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North is north, and South is south: The great Indian Muslim divide

Cheraman Juma Masjid Kodungalloor
Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungalloor, Kerala, is the oldest mosque in India. Since its early days, Islam merged into the cultural landscape of Kerala and other southern regions by adopting local languages, indigenous lifestyle and culture of the Hindu middle class, supported and protected by local Hindu rulers. Photo credit: Department of Cultural Affairs, Government of Kerala

Why the Muslim culture and politics in southern India are distinctly different from the north.

By Iqbal S. Hasnain

North India was ruled by King Harshavardhana during the time of Prophet Muhammad in 610. By the time of his death in 632, his followers had consolidated power in Arabia. Later caliphs built an empire stretching from Central Asia to Spain, less than a century after his death. However, Harshavardhana attempted to conquer South India in 630, but was squarely defeated by a king called Pulakesin (610-643).

Since time immemorial, the Arab/Persian and South Indian Hindu traders used power of monsoon winds to travel and navigate distance between ports of the southwest Indian coast of Malabar to ports in the Arabian Peninsula in 40 days. In April/May, they travel from Arabian ports to the Kerala coast, riding by the force of northwestern monsoon winds, and, in October/ November, the traders’ dhow (small ship) follow retreating monsoon winds and ride back to the Arabian ports.

Main merchandise traded by Arabs were gold, copper, African ivory and Arabian horses. From India, they picked spices, pepper and woods. Arab traders also brought their new religion with them, and slowly locals started knowing about Islam and started liking the new faith, as it provided them social equity, which was absent in the caste-ridden Hindu society of South India. Thus began India’s tryst with Islam. And it survived to the present day.

Islam slowly merged into the cultural landscape of Kerala and other southern regions by adopting local languages and indigenous lifestyle and culture of the Hindu middle class, supported and protected by local Hindu rulers. The first mosque outside the Arabian Peninsula was constructed in Kodungallur north of Thrissur, during the lifetime of the prophet, in 628. The land was provided by a Hindu king, Cheraman Perumal, who later embraced Islam after meeting the prophet in Mecca.

All mosques of the Malabar Coast from Ponnani to Vadakara, built during early days of Islam, were similar to Hindu temples in typical Kerala architecture, as architects and workers were common. They are indistinguishable from the contemporary Hindu temples — inner courtyards and upper stories getting narrower and narrower, as they rise higher and higher. There is slanting tile roof at the top, and skirting tile roof at different heights to separate one story from another in the structure. The roof must have been thatched with coconut palm leaves earlier, but it was replaced with tiles in recent times. In architectural style, Muslim and Hindu religious places show similarities; so do their cuisine, lifestyle and language.

The Arab Muslims in South India, particularly on the Malabar coast, have not come as invading armies to conquer and establish their rule, but as friendly traders to invest money and make the region prosperous. Consequently, the course of history in the south differs from the north, and so does the nature of civil society in the two regions. North India has seen many Muslim invasions, through the land route of Afghanistan. Here, the Islam was mainly influenced by the Afghan, the Turkish, the Iranian and the Central Asian culture and merged with local culture, which was primarily feudal in nature.

The story of Islam in North India is quintessentially different form South India. Muhammad Bin Qasim, son-in-law of the governor of Iraq, entered Sindh in 711 A.D, during the reign of Caliph Walid. By 714, the Arab conquest in Sind established the Islamic faith, but remained confined to this region for three centuries, contained by powerful Hindu kingdoms in north and west. Islam surged in North India, when a Muslim kingdom was established in Afghanistan in 870 and defeated Hindu rulers. The first Muslim ruler of Afghanistan was Yakub ibn Lias, who founded the city of Ghazni, in 1008. Mahmud, the ruler’s son, was the first from the family to cross the Indus. He attacked the Shahi king of Peshawar, who was at the head of an alliance that included rulers of Ujjain, Gwalior, Kannauj, Delhi and Ajmer. The alliance was formed with single purpose to stop invaders at the western gates of India.

Mahmud won the day and opened the gates of India for the jihadi Islam and the wealth of its fabled temples. One of the intellectuals in the court of Mahmud al Ghazni was scholar and scientist Al Biruni. He praised the achievements of Indian science, particularly in mathematics, astrology and astronomy and criticized the Brahmins’ reluctance to share knowledge with other castes in the country, let alone foreigners. Al Biruni was not happy the way Mahmud, his mentor, plundered and looted the wealth from temples. He wrote that it has caused inveterate aversions to all Muslims. This is the reason Hindu scientists moved far away from those part of the country conquered by Muslims, and fled to those places which our hand cannot reach, he wrote.

