The basic injunctions of Islam are summed up in the five pillars: "TAUHEED" there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the prophet; "NAMAZ" to pray five times a day; "ZAKAAT" to perform acts of charity; "RAMAZAN" to observe a fast from dawn to dusk throughout the month of Ramazan; and, "HAJ" to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a life¬timfe-time.

Kerala, an Indian state on the Western coast of India, has had connections with Arabia from the time of Solomon. Arabs traded with Kerala for gold, ivory, monkeys and peacocks, with Arab merchants coming to Kerala from Egypt long before the Romans. It is thought that Islam entered India through Kerala in the 7th century AD soon after the religion was conceived by Mohammed (c 570 - 632 AD), in Arabia. But it was many centauries later that the Mughals established their empire and Muslim literary and cultural traditions recognized India as a place of refuge and gracious patronage, reaching the Indian heartland, and continued till the British strengthened their position in the 18th century.

The beginning of the Mughal Empire can be traced to 1526 when Zahir-ud-Din Babur, a young Turkish poet prince from Ferghana in Central Asia, crossed the Khyber Pass with a small army of hand-picked followers; and with him he brought the first cannon ever seen in Northern India. This he used to defeat the Delhi Sultan and the Hindu Rajputs. He established his capital at Agra, and began to extend his rule southwards and eastwards.

In time, Baburís Mughal Empire grew to be the greatest and most populous of all Muslim Empires, with around 100 million subjects Ė five times the number ruled by its nearest rivals, the Ottomans. Indeed, the Mughals were partly responsible for shifting the centre of gravity of the Islamic world eastwards, so that today more Muslims live to the east of Afghanistan than to its west.

If the Mughals represented Islamic rule at its most majestic, they also defined Islam at its most tolerant and eclectic. Their Empire was effectively built in coalition with Indiaís Hindu majority and succeeded as much through tact and conciliation as through war. This was particularly true of the Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), (Emperor Nasiruddin Humayunís son, who in turn was Baburís son), who issued an edict of religious toleration, and forbade forcible conversion to Islam.

Shah Jahan (1592-1666), Akbarís grandson, was a very different character to his grandfather. More orthodox in religion, he was not given to philosophical or religious speculation, and he ordered the demolition of several newly built Hindu temples. An extremely able ruler, he was also a notably ruthless one: to seize the throne he had to rebel against his father and murder his two elder brothers, their children and two male cousins.

While Shah Jahan was capable of bouts of cold-blooded brutality, he was still the most aesthetically sensitive of all the Mughals: As a boy of 15, he re-designed the Imperial apartments in Kabul; as a young Emperor, he had rebuilt the Red Fort; on the death of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, he had the Taj Mahal built; and, as a great connoisseur of gems he commissioned the famous peacock throne.

Yet Shah Jahanís period represented the peak of the Empire and its artistic excellence, the seeds of its own destruction were already apparent. Just as the Taj contains much less sign of Hindu influence than the architecture produced by the Emperorís grandfather, Akbar, so there is a markedly less pluralistic and tolerant spirit abroad in the court, and a revival in the power of the ulama, (the council of theologians). This tendency was exacerbated in 1657 with the seizure of power by Shah Jahanís rigidly fundamentalist son, Aurangzeb.

Aurangzeb was not just uninterested in gems and architecture; his rule was repressive and he made a clean break with the liberal attitude towards the Hindu majority of his subjects pioneered by Akbar. The ulama were given a free hand to impose Sharia law; prostitution, wine, hashish and the playing of music was banned; Hindu and Buddhist temples across his reign were either destroyed or converted into mosques; jizya tax was re-imposed on Hindus that had been abolished by Akbar; Teg Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru was executed.

The religious wounds Aurangzeb opened in India have never entirely healed; but at the time they tore the country in two, and on his death in 1707, the Empire fragmented. Built on tolerance, mutual respect and an alliance with the Hindus, especially with the warrior Rajputs who formed the core of the Mughal war machine, the breakdown of that alliance and the Mughal retreat into bigotry shattered their state and lost them the backbone of their army. That collapse left a vacuum that was eventually filled by the British. In time, only the magnificent monuments of the Mughals and their spectacular artworks and objects remain to witness what could be achieved in the merging of South Asiaís two great streams of civilisation.

Today, Muslims are the second largest religious group with a population base of nearly 12%, and as a population, India has the second largest number of Muslims in the world.

Much of the above is sourced from William Dalrympleís The Last Mughal, (Bloomsbury).