Dissertation Week: Historical Muhammad b. Qasim

in univerCity

Nationalism needs heroes. It constructs for them elaborate mythologies. It nurtures, protects, and propagates those mythologies through all channels available to it. Examples can be stated from any given nation-state and let me highlight three that are directly relevant to my topic: the history and memory of Charlemagne in France, Shiva Ji in India, and Chinghiz Khan in Mongolia are all examples of heroes that represent some unique facet of that nation’s foundational myth. Their mythologies, narratives and histories are not only produced for mass-consumption but also jealously guarded in the sites of memory (as Pierre Nora puts it).
Muhammad b. Qasim al-Thaqafi is one such jealously guarded national hero. In the Pakistani national history, he is the founder of a Pakistani state in the eighth century. He is a devout Muslim, a dutiful commander and a paragon of a true soldier. His every step is taken to further the cause of Islam and the Caliph. He is brave, fair and just and he takes as his ultimate duty the establishment of the Islamic empire in al-Hind. Against all odds and with a small army, he vanquishes the despot Raja Dah‰r of al-Sind. His triumph complete, he returns to Iraq and falls victim to political treachery. There are competing narratives that cast him as a temple-burning, usurper and invader who establishes the rule of violent upheavel and colonialism in al-Sind and al-Hind. Still others seek in him a gentle warrior of the soul that epitomizes the Sufi-Soldier duality. These various narratives are fluid, they emerge from competing political and cultural spheres. My goal is to contextualize and analyze them. Simply stated.

Of course, one arguement is that underneath all those “representations” is a “true” Muhammad b. Qasim and it is the job of the historian to unearth him. After all, where would we be without the Truth? Reading my dissertation, I guess. I make no attempt to collate/collapse all extant sources to take out the “kernel of truth” buried in there. My interest is in the production and receptions of these histories. With very few sources, fewer external ones, where can I find the truth, even if I had the intention? Are the earliest sources the most accurate? What if the earliest sources considered al-Sind to be a god-forsaken land and felt that the Muslim campaign there had not amounted to much? Muslim chroniclers spilled much ink on the sexy conquest of Sham and Fars (with attending heroes) and little on al-Sind (with a much more ambivalent hero). Before I offend Sindhis, I hasten to add what al-Baladhuri states about al-Sind:

[al-Sind's] water is dark (and dirty); its fruit is bitter and poisonous; its land is stony, and its earth is salty. A small army will soon be annihilated there, and a large army will soon die of hunger.

So, about those kernels of truth. There is little that we can ascertain about MbQ (as I call him, more on affection between historian and subject later) from extant sources. Archeology tells us very little. The Arabs in Sind left coins and epigraphic evidence but nothing specific about MbQ. The sanskrit sources speak only of mleeches – no mention of MbQ. Which leaves textual sources. The earliest extant is al-Baladhuri’s Futuh al-Buldan which is a late 9th century book of conquests. The information on MbQ is sparse, and the section is quite limited. It may contain remanants of an earlier text by al-Mada’ini which, alas, is no more. The next jump in textual sources is to an early thirteenth century Persian text, al-Kufi’s Fathnama-i Sind. This is a troublesome text for a variety of reasons. It contains a large history of al-Sind prior to MbQ’s arrival and the rest concerns MbQ’s adventures in al-Sind. However, we have very little verification, textual or otherwise of anything stated in it. More on that later in the week. In the c. 15th-19th time-frame, we have both regional and court histories that offer amalgamations of al-Baladhuri and al-Kufi without adding anything new. Most notable for my purposes are Tarikh-i Sind by Mir Muhammad Masum Bhakkari (d.991/1583) and Tuhfatul Kiram by Mir Ali Sher Q‚ani Tattavi (d.1139/1727). There are also mentions of MbQ and his family in various early Arabic compilations, some mentions in apocalyptic materials, and he appears in biographical dictionaries. So, depending on how much faith you want to put in textual histories written 150 years after the fact, here is what we can claim:

He was born in/around c. 695 among the Banu Thaqif who held common ancestry with the Umayyads. They were settled around the town of Taif. The Thaqifi rise to power came with al-Hajjaj. MbQ was the grandson of al-Hajjaj’s uncle (not nephew). He got the nickname Abu al-Bahar as a youth because he liked the sweet fragrance of wild flowers. He was married to someone from Banu Tamim at a young age (not al-Hajjaj’s daughter). He started his career as a military commander in Iraq and Persia (against the Kurds and around Shiraz) subjugating rebellions for al-Hajjaj. He was quite proud of his record there as he bemoans in a poem at the end of his life:

Although I remain (imprisoned) in Wasit on its soil,
Fettered in irons-shackled and chained;
Many a Persians braves held me in awe,
And many of my equals I knocked dead>

Around c. 711/12, he was chosen by al-Hajjaj to lead a campaign against al-Sind. More poetry:

With bravery, genorosity and intelligence is Muhammad bin Qasim,
At the age of seventeen he became a general,
How close is his birth to his leadership!


He governed men at the age of seventeen,
When his equals were busy with other things,
Their petty desires had pulled them down,
While he was raised by kingly ambition and strength.

Why was he send there? al-Baladhuri maintains it was to capture some Kharajite rebels who had taken refuge with the Raja of al-Sind. The later sources have a far grander story about rescuing maidens that play a significant role in the present-day mythology of MbQ. Also, al-Hind held a curious fascination for the earliest Muslim expansionist. Missions were sent here as early as ‘Umar b. al-Khattab and ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan. They were not successful but the tales of magical/golden al-Hind kept the interest alive. Further still, was the military imperative to keep the flanks covered after the conquest of Fars.

In any case, MbQ was the latest campaigner commissioned to “open” India. His army defeated the local ruler of al-Sind, Raja Dahar, in a campaign barely lasting a year and a half. His army conquered from the tip of the Arabian Gulf at Daybul, through Makran, up to Multan. Within two years, he was recalled back to Iraq. al-Hajjaj had died and left some checks waiting to be cashed. The Thaqafites paid the price. The end of MbQ will dominate wednesday’s post. The polity he created lasted wily-nily under ‘Abbasid governors (until the c. 10th) as a principality – though it flirted with the Fatimids on several occasions.

Now, all that I have stated above, I can elaborate from various Arabic and Persian sources but the story is sparse and skeletal. Hopefully I gave you some sense of the sources that I work with and, tomorrow, I will show what happens to this skeleton when it enters the realm of production of history.

Note: Sharon and Brandon are participating in the Dissertation Week. Many thanks!

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