Mahmud had no interest in ruling what he had conquered; but he kept the door of India open by installing a governor in Lahore. His successors continued the policy of turning India into a treasure hunt. Later the Mughal, the greatest Muslim empire in the subcontinent, was established by Babur. Islam spread in North India by blending the power of sword of ruling Muslim Kings, with Sufism, which pledges allegiance only to God. Sufis have been part of Islamic traditions from the earliest days.

Ethnically, North Indian Muslims speak mainly Urdu, a language developed and prospered in the Ganga-Yamuna belt of North India by the civil society, enriched by Persian, Hindi and Sanskrit words. All Muslim rulers in India have ruled from Delhi, with the exception of Tipu Sultan. They used Persian, spoken by the rulers and elite Muslims families, as an official language for statecraft.

More than 800 years of continuous Muslim governance in North India has made Muslims addicted to power trappings and the hierarchy of Ashrafs (foreign conquerors) and Ajlafs (local converts). The Muslims in the southern states of India, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra, Telengana and Kerala, lived on the outskirts of the Muslim empire, and spoke local languages and adopted local Hindu culture. The Sultans and later Mughal rulers in Delhi supported both the Muslim and Hindu communities and patronized a new class of people known as Rajas, Nawabs, Taluqdars and Zamindars. This class of people has patronized the local and a distinct kind of feudal culture, which imbibed in the psyche of common man over centuries. Such a class was totally absent among South Indian Muslims and Hindus, who mainly had an egalitarian culture.

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The Aligarh Muslim University was established by this class of aristocracy, who nurtured rarefied feudal, or high class culture, with care and passion in the university. Syed Ahmed Khan was their inspirational leader. Khan took his journey to Britain in 1869 with his son Mahmud, who was going to join Cambridge University on a scholarship awarded by the North West Frontier Province governor. He spent 17 months in England and visited important universities like Cambridge and Oxford, besides Eton and Harrow schools. He also attended an event where Charles Dickens gave his last reading to a select audience.

During his time in England, Khan crystallized the vision of a university for Muslims, which later translated into M.A.O. College and eventually the Aligarh Muslim University, in 1920. He wanted to develop a class of North Indian Muslims, who would acquire education in English language, be faithful to the British Raj and become important stakeholders in governance. Even in their wildest dreams, the aristocracy of middle of the 19th century would never have imagined that, at some point of time in future, the British will leave Indian shores. Aligarh used to attract students from the Muslim aristocracy, who would live on campus with servants and khansamas (cooks). They came to the university to get a BA degree to become the Deputy Collector, or Tehsildar, and faithfully serve His Majesty’s Government. Well-cut sherwanis with churidars, or suit made by well-known tailoring companies in England were the kind of dress code of the university.

Before the Partition of India, the Aligarh Muslim University was the hub of Muslim politics. In fact, it was the only center of Muslim education in the entire Indian subcontinent. Many Muslims who went on to become Pakistani leaders, among them, Nawab Liaquat Ali Khan, Malik Ghulam Muhammad and Gen. Ayub Khan, were alumni of the Aligarh Muslim University. In the run up to the independence movement of India, Aligarh had become a hotbed of the Muslim League politics. Initially, nationalists like Ali brothers and other Muslim leaders were on the forefront of the independence movement, along with Mahatma Gandhi. But, beginning in the late 1920s, many Muslim members of the Indian National Congress had started drifting from the party and looking for a leader who could take them to next level in Muslim politics.

At that time, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a leading barrister and an active member of the Congress party. He was a close political ally of Lokmanya Tilak and a strong advocate of the pluralistic nature of the Indian society and Hindu-Muslim unity.

After the death of Tilak, Gandhi came to the central stage of Congress politics and Jinnah felt orphaned. A Westernized liberal, Jinnah had many disagreements with the grassroots politics of the Mahatma. Jinnah convinced both the Congress and the Muslim League to hold their annual sessions simultaneously in Lucknow. Initially, both parties had agreed on a common set of demands to make of the British, which became known as “the Lucknow Pact.” Jinnah also argued for a percentage of seats for Muslims in any future legislature, among other benefits.

In 1916, Jinnah had married a beautiful young Parsi lady, “Ruttie,” and was enjoying his life in the high end society of Bombay. Interestingly, in 1915, his fellow Gujarati, 45-year-old Gandhi, returned from South Africa after spending two decades there. He had earned a reputation for organizing Indian immigrants and fighting for their rights.

