SAH MKK230027: Islamization and the Arab Conquest of Sindh

Officially sanctioned histories of Sindh in Pakistan routinely describe the invasion and subsequent conquest of Sindh by Mohammad Bin Qasim in 711-13 as an event that liberated the masses of Sindh from Brahminical tyranny and oppressive caste rule, ushering in an era of unprecedented social equality that was facilitated by the introduction of Islam – a faith unparalleled in its egalitarian outlook and commitment to fairness and justice. It is also asserted that the Arab rulers of Sindh promoted education and learning on a large-scale, and that Sindh experienced a cultural renaissance that outperformed the achievements of any previous era in the land of the Indus river.

Since the glorification and preservation of the Islamic faith was supposedly the very foundational basis of Pakistan, it is hardly likely that official textbooks in Pakistan could describe the invasion by the Bin Qasim militias any differently. In a nation where even relatively innocuous violations of the country’s blasphemy laws have lead to the death penalty, it not surprising that few Pakistani scholars and historians have taken on the risk of seriously investigating, let alone challenge such claims. Since so little scholarly work is available on this subject, the task of understanding the history of this period in any objective fashion is not easy. Nevertheless, it is possible to ask some reasonable questions and present sufficient circumstantial evidence that belie such official government claims concerning the Bin Qasim victory, and its impact on the people of Sindh.

The claim that Sindh during the 7th century was reeling from the hegemony of Brahminical authority is often accepted as truth simply because it has been made so frequently, and by such a variety of colonial and post-colonial historians and social scientists that few scholars have demanded any concrete evidence that might substantiate such a claim. But as the essay on the History of Social Relations in India illustrates, several 5th-7th C Gupta-period land decrees demonstrate that caste was a relatively flexible category, and that Brahmins did not enjoy social hegemony until the widespread proliferation of the agrahara villages, a practice that started towards the end of the Gupta-period in Bihar, spread very slowly in the rest of India, and took more than a few centuries to crystallize. In the neighboring regions of Punjab, Kutch, Gujarat and Rajasthan, there is little evidence that such agrahara villages ever took shape, and the history of these regions appears to be shaped as much (or more) by Rajputs, Jats, Buddhists and Jains as by Brahmins. Virtually all of Sindh’s historians acknowledge that Rajputs and Jats also formed a substantial proportion of the Sindhi population at the time of the Bin Qasim invasion. The presence of Buddhists is also acknowledged, and has been verified by the discovery of Buddhist Stupas and other Buddhist artifacts in the state.

Although at the time of the Bin Qasim invasion, Sindh was ruled by a Brahmin king, just a generation earlier, Sindh had been ruled by Rajput kings who were believed to favor Buddhism. Although it is possible that Sindh’s Raja Dahir lacked popularity, to suggest that Brahminical hegemony was established in a matter of just a few decades appears to strain credibility. Since the ascension of a Brahmin king could only have occurred with the tacit support of key Rajputs and other segments in society, at most one could speak of factional differences or factional rivalries amongst the elite that may have contributed to the downfall of Sindh.

(Sindhi historian G.M Syed (jailed in 1964 for his contradictory accounts of Sindh’s history) however offers an altogether different interpretation, arguing instead that at the time of the invasions, Raja Dahir’s reign was marked by religious tolerance and liberal mindedness, on account of which people of various religions co-existed peacefully, where Hindus had their temples, the Parsis (Zoroastrians) their fire temples, the Buddhists their Stupas, and Arab Muslims (who had been given permission to settle along the coast) had their mosques. According to him, the primary motive for the Arab invasion of Sindh was revenge against Raja Dahir for providing shelter to Sassanian nobles/generals who had requested asylum in Sindh upon defeat in Persia. It is not inconceivable that the Umayyads feared a Sassanian counter-attack from Indian soil, and wished to preempt any possibility (real or imagined) of a Sindhi-Persian alliance that might thwart Arab expansion. The later migration of Parsis (Zoroastrians) to Gujarat and grant of asylum there would appear to bolster such a contention.)

