The mostly South Asian origins of Indian Muslims

By Razib Khan | October 10, 2009 7:07 pm

Dienekes points to a new paper which attempts to quantify the genetic ancestry of South Asian Muslims into indigenous and exogenous components:

Islam is the second most practiced religion in India, next to Hinduism. It is still unclear whether the spread of Islam in India has been only a cultural transformation or is associated with detectable levels of gene flow. To estimate the contribution of West Asian and Arabian admixture to Indian Muslims, we assessed genetic variation in mtDNA, Y-chromosomal and LCT/MCM6 markers in 472, 431 and 476 samples, respectively, representing six Muslim communities from different geographical regions of India. We found that most of the Indian Muslim populations received their major genetic input from geographically close non-Muslim populations. However, low levels of likely sub-Saharan African, Arabian and West Asian admixture were also observed among Indian Muslims in the form of L0a2a2 mtDNA and E1b1b1a and J*(xJ2) Y-chromosomal lineages. The distinction between Iranian and Arabian sources was difficult to make with mtDNA and the Y chromosome, as the estimates were highly correlated because of similar gene pool compositions in the sources. In contrast, the LCT/MCM6 locus, which shows a clear distinction between the two sources, enabled us to rule out significant gene flow from Arabia. Overall, our results support a model according to which the spread of Islam in India was predominantly cultural conversion associated with minor but still detectable levels of gene flow from outside, primarily from Iran and Central Asia, rather than directly from the Arabian Peninsula.

This is entirely predictable; there’s a reason that during communal riots men are forced to expose their penises, aside from dress distinguishing a Muslim from a Hindu is not really possible. A small number of very high status Muslims are obviously predominantly non-South Asian, they look different. This stratum still intermarries internationally, e.g., Benazir Bhutto’s mother was Kurdish (one reason she looked so white). When the British first arrived in the Indian subcontinent they distinguished between white and black Muslims just as the local elite Muslims did.
Nevertheless, there was a great deal of intermarriage. Even at the commanding heights of the white Muslim aristocracy, the Mughals, there was outmarriage. Shah Jahan was 3/4 Rajput. Compare Shah Jahan to his grandfather, Akbar (a contemporary portrait).* The Mughals were not the best record keepers (they were a rentier state par excellence), but the composition of their military and civil service is known because of differential grants of income to categories of service elites. Foreign Muslims, those born outside India, were at a premium, and often comprised a significant proportion every generation (Persians being siphoned to the civilian bureaucracy, Turks and Pathans to the military). This is in keeping with a tendency among the Turkic Muslim dynasties in general, from the Mamlukes to the Ottomans, who replenished their non-hereditary elite from without. Where did the offspring of these newcomers go? Likely they descended down the class hierarchy, intermarrying with local Muslim converts (or, even facilitating the conversion of a high status Hindu family through intermarriage), who would be eager to acquire Persian or Turkic ancestry for their descendants and so a higher heritable status.


But these data do show an exception. The Bohra. Unlike the other Muslim groups, there is basically no evidence of significant (i.e., above expectation) Middle Eastern lineages among them. Why? You need to know a little history and ethnography. The Bohras are an Ismaili group, a minority sect within Shiism, and very marginal due to their peculiar history and theology. Recent works of religious history suggest that Ismailis were extremely influential in spreading Islamic ideas among the populations of South Asia. These researchers suggest that Ismaili Islam served as a “gateway” to Sunni Islam for many South Asians. Additionally, it may be that many Hindu groups (Hussaini Brahmins and the Megh for example) were influenced by this variant of Islam. The Ismaili flavor of South Asian Islam was eclipsed by the rise of the institutional structure of Sunni orthodoxy (which included the state, as well as Sufi orders), most prominently among the late Mughals such as Aurangzeb. It was during this period when there were massive shifts from Ismailism to Sunni Islam, and some suggestions that many Hindu groups moved away from syncretism with Islam lest they be labelled heretics by the state, a far worse position than simply being heathen.
The Bohras are one group of Ismailis who did not convert to Sunni Islam. Some scholars assert that before the Mughal period the majority of Muslims in Gujarat were Ismaili, while after only a minority were. Like South Asian Muslims in general the origin of Ismailism was among converts from what became Hinduism, in particular the trader castes in the instance of the Bohras. These data give tentative support to that contention, the mix of lineages is what is common among Indian upper castes. I speculate that there is a possibility that there was selective conversion to Sunni Islam, and that those from mercantile backgrounds were the least incentivized to switch to the “orthodox” confession. In contrast, those reliant on state beneficence, or those who had Sunni landlords, were probably more likely to switch. There is some suggestion that the Parsis, who were the remnants of Iranian Zoroastrianism which emigrated to India, were mostly from priestly families. This group obviously had least incentive to convert to Islam because many of their privileges were bundled up with a Zoroastrian religious identity. In any case, this can be tied back up to the intermarriage of Iranian and Central Asian Muslims with local Muslim elites: there would be no incentive for non-South Asian Muslims to marry into Ismaili families who were on the wrong side of the Mughal state which had served as their initial patrons. Rather, it would be contingent upon any native Muslim family who wished to intermarry with a more prestigious Persian or Central Asian lineage to toe the line of religious orthodoxy, whether that be Sunnism, or, the less heterodox Twelver Shiism (there were Twelver Shia polities in India).
An alternative hypothesis is that the scholars who claim many more Ismailis in the past are misreading the textual evidence, and that Ismailism was a much smaller sect than they envisage. That is never went much beyond the trader castes, and so the possibility for intermarriage with prestigious non-South Asian lineages was already minimized because of that group’s preference for wealth based on land rents.
Note: Though the authors dismiss this, I suspect that Dienekes’ is correct in observing that the Mapplas of Kerala do have Arab ancestry, which other South Asian Muslims do not. This is culturally expected, the Mappla form of Islam owes much more to South Arabian exemplars than Sunni Islam in the rest of the subcontinent, which is Turkic or Persian in flavor.
Citation: Traces of sub-Saharan and Middle Eastern lineages in Indian Muslim populations, European Journal of Human Genetics, doi: 10.1038/ejhg.2009.168
* The portraits may be idealizations, but from what I have read Akbar did look much more Mongolian than his descendants. Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s half-Persian son, was noted to have particularly fair skin, likely in contrast with his father who was mostly South Asian in ancestry.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Genetics
  • http://www.iSteve.blogspot.com Steve Sailer