Gandhi took the decision to return to India at the right moment and lead the independence movement, which was slowly getting traction. His vision of gaining freedom through non-violence was very potent and, ultimately, led to the departure of the colonial power from India. Jinnah, on the other hand, was unquestionably snobbish and aloof from Muslims masses. He found Gandhi’s appeal to Hindu masses and his prayer meetings raw and crude.

Muslim priests across the Indian subcontinent threatened to start a jihad against the British colonial power after it defeated Ottomans during the First World War. When the British tried to depose Turkish Sultan, the Caliph, who was the leader of the Sunni world, Muslim leaders such as Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali organized the masses to launch the “Khilafat Movement” and they even roped in Gandhi. Jinnah had no sympathy for the rough-edged Muslims and their fanatic cause of restoring the Caliphate in a changing world. He was annoyed with Gandhi because, by giving support to the “Khilafat Movement,” the Congress would garner more sympathy from the Muslim masses and jeopardize the Muslim League.

A t this point of time, Jinnah was sailing on two boats and torn by his inherent ideology of secularism — he always distanced from fanaticism of his fellow Muslims and Hindus — and his championing of the Muslim cause. In the 1920s, Jinnah was slowly marginalized, both in the Congress and the Muslim League. In frustration, he left for England and started spending more time in London than Bombay. He even procured a British passport to settle there. However, he returned to India in 1935. But when he came back, he was not the Jinnah that left for England 15 years earlier. Historians documented that Jinnah’s views and thoughts had totally transformed when he was away.

Seemingly, one person who had profound impact on Jinnah was his old friend Nawab Liaquat Ali Khan from Uttar Pradesh. He was educated at the Aligarh Muslim University and was a very active senior functionary of the Muslim League. He persuaded Jinnah to return to India and take command of the Muslim League and articulate the concept of separate homeland for Indian Muslims. He assured that Uttar Pradesh Muslims will follow him in hundreds of thousands, as they have “power-friendly mindset.” Liaquat Ali Khan, after his second marriage to Lady Rana, a Christian from Nainital, in 1933, decided to go for honeymoon to England, where his close friend Jinnah was living, after being disillusioned with a divided and obscurantist Muslim League. During his stay there, he met Jinnah on many occasions and gave his perspective of the North Indian Muslims. He spoke about their passion for the legacy of power that they enjoyed for more than eight centuries. He said: “You just promise them to recapture power. The euphoria of the Muslim masses will not be confined only to one region alone, but will be resonated across all parts of North India.”

At that point of time, Jinnah was disgusted with the Muslim leadership and bickering in their ranks back home. Liaquat’s mission, beside the honeymoon, was to rekindle in Jinnah a hope for the Muslim leadership and secure a place for him in history. Another mission was to enlist him for the League’s renewal, which was getting marginalized by a strong Congress with secular credentials. Jinnah, finally, returned to India in 1935 after a strong personal request by Liaquat.

Jinnah was a crowd-pulling orator. He extensively skewed historical truths of the lost legacy, and created new myths to mobilize the masses to recapture power by any possible means. “If not act today, tomorrow will be a doomsday. If you are not recognized today with a separate nation, others will overcome you once India wins freedom,” he proclaimed.

This reasoning was music to the ears of a large number of UP Muslim aristocrats, especially the Nawabs, Taluqdars and Zamindars, who were traditionally very accustomed to power trappings. They gave large funds to the Muslim League to pursue their delusional vision. Jinnah’s popularity spiked and he emerged as a role model and inspirational leader to the general Muslim public. He kept aside his Western dress code and appeared in well tailored Sherwani and Churidar. It was at the Muslim League session in Lucknow in 1937 that he first wore an Indian traditional Muslim dress of the aristocracy. During this session, he also played a pivotal role, sidelining other luminaries in the hierarchy of the League. After the session, Liaquat Ali Khan’s position was also elevated in the Muslim League’s chain of command: a befitting reward for giving Jinnah the right advice at the right time.

The educated Muslim aristocracy in Aligarh, Delhi, Bhopal and Lucknow was hugely mesmerized by Jinnah’s speeches. What Maulana Azad, the great scholar and popular Muslim statesman, experienced at the Aligarh Railway Station on his way from Delhi to Calcutta was a testimony to the depth and width of Jinnah’s influence among the educated North Indian middle class Muslim psyche in the early 1940s. Students of the Aligarh Muslim University garlanded Azad with shoes. The students argued with him that Jinnah had offered them power and pride, and promised to rescue them from the Hindu majority. Azad was speechless for a while, then he remarked: “Flood has engulfed the landscape of Indian subcontinent and in depressions water is stinking.” Later, the history of India proved Azad right. Azad wrote in his India Wins Freedom: “After the partition, UP Muslims came to meet me in large numbers. Their plight was pathetic, every one of them said with deep regret and anguish that Jinnah had deceived them and left them in the lurch.” Azad was aghast and wondered why Muslims now said that they were deceived.

