A Misconstrued Narrative of Conquest – Manan Ahmed Asif on the 12th Century 'Chachnama'

In A Book of Conquest, Manan Ahmed Asif examines the Chachnama and explains why the narrative of Islam in South Asia have been historically misunderstood.

There is an intended irony in the very title of Manan Ahmed Asif’s book. A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia that has long been synonymous with the Chachnama, has as its key event, the story of Islam’s origins in South Asia. It is a story – for all its later retellings – that remains unchanged in its essence.

In middle-grade textbooks in Pakistan’s revised history syllabus, for instance, the story goes somewhat this way:

Long ago, the Arabs had trade relations with Sarandip (Sri Lanka); there were Arab settlements on the island as well. When the traders died, Sarandip’s kind ruler requisitioned ships to send the womenfolk and children back to Arabia. However, at the port of Debal in Sindh, the ships were set upon by pirates. Those who did escape, narrated their plight to the Umayyad caliph at Baghdad, Hajjaj bin Yousuf. The Caliph sent the young commander, Mohammad bin Qasim, to punish Sindh. The latter’s conquests established the just rule of Islam.

In a slightly different version, middle school textbooks in India have the same historical tale. The story of Mohammad bin Qasim’s expeditions and conquest of Sindh had its full elaboration in the colonial times, following the British conquest of Sindh in 1843; a story that was then traced back to the Chachnama.

A misunderstood book

It is a book lost, found, written about, miscatalogued and finally much misunderstood, as Manan Ahmed Asif demonstrates in his book. He presents a detailed rereading of the Chachnama. Moreover, by a contextual reappraisal of how the Chachnama was treated in other works, written later and via a dexterous historical mapping of the region, the Chachnama is set in (Sindh), Asif shows how the book acquired a mistaken identity – the Chachnama was never what it was claimed to be.

His contentions are mainly that the Chachnama isn’t a book of conquest at all and that it isn’t part of the futuh narratives or, conquest stories that formed a genre of Arab literature. And because it isn’t one, the Chachnama can’t claim to explicate the campaigns of Mohammad bin Qasim. Following from this, Asif also states that the Chachnama isn’t a work composed in Arabic in the 8th century and then translated into Persian, four hundred years later, by Ali Kufi.

Instead, Ali Kufi, wrote in Persian, using the literary tools of his time which included a claim to respectability by tracing a scholarly genealogy for oneself – usually from Arabic literature.
He completed his work in 1226 CE. Kufi’s equally illustrious contemporary, Minhaj Siraj Juzjani, also elaborated a family connection dating to the times of the Prophet.

The Chachnama is a political treatise, using fables, allegories, advice letters, to talk of the rights and duties of a king and of just rule and acceptance and accommodation of all subjects. Old books have their antiquarian values, and old books can also have contentious and contextualised pasts. And in the South Asian context, books that also claim to be historical texts come fraught with complications.

A recalibration of South Asian history occurred with the discovery of Harappan sites; archaeological, numismatic and epigraphic evidence were then correlated to references in the Vedic literature. Seen in this context, Asif’s book appears even more ambitious. A work that places this much older book (Chachnama) in its time, in the universe it was composed in, that also draws on the cultural memory that exists alongside (formal) history – all in corroboration of the true intents of a thousand-year-old book.

Sindh in history

Even early Arab accounts that dealt with Sindh portrayed it as barren, almost deserted. The early Umayyad caliphs had to battle challenges across the frontier at Makran – a place desolate and almost uninhabitable. But Sindh was, even in this period, part of a connected political and trading space (one that included pilgrimage centres such as Multan as well), that stretched from the Arabian peninsula, to cities on the western coast of the ancient Indian coast and beyond.

This is apparent from Asif’s rereading of other texts such as Abdur-Rahman’s Samdesarasaka (a reimagining of Kalidasa’s Meghadutam and written in Prakrit in the late 12th century CE and earlier texts such as the one written by Ibn Khurradadhih in the late 9th century CE. Among the many towns, the latter text sites, are Thana near Bombay and Bharuch (earlier Broach), a port town that thrived for a millennium and more from the 4th century CE onward, and was successively eyed by the Satavahanas, the Sakas and then the Guptas.