While caste divisions may have indeed prevented Hindu society from offering united resistance to the Islamic invaders, it does not appear as though the advent of Islam actually liberated the most oppressed Jatis. According to Al-Beruni (b. Khiva, 973AD), those most discriminated in Hindu society were those associated with carrying out “unclean tasks”, but it should be noted that in Sindh (and elsewhere in India), there are precisely such oppressed communities that were never converted to Islam, and continued to face discrimination at the hands of both Hindus and Muslims.

(It might also be noted that the 11-12th C Sumra rulers of Sindh were Rajput converts to Islam, as were the 13-14th C Samma rulers. After colonization, castes associated with trade and commerce such as Hindu Banias and Lohanas or their Muslim counterparts such as Memons exercised a powerful hold over cash-poor and indebted artisans and peasants. By and large, conversion to Islam did not end pre-existing caste-loyalties or eliminate differences in social rank. Also see Zarina Bhatty: “Social stratification among Muslims in India” from the book “Caste – its twentieth century avatar” by M N Srinivas, Viking, New Delhi, 1996, pp 249 – 253.)

While noting the similarities between the caste-system of India with ancient Persia, Al-Beruni, (in his descriptions of neighboring Punjab) also wrote of contact and association (even common lodgings) between the four main jatis or varnas in towns and villages, only observing that the antyajas (untouchable castes) formed eight separate guilds, and lived near (but apart from) the towns and villages. Going by his remarks, one could conclude that the antyajas suffered from an inferior status, but the social interaction that he noted between the four main castes suggests that the distance between the Brahmins or Ksahtriyas vis-a-vis the Vaishyas and Shudras was not as significant as is generally portrayed.

Al-Beruni also wrote little to suggest that Brahmins enjoyed exceptional status or power in society, but observed that on theological topics “at the utmost they (referring to the Hindus he had studied and interacted with) fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy.” He also noted that the “Hindus have cultivated numerous branches of science and have boundless literature…”. He was particularly impressed by the numerous step-wells he had seen in the country, and wrote: “In this they have attained to a very degree of art, so that our people (the Muslims), when they see them, wonder at them, and are unable to describe them, much less to construct anything like them.”

Not only do Al-Beruni’s descriptions of Punjab stand somewhat apart from the official characterizations of Hindu society, they raise a troubling paradox for Pakistan’s official historians. Had Islam truly been a vehicle for the liberation of Hindu society from the evils of Brahminism (as is repeatedly proclaimed), how was it that three centuries after the unqualified triumph of “Islam” in Sindh, Hindu society continued to survive just next door in Punjab, and the Islamic faith was able to win few converts amongst the majority of the Hindus, and not even amongst the discriminated caste communities? And had Sindh become this great center of learning and culture after its conquest by Bin Qasim, how was it that Al-Beruni (an avowed Muslim) was studying Hindu scientific texts in Punjab, but not “Islamic” scientific texts in Sindh?

In fact, it is decidedly odd that there is virtually no archaeological evidence or surviving monuments from that era that might attest to claims of a great Arab civilization in Sindh. A British historian is supposed to have remarked: “Notwithstanding that their possession was partial and unstable, our native [British] soil teems with their [Roman] buildings, camps, roads, coins, utensils, in a manner to show completely they were master-spirits of that remote province [Britain]. But with regard to the Arab dominion in Sind, it is impossible for the traveler to wander through that land, without being struck with the absence of all record of their occupation.”

This is all the more puzzling when one considers the very rich and impressive record of temples, step-wells, urban gateways, colleges and monasteries (built between the 8th and the 13th centuries) that have survived in the neighboring states of Rajasthan and Gujarat – states that successfully fended off the Arab invasions.

{In the 11th C, the Soomras, (who according to Sindhi historian, G.M. Syed were Rajputs and only nominally Muslim) took over the reins of power in Sindh, and ruled for three centuries. By then, Sindh had been freed from paying tribute to the Arab Khalifate, and monuments commissioned by the Soomras and the later Sammas have survived, though the greatest evidence of monumental building activity in Sindh emerges from after the 16th C.}

Although there are references to trade and agricultural productivity in post-conquest Sindh in the Arab records of the 9th and 10th centuries, these are not especially noteworthy, since the Arab lands were always poorer in agricultural terms, and positive references to Sindh are also to be found in the writings of Greek historians (who describe it as the most flourishing of all that the Greeks had seen), and a few centuries later, Sindh was mentioned as a rich country by Roman historians (with specific references to Patala in lower Sindh as an emporium of trade). What is more surprising is that there seems to have been an equally (or more) vigorous trade between the ports of Gujarat and the Arab ports as with Sindh after its Arab conquest.

