Note from the author

This article was published in Dawn, The Review, May 24-30, 2001, as the final installment in a series of three articles about the Arab conquest of Sindh.

I was fortunate to have the eminent historian Dr. Ansar Zahid Khan as one of my teachers in college. From him I learnt that a true ideology can be defended without bypassing the facts of history. The conquest of Sindh by Muhammad bin Qasim was a case in point. The most detailed primary source is Chach Nameh, commissioned by the descendants of bin Qasim. We can correct its factual mistakes but we cannot deny that its portrayal of bin Qasim is how his own followers wanted him to be remembered. This is what I kept in mind, as I tried to bring to the modern reader a characterization of this hero as seen by those who loved him in his own age.

In retrospect, I regret using the word “conolialism” for the Arab rule and would like it to be replaced with “imperialism”, since that is the term used by Iqbal.

Other articles in the series were “Suhandi: the forgotten queen of Sindh” and “Rajah Dahar of Sindh“.

Muhammad bin Qasim

Fictitious picture of Muhammad bin Qasim

Muhammad bin Qasim was among the finest colonialists in the Arab history, and a worthy soldier. Unfortunately, our modern writers have tried to paint him as a saint, and in the process they have lost all those features that made this Arab general an interesting human being. It is high time we restore his true picture from authentic sources of history written by the earliest Muslim historians.

Muhammad bin Qasim was born around 694 AD (if we are to believe the tradition that he was seventeen when he attacked Sindh in 711 AD). He belonged to the Saqqafi tribe that had originated from Taif in Arabia, and he was also a close relative of Hajjaj bin Yousuf (possibly a second cousin, but not a nephew as narrated in the popular tradition). Much because of the influence of Hajjaj, the young Muhammad bin Qasim was appointed the governor of Persia while in his teens, and it is said that he did a good job at crushing the rebellion in that region. Sometime around the same period he got married to a girl in the Tamim tribe. There is also a popular tradition that presents him as the son-in-law of Hajjaj bin Yousuf, but some scholars discredit this tradition since an authentic pedigree of Hajjaj doesn’t mention any daughter. It is more likely that the young hero was married to a woman of Banu Tamim, and although the name of his wife does not appear in recorded history it is certain that she gave him two sons who later became famous for their own exploits.

When Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sindh, Hajjaj arranged for special messengers between Basra and Sindh, and told the general never to take any step without his advice. This order was followed to the letter during the campaign. “When you advance in the battle, see that you have the sun behind your backs,” Hajjaj wrote to his cousin just before the famous storming of Debal. “If the sun is at your back then its glare will not prevent you from having a full view of the enemy. Engage in fight immediately, and ask for the help of God. If anyone of the people of Sindh ask for mercy and protection, do give it to them but not to the citizens of Debal, who must all be put to the sword.”

Debal was the first important town in Sindh captured by the Arabs under Muhammad bin Qasim. It is also said that just before the final attack, a Brahmin came out to inform the invaders that the flag on the temple is a talisman and if they strike it down the city will hold no longer. “When the army of Islam scaled the walls of the fort, the Debalese opened the gates and asked for mercy,” says the writer of Chachnameh, the primary source on Muhammad bin Qasim written on the orders of his descendants. “Muhammad bin Qasim replied that he had no orders to spare anyone in the town, and that his soldiers had to do the slaughtering for three days… 700 beautiful females, who were under the protection of the temple, were all captured along with their valuable ornaments and clothes adorned with jewels.” The women and children thus captured from Debal were included in the spoils of the war. Some of them were distributed among the soldiers, while one-fifth was sent to the Caliph through Hajjaj bin Yousuf in accordance to the Islamic law that proclaimed that one-fifth of the spoils of the war belonged to the Caliph for rightful use. These spoils included two daughters of the deceased ruler of Debal, who were handpicked for the Caliph’s harem.

The fate of Debal sent shockwaves across Sindh. People consulted their astrologers, and soon the word was out: fate has ordained the country to fall to the Arabs. It is more likely than not that the Arab invaders sponsored the rumour after seeing at Debal how local superstition could be exploited as a war strategy. The Buddhist population of Sindh was the first to make secret alliances with the Arabs, since they had little stake in the rule of the Brahmin dynasty. Hajjaj Bin Yousuf carefully dictated the Arab terms of mercy to Muhammad bin Qasim all the way from Basra. “Whoever submits to you, let him retain his power and wealth and family,” Hajjaj ordered his cousin. “And whoever does not submit, treat him brutally and torture him till he submits.”

This strategy was carried out with great success. Nothing weakens the spirit of a human being more than existing on a borderline of hope and fear. All colonialists have known this fact of human psychology, and exploited it to make traitors of their enemy. The colonialisation of Sindh by the Arabs is a superb example of this policy, and the Arab historians proudly narrate many instances. One such case is the story of Kaka Kotak, a Buddhist of some influence in Siwistan (Sehwan). Kaka made a secret alliance with the Arabs and then went to the Brahmin ruler of the town, telling him that it was written in the ancient books of India that the country of Sindh would fall to the Arabs at a certain time, and that time had now arrived. “Our religion forbids us to shed blood,” the cunning Buddhist told the governor. “We are afraid that when the Arab horde storms the city, they will take us for your followers and deprive us of our life and domestics. We have come to know that Lord Hajjaj, under the orders of the Caliph, has ordered this army to grant pardon to those who ask for it, and the Arabs are said to be faithful to their word.” He then asked for the governor’s permission to make an alliance with the Arabs. When permission was refused, Kaka continued to serve as a spy to the Arabs, and never failed to remind his governor that the fall of Sindh was foretold in books written hundreds of years ago. The governor soon lost hope, and fled to his cousin Raja Dahar while the Arab army marched on and occupied the city. True to their word, they spared the family of Kaka and his friends while the rest of the population was sold into slavery or distributed among the soldiers. Kaka was then raised to the rank of a local chief, something he might not have dreamt of under the Brahmin rulers. “When Kaka put on this dress of honor, all the noblemen in the surrounding places were inspired to accept his influence,” writes the author of Chachnameh. “Kaka secured immunity from the Arab army for those who submitted while he led the Arabs to those who refused to submit, so that the stubborn could be punished.”

