest Muslim minority. The region encompasses almost one third of the world's Muslim population and increases by 2% per year. The region has been forming a centre of Muslim theological, intellectual, and political as well as literary activities for centuries and still represents multifaceted strenghts.

Particularly since the 18th century, significant political and intellectual impulses have been emanating from there which have had a lasting influence on the thinking of many other Muslim societies. One need only think of the collection of scholarly writings used in (religious) schools, the far-reaching networks of Muslim mystics and diverse missionary moevements, of Abu l-A'la al-Mawdudi, one of the most influential thinkers of political Islam, or of the controversy over the author Salman Rushdie - just to name a few. Another reason to focus on South Asia is the backlog that has to be cleared concerning the research on these cultures, for the Islamic Studies in German-speaking countries have traditionally been focussing on the Arab countries. The Chair of Muslim Cultural & Religious History at the University of Erfurt is doing pioneer work in this respect.

In its research on Muslim cultures in South Asia, the Chair puts particular emphasis on the period between the 17th and the 20th centuries. This period is characterised by the dissolution of the great Muslim empires and the emergence of new territorial principalities, social formations, and their struggle for representativeness. It is also the period in which concepts of reform within the Muslim educated elite unfold. Cultural encounters with the European colonial powers oscillate between acceptance and rejection. Puritanical movements exist besides syncretistic ones.

The Islamisation of South Asia had been promoted by Sufi orders, among others. At all times, up to the present day, these communities, which are often to be found on the fringes of orthodox religious understanding, have had an inherent potential to cultural, social, and political reform. Today, links between these groups also extend into Europe.

Likewise, the role of missionaries and their organisations should not be underestimated. As religious actors they occasionally appear in public in the role of representative players of civil society - they are deeper rooted in society than government officials that are often perceived as anonymous. Thus, it is not only the state that defines religion, but it is also religious powers that exert influence on the state.

Furthermore, it is the media that play a vital role for the understanding of contemporary Islam, for, similarly to Europeans, Muslims in South Asia have a rich literary heritage including poetry, novels, and short stories. The social relevance of this literature serves as a source for the reconstruction of the social structures of Muslim societies.

The sheer enormity of religion and its manifestation in South Asia are, without doubt, both perplexing and fascinating. It is arguable if the tensions that accompany this diversity, caused by globalisation and the homogenising vitality of modern nation states, can be soothed. In the end, these differences, even intertwinings, that are debated in discourses on Islam are part and parcel of the religious diversity of Muslim cultures in South Asia and, therefore, can only be understood as different facets of lived religion in the context of their cultural richness.