Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Arab origins

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Every single Muslim in the subcontinent believes s/he is of Arab descent. If not direct Arab descent, then the illustrious ancestor had come from either Iran or Bukhara. Interestingly, the ancestor is always a great general or a saint. Never ever have we heard anyone boasting of an intellectual for a forebear. We hear of the progeny of savage robber kings, but there is no one who claims Abu Rehan Al-Beruni or Ibn Rushd as a distant sire.

Arab origin is the favourite fiction of all subcontinental Muslims. Most claim their ancestor arrived in Sindh with the army under Mohammad bin Qasim (MbQ). But, I have heard of lineages reaching back to Old Testament prophets as well. An elderly Janjua (Rajput), from the Salt Range told me of a forefather named Ar, a son of the Prophet Isaac. Ar, he said, was the ancestor of the races that spoke the Aryan tongue!

Touted as a local intellectual, this worthy was unmindful of the fact that Aryan was not a tribal name but a linguistic classification. Neither could he tell me how the name Ar, not being in the Old Testament, had reached him. He insisted this name headed his family tree and was, therefore true. The chart, written on a piece of rather newish paper had been, the Janjua insisted, copied from an old original. The original was of course destroyed after the copy was made.

The Arains flaunt Salim al Raee as their father — the clan being called after his surname. A great and valiant general in the army of MbQ, this man was from an agricultural family of Syria, so the Tarikh-e-Araian tells us. Closer to our times, the Arains are indeed acclaimed for their green thumb for which reason Shah Jehan relocated a large bunch of them to mind the newly laid out Shalimar Garden of Lahore. Today, they are a very rich clan in Baghbanpura.

The Tarikh expounds on this fictional ancestor’s noble background and courage in battle to the extent that he almost outshines MbQ. But it does not give us any source or reference for the rubbish that sullies its pages. There are two authentic histories of the Arab conquest of Sindh. Ahmad Al Biladhuri’s Futuh ul Buladan (written circa 860) and Hamid bin Ali Kufi’s Tarikh-e-Hind wa Sindh, translated first into the Persian as Fatehnama Sindh and then into Sindhi as the Chachnama (written circa 1200). There are dozens of names sprinkled across the pages of both works, but no mention is made of a blue-blooded warrior called Salim al Raee. There are other histories besides these two works which also disregard this name for the only reason that such a man never existed.

The Awans, similarly, have a fictional ancestor called Qutb Shah from the line of the last caliph of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs. My friend Kaiser Tufail, an Arain, has had himself genetically tested from the US. He has no trace of Arab blood. His line comes from what is now Uzbekistan and has lived from early historic times in the subcontinent. The rest of us of this clan will see similar results should we go through this exercise. Kaiser had his son-in-law, an Awan, also tested. He, too, is singularly clean of Arab genes.

Most of us are the progeny of converts. In their need to escape the discrimination of the so-called higher castes, our ancestors converted to a religion that in theory claimed to profess human equality regardless of colour or caste. I use the words ‘in theory’ because even as the Arabs converted our ancestors to Islam, they discriminated against them for being “Hindis” as we learn this from Ibn Batuta’s own prejudices. And he is not alone.

Consequently, even after conversion, my ancestors, poor agriculturists, were looked down upon by the Arabs and even those who had converted earlier the same way as they were by the Brahmans when they professed their Vedic belief. Within a generation or two, those early converts began the great lie of Arab ancestry to be equal to other converts and the Arabs. This became universal with time.

The challenge then is for all those, Baloch, Pathan, Punjabi et al, who have invented illegitimate fathers for ourselves to get ourselves tested and know the bitter truth.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Life Beyond Dreams

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 3 October 2014 at 10:02, Blogger Muhammad Imran Saeed said...

So we are converted agriculturists as an escape from the sub-class or caste opression. Well I can live that, but we as a nation seem to be resilient towards this arab 'brotherhood'

At 3 October 2014 at 18:51, Blogger omarali50 said...

Sir ji, your knowledge of history far exceeds mine and I wonder if you have read any good accounts of how and when conversions actually took place? I am leery of this common theme (perhaps mentioned lightly and in passing in your article and not meant to be taken as gospel truth) that "our lower caste ancestors converted to escape caste oppression" case too. It seems converts came from all castes (Iqbal even claimed to be a Brahmin, though some have their doubts) and in the parts of India where caste oppression was truly horrible, most of the lower castes seem to have remained Hindu. It seems to me it is far more likely that conversion was due to a mix of factors:
1. Benefits. The new Turko-Afghan rulers were Muslims. Many of their local partners were not. Some of those local partners remained Hindus, but others thought it may be more profitable to become Muslim, and conversion in these cases would start at the top. As the Jagirdar or Sardar converted, so did his ryaya.
2. Conversions via saints. This need not be to "escape caste oppression". Admiration, active mureedi and worship of local saints was an ancient phenomenon. Now some of the local holy men happened to be Sufi saints from central Asia (and later, from among local converts). Their followers could and did switch religions to honor their saint, to thank God for a son, on recovery from illness and so on (like AR Rahman in the 20th century). This would be simply a continuation of age-old ways of dealing with saints and divine agents, not necessarily a "political decision".
3. By force. After all, many massacres were carried out by invading forces (though since invaders were outnumbered many times over by peasants, the percentage exposed to invader swords was always going to be low...keep in mind that peasants always outnumber nomadic invaders by several orders of magnitude...getting in their way was mostly bad luck or a matter of being in major cities) and in many cases the locals were given the option of conversion or death. Some opted for death, others must have opted for conversion.
4. Must also keep in mind that local culture treated religion a bit differently than the Mleccha invaders. Our own religious tradition is syncretic and polyglot. One more religion in the mix was not a big deal to most people (though later they may have realized that this particular import is different). So "conversion" is not necessarily the psychological exercise it would be in today's day and age.
5. This "escaping caste oppression" meme does sound too modern and left-wingish to me. So much that i suspect it has more to do with the expectations and worldview of the history writers and intellectuals of the left-leaning 20th century historical milieu and less to do with what actually happened in 1535.
And finally, i also think a lot of this ancestor mongering has become more common in the last 100 years as religious boundaries have become more modern (and in this sense, Islam itself would be more "modern" than our ancestral religious traditions).
And so on.
But I am happy to be corrected....

At 3 October 2014 at 19:00, Blogger Faisal said...

For your information its not only Arabs that people want to descend from but many other invaders as well..Turks ,Mongols,Persians etc.I too got DNA tested and I belong to Kipchak Turks classification from Kazakhistan.

At 3 October 2014 at 20:20, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

No, I dont bother. I am me.

At 3 October 2014 at 20:36, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Every one wants to know the shajra e nassab

At 3 October 2014 at 22:13, Blogger Bilal Haque said...

Wonder why no one claims proudly that they are descended from dark Tamils. A lot of racism associated with this phenonnemon

At 4 October 2014 at 06:44, Anonymous dr.niyat said...

DNA test involving Y chromosome only measures the genetic mutations which happen in 1000-10000 year range. They can tell general region where the mutation happened. Women's DNA test also same kind of mechanism on mDNA.

If you look at 20 generation of average 25 years = 500 years.
That means 2^20 people have contributed to your DNA in 500 years
which is 1,048,576 individuals.


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