Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Intent of the Invaders

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The blurb on the title page of The Arabs in Sind — 712-1026 AD tells us that the work is the dissertation of John Jehangir Bede as submitted to the Department of History, University of Utah in the United States. As for Bede, the Publishers [sic] Note on Page VI begins, “All efforts to trace Mr Bede lead to a blind alley.” However, the last line of this note tells us that he was born in January 1940 to Mary and Zwingle Bede and died in 1989. Attempts to trace him through institutions he was connected with led to similar dead ends. Regardless, the work itself is rather useful and one wonders why this piece of research languished so long before being brought to light. However, thanks to the Endowment Fund Trust, Karachi, better late than never.

Bede weaves a readable and concise account of the Arab invasion of Sindh in 711 CE. His sources are many and varied and the point of interest here is that he delves deeply into the archive of Arab history dating from the eighth to the 10th centuries. In fact, the treasure trove in the book is Chapter II, titled ‘The Sources’. It forms a compendium of all source material dealing with the Arabs in Sindh.

Despite my claim of having examined a large body of Arab sources (in translation, of course), I must admit there were a number of authors with whom I was not acquainted. In this context, the essential is certainly the Arab historian Ali bin Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Madani (752-839) and his three books.

A comprehensive work on Sindh’s medieval history that demolishes commonly accepted notions

Phase I:
Naval operations
against coastal cities of India,
637 AD-638 AD
 Photo from the book
For the beginner who would wish to be frightfully well-informed on Sindhi medieval history by reading just one book, Bede’s work is the answer. But as the novice graduates, they would be a trifle confused regarding the identities of — to quote just two — Raja Dahir’s son Jai Singh (Jaisiah in the Chachnama) here referred to as Jaisimaha, and the famous seventh century Chinese pilgrim, whose name is now spelled as Xuanzang, referred to by the discarded versions of either Hiuen Tsiang or Yuan Chwang. There are a couple of other names as well, but this only indicates that after the death of the author the manuscript was not carefully edited. However, these are mere quibbles.

Bede effectively demolishes the common notion that one ship plundered by Sindhi pirates on the high seas had the governor of Iraq, Hajjaj bin Yusuf, packing off his son-in-law Muhammad bin Qasim to subdue Sindh in 712 AD. He tells us of the incursions begun against Sindh in the middle of the seventh century, that were repulsed repeatedly with immense loss of life and money until the Arabs became nervous of ever trying to conquer this rich country through which large volumes of trade passed.

Quoting from the Chachnama, the author recalls how Bin Yusuf petitioned the Umayyad caliph to permit a fresh assault against Sindh with the promise of depositing twice as much revenue in the treasury as the expedition would cost. Thus it was that the embargo against attempts on Sindh, placed nearly six decades earlier by Caliph Umar, was overruled.

Here Bede draws a remarkable similarity: “The annexation of Sind [sic] to the caliphate in 715 AD and the British Empire in 1843 presents a striking picture of analogous imperial expansion. The very location of Sind [sic] rendered it a wretched victim of those forces of expansionism, both Umayyad and British, which were determined to devote the full strength of their militarism in placing the frontiers of their empires on the Indus.”

The crux of this analogy is that just as the British had no moral justification in attacking Sindh, neither did Bin Yusuf. Bede goes on to show that if Sindhi pirates had indeed taken a vessel on the high seas with Arabs on board, they were certainly outside the purview of Sindh’s Raja Dahir.

The author points to “deeper motives” for the action against Sindh. In order to raise revenue, collectors nearer the Umayyad centres were taxing newly converted non-Arabs at higher rates than Arabs. The resulting rebellion was “ruthlessly crushed” and from Philip Hitti (History of the Arabs), Bede informs us that the Umayyads had placed “severe restrictions upon [converted non-Arabs’] movements and [were] actually discouraging conversion to the Islamic faith.” Bin Yusuf, their governor in Iraq, was noted for this enforcement so that the quantum of jizya [tax for residing in Arab lands] did not fall.

Bede’s line of discussion is that Sindh was attacked in order to enlarge the declining jizya base. He goes on to note that saving the souls of idolatrous Indians was scarcely the goal of the invasion. Surely the enticement of bringing home twice as much revenue as was spent on the expedition was part of this grand plan.

As for administering Sindh after the conquest, quoting the Chachnama, the author tells us how Bin Qasim won over the Brahmin class of Sindh by continuing with the old system of taxation that favoured the religious class. That is, by the conqueror’s order, Brahmins continued to receive three per cent of the commoners’ income. Nevertheless, Arab generals on a loose tether were sometimes guilty of violation, as was the case when Junaid bin Abdur Rahman attacked and killed Jai Singh, Raja Dahir’s son, who had already converted to Islam. In order to apprise the governor in Iraq of the events, the dead prince’s brother sought interview with him and proceeded thence under promise of safe conduct. However, to pile injustice upon the crime, the man was treacherously murdered en route.

Exactly as the time the Arabs were routed at Tours in France, they were discomfited by the Rajputs in India. First at Navsari, followed quickly by the debacle at Ujjain, the Arabs knew they were broken. By 760 CE, when the treasury of Sindh contained an unprecedented 18 million dirhams, the momentum of the Arab thrust into India had burned out. Over the next two centuries the Arabs ruled and misruled in unequal measure over Sindh, all the way to Multan. By the latter half of the 10th century, the battering ram of the barbaric Turks had started to undo Arab control.

Dealing with the commerce of Sindh in the penultimate chapter, Bede is hard put to prove that the Arab invasion somehow enriched Sindh. He fails to make the point, however. The Sindhi port of Barbarikon (Bhambor, Debal) was famous and flourishing more than a millennium before the Arabs ever got to it. Its rich trade came from far off East Africa, southern India, the Indies and China. Inland, the goods passed on to Ujjain on one side and Arachosia (Kandahar) on the other. Barbarikon was a very rich port and Sindh an affluent country that not just the Arabs, but anyone would have coveted.

All said and done, Bede’s book is recommended reading for all aficionados of Sindhi history. The dilettante will delight in it for it gives a lucid overview in one reading, whereas the master will find new angles to think upon.

The Arabs in Sind — 712-1026 AD
By John Jehangir Bede
Endowment Fund Trust, Karachi
180pp.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days