In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hinduism and Islam

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Approaches
  • Artistic Engagements
  • Ethnographies
  • Legal Issues
  • Bhakti and Sufism
  • Ismaili Traditions
  • Gender Issues
  • Communal Violence

Hinduism Hinduism and Islam
Peter Gottschalk
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0047


For some observers, two religions could not be more distinct than Hinduism and Islam. As Westerners have reported for centuries—and as some Hindus and Muslims themselves still explain—one tradition venerates images while the other eschews them, one reveres cows while the other sacrifices them, one embraces multiple deities while the other accepts only one. Such oversimplifications, of course, rely upon reified notions of “Hinduism” and “Islam,” presuming each to be a self-sufficient, mutually exclusive “religion” (a term some have argued does not apply to Hindu traditions) that declares to, demands of, and determines for its members as though an actor itself. More recent scholarship has attempted to focus instead on those who identify as Hindus and Muslims, many of whom draw on the same religious register in regard to local superhuman agents (e.g., ascetics, ghosts, demons), regional devotional sites (e.g., Sufi tombs), and general religious language (e.g., khuda, bhagwan, shakti, takat). Although some Hindus and Muslims—especially those recognized by their communities as religious authorities—argue for a strict orthodoxy and/or orthopraxy, their conclusions cannot be taken as universal. In this regard, ethnographic research has been particularly enlightening, since it has demonstrated both the impossibility of rigidly defining each tradition and the imprudence of presuming either tradition to be essentially uniform. Moreover, the religiously bifurcated view of South Asia promoted by Britons throughout their two centuries of direct and indirect rule needs to be placed within a politico-historical context, taking into account the influence of both British secular and Christian commitments. This includes the overall reliance of Britons and other Westerners on Hindu and Islamic authorities to establish essential, definitive qualities for each tradition and an associated literary canon, despite ample evidence accumulated by officials and civilians of religious intermixing and overlap. Such complexities challenged clear lines of identity and demarcation. Naturally, the catastrophic communalist violence that culminated in the partition of the subcontinent as Pakistan and India appeared to reaffirm the British perspectives that contributed to its precipitation, even as it evidenced the various other social, political, and economic dynamics long at play in South Asia. Nevertheless, the political, social, and religious engagements of Pakistanis, Indians, and (later) Bangladeshis continue to undermine the supposedly self-evident conclusions regarding Hinduism and Islam’s purportedly inherent antipathies, even as similar and divergent dynamics emerge in the global South Asian diaspora.

Theoretical Approaches

Both the presence of and relationship between Hinduism and Islam in South Asia have puzzled scholars for centuries, given that their ideal, reified forms appear to be mutually exclusive and inherently antagonistic. Scholars have wondered how both came to coexist and flourish on one subcontinent. Earlier theoretical views fastened upon the rootedness of Hinduism in the Indic soil and the routes immigrant Muslims took to arrive there. Hinduism appeared autochthonous and Islam invasive. Hence, Weber 1992 (originally translated in 1958) offers a sociology of religion for South Asia that provides only passing consideration of Muslims, who are mentioned only as foreign interlopers. Similarly, Louis Dumont’s anthropological milestone, Homo Hierarchicus (1966), projects an unbridgeable gap between Hindus and Muslims, even while admitting the prevalence of caste among Muslims. Smith 1991 sidesteps this theme in its attempts to avoid applying the term “religion” to any tradition outside the Christian one. Islam and Hinduism share this non-“religion” status, although Muslims have terms that appear at first glance to be comparable. Since Smith’s alternative is to consider both under the analytic frames of “faith” and “cumulative tradition,” and he simultaneously offers the possibility for widening the differences between them (by focusing on differences in belief) and considering their convergences (by emphasizing the confluence of their traditions). Balagangadhara 2005 embraces Smith’s view of “religion” as a European imposed term, but considers it applicable to Muslims (and Jews) as well as Christians because of its supposed equivalence with singular belief. Hence, an unbridgeable divide opens between Islam (which Balangangadhara considers as a uniform abstraction uninfluenced by the Indian context) and what can best be described as “Indian traditions” (since “Hinduism” as a term is dismissed). Masuzawa 2005 offers a history of the adoption of the term “world religion” and its haphazard application to Islam and Hinduism. Roy 1983, Eaton 1994, and Stewart 2003 attempt to theorize the gradual Islamization of large portions of Bengal’s population. Roy advances his syncretism thesis in an effort to view Bengali versions of Islam as not a diminutive version of some ideal Islam but as a “big tradition” by itself. Eaton contextualizes these changes within a complex social, political, and economic landscape that helped shape religious identity. Stewart 2003 directly contradicts Roy, since Stewart sees the syncretistic thesis as focused on the end result (the contemporary tradition) instead of on the process, which is anything but the direct line of development many commentators assume. Pernau 2005 calls for a focus on individuals’ multiple, fluid identities that allow for everyday intercommunal relations.

  • Balagangadhara, S. N. “The Heathen in His Blindness . . .”: Asia, the West and the Dynamic of Religion. 2d ed. New Delhi: Manohar, 2005.

    Balagangadhara declares religion to be a Western Christian concept applicable to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions alone, and not to “Indian traditions.” In the latter, different conditions of belief do not require the orthodoxy that the author considers necessary for a “religion,” and hence Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism do not exist as such.

  • Eaton, Richard M. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204–1760. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    In order to explain how the establishment of an Indo-Muslim community in Bengal led to its vast expansion over a period of five centuries, Eaton proposes a model for the gradual, nearly imperceptible Islamization of the regional population. This suggests stages of inclusion, identification, and displacement.

  • Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religion: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

    Drawing attention to the European construction of the category “world religions,” Masuzawa identifies the Western interests that plumbed linguistic and literary evidence to delineate which qualified as such. European scholars wrestled with the classification of Islam and Hinduism according to what they considered the dictates of science required.

  • Pernau, Margrit. “Multiple Identities and Communities: Re-contextualizing Religion.” In Religious Pluralism in South Asia and Europe. Edited by Jamal Malik and Helmut Reifeld, 147–169. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Challenging the Hindu-Muslim binary, Pernau argues for multiple identities that connect any one individual to various communities. These identities require various shades of loyalty—from weak to exclusive—depending upon the social context. Hinduism and Islam, therefore, do not represent monolithic, concrete blocks but communities with constantly shifting associations and often fluid boundaries.

  • Roy, Asim. The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

    Roy provides a model of syncretism to account for the large population of Bengali Muslims. He argues that Sufis created an alternative Islam through the use of symbols and narratives that communicated emotional content attractive to the people indigenous to the region.

  • Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Meaning and End of Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991.

    Smith’s effort to declare the European Christian category of “religion” as inadequate because it is without analogy in any other religion leads him to an examination of nearly comparable terms within other traditions. His analysis offers an implicit comparison of Hindu and Muslim portrayals of Hinduism and Islam, as well as conceptualizations of dharma and din. Originally published in 1962.

  • Stewart, Tony. “In Search of Equivalence: Conceiving the Muslim-Hindu Encounter through Translation Theory.” In India’s Islamic Traditions, 711–1750. Edited by Richard M. Eaton, 363–392. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Stewart outlines the pragmatic efforts of Muslim individuals and groups to understand non-Muslims and translate Islamic perspectives into local Bengali vernaculars.

  • Weber, Max. The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism. Translated by Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1992.

    Identifying religious institutions and their related social circles as central to Indian views, Weber advanced a sociology to account for the purported failure of India to industrialize and modernize. English translation originally published in 1958.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.