A resolution to this apparent mystery may be found in the description of the conquest of Sindh in a Persian translation of the Chach-na’ma or Tari’kh-I Hind wa Sind, by Muhammad ‘Ali bin Hamid bin Abu Bakr (Kufi, early 13th C) which reveals quite a different story. Contradicting any theory representing the arrival of Islam in the Indian subcontinent as a great social revolution, the Chach-na’ma reveals a pirate-like conquest that wreaked havoc on the local populations, transferring a considerable volume of plundered wealth such as gold, silver and jewelry, and also slaves, as tribute to the Umayyad governers. Bin Qasim and his military cohorts also profited greatly from the conquest, enriching themselves at the expense of the local population. Another history of the period, the Futuhu-l Bulda’n by Ahmad bin Yahya, bin Jabir, (892-3 AD) describes how some of the victories were achieved by the destruction (or salinization) of vital aqueducts that starved the populations of drinking water, leading to their surrender. Both documents describe the slaying of able-bodied soldiers and other townsmen, and the taking of women and children as slaves in large numbers.

With the looting of its savings of gold and silver and other assets, and the annual demands for tribute (estimated at a million dirhams annually) it is not surprising that Sindh was culturally and economically eclipsed by Gujarat and Rajasthan – its eastern neighbors who escaped such devastation. It is also interesting that references to Islam (by the victors) are made more as after-thoughts, and only after military triumphs, when the looting of wealth and taking of slaves is justified in the name of God, Islam, or the Holy Prophet. The conversion of temples to mosques also appear more as symbols of a successful military and political assault than as a religious victory per se.

What is remarkable in both these documents are some of the references to mass conversions. Conversion to Islam is offered as an option to defeated populations – and it is assumed that conversion to Islam would be taken as a token of surrender, as a willingness to pay tribute to the new authorities, and as a sign that the political suzerainty of the victors would not be challenged. Although, not everyone was required to convert, the greatest pressure to convert was applied on those considered most dangerous, and most able to resist the conquerors – i.e. on Rajputs and Jats, and on men, rather than women. The conversion of others simply followed.

This was apparently quite common during the period of Arab expansion, and led to the widely held belief that “the common people follow the religion of the ruler” – something emphasized repeatedly by Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (b, Tunis, 1332) in his “Muqaddimah – an Introduction to History”. Ibn Khaldun’s writings are particularly interesting because as an avowed Muslim, and defender of the sayings of the Prophet and the Quran, his descriptions of the Arab royal houses, and their origins as the Islamicized Bedouin tribes of the Arab peninsula carry a credibility and acceptance other historians may not receive. But his status as one of the pre-eminent historians of the Arab world has more to do with his questioning of exaggerated and wildly improbable claims made by historians like al-Masudi and al-Waqidi, and his intuitive awareness of what propelled royal power and prestige, and how dynasties rose and fell in the Arab world. Also of interest is the element of rationality that imbues some of his writings. Unlike the ideologues of the two-nation theory and zealous advocates of Islamic Jehad in Pakistan today, (who attempt to portray Islam as a radical and egalitarian force), Ibn Khaldun’s analysis is far more revealing of Islam’s role in cementing state power, in building and preserving larger and more stable empires.

Although Ibn Khaldun quotes frequently from the Quran, and there are repeated references to “such is God’s Will” or “such are God’s Ways”, he shows little moral outrage or concern for equity or social justice when he writes about the excesses of royal conquests or royal authority. Speaking of how “the common people follow the religion of the ruler” he writes: “The ruler dominates those under him. His subjects imitate him because they see perfection in him, exactly as children imitate their parents, or students their teachers. God is wise and all-knowing”. Although one may question this statement as an accurate description of why the masses accepted Islam, it does indicate that the Islamic-identified ruling class in the Arab world did not ascribe any independent agency to the masses in choosing or practicing their religion.