After talking to them, Maulana Azad realized that Muslims of Uttar Pradesh, who were on the forefront of the Pakistan movement, backed by Liaquat Ali Khan, Nawab Ismail Khan, Nawab Hamidullah Khan of Bhopal, Raja Mahmudabad and other zamindars, had formed a delusional picture of Pakistan, which had no link to the reality. A nawab was asked after the partition: Huzoor aap to Pakistan ke bahut himyadari karte thay, magar aap waha kyu nahi gaye? (Sir, you were very committed to Pakistan; but why didn’t you go there? The nawab reflected a while and said, Mian hum to samjhe the ke Pakistan yahin UP me bandage, wahan itni door kaun jayega. (I thought Pakistan will be made here in UP; who will go that far?)

Maulana Azad further wrote that Muslim League leaders foolishly articulated that once Pakistan was formed, Muslims, whether they come from a majority region or a minority province like UP, or Bihar, would be regarded as a separate nation. When the Muslim majority provinces went out of India, and Punjab and Bengal were divided, and Jinnah left for Karachi, these fools (North Indian Muslims) realized that they have gained nothing but lost everything because of the partition.

Muslims residing south of the Vindhya mountains, after the independence, were not affected by the partition as much. They did not migrate to the new homeland carved out on the western and eastern flanks of India, as they were alien to their language and culture. The entire drama of partition was enacted north of the Aravalli mountains. It was through radio and newspapers, they were getting a vague idea that North Indian Muslims are demanding separate country. Even the South Indian Hindus were indifferent to the partition of India, as they were not seeing any threat to their own region. Thus, the migration from non-Urdu speaking Muslim regions to Pakistan was minimal. However, Muslims from former Nizam’s territory, including Hyderabad city, saw a large scale migration to Pakistan.

I would like to clarify here that all Urdu-speaking Hyderabadis are immigrants from Uttar Pradesh. Thus they imbibe the North Indian Muslim culture. However, the Muslims residing in Guntur, Kurnool, Tirupati, Cuddapah, Nalgonda and Hindupur speak and breathe only the local language, Telugu. I had a good fortune to offer Friday prayers at a mosque in the famous temple town of Tirupati. The qutaba was in Telugu and not a single Muslim could converse in Urdu. I had similar experiences during my visit to Kanyakumari and Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and interior Karnataka. Except in the Hyderabad and Bangalore, there is no Urdu press and Muslim community in the hinterland is not aware of what is written in them. They are totally unaware about the social, cultural and educational levels of North Indian Muslims, particularly, tehzeeb- o- tarbiat, which is highly rated in the Kasbahs of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The political leaderships of South Indian Muslims, whether they are in the Congress, Telugu Desam, Communist parties, Dravidian parties, Indian Union Muslim League, or Janata Dal, unlike their counterparts in North India, are committed for the welfare of poor and downtrodden. They are also more accountable to the community. One of the main reasons in the phenomenal growth of educational institutions in these parts of the country is the political leverage provided by the elected politician from the community in the government of the day.

The Muslim community in South India, during the last 60 years, has gone through a silent revolution. The North Indian media is neither aware of it, nor is it even bothered to know. In the south, the Muslim community is second to none as a major education provider by establishing a network of school and colleges across the region. For example, engineering, pharmacy and architecture colleges affiliated to Jawaharlal Nehru Technology University in Andhra Pradesh are located not only in Hyderabad but also in cities like Nalgonda, Rangareddy, Krishna, Karimnagar, Visakhapatnam, Cuddapah, and Anantapur.

(Prof. Iqbal S. Hasnain is the Managing Director of Desert Side Training Institute in Dubai. He is a former Vice-Chancellor of University of Calicut in Kerala and a former professor at JNU, New Delhi.)


  1. I don’t think it is right. The auther has decided that moulana azad was right and Jinnah was wrong. If Muslim league have decided for united India today there would have been biggest minority obeyed by majority. Jinnah was right. But I agree about difference of Muslims in northern and southern india.

  2. Muslims in North India were definitely invaders, looters. The invaders killed their own co-believers. Ibrahim Lodi was killed in the 1st battle of Panipet – Muslim on Muslim. The Peacock Throne of Shajahan is in Iran? How did it get there? Sher shah suri beat humayun.

  3. Not a single mention of ‘Moplah massacre of Hindus’, how honest?

  4. Truth Seeker

    When Afghans and Turks conquered and established empire in India they are called Muslim invaders but why when the British conquered India, why are not they called Christian invaders?

