South Asia (SA) houses the largest concentration of Muslims in the world. Post-partition India, in particular, has a large and diverse population of Muslims. Most of these appear to be increasingly becoming aware of their ‘religious minority’ status. This poses particular challenges in formulating appropriate Christian approaches to, and engagement with, them.


There have been migrations of Muslims in the subcontinent for centuries. These migrants gradually became aligned to the prevailing social system thus reflecting broader social divides. There is still a distinction between the ashraf (high born) and the ajlaf (low born – the local converts from low caste or outcaste backgrounds). There is therefore a real tension between the normative-theological unity of Islam and the actual social diversity among Muslims.

Unlike in Pakistan, the democratic system of governance has found deep roots in India’s pluralistic context. The Muslim elite realised unless they reckoned with the social inequality within, they stood no chance of gaining a political voice. Hence, their efforts at Islamisation.

However, they faced a polycentric structure of religious authority which, over time, had become formally coalesced into four main schools of thought:

  • the context-friendly Sufism-inspired Barelwis;
  • the Wahhabi-inspired Ahl-e Hadith (AH), seeking to transform the contextually-formed culture of Indian Muslims;
  • the ideology-driven approach of Jama’at-e Islami (JI); and
  • the pragmatic-centrist Deobandis who were open to making common cause with the Hindus.

Diverse Islam

Whilst the Barelwis represent the most contextualised faction and JI-AH are at the opposite end of the spectrum, the Deobandis (at least in India) bridge the gap between them. Each school promotes its ‘thought’, among other means, through a network of madrasas and programmes of outreach to other Muslims. Each maintains rigid sectarianism and sharp boundaries claiming final authority and legitimacy as the official representative of Sunni Islam.[1]

Deoband’s centrist position has its roots in its collaboration with Hindus in support of Indian independence, despite its efforts to block Hindu shuddhi programmes (reconversion of Indian Muslims). Deoband has attempted to maintain its centrist position through its association of Ulema, expansion of academic influence, fatwas (legal rulings), and tabligh (preaching), partly through collaboration with Tablighi Jama’at (TJ), which focuses exclusively on outreach to Muslims.

However, the differences between the schools are often less than their own perceptions of them, which nevertheless strongly influence how they inter-relate. For example, the difference between Deobandi and Barelwi practices is not great. However, the Barelwis spare no effort in countering the influence of AH, the South Asian ‘Wahhabiyya’. They are, reportedly, even willing to forge the unlikeliest of alliances with the Shia sect to protect their hybridity.

Moderate strains

Islam in India is less fundamentalist and extremist than across the border in Pakistan and beyond. This may be due to this polycentricism, Islam’s minority status or the prevailing background of tolerance toward hybrid identities. AH and Deobandis in India have been relatively less fundamentalist than across the border. AH’s effort to align itself to the Deobandis is a good example of this, while many of its fatwas reflect efforts to stake out a more centrist position.

The same is true of JI in India. In contrast to Pakistan (a majority Muslim state), Mawlana Mawdudi’s Islamism could not be applied to India where secularism was understood, not as a separation of church and state, but as equal freedom and respect for all religions. Thus, though the Hindus were a majority, India was regarded as darul aman (a place of peace). A different strategy had to be used here. As democracy exposed intra-religious inequalities between the ashraf and ajlaf, tabligh among Muslims became its paramount focus.

Hardening divisions

Inter-school attitudes now seem to be hardening further. This may be due to the fading memory of the partition where Christian, Hindus, Parsee, and Muslims were fighting a common enemy. However, it is also likely due to the increasing Saudi training and funding of madrasas:

  • AH produces much polemical literature against both the TJ and Deoband.
  • This provokes a reaction. Each group believes that they possess the truth and are consequently the only saved sect (firqa-e najiay).
  • The Barelwis consider everyone including the Deobandis as the ‘enemies of Islam’. The reasons for this may be both political and religious. The Barelwis, unlike Deoband, supported partition. The Barelwis also resent what they see as Deobandi hypocrisy in rejecting the occurrence of miracles in Sufi shrines, but allowing it if it happens through the agency of their Ulema.
  • TJ has been particularly singled out for its alleged ‘alliance with non-Muslims’, because it spares them from Muslim mission but preaches to Muslims.
  • The criticisms of Deoband emanate from both ends of the spectrum.

Space for disagreement

Generally, India provides a free space for expressing dissent and disagreements, both internal and inter-religious. Muslims continue to be major players in the exercise of democratic rights and, here, they largely operate on a level playing field with people of other faiths. Indians have interpreted secularism as an idea which permits equal space and respect to all faiths and no faith, thus minimising conflict between religions. This is one of the lessons others can learn from India.

Lessons on engagement with Muslims

The presence of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians predates the advent of Islam in South Asia. Muslims have considered these communities as ‘the people of the book’ (ahl-e kitab). The Hindus, however, posed a special problem to them because the Qur’an and the Hadith say nothing about them. Despite this, some context-aware Muslims granted this status to the Hindus. Indian Islam also differs from traditional Islam in that, while the Prophet’s position is still formally central, in practice, saintly figures, dead or alive, mediate God through miracles and healing. Any Christian response will need to take account of popular Islam.