In the views of Ibn Khaldun dynasties arise from successfully marshalling “group feeling” which he believed originated from respect of blood ties or something akin to that. Because of the difficult conditions the Bedouins were exposed to in the desert, he saw the Bedouins as most capable of developing and harnessing “group feelings”. He also noted the fearless manner in which they fought and subdued others – seeing in their “savagery”, the seeds of royal power. However, he also saw the Bedouins as wild and anarchic – as all too capable of plundering the possessions of others, and destroying the civilizations of those whom they conquered, citing specifically the ruination of the civilizations of Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and the Sudan after Bedouin conquests. He thus argued that for the Bedouins to develop royal leadership, they needed the strong influence of a religion such as Islam, which he saw as being crucial to the initial success of the Arabs. It was the cohesive force of Islam that enabled the Arabs to combine strong “group feelings” with the political leadership that was necessary to win and sustain stable royal dynasties. He attributed their subsequent decline to their neglect of religion, and of losing their “group feeling” and leadership skills in the course of acquiring wealth and urban comforts.

In developing these elaborate theories on the rise and fall of dynastic rule, he acknowledges that a nation that is defeated, and comes under the rule of another quickly perishes citing the case of Persia after its Arab conquests. However, he saw nothing ethically or morally wrong in the subjugation of one nation by another. For instance, he dismissed any moral objections that might have arisen over the plight of the conquered nations of Sub-Saharan Africa, justifying their state of servitude to the Arab rulers as a consequence of their “weakness” and “lack of ability”.

While Ibn Khaldun did not see the Arab conquests or the subsequent Islamization of the local populations as bringing any benefit to those who were thus defeated or subjugated, neither did he see in this any contradiction with Islamic ethics. What is implicit in his writings is that Islam was more the instrument for developing tribal leadership, and the means of cementing political control over those who shared in the “group feelings” of the ruling clans, or by extension, a means of controlling those that did not necessarily share in the “group feelings” of the ruling elites. Statements attributing a sense of “fairness” or “justice” to Islam appear more as rehetoric and as gratuitious justifications of the Arab conquests.

Thus although Ibn Khaldun makes no specific statements concerning the conquest of Sindh, his frank assessment of what happened to the civilizations of other territories that came under Bedouin attack or Arab control fits in quite well with what is described in the Chach-na’ma and the Futuhu-l Bulda’n. It is thus possible to infer from his writings that the Arab invasion and conquest of Sindh was part of a historic pattern and political trend that extended from Syria to Sindh, drowning each of the older civilizations as the Arab empires aggressively expanded their reach and control. This view of history would bring a new dimension to the discussion of what contributed to Arab successes, attributing the success to strong “group feeling” and military daring (effectively channelized by leadership derived from a common faith) – something that the materially more advanced, but sedentary urbanized civilizations could not resist.

What was probably common to all the defeated civilizations was that there were no strong bonds of communal loyalty that bound the populations. Socially fragmented – either due to religious tolerance and diversity, or due to caste/class divisions resulting from the growing specialization and differentiation of labour, (or both), it is possible that these civilizations were also riven by factional rivalries that further weakened their defences. Since these invasions swept aside Hindu, Buddhist, Manichean and Zoroastrian societies alike, this more general view of history would thus question the merit of postulations that place Brahminical hegemony or ossification of caste as unique or even primary factors in the equation.

(What is also plausible, and this is a subject that merits further investigation (see note below) is that with the decline of Buddhist rationalism, important sections of society had come to accept the role of Brahmins in providing astrological charts (janampatris), and in guiding personal and public rituals (such as hawans, mass aaratis and jagarans) that were leading society in an idealistic and impractical direction. This may have made the task of the invaders much easier. But it is important to note that the advent of Islam did not actually move society in a more rational and scientific direction. Arab rulers took great interest in Indian astrological theories themselves, and Islam developed its own body of spirit-defeating daily rituals that were in the long run more debilitating than the periodic rituals that may have become commonplace in Hindu society at that time.)