    • That’s exactly what the writer has brought out. Just as the entry of Islam through south india was not considered as invasion, entry of Britishers through trade route was not considered invasion. The fact that we handed over the Raj to them through our internecine rivalry is another matter.

      • Jo Jo Indian

        We didn’t give it to the British, but they had superior technology which we stopped developing. I know a lot of Indians talk about how India was 25% of the world’s GDP, but most forget that the size of GDP in the early year (0-1500 AD) was a reflection of the size of the population. That is why China and India were the largest throughout world history. However, the British with the industrial revolution fundamentally changed that. No wonder the average Indian became poor although the British were able to extract massive revenue from India.

    • The Turks and the Afghans used their religion as a tool of war, calling for repeated Jihads against the Hindu infidel, but the same cannot be said of the British, they largely kept their religion aloof from politics.

    • R.Ponnambalam

      Muslim invaders were barbaric.Even a few lines of nanaknama seen in internet will tell that.The invasion was savage invasion that made proselytization of North India to that extent that in 1947 the undivided India was the country with the biggest Muslim population in the world.Even today north India lives in the thrall of Mughal and muslim Nobility taught lessons.The rapes, proselytization, HinduSTANI language .torture are the Invader offer.So they were invaders with military Might.The brits ruled without military might and without moral right,capitaising on the divisions in the country and trying to be a shade fair in adnministration .I happened to read :Under the Brits.People liked the rule but not the rulers.the invaders said that they were a different race,”The aspirations of our friends the Bengalis have made such progress that they want to scale a height to which it is beyond their powers to attain. But if I am not in error, I believe that the Bengalis have never at any period held sway over a particle of land. They are altogether ignorant of the method by which a foreign race can maintain its rule over other races} “This was spoken by sir syed Khan in meerut in 1888.One thing,INVADER or COLONIALITS both are not for India ,HinduSTAN is not India.There is no difference between the DEVIL and DEEP SEA

      • Sangeeta Mehrotra

        Gandhi was the first leader to use the appeasement card way back in 1920. Invasions or entry through trade WHATEVER – today with a sizeable muslim population, islamic jihad for establishing caliphate surfaced WHICH WAS THE REAL AGEND, anyway. Now, only the mask has fallen.

        • Jo Jo Indian

          Agree. Some Muslims are rooting for a separate caliphate. I wonder what the Hindu terrorists in BJP / RSS are planning to do in Gandhi’s India. Modi claims to be a tall leader comparable to Nehru / Gandhi….seriously, winning elections is not the equivalent to what Gandhi / Nehru did. Modi will forever be a politician, but Gandhi / Nehru are worldwide legends.

          • Nehru is the biggest idiot. He never solved any problem left it to future generations. At least Modi trying to solve.

    • I think thats also because the Muslim elite themselves proudly declares , ‘ki hmne Hindustan par itne saal raj kiya’, perhaps thats not true today but that was the case until partition in India .Christians dont glorify the British, they consider the British to be atleast a foreign power but the Muslim elite has this obsession with the Mughals and sultans ,they dont feel any difference between them and the invaders.For them Babur was not a central asian invader he was a muslim invader ,perhaps this could also be attributed to the fact that the Muslim elite itself is the descendent of invaders who settled here and as we know elite shapes the consciousness of a society whereas the christian elite are not the descendents of the British .take for eg if we teach wrong about the Mughals it will be considered to be an attempt to defame Muslims not some Turkish rulers.

  5. Prof AK Pasha

    Very well written article and enjoyed reading it. Maybe if the author had considered the British role in all of it, it would have been balanced. What role the British played in influencing Jinnah and others while they were in England would shed more light on how and why Jinnah returned to India after having left in despair. How betrayal by the Mughals and Nizam of Hyderabad and others to what Tipu stood for in terms of Opposition to the British should also be considered in any analysis of North and South Indian Muslims

  6. Ambassador K P Fabian

    An insightful account of a slice of Indian history.
    Essentially, as Gandhi dominated the political firmament and nominated Nehru as successor, Jinnah’s hope to be prime minister of undivided India fell and he wanted to be chief of a slice of India.
    The author has narrated what happened.

    • Thats factually wrong becoz the Congress offered Jinnah sahab the premier ship of an undivided India 3 times ,first by SC Bose ,then I guess by C Rajagopalchari and finally even by Gandhi and Nehru did not have any objections to it but Mr Jinnah rejected the offer all the time becoz perhaps he knew he would be at the mercy of the Congress party since ML did not have the majority.

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