Why were Muslims serving in the British Indian Army?

The tradition of Muslim military service with British forces long pre-dates 1914 and largely stems from India`s position as a colony of the worldwide British Empire.

In the eighteenth century a company of British merchants called the British East India Company struggled with French counterparts for control of the lucrative trade between Europe and India. Their leaders such as Robert Clive took advantage of the chaotic political situation in India to seize control of territory as a way of protecting their trade from the French. The East India Company recruited soldiers and administrators to run their expanding empire.

They also recruited Muslims from among India`s Muslim minority to serve in the armies of the East India Company. These soldiers served alongside Indian Hindus (and later Sikhs) under British officers.

By 1857 the East India Company controlled most of India but a rumour circulated among its Muslim and Hindu soldiers that a rifle cartridge was about to be introduced smeared with beef and pork fat and thus unclean to both religions. Despite the fact that the cartridge was never actually introduced, it sparked a mutiny among some Indian soldiers and attracted support from some discontented Indian rulers.

The Indian revolt is traditionally known as the Indian Mutiny in Britain but the First War of Independence in modern India. Between 1857 and 1858 atrocities were committed by both sides and the British ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion.

As a result of the revolt the Indian territories of the East India Company were taken over by the British Crown and in 1877 Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India.

The Indian Mutiny 1857 shook British faith in their traditional recruiting grounds for Indian soldiers.

It was this experience which encouraged the belief that recruitment should be restricted to the “martial races”. As part of this policy no more than a third of Indian soldiers were usually Muslims at any one time to avoid over dependence on Indian soldiers of a particular background.

By 1914 British Indian soldiers had served loyally in many colonial wars far from India but they had never before been deployed in Europe against a European enemy.

Map of population density in British Indian Empire 1909

                                                                                                  Map of population density in British Indian Empire 1909

Punjabi Muslims of 33rd Punjabis. Watercolour by Major AC Lovett, 1910.

                                                            Punjabi Muslims of 33rd Punjabis. Watercolour by Major AC Lovett, 1910. © Wikipedia Commons

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The project is a collaboration between think-tank British Future and the organisation New Horizons for British Islam. British Future is an independent, non-partisan thinktank seeking to involve people in an open conversation, which addresses people’s hopes and fears about identity and integration, migration and opportunity, so that we feel confident about Britain’s Future. New Horizons is a forward-looking organisation that will work for reform in Muslim thought and practise. It is inspired by Islamic values and speaks from within the Islamic tradition for the benefit of all.