Although Ibn Khaldun’s writings stress the role of Islam in the Arab successes, it is not possible to conclude from his writings (as some Islamist scholars have attempted) to claim the universality and superiority of Islam, and speak of its “natural tendency” towards raising the cultural levels of societies that adopted the faith. That Islam was more a political tool (than an inherently more advanced scientific, philosophical or cultural system) is borne out by how the Umayyads sought cultural inspiration from the very civilization they had sought to supplant and replace. This was even more the case with the Abbasids who succeeded the Umayyads. Both invited scholars (and those brought as slaves), were encouraged (or coerced) to translate scientific and philosophical texts from a variety of ancient and contemporary sources including Egyptian, Greek, Syriac, Babylonian and Indian.

It is especially important to note that there was a certain degree of separation of church and state during the reign of the Abbasids who were renowned patrons of art and scientific learning. This separation of church and state facilitated scientific investigation in Basra and Baghdad, and allowed the scholars in these courts to seek knowledge from a variety of sources.

According to Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, author of the Arab-o-Hind ke Tallukat, (and several other historians), mathematicians and philosophers from Sindh made outstanding contributions to the promotion of learning amongst the Arabs. Several physicians were called from Sindh for the treatment of the Caliphs among whom were Ganga and Manka who treated Haroon-al-Rashid. Another Sindhi doctor who made a mark was a newly converted Muslim, Saleh bin Bhahla (Bhalla). Sindhis such as Abul Ata Sindhi, Haroon bin Abdulla Multani, Abu Mohammad Mansuri (from Mansura), Mansoor Hindi, Musa bin Yakub, Saqafi, Abu Zila Sindhi and Kashajam-bin-Sindhi-bin-Shahak achieved eminence as Arabic poets and writers. Sindhi Pandits (scholars) and Veds (physicians) in Baghdad translated numerous texts from Sanskrit on mathematics, astronomy, medicine, literature and ethics into Arabic.

One must also disinguish between the role of the Quranic absolutists and the Sufi liberals, for it was the latter who made the most significant and enduring contributions to the art and culture of the nations that had come to accept Islam. As long as the Sufis were tolerated, there was a path towards progress, and Arab society was able to absorb positive elements from other cultures.

Several Arab scholars relied on Indian scientific texts in their own scholarly translations or adaptations. Noted scholars Al-Fazari (8th C) and his son Muhammad, and Ya’qub ibn Tariq are associated with translations of Sanskrit astronomical texts (Siddhanthas). Al-Kindi (b. Basra, early 9th C) wrote four mathematical texts describing the use of Indian numerals. Al-Khwarizmi (b. Khiva, d. 850) is credited with synthesizing the knowledge of the Greeks and the Hindus in mathematics, astronomy and geography during the reign of the Caliph, al-Ma’mun, (813 to 833). Others translated Indian writings on the scientific method, Chanakya’s Arthashastra, the Mahabharatha, and the Panchatantra, which became popularized as Kahlila and Dimna. Widely translated into both Persian and Arabic, it was also reproduced in illustrated versions during the reign of the Abbasids.

Sindhi accountants were also popular and according to Jahez (d. 874 AD) all the ‘Sarrafs’ (money-changers) in Iraq were Sindhis. Sindh was also a major exporter of agricultural produce and cash crops, as well as a variety of leather goods – including colored and soft leather. The leather shoes of Mansura were particularly renowned. (cited in the Muruj-uz-Zahab, and by Imam Hanbal). Thus, Sindh had a profound influence on Arab science, culture and economic life.

But after forced Islamization, the progress of science in Sindh slowed, and the attention of Arab, Persian and Central Asian scholars turned to Punjab, Gujarat and other centres of learning in India. Hence, the claim that the introduction of Islam under the aegis of Arab invaders such as Bin Qasim was an event that heralded a radical and progressive new era of cultural growth and material prosperity for the people of Sindh, is a largely unproven claim, and in fact, almost untenable when the mass of contrary evidence (both concrete, and circumstantial) is taken into account. That it liberated the people of Sindh from unspeakable horrors is another speculation, driven more by political needs and Islamic chauvinism than by any clear and irrefutable historical evidence.

