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Published in the 1-15 Nov 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

The Arab conquest of Sindh and Ismaili missionary work

By Jagjit Singh Jabewal

Muhammad ibn al-Qasim was not the first Arab invader of Sindh. He invaded Sindh in 712 A.D. Nearly fifty years before Qasim’s attack on Sindh, Arab Muslims had started picking up quarrels with the Brahmin kings of Sindh. They repeatedly raided Sindh but their attempts were foiled by the Hindu state of Sindh. Chach, the then Brahmin king of Sindh, not only vanquished the Arabs but also killed their commander-in-chief Abdul Aziz in a battle. Except some sporadic raids, Arabs did not undertake any important expedition until 712 AD when Muhammad ibn al-Qasim launched the first large-scale assault on Sindh with a large army. The majority of the population of Sindh then was Vedic Hindus, with King Dahir as the head of state which included a small minority of Buddhists.

Nirun which was under a Buddhist chief, had been in correspondence with the Arabs even before Muhammad ibn al-Qasim set foot on the soil of Sindh. A Buddhist chieftain provided a boat to Muhammad ibn al-Qasim to cross the Indus river. There is overwhelming evidence suggesting Buddhist connivance in the Arab conquest of Sindh. They were not averse to the Arab conquest and they cooperated with the invaders. Arabs inspired more confidence among them than their own compatriots. The Buddhist antipathy to Hindus was considerable and it made the task of the conqueror easier. 

Formerly when Sindh was under Huns, their last king Mihirgula had persecuted Buddhists. Mihirgula became a follower of the Vedic religion and hated Buddhism. The Buddhists were elated to see the Arab Muslims march against the Hindu kingdom. Perhaps they thought that Muslim invaders would embrace Buddhism as their forerunners Greeks and Kushans did. They converted to Buddhism during the reign of Menader (the Greek king) and Kanishka (the Kushan king) and helped establish a Buddhist empire in India. The Buddhists greeted the Arab leaders who had taken over Port Deval from King Dahir and they later helped Al-Qasim in defeating him.

There are several instances of Buddhists colluding with the invaders. For instance, it was a Buddhist priest who came and told Muhammad ibn al-Qasim to aim at the flag and the pinnacle of