Muhammad bin Qasim’s advance towards Dahar was very careful. The Arab ensured that his supply line was safe, moving ahead only after each city on the way was secured in possession and its population either annihilated or won over with generosity. To Hajjaj, who was sitting several thousand miles away, it might have seemed that his cousin was wasting time. “Now give up other towns and march against Dahar,” Hajjaj wrote in a rather frustrated mood. There is a subtle, almost vague indication that Muhammad bin Qasim wanted Raja Dahar to submit to him and rule over Sindh as the Caliph’s viceroy. Hajjaj saw this as a waste of time. “I am shocked at the weakness of your policy,” Hajjaj wrote to him. “People will think that you are trying to bring about peace! You should inspire fear.”

“O Men of Arabia,” Muhammad bin Qasim charged his armies to the final contest with Dahar. “These crowds of infidels have come prepared to fight with us. You must use all your strength, for they will put up a furious resistance for the sake of their wealth and families. Ride against them… With the help of God, we hope to make them all food for our sharp swords, take away their wealth and their families, and obtain large booty. Do not show weakness, and remember that God makes the end of the pious happy.”

Dahar was killed at the Battle of Rawar. “It is related that when the fort of Rawar was taken, all the treasures and arms that were in it were secured, except what had been taken away by Dahir’s son Jaisingh,” narrates the author of Chachnameh. “All this booty was brought to Muhammad bin Qasim. The slaves were counted, and their number came to 60,000. Out of these, 30 were young ladies of royal blood including Raja Dahar’s niece whose name was Husna (Sundri). Muhammad bin Qasim sent all these to Hajjaj, together with Dahar’s head, and one-fifth of the booty, as the royal share… When the head of Dahar and women and the treasure were brought to Hajjaj, he placed his forehead on the ground and offered prayers of thanks-giving, saying: Now I have got all the treasures of the world. I rule the world.” It is said that one of Dahar’s wives, Ladi, married Muhammad bin Qasim, but there is another tradition according to which Ladi killed herself by jumping down the rampart when she saw the Arabs.

The conquest of Sindh was completed with occupation of the remaining major cities, especially Brahmanabad and Multan. This brought more serious responsibilities. So far, Sindh was treated as an enemy country, and in his earlier conquests Muhammad bin Qasim had torn down temples, replacing them with mosques. “Now that the people of this land have placed their heads in the yoke of submission,” Hajjaj instructed his general. “I do not see what further rights we have over them beyond the usual tax. Therefore, permit them to build the temples of those they worship. No one is prohibited from, or punished for, following his own religion, and let no one prohibit it, so that these people may live happily in their homes.” This edict of Hajjaj bin Yousuf had a lasting influence in the history of Muslim India. By giving the Buddhists and Hindus the status of “zimmis,” and imposing “protection tax” (or “jizya”) on them, the Arabs had accepted them as “People of the Book,” hence acknowledging both Buddhism and Hinduism as divinely revealed religions. However, the Muslim psychology could never come to terms with the practice of idol-worship by the Hindus. Hence a paradoxical situation existed throughout the Muslim rule in India where Hinduism was accepted as a divinely revealed religion for the purpose of tax collection but was seen as the creed of the infidels in all other matters. It is difficult to conclude from the edict of Hajjaj what he or other Muslims of his age actually thought about Hinduism, but it is obvious that the Arabs as colonialists had to make pragmatic compromises.

Muhammad bin Qasim completed the annexation of Sindh in three years, enlisting a large cohort of loyal followers from the native population. He then prepared plans to annex other states of India, beginning with Qannauj, which lied just across the Rajasthan desert. Of course, these states had given no provocation, and since the Hindus had just been accepted as “People of the Book,” there was no justification of a religious war against them either. But clearly, Muhammad bin Qasim was serving the interests of the Arab Empire as a worldly-wise general.

It was about this time that he lost both of his sponsors at the court. His cousin Hajjaj was the first to die, soon followed by the master himself, Caliph Walid. The successor on throne, Caliph Sulieman bin Abdul Malik, was a generous monarch who owed his throne to the opponents of the late Hajjaj bin Yousuf. Most of these were relatives of people killed or tortured by Hajjaj (some 20,000 women and 50,000 men were found unjustly imprisoned when Hajjaj died). They demanded revenge, and there was no way, nor enough reason, for Sulieman to stop them. Muhamamd bin Qasim was high on the hit list due to his close association with Hajjaj.

It is said that the young general was about to invade an Indian state when the Caliph’s messengers arrived to take him back in chains. True to the soldier’s honor, like always, Muhammad bin Qasim obliged. His followers wept bitterly, warning him that he was going back to a certain death. We don’t know what he said in reply, if he said anything. We do know, however, that shortly afterwards, just before he died of torture in the prison of Wasit, he recited an Arabic couplet to the effect: “They wasted me at the prime of my youth, and what a youth they wasted: the one who was a defender of their borders.”

Remains of the mosque at Bhanbhore

The square courtyard is part of
the remains of a mosque at Bhanbhore
(believed to be Debal)

Sources used in this series of articles

  1. Chachnameh by Ali Kufi;
  2. Futuhul Baldan by Al Balazri;
  3. Tarikh-e-Masumi by Mir Masum Bakhari; and
  4. Tuhfatil Kiram by Mir Ali Sher Qanea Sher Qanea