This focus on Sindh places the book in a definite regional context. Sindh, in the world after Mohammad bin Ghor of late 12th century CE ( who Asif refers to as Mohamed Sam Ghur), became vulnerable to Mongol attacks, at a time when the successors to Mohammad Ghor – the Khwarizm Shahis in central Asia, Nasiruddin Qabacha in Sindh and Qutbuddin Aibak in Delhi and Lahore – vied to establish themselves as rulers in a still unknown land.

When Ali Kufi wrote the Chachnama, drawing on works already known – a varied source that included, for example, the Arthashastra and the Panchatantra – he was drawing up his own ideals for the perfect political state, one that would persevere amidst chaos and widely disparate populations.

Chachnama – its contents

Manan Ahmed AsifA Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South AsiaHarvard University Press, 2016

Manan Ahmed Asif
A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia
Harvard University Press, 2016

The Chachnama is set in the principality of Aror in Sindh and has three parts. The first is that of a young Brahmin secretary being manipulated by the king’s wife, Sohnan Devi, to become king. Despite being enamoured, the queen Sohnan Devi and Chach bin Silaij are mindful of their duties and proprieties. It is only after the king’s death, that Chach is proclaimed king with the queen’s support. Chach’s reign is just and beneficial for all his subjects.

The second part details the expeditions of Mohammad bin Qasim to the Sindh kingdom now ruled by Chach’s son, Dahar. Rebels, pirates and challengers to the Caliphate have sought refuge there, making the expedition necessary. It is Dahar’s queen, Ladi, who grasps the situation after Dahar’s overthrow and then instructs Qasim on strategies toward a just and ethical rule. There are also Qasim’s exchanges with Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the Caliph.

The book’s third part narrates the death of Mohammad bin Qasim, on the Caliph’s orders, following the accusations against Qasim by the daughters of Dahar, Suria Deo and Pirmal Deo.

False narratives of conversion

Since a familiar trope driving divisive history in the subcontinent is one relating to destruction of local shrines of worship and conversion (mainly to Islam), the chapter, ‘A Demon with Ruby Eyes” makes for essential reading.

A meeting between Chach and the priest of the Buddhist shrine in Brahmanabad, that Chach conquers, leads to an assertion of political power (Chach is accepted as ruler by the priest) as well as sacral power: The shrine and its priest will thrive and receive the state’s patronage, in acknowledgement of the ruler’s acceptance of his subjects’ diverse faiths.

Later in the chapter, Mohammad bin Qasim’s act of sweeping a bracelet off one arm of the deity is symbolic of the commander’s new stature as ruler.  But that he lets the other bracelet remain is a sign of accommodation. The Chachnama stresses this – accommodation and conciliation – as a vital component of rulership.

Peripatetic, itinerant groups, such as nomadic herders, pastoralists and traders, have always drawn suspicion from those with settled lives and their rulers. The British would go further and label such groups, criminal tribes. In his new rules for the nomadic Jats, Mohammad bin Qasim detailed, for instance, the kind of clothing they would wear, and his insistence, that they must be accompanied by dogs. Rules that were meant to regulate their lives. Rules that did not insist on conversion.

Romila Thapar in her account (in The Penguin History of Early India, from Origins to 1300 CE) of the destruction of the Somanatha temple by the armies of Mahmud Ghazni (around 1025 CE), also cites a similar fantastical tale about the temple deity, as found in contemporary accounts: Of the idol, floating mid-air and how it was believed that the idol rested on magnets. Thapar also writes of the “silence” relating to the temple’s destruction in local contemporary texts, barring a Jain one. The temple was renovated by the Chalukya king Kumarapala soon after Ghazni’s invasion, though negligent local officials and time itself were blamed for the temple’s general decay.

Indeed, Thapar mentions that in the 13th century, a merchant from Hormuz in the Persian Gulf sought permission to build a mosque near the temple and this was welcomed by the local Chalukya-Vaghela administration. The temple’s desecration became a ‘traumatic event’ only after it was raised at the British House of Commons in the 1830s.

As the Chachnama too shows, narratives of shrine destruction and conversion have their own convoluted, ever-changing narratives, ones that are invariably bound to the contemporary political.

