Were all Muslims previously Hindus?

The RSS claims that Muslims in India were Hindus historically and seem to make a number of insinuations on the minority. CJP busts the claim for you and the inherent messages loaded here via its Hate Buster segment.

The Hindutva’s project of political and cultural domination entails the signing up of people into the Hindu fold by all means possible. A recent example can be seen in its disingenuous attempts to pass off the animistic Donyi Polo (Sun and the Moon) worshippers as Hindus. Another powerful way is to plaster over all nuances in its rewriting of history and paint all residents of Hindustan, past and present as Hindus. Such claims have been made very often by several ideologues, including high-ranking members of the RSS. At first glance, the first objective seems to be to establish minority religions, that is Islam and Christianity, as something alien to Indian culture, and by that logic make these two communities easier targets for discrimination and violence. The claim that all Muslims today in the subcontinent were Hindu is a question, or rather, an accusation, that is embedded in political objectives.

Claim: All Indian Muslims are converted Hindus.

Busted: Fails Einstein’s oversimplification test which says ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’.

‘Conversions’, or adopting a new religion, has taken place throughout human history all across the world. As Hilal Ahmed argues, ‘There is no doubt that the majority of South Asian Muslims are converts. This is not a profound statement because by this logic, except Prophet Mohammad, all Muslims of the world are converted as their forefathers embraced Islam at different historical moments’.

The Indus Valley civilization flourished from 3500 BC to 1500 BC
 During the long Aryan migrations to India, significantly between 2000 – 1000 BC , they too must have encountered indigenous populations, including the Harappans (The Harappans, this study shows, have no ancestry from Iranian farmers or Steppe pastoralists) and many other people who lived in various forms of clans, tribes. There are mentions of such encounters in the Rig Veda. But to say that all Hindus converted from an indigenous population is as much of an oversimplification as the claim under examination is.

So, why do members of the Sangh Parivar keep repeating this claim? What objective does it serve, what does it seek to convey – and what is the relevance of such a question in today’s society? These are questions that this Hate Buster seems to provide further questions for, and in doing so, hopes to ‘bust’ the claim propagated.

The message inherent in this statement by the Hindutva leaders is that all people inhabiting the land we know today as the Indian subcontinent were once Hindus.  

While the question of conversion becomes curious and contentious today, the land and its contours as we know of today would have been vastly unfamiliar to ancient Indians.

For the Hindutva project, the default religious state of everyone in the Indian subcontinent is Hinduism. But the diverse communities in India have engaged with questions of faith rigorously over thousands of years. Coupled with local peculiarities characteristic of this land, the permutations that are possible become innumerous. From these permutations and interactions have evolved religions that we recognise today as ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ in the Indian context. As many historians have argued, the very division of Indian history into Muslim and Hindu period is a colonial construct, articulated by James Mill in his influential book History of British India. The British thereafter fanned the flames of divide that led to the emergence of two competing communal forces in India, leading to the two-nation theory and eventually partition.

Mill and his History of British India

The concept of a unitary religion itself was introduced in India with the arrival of colonial rule as Romila Thapar describes, ‘Colonial history tried to tidy up the diversity, not by asking how these diversities related to each other, but by envisioning all religions in India as large monolithic religions’. She also talks about two religious groups present in early India – the adherents of Brahmanism, whose belief in the social function and hierarchy of caste, the supremacy of the twice-borns (the two ‘upper’ castes) and focus on ritual worship demarcated them from Sramanism, which as she says,

“(is) a term covering a variety of Buddhist, Jaina, Ajivika and other sects, (which) denied the fundamentals of Brahmanism such as Vedic sruti and smrti. It was also opposed to the sacrificial ritual both on account of the beliefs incorporated in the ritual as well as the violence involved in the killing of animals.”

The 12th and longest Asokan edict mentions his despair at the violence suffered by both Brahman and Sraman, among others, following the Kalinga war.

It is the political patronage Brahmanism enjoys in the first millennium AD and the accompanying expansion of influence that,

“results in the gradual displacement of Sramanism–but not entirely. Local cults associated with new social groups led to the emergence of the more popular Puranic religion. Vedic deities were subordinated or ousted. Visnu and Siva came to be worshipped as the pre-eminent deities. The thrust of Puranic religion was in its assimilative and accommodating processes. A multitude of new cults, sects and castes were worked into the social and religious hierarchy.  

The word ‘Hinduism’ is in fact ascribed to Raja Rammohan Roy, and the usage of ‘Hindu’ as a marker of cultural difference is only seen by the 14th century AD.

The idea of a unitary religion, handed down to us unchanged over thousands of years is a mischievous simplification. The identification of millions of people as ‘Hindu’, caught in a battle of supremacy with another unitary thought, ‘Islam’, is a surprisingly modern one. To paraphrase a historian of repute, the present must not be imposed on the past and an attempt to recognise how the past looked at itself at various points of time, should be made.

Implicit in such claims by Hindutva leaders is also that all conversion took place by the ‘sword’ (read force)

By the early second millennium A.D. a variety of devotional cults-referred to by the generic label bhakti-had come to form a major new religious expression. They drew on the Puranic tradition of Saivism and Vaishnavism but were also in varying degrees the inheritors of the Sramanic religions…Some sects accepted, up to a point, Brahmanical sruti and smrti whereas others vehemently denied it, a debate which continues to this day…with the arrival of Islam in India some drew from the ideas of Islam.”

And one must add, therefore providing ample justification for ‘revenge’.

