in category Other History

Was the "religion of Islam" constructed by British colonial rule?

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The practice of Islam prior to the British Raj and East India Company when Muslims held power was quite different to what followed. How was it constructed?
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In a Nutshell:
The appearance of "religion", a category comprising a set of practices and beliefs, allegedly found in every culture actually dates from the modern period. It emerged during the European colonial period of the 17th and 18th centuries.

To answer this question it is first worth looking at the manufacture of Hinduism in India.

Nationalisation of Hinduism

Hinduism emerged in the encounter between colonial Britain and India.

Around the turn of the 19th century, officials of the British colonial state and Christian missionaries helped cement the idea that regional and sectarian traditions in India possessed a sufficient coherence to be construed as a single, systematic religion. It involved the active agency and engagement of Indian authors who interacted, argued, and responded to British authors over key religious issues such as image-worship, sati, tolerance, and conversion.

This encounter was deeply shaded by the articulation and development of the concept of "religion", and it produced the now common idea that Hinduism is a unified religion.

Reconstruction of Islam

The period of British rule also saw a reformulation of a pervasive Islamic way of life into a hardened and sharpened "Islam the religion" for Muslims.

For many their religious identity became their prime identity. For a good number, too, their religious identity became their political identity.

Moreover, individuals were beginning to emerge who wished to be treated as individuals; they rejected the demands made upon them by their 'community'.

In sum the period of British rule saw a particular privileging of the religious dimension of Muslim identities.


The following make fascinating, if not paradigm changing, reads as to how we view that which we label today as religions:

Ayesha Jalal, "Self and Sovereignty"

Brian Pennington, "Was Hinduism Invented?"

Francis Robinson, "The British Empire and Muslim Identity in South Asia"

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