Wherein I Give Deets

Posted by sepoy on October 09, 2008 · 15 mins read

The non-juicy kind, at least. Look, I know dissertations are supposed to be shameful and to be hidden in the attic. I agree. Still, I thought that my gentle readers would want to know what I have been up to, when not putting up youtube songs. So, below the fold, you can read my defense presentation (with a section missing). ((The missing section is what I am sending in for an article right now and can't publish here.)) It is customary, at Chicago, for the candidate to have 20 minutes to lay out the case, before the grilling begins. Keep in mind that I wrote this as an oral presentation, so some of the verbiage is awkward in print. But, if you like to know more about my dissertation, here it is.

The Many Histories of Muhammad b. Qasim: Narrating the Muslim Conquest of Sindh

This dissertation began with the question, Why Muhammad b. Qasim?

As a school child in Zia ul-Haq's Pakistan, I produced more than a healthy share of panegyrics to Muhammad b. Qasim - extolling the virtues and strengths of this great “First Citizen of Pakistan” - for my social studies and history classes. During my summer vacations, I read novels and comic books centered on his heroic persona - how, in the year 712, this young commander, led a small army and conquered the Indus valley region (present day Sindh), overcoming great odds and beating superior armies. An Alexander of our own, the novels claimed. In countless news-pieces and op-eds, I learned of this great conqueror who represented the apogee for all Muslim teenagers. But, it wasn't just the school textbooks, the popular culture and the media elite who pedaled this great hero. A relative explained to me - with great somber consternation - that we, the Chaudhry clan who belonged to the 'Arain bridari (family) were direct descendants of Muhammad b. Qasim's army. That, he thought, attributed for our war-like spirits and natural propensity to lead. However, he conceded, that since my mother's side was Kashmiri, I may genetically too weak to conquer any thing.

All this anecdotal evidence serves only to highlight the context from which I began this study. In Zia ul-Haq's Pakistan, Muhammad b. Qasim was constructed a vaunted national hero - a paragon of good virtue who, as one sixth grade textbook describes, converted the entire land of Sindh to Islam by merely smiling. He was Pakistan's originary link to Islam's earliest history. Above all, he was a true Hijazi Arab - member of a celebrated family from Ta'if, who provided a religious (and genetic) linkage between Arabia and Pakistan. If we are to begin a project to understand the re-construction of Pakistan's internal logic - the oft-called Islamization - after the secession of West Pakistan in 1971 and the military coup of Zia ul-Haq in 1977, then the memory and history of Muhammad b. Qasim needs be a central focus.

Why did General Zia ul-Haq's nascent government choose to build a nation out of the mythography of this particular conqueror. How did they account for, and respond to the public contestation over his memory. It was to understand this “persistence of history” - a narrative that continues to exist in contravention of “official” or “sanctioned” histories, which drove my investigation. In the colonial archive, he was not simply a temple-raider, but the earliest marker of Islam's "Dark Ages" in India. In the nationalist archive were the communal struggles of situating him within the Ghazni/Gauri invaders. But the key contestation over the political memory and history of Muhammad b. Qasim was within the political and regional histories of Sindh. Here, Muhammad b. Qasim was a vilified destroyer of an ancient land - not on communal grounds, but on colonial. I wanted to examine how the regional Sindhi histories of Muhammad b. Qasim relied on the very same veridical grounds as the official histories - judging “truth” from medieval narratives, counter-posing one version of an event against others - both relying on translations done by British Orientalist in the mid-nineteenth century. It was with a desire to illuminate such intertwining of medieval and modern, of colonial and post-colonial, of history and memory, that I broadened the scope of this study to encompass a full historiography of Muhammad b. Qasim from the earliest extant sources to the present and to highlight the constructions and contestations within these many histories.

I should clarify, very briefly, what I mean by 'memory' in the limited sense that I use it here. Maurice Halbwachs, in his 1925 study of social memory, theorized a dichotomy between collective memory and history. The first was natural, organic remembrance of a group while the later was intentional, political. Memory was personal, telescopic, episodic, oral. History was formal, comprehensive, written. Halbwachs' rather over-determined categories were reinforced by, among others, Pierre Nora who postulated a even stricter division between collective memory and historical memory. While these rigid boundaries have been contested by others like Michel de Certeau and Jan Assmann (whose “cultural memory” is a much more useful construct then the more popular “Tradition”), we remain with an amorphous concept of memory positioned against disciplinary history.

Paul Ricoeur offers a way, for the historian, to deal with the methodological challenge of how to study “memory” by focusing on, what he terms, “trace, document and question”. Briefly,

1. to inscribe historical processes into the construction of documentary proof itself (that is the text or artifact that is the object of our historical attention);
2. to investigate the distance between the event, the testimony of the event and the narration of the fact. That is, to explicate 'what happened' along with 'what is said to have happened'
The focus then, is not on some elusive and contestable category of 'memory' - whether social, cultural or political - but on the production of text, its relationship to other texts, and to the uses of these texts in remembering and forgetting a particular social past.

Rather than in contradiction, or in tension, Paul Ricoeur's posits an “intimate” relationship between memory and history - wherein memory serves as the “womb of history, inasmuch as memory remains the guardian of the entire problem of the representative relation of the present to the past.” ((Paul Ricoeur. Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 87.))