    I met a rich blonde lady in Turkey whose ancestry was from this international Muslim elite you speak of. One quarter of her ancestors were Muslims from up in the middle of Russia, east of Moscow.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    I met a rich blonde lady in Turkey whose ancestry was from this international Muslim elite you speak of. One quarter of her ancestors were Muslims from up in the middle of Russia, east of Moscow.
    much of what is now mostly orthodox (notionally) and russian in the ural/volga region and east was once muslim and turkic. after the conquests of these regions by the russians in the 17th and 18th centuries there were three paths:
    1) become russian and orthodox. many boyars came from turkic and muslim families by origin.
    2) figure out a way to remain distinctive religiously & ethnically in the context of residing within a polity dominated by russians and dedicated to orthodoxy.
    3) emigrate, especially to the ottoman empire, since one line of muslim though argues that muslims should never live under the rule of non-muslims.
    during the reign of catharine the great there were mass migrations to the other side of the black sea as the russian empire finally swallowed up the remaining turkic muslim polities in russia proper.
    more generally, islam was an international civilization from almost its beginning. the umayyad caliphs had control (at least more than nominal) from spain to southern pakistan. after the collapse of the political order, civilizational unity through common norms meant that travelers like ibn battuta could move between africa and asia while remaining in a muslim world.

  • bioIgnoramus

    “low levels of likely sub-Saharan African … admixture were also observed”: is that likely to be from the Islamic slave trade across the Indian Ocean, or is it impossible to tell?

  • georgesdelatour

    The interesting question is the manner and rate of conversion. At what date did the Arabian empire have a majority Muslim population, rather than just a Muslim ruing class? The Jizya (and the desire to escape paying it) was probably a major factor in conversion in the Caliphate. In India, I’ve often read that it was lower caste Hindus who converted, because Hinduism wasn’t doing them any favours. But do we know if this is really true?

  • John Emerson

    Russian religious history was especially turbulent, with lots of heretics, judaizing Christians, christianizing Jews, and probably the same with Muslims.
    Islam converts people tax structure — the Jizyah. Islam is just more economical for a given individual.
    The power to tax is the power to destroy. I imagine that the libertarians have already run with this one.

  • muxlim

    It is not as if mostly low castes Hindus converted to Islam.
    Since high caste Hindus make a small roportion of the population less than 25%, so obviously more numbers would come from lower castes. The first mass conversion in India was done by a Hindu Raja in Bulandsahar or Baran-Sahar who was high caste and converted with 20,000 of his peoples. And it was his own voluntarily step

  • Asad

    To georgesdelatour :
    Jizya is only a financial tribute / aid to the Muslim State which is in-charge of safeguarding the security of the state and non-muslim’s lives and properties on their behalf.
    Non-muslims pay Jizya BUT they are EXEMPTED from any other taxes which muslims pay in a Muslim State i.e. Zakat, Khums etc.
    As compared to taxes which the Muslims are subjected in a Muslim state, the amount of Jizya is very low.
    As such, Jizya should not be interpreted as “Additional Tax” imposed on non-muslims. It is rather a “lesser” obligation as compared to that of a Muslim.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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