Ever since the early 1970s, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), one of Pakistan’s oldest Islamic political parties, frequently organises what it calls ‘Yaum Babul Islam’ (Babul Islam means the ‘harbinger of Islam’ in Sindhi). It is an event celebrating the conquest of Sindh by Arab commander Mohammad-bin-Qasim (in the eighth century CE) and it is commemorated as ‘the advent of Islam in South Asia’. Speakers at this event often describe Qasim as the ‘first Pakistani’ and then trace and place the creation of Pakistan to the arrival of the Arab commander 1,300 years ago.
Curiously, the JI was originally opposed to the man who actually created Pakistan (in 1947): Mohammad Ali Jinnah. JI’s founder, Abul Ala Maududi, had found Jinnah to be steeped in what he called the ‘Western notion’ of nationalism and too Westernised to deliver and head a Muslim state. So what is one to make of the whole idea of an ancient Arab commander being posthumously raised to become the main architect of what hundreds of years later would become Pakistan? Should one see it as something in tune with JI’s Arab-centric concept of Pakistani nationhood? Or is it something else, really?
For starters, it is important to understand that it wasn’t really the JI that had first initiated the idea of propping up an eighth century Arab as the true founder of Pakistan. This impression which, from the late 1970s onwards, has found ample space in the country’s school text books, was first alluded to in a 1953 book, Five Years of Pakistan. The book was published by the government to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Pakistan and in one of its chapters authored by archaeologists associated with a state-funded archaeology project, the authors described Sindh (after it was invaded by Qasim) ‘as the first Islamic province in South Asia’.
Even though allusions to Qasim being the ‘first Pakistani’ can be found in various publications after 1953, he was first officially adopted as the ‘first citizen of Pakistan’ in Fifty Years of Pakistan published by the Federal Bureau of Pakistan in 1998.2 Nevertheless, as stated previously, the whole notion of Qasim’s invasion of Sindh being the genesis of a separate Muslim state in South Asia was first imagined by a handful of Pakistani archaeologists in 1953. It then found its way into the narrative of religious parties such as the JI, before percolating into school text books after the severe existential crisis that the country faced when its eastern wing (the former East Pakistan) broke away in December 1971 to become Bangladesh. In a manner of speaking, this lionisation of Qasim meant that the ‘real Pakistan’ had always existed in the West, along the Indus (and not in the East).
The notion was then aggressively promoted by the reactionary Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship (1977-1988). It sought to ‘explain’ Pakistan as a nation that had deep roots in the ancient deserts of Arabia though its geographical location was in the congested expanses of South Asia. What’s even more puzzling is the fact that as far as South Asian history is concerned, or even in the history of the Arabs, Qasim’s foray into Sindh was much ado about nothing. It was by no stretch of imagination the significant event it is made out to be.
There is a silence which typically greets historians when they go looking for ancient sources about the event. There are almost none. This gives rise to the question: if Qasim’s invasion of Sindh was such a grand undertaking, why is it only scarcely mentioned in the available sources from that period? The earliest available source to mention the invasion is the ninth century book Kitab Futuh al-Buldan by Arab historian al-Baladhuri. It was written more than a hundred years after the invasion. Then there is also the thirteenth century Persian text called Chachnama that was authored almost 400 years after Qasim’s forces arrived on the shores of Sindh.
When historians piece together whatever little early sources there are about the event, it transpires that the Arabs had first begun to exhibit interest in Sindh in 634 CE. The Umayyads (the first major Muslim empire) sent troops to conquer Sindh on a number of occasions between 644 CE and 710 CE. Most of these raids were repulsed by local tribes, even though at times Arab armies did manage to hold on to Makran (south of Sindh) for brief periods of time. The reasons for the Umayyads to enter the region were mainly two: it was a rapidly expanding empire and wanted to get a toehold in the region, and it wanted to gain control of the region’s lucrative port trade.
The popular narrative found in most post ninth century Muslim history books about Qasim’s invasion portrays him as being sent to Sindh by the Umayyad governor in Baghdad to avenge the plundering of Arab ships by Sindh’s pirates and the refusal of Sindh’s ruler, Raja Dahir, to do anything about it. Historians such as Dr Mubarak Ali and Prof. Manan Ahmed Asif, who have tried to substantiate this narrative with the help of the existing ancient sources, have found only sketchy evidence.
Manan concluded, ‘Qasim’s expedition was merely the latest in a sixty-yearlong campaign by Arab regimes to gain a foothold over the port trades and to extract riches from these port communities (in Sindh and Makran).’ Qasim’s supposedly Islamic genesis-like manoeuvres in Sindh are largely a myth. In 731 CE when al-Hakim al-Kalbi was appointed governor of Sindh (some twenty years after Qasim’s death), he found a land where a majority of those who had converted to Islam (during Qasim’s stay there) had reverted back to being either Hindu or Buddhist.