However, this broader context of tolerance — even eclecticism — which has led Muslims inside and outside India to consider it a ‘place of peace’[2] could be undermined — and the various Muslim factions could unite — if Christian witness there adopts the old paradigms for mission:

  • Public debates between Christian and Muslims have been part of the landscape since the Mughal period, but became more polemical in the 19th century.
  • This approach is still employed by some Christians today, though its effectiveness was questionable even then.
  • Such an approach not only conflicts with the principles of Indian secularism but also goes against the Indian principles of ahimsa (non-violence) and Christian principles of love and neighbourliness.

Plurality in Indian Islam has been helpful in that it has created space for Muslim and non-Muslim players with different aims and interests to engage with each other. This engagement has ranged from academic interfaith studies to missions on the ground:

  • While there seems to be little organised Muslim mission among non-Muslims, the diversity within Islam helps in keeping reactions to mission among Muslims under control.
  • The same is true of the Hindu majority: the mass conversion of the Dalits and Tribals to Buddhism, Islam and even Christianity may have some local consequences, but these largely remain local.
  • So Christian mission, done with respect for Muslims belonging to different schools and in an environment of friendship, is possible and, indeed, is already happening across India.

Indian Islam presents too the opportunity for positive interfaith contact. At least one Protestant and possibly several Catholic institutions occupy spaces between academic and narrowly missional interests in promoting dialogue and reconciliation especially in contexts of local religious conflicts. This works on the ground in providing practical help for the victims (a tremendous witness in itself) but also in not allowing the marginalisation of the context-loving traditions.

Positive models for mission

Strictly ecclesia-centric (as opposed to kingdom) approaches focus on conversion and baptism into an institution. This movement of individuals from one set of institutions to another has not worked in India and will not. Christians need to shift their traditional ecclesial and missional approaches towards focusing primarily on ‘relations’ rather than ‘conversion’, if they are to advance the kingdom of God (rather than a denomination).

Two 19th century examples of positive approaches show the way:

1. William H.T. Gairdner (1873-1928). A CMS missionary in Cairo, he wrote The Rebuke of Islam after 20 years of living with Muslims with a view to it being used by Christians and churches interested in missions. Two particular ideas stand out:

  • Islam is not an accident of history – it is very much a part of the purpose of God in that it is to remind Christians of their failure to live as faithful witnesses.
  • Outreach efforts among Muslims are bound to fail unless they rely entirely on the Holy Spirit. Only the Spirit can transform Muslims and Islam, and Christians must learn to rely on Him and not on their own strategies. Muslims are not the other; they are part of a broader purpose of God, waiting to be transformed by the Spirit.

2. Louis Massignon (1883-1962). A French Catholic scholar-mystic, he was, like Gairdner, convinced about the need to see Muslims as relatives. His experience of the sacrificial hospitality of Muslims in the Middle East birthed his ideas of hospitality, sacrificial substitution and intercession for Muslims:

  • Muslims are not seen as enemies or as objects of conversion but as relatives whom Christians should serve, intercede and offer their lives for as a substitution.
  • In his conception of Islam there is an engagement with the biblical promise to Ishmael whose tradition Muslims claim – hence the nascent idea of ‘Abrahamic faiths’. Massignon was not simplistic – Islam and Christianity may be related but they are not at the same level of spiritual development.
  • Islam is a protest movement against perceived exclusion from the ‘alliance of God’ with Christians and Jews through Isaac, but also serves as a ‘rebuke’ of God for the Christian failure to live in accordance with the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ.

Sadly, these ideas have not been taken up by most evangelicals.

Biographical/narrative approach

One of the ‘folk’ practices most Indian Muslims hold dear relates to the celebration of Mohammed. Here, ‘biography’ (his life and his person) plays a more central role than doctrine or theology. The believer’s connection with his person exceeds the concern to be accurate in beliefs and practices. There are lessons for Christians here:

  • not to continue to run down the person of Mohammed; and
  • to treat ‘biography/narrative’ rather than ‘doctrines’ as a locus of truth.

In Islam, simple traditions (early biographies and the hadith) emerged as the chief sources of authority beside the Qur’an itself. This has remained so until today. Christians should not therefore be surprised if most Muslims do not understand or show much interest in Christology or the Trinity. It will help if Christians take some ‘risks’ in bringing the biblical characters to life by retelling their stories as simple narratives rather than abstracted doctrinal constructs.


  1. The Shia sect has not been included here.
  2. India’s constitution provides guarantees for freedom of religion which includes freedom to preach and propagate one’s faith (this includes freedom to convert and build religious structures).

David Emmanuel Singh is Research Tutor in Islamic Studies at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. Dr Singh has been teaching and writing in the field of theology of religions for two decades through the Bible Society of India, Union Biblical Seminary, Allahabad Bible Seminary, Henry Martyn Institute, and Crowther Hall. Singh is editor of Transformation, an international journal of Holistic Mission Studies. He has also edited a number of books and is the author of Sainthood and Revelatory Discourse, and Islamization in Modern South Asia: Deobandi Reform and the Gujjar Response, published by Walter de Gruyter, 2012.