Turning to the textual traces of memory, I approach the medieval texts drawing upon Ronald Inden's work in Querying the Medieval. Inden advances the notion of texts that are dialogical in their discursive nature and operate within a “scale of texts”. It is this 'life of the text' wherein “later agents and their texts overlap with those of their predecessors and contemporaries and, by engaging in a process of criticism, appropriation, repetition, refutation, amplification, abbreviation, and so on, position themselves in relation to them.” ((Ronald B. Inden, Jonathan S. Walters, and Daud Ali. Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practices in South Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 12.))

My question, reformulated: Why was the history of Muhammad b. Qasim written? Who wrote it? To what purpose? What were the sites of its production? What were the political, cultural and social contexts which influenced this production? For what audience? In answering this set of inter-related questions, I trace the production of this history at key intervals.

My archive, corresponds to those moment at which Muhammad b. Qasim's history is invoked.
1. 850 - 950. The earliest Arab accounts of Muhammad b. Qasim's history emerge in the conquest literature of the mid-ninth century. The universal histories of al-Ṭabarī and al-Ya'qūbi contain some slim accounts of the frontier of Sindh and Hind. The most substantial, and earliest extant, account of Muhammad b. Qasim and the conquest of Sindh is in al-Balādhurī's Futūh al-Buldān (mid to late ninth century).
2. 1216. The text at the heart of this study is 'Ali Kufi's Chachnama - an account of the region of Sindh immediately prior to the Muslim conquest and a detailed history of the conquest itself. It was written in Ucḥ in the early thirteenth century against the backdrop of Mongol invasions of the Islamicate world. For all of the historiography which followed, this is the primary text. One of the earliest Persian histories to be composed in India, Chachnama is a unique re-formulation of Islamic pasts and the most significant construction of Muhammad b. Qasim.
3. 1600-1800. It was Akbar's invasion of Sindh, in 1592, which prompted the writing of Mir Ma'sūmi's Tari'kh-i Sindh. It remains one of the only major Mughal text to discuss Muhammad b. Qasim. A later work, Mir 'Ali Sher Qāni's Tūhfat ul-Kirām (1761) makes some brief mention of this history.
4. 1830s - 1900. The British East India Company invaded and annexed Sindh in 1843 under Charles Napier. The Company had multiple interests in Sindh, as a frontier zone to perceived Russian and French threats via Persia, as a zone between Ranjit Singh's Lahore and Dost Mohammad Khan's Kabul, and as part of the network of Opium trade via the Indus River and the port of Karachi. To pursue these interests, Company proposed extensive ordinance maps and 'memoirs' of the region. The history of Muhammad b. Qasim's conquest of Sindh became a center-piece of such histories. In the later half of the nineteenth century, these official Company accounts were folded into universalist histories of India by Orientalist and Muhammad b. Qasim became a key signifier of India's fractured history.
5. 1900 - 1947. During this renaissance of nationalist and communalist attention to the history of Islam — the originary moments of Islam and Muhammad b. Qasim received ample attention. The histories produced included accounts of the connections between India and Arabia, on the one hand, and situating Muhammad b. Qasim among the more notorious invaders of India, on the other hand.
6. 1950s - present. This period coincides with the postcolonial state of Pakistan and it frames the creation of Muhammad b. Qasim as the national hero. The political turmoil over One Unit, the partition of West Pakistan, and General Zia ul-Haq's Arabization and Sunnification policies provide the political and cultural framework within which accounts of Muhammad b. Qasim were produced. The histories, to broaden our usage, of Muhammad b. Qasim during this period include school textbooks, official accounts, historical novels, tele-plays, and public histories.

I conclude by returning to the question of Why Muhammad b. Qasim, or why Sindh, even. What is at stake in the writing of such histories, and where do I situate this particular production in this longue duree that I sketch in the dissertation. Again, allow me to echo Inden:

We wish to establish a dialogical or inter-discursive relationship with the texts we study. Instead of looking at them as dead monuments, as mere sources of factual information or the expression of a creative and exotic genius that we can only appreciate in itself for itself, or as the accidental expression/sedimentation of some larger structure or context, we want to see them as living arguments both in their historic usages and by virtue of our reenactment of their arguments, in our own present. We want to see what we can learn from these texts that pertains to our own time and its problems. ((Ibid., Querying the Medieval, 14.))

My interest in such uses of the past, or rather pasts, emerges from a broader desire to engage in the public life of history in the present. Or what Neeladri Bhattacharya terms “The Problem”:

These other 'histories' threaten to arise from their submerged locations, their life in the bazaar and shishu mandirs, and assert their right to power - their right to be patronized by the state, prescribed in the textbooks that children read. Academic historians have for long ignored the reality of these alternate 'histories', the logic of their production, the nature of the historical sensibilities they produce. If we have to resist the threat they pose to the practice of academic history, we need to understand these other histories, explore their inner structure and the premise of their popularity. ((Neeladri Bhattacharya, "The problem", Seminar, vol. 522, (Feb 2003): 8.))

Unlike Bhattacharya, it isn't the “threat” that interests me in these other histories, rather the questions of how and why they are produced, at all. And what they tell us about our presents. Consider this dissertation, a first step.


Lateef | October 09, 2008

Ashamed for this? What's wrong with you? It's great!!! Thanks for posting it here - Fantastic research and analysis on Qasim..you are right, we must know our past to understand our present and influence our future. Thanks again!

Long Time Chapati Lover | October 10, 2008

the secession of West Pakistan in 1971 Well, I suppose Mujib did win the election....

Red | October 10, 2008

Looking forward to the book :-)

elizabeth | October 11, 2008

what Red said.

sarahjane | October 13, 2008

book! book! book!!