The question now is: if Qasim’s invasion was comparatively a minor historical event, how did it become so exaggerated? We have already seen how and why it gained such existential significance in Pakistan. But it remained almost forgotten for hundreds of years, even during much of the 500-year-long Muslim rule in India. Interest in Qasim was ironically reignited by British colonialists in the nineteenth century. British author James Mill, in his book The History of British India (1817), talks of Qasim as an invader who created a rupture in the region. He presents very little evidence but his lead was followed by other British authors of the era who all saw Qasim as the man who opened the gates for hordes of Muslim invaders to pour in and destroy the Indian civilization.
This narrative of a bloodletting Qasim was then picked up by early Hindu nationalists who had otherwise largely forgotten about this eighth century Arab. A couple of nineteenth century Muslim historians, such as Syed Suleman Nadvi and Mohammad Hanif, responded by offering a more studied look at Qasim’s invasion, describing it as nothing like the one that was being peddled by the British colonialists and early Hindu nationalists.
Nadvi and Hanif portrayed Qasim as a just, tolerant and gallant man. Both these versions of the man emerged from the highly polemical debate on Qasim’s invasion which erupted in the nineteenth century between the British, Hindu and Muslim historians. The truth is, to ‘neutral’ history, Qasim remains a figure about whom sources say very little. But ever since the nineteenth century, he has been at the heart of an overtly glorious myth to some, and an equally mythical force of destruction to others. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
In 1984, Anwar Qureshi AKA Punter, one of the first friends that I made at a college in Karachi, related to me a rather interesting episode from his childhood. Qureshi was a very shy and reserved seventeen-year-old when I first met him, in 1983. But for some reason he did often allow himself to open up a bit when with me.
Anwar belonged to a middle-class Sindhi family settled in Karachi, but the family originally hailed from Sukkur, a town approximately 750 kilometres from Karachi. Once, in the college’s canteen, Anwar told me that back in 1974 when he was a Grade III student at a public school in Sukkur, he was told by a teacher that Mohammad-bin- Qasim was one of the founders of Pakistan.
He repeated this in front of his father at home and the father immediately asked him who had told him this. Anwar’s father had been in high school when Pakistan came into being in August 1947; he was also a passionate member of the All India Muslim Students’ Federation (AIMSF), the student-wing of Jinnah’s centrist All India Muslim League (AIML). Even though the father was disappointed by the party’s performance after Pakistan’s creation, and by the late 1960s had become a fan of Sindhi nationalist ideologue and scholar, G. M. Syed, this couldn’t curtail his anger when his son told him that it was a teacher at school who had called Qasim a founder of Pakistan.
‘It was Mohammad Ali Jinnah!’ his father had shot back. ‘What Qasim?’
After enquiring the name of the teacher (Khalid), the father almost immediately jumped onto his motorbike and rode towards the school with Anwar placed firmly on the backseat of the bike. By the time they reached the school, the teacher had already left and gone home. So off they went to meet the teacher at his residence which was not very far away. The father banged at his door, drawing the teacher out.
‘What’s the matter, Sir?’ asked the teacher (in Sindhi), recognising that it was Anwar’s father. ‘Is everything alright?’
‘No!’ bellowed the father. ‘Why are you screwing up your students’ heads with fantasies?’
‘Sir, what did I do?’ the surprised teacher asked.
‘You told my son Mohammad-bin-Qasim was a founder of Pakistan? Where did this stupid Arab come in from?’ the father shouted.
The teacher relaxed a bit and asked the father to do the same: ‘Sir, it is not my fault. We teach students about Jinnah. But now we have to take Qasim’s name too.’ He took Anwar and his father inside his house and showed the father a history book that had been issued for the students of Grades III, IV and V by the government of Pakistan. And indeed, somewhere in the book, Qasim was hailed as ‘one of the early founders of (what would become) Pakistan’.
What’s even funnier was when Anwar told me that in a history test (in Grade IV) he described Qasim exactly the way he had heard his father describe him that day. Anwar said: ‘I wrote, “Qasim was an Arab fool”.’ Apparently, Anwar had no idea what a ‘fool’ was. He thought it was another word for soldier.
I kept bumping into Anwar off and on after college till he got married in 2000 and, later, moved to Canada. He had become a chartered accountant by then. After many years, I bumped into him again in February 2017 at the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF). I was at the event to launch my second book, The Pakistan Anti-Hero, and spotted him in the audience. He met me after the session. He was there with his wife (Sumbul) and his two sons (nine-year-old Rehan and four-year-old Azan). I invited them for some coffee at a make-shift café. Here, while signing a copy of my book for him, I asked, ‘So, Punter, how is your relationship with Qasim these days?’
Hearing me say this, Anwar burst out laughing, ‘I still think he is an Arab fool.’ And then hastily added, ‘But I make sure my children describe him as a founder (of Pakistan) in their school exams.’*
*His wife and children hadn’t yet joined him in Canada when I met him.
Excerpted with permission from Points of Entry: Encounters at the Origin-Sites of Pakistan by Nadeem Farooq Paracha, published by Westland, June 2018.