Women in the world of the Chachnama

As a political treatise, the Chachnama also accords women, whether co-rulers, regents and even priestesses, importance; even attributing to them primacy in setting the political agenda. Chach’s wife, Sohnan Devi, was first married to the late king. But her astute reading of political conditions after the latter’s quite natural death, make possible conditions for a peaceful transition with Chach as the ruler. Later, when Dahar is overthrown, it is his wife, Queen Ladi who advises Mohammad bin Qasim on a policy of conciliation and accommodation.

Manan Ahmed Asif. Credit: Colombia University

Manan Ahmed Asif. Credit: Columbia University

If there is any adherence to duty, it is to the kingdom of Aror. Something the daughters of Dahar, Suria Deo and Prinal Deo are conscious of, as they exact their revenge on Mohammad bin Qasim, leading to the latter’s death on an enraged Caliph’s orders. Even in this tragedy, the Chachnama stresses on what really conceptualises a just rule – one that is based on what the heart believes, intuition and the intellect. The Caliph and his commander fail on all these counts.

The role of women, especially in these early years of small sultanates and polities, was quite accepted. In two decades of the Chachnama being written, Razia would rule as the Sultan of Delhi and her stepmother would later act as kingmaker. As land grants and temple edicts in western and southern India, in this same period also show, queens were patrons of religion and participated in trade.

In Kashmir, around the 9-10th centuries CE, there were two famed kingmaker queens, Sugandha and Didda. Sufi women-saints of this time continue to be venerated still and Asif writes of the shrines to Bibi Jawindi, Bibi Ayesha and Bibi Tigni in Sindh. For all the material and textual evidence that exists, there is the strange erasure of women in later accounts of this period.

The Chachnama’s later life

Asif writes that Mohammad Qasim Astrabadi’s (better known as Firishta) Gulsham-I-Ibrahimi written between 1606-1610, in the time of Bijapur’s Ibrahim Adil Shah (an emperor with a wide-ranging taste in the arts), became the basis for later British understandings of Indian regional kingdoms and their histories.

The British conquered Sindh in 1843. It then constituted a vital bastion, following not just the Napoleonic scare of the early 19th century, but the gradual Russian advance toward Central Asia. The British also wanted control of all trade routes especially those linked to trade in Malwa opium. Sindh wasn’t really, as Asif states, one of Britain’s last military acquisitions in the subcontinent – this would continue right onto the 1890s when the wars with Manipur were fought.

The way of the new conquerors, that the British were, was also directed toward history and writing it anew. In later 19th century writings by Alexander Dow, James McMurdo, and Richard Burton, the story of Sindh, despoiled by Muslim marauders and needing to be saved by the enlightened British, emerged. This tale of justifiable conquest and submission of populations became the basis, nearer our time, for the two-nation theory. Some historians in the post-independence scenario, such as Mohammad Habib, did attempt a relook at the Chachnama.

But even this exercise, Asif establishes, saw the Chachnama as an 8th century text and dismissed its other sections – its fables, romantic asides, its letters of advice – as irrelevant. It was never seen as “a textual representation” of a varied, intermixed, vibrant medieval society.

In his resurrection of a seminal text, Asif also highlights the strange period that the 13th century was, when several states, with differing ruling ethos and guiding principles, vied against each other. It is a book that also gives the region, that is, Sindh in this instance, a primacy, as against larger narratives focused on kingdoms and dynasties.

Following from historian Shahid Amin’s book last year, one that relooks at the entire history of conquest by revisiting, via texts, cultural memory and folklore, the life of the popular Sufi warrior mystic Ghazi Miyan (also held as the nephew of Mahmud Ghazi), Manan Ahmed Asif’s story reliving the birth, the universe and the context of the Chachnama, enables a reimagining of old narratives, a re-questioning of how such texts travel through time. And more, it asks how histories are shaped, or written down later and how nations come into being. A book is of its times that, when it tells the story of another time, it does so with a particular point of view.  Sometimes it all depends on one careful reader.

Anu Kumar is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA programme in writing. Her most recent book is  Emperor Chandragupta (Hachette India).