For the most part, the official histories of Sindh are sustainable only as illusions and myths. A deeply troubling and unstated implication behind such one-sided rhetoric is that the people of Sindh were impotent in fighting off local tyrants themselves, and needed the assistance of external agents to “liberate” them. In addition, there is the underlying assumption that the indigenous people of Sindh were incapable of producing anything of civilizational value on their own, and that the cultural and philosophical systems produced internally were inadequate, and needed to be replaced by those of outsiders. Not only can such assertions be damaging to a nation’s self-esteem, these are precisely the sort of ideas that sustained colonial rule.

But since genuine decolonization was hardly on the minds of Pakistan’s creators, such notions have gone largely unchallenged. Instead, the logic of the two-nation theory and partition has demanded the propagation of accentuated polemics – howsoever improbable, and howsoever damaging to the psyche of the Pakistani people themselves. Although it is unlikely that the history of Sindh will ever be presented in a truthful and accurate manner by the present ruling elites of Pakistan, ordinary Sindhis may well ask that if the introduction of Islam in Sindh were truly beneficial for the ordinary masses, (supposedly ushering in an era of expanded access to education and learning), how is it that the rural masses of Sindh rank as amongst the most illiterate and most oppressed in the world today? Isn’t it ironic how the average literacy in neighboring Rajasthan (one of India’s less developed states, with a primarily Hindu population) exceeds 61%, far ahead of Pakistan’s currently projected literacy of 45% {Of course, the comparison with India’s more industrialized state of Gujarat or agriculturally prosperous Punjab (both with 70% literacy) would make things look still worse.}

Today, Sindh, which was home to one of the world’s earliest settled civilizations – i.e. the civilization of Harappa and Mohenjodaro is in a state of cultural and economic crisis – heavily dependant financially on repatriations from the Gulf oil kingdoms, struggling under the weight of a colonial past, and dictatorial present. Internecine religious wars bleed the state constantly, even as it suffers internal discrimination at the hands of the Punjabi military elite. Reclaiming its true history could be the first step it takes towards liberating itself not only from the shackles of its colonial past, but also from the false glorification of invasions and conquests that drained it of its wealth and brought it few tangible returns in exchange.

A more objective and dispassionate examination of the historical record may reveal that rather than Sindh being “liberated” and “civilized” by the Arab invaders, it was in fact, the other way around. Sindh helped educate and civilize the new Arab kingdoms, who in turn helped carry the knowledge of India to Europe. Instead of seeing its pre-Islamic history with contempt or disdain, Sindh (and the rest of present day Pakistan) might do better by acknowledging the positive aspects of the intellectual and cultural traditions that had developed prior to Islamic rule and played such an important role in shaping the civilizations of the Arab and Western worlds.


Chacha Na’ma, Futuh-I Bulda’n (Translations/Excerpts from Arabic/Persian texts chronicling the invasion and conquest of Sindh)

Elliot and Dowson. The History of India as told by its own historians. New Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1996, vol. II

Futuhu-l Bulda’n by Ahmad bin Yahya, bin Jabir, d. 279 A.H., 892-3 CE. (In The History of India as Told by its own Historians. The Posthumous Papers of the Late Sir H. M. Elliot. John Dowson, ed. 1st ed. 1867. 2nd ed., Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1956, vol. 7, pp. 14-31.)

Alberuni’s India (Sachau E. C., translator). New Delhi: Low Price Publications, 1993.

Arab-o-Hind ke Talluqat, by Sulaiman Nadvi.

Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah (An Introduction to History) trans. Franz Rosenthal, edited and abridged by N. J. Dawood; Bollingen Series, Princeton

Ancient Trade in Pakistan, by Mortimer Wheeler, Pakistan Quarterly, Vol VII #1957

Die philosophischen Abhandlungen des al-Kindi, Munster, 1897, H. Suter:

Die Mathematiker und Astronomen der Araber, H. Suter:

Sindh on the Threshold of 21st century, Iqbal Tareen – ((Editorial published in special issue of Sindh Monitor during Tenth Annual Convention of Sindhi Association of North America on July 4, 1994)

Sindhudesh – G. M. Syed


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