While there is no denying that temples were destroyed by invading armies who also supported the proselytising of semitic religions. But as Prof. Irfan Habib observes in this interview,

‘….when Hajjaj ibn Yusuf sent Mohammed Bin Qasim to Sindh [in the eighth century], he asked him to treat the Hindus as they were treating the Christians and the Parsis, that is to say: be tolerant.…now I can perhaps say that Hajjaj’s policy was not driven by any great religious spirit of tolerance but simply by practical sense. If you invade a country, you don’t antagonise all of its people…Mughals had very large components of Hindu officials. An ordinary Muslim had little chance to go up the ladder. The first finance minister of Aurangzeb was a Hindu, his greatest officer was Maharaja Jai Singh of Amber [later Jaipur] who was appointed viceroy of the Deccan. Of course, the Mughals were not democrats, but neither were they out to convert people by force …One can’t deny the fact that temples were destroyed. Nobody defends Aurangzeb’s discriminating measures….’

Muhammad ibn Qasim entered Sind at the head of an Arab army in 712 AD

Historically people have changed their religion due to a number of reasons. For instance, in his exploration of Islam’s spread in Bengal, acclaimed historian Richard Eaton rejects the idea that a singular catalyst or reason could be the cause for conversion, arguing that conversion in India may have happened due to several reasons, mainly social liberation, patronage, and force. He also goes on to find little to no evidence for the latter two in large swathes of Bengal.

Eaton also finds that many Buddhist strongholds situated predominantly in south and east Bengal, which notably had a comparatively lower influx of Brahman migration, had converted to Islam. This coincides with present day Bangladesh.

An UNESCO world heritage site, the vast Somapura Mahavihara was built by the second Pala king Dharmapala (circa 781–821) of Pāla Dynasty. One of the greatest figures of mediaeval Buddhism, Atisa Dipankar Srijana, is said to have resided here.

Similarly, in the case of Kerala, Islam arrived through the sea and its trade routes. Kerala has witnessed the earliest known instances of conversion to Islam, and has even featured in the travels of Ibn Batuta.

According to Stephen F. Dale, the native rulers of Kerala depended on tax duty to bulk up their revenues, and hence they were open to incoming Muslims, Christians as well as Jews. The region, in the very early years of the Christian era, became a stronghold for Jewish and Christian communities, and later on as Muslims became dominant in global trade, for Muslims too.

Charu Gupta chronicles conversions amongst Dalits, noting that lower castes in northern India engaged in multiple ways with interpreting Islam during the mediaeval period itself. Notably this creates tensions and sense of competition amongst the Arya Samajis in the modern era which lead to Shuddhi movements.

Forces that seek to appropriate certain marginalised and less powerful systems. For instance, the question of indigeneity is contentious to say the least. The RSS and its affiliates often extol the virtues and supremacy of the Aryan race and often praise the Nazis, as they claim to declare India a land of the Aryans. However, competing narratives and evidence counters their claims. The tribal communities of India pose several questions and loopholes to the theory of race. The RSS has sought to subsume the tribal demands for autonomous history and identity under its mammoth project which seeks to Hinduise tribal communities. India’s Adivasis have waged a long, sustained war against erasure. The RSS has various organisations, including the most salient, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram which has in its official objectives, as stated on its website, the prevention of conversion in the “Vanvasis.” The RSS continues the usage of the term Vanvasi over Adivasi or any other name despite opposition from tribal communities. Vanvasi, or forest dwellers, is a term used to refer to tribes in Hindu religious texts, and secondly, it also takes away any reference to the Adivasis as then original inhabitants of India, and thus comfortably fits into the history and future the RSS imagines. However, tribes and marginalised castes have refuted hegemony by the RSS and its totalising attempts at imposing a unified culture on them. They have resisted being trampled under the large designs of the RSS.

Research by the Anthropological Survey of India which is known for its extensive research into tribal life and history. An outstanding support it states is that Indians are characteristically migrants. Artisans, peasants, and tribes have been decidedly moving about for centuries with their cultures, trade skills, and arts. This pool of movement creates a rich whirlpool of cultural diffusion and pluralism. This rings true, for instance India has witnessed dialogue between discourses and traditions over time – each discourse has arisen to challenge reigning hegemonies, whether it be traditions within Vedic systems of knowledge, or Buddhist and Jain traditions. According to Romila Thapar, these ‘dissenting’ ideas have existed perennially.

Furthermore, research by the survey also includes notable genetic similarity between Hindus and Muslims, as well as between lower and upper castes. According to the Economic and Political Weekly, this data propelled pioneer of Sociology M. N. Srinivas to say that he is “surprised at the tremendous unity” inherent in the people of India despite migration and linguistic and cultural differences.

Thus, in this scenario, the Hindutva thinkers’’ insistence on being “original” to the land can be seen as an engineering history to create a narrative that can declare Muslims, Christians, and marginalised castes in India as inferior and secondary. History has shown its prescient nature and warned us as it informs us of the cultural malleability, unity amidst diversity the land has seen. Despite attempts to thwart the harmony deeply foundational to the land, unity and diversity still prevail.

So were all Muslims once Hindus? No.

Do people of various communities, engaging with each other, in a dynamic process that continues till date, make religions what they are and the country what it is? Yes.


Were some Hindu structures originally Buddhist temples?

Distorting facts about Muslim population growth at the Digital Hindu Conclave

Hate Hatao: CJP’s Campaign against Hate and Division

Hathras Judgment: Unpacking the complex intersection of caste, gender & justice in India’s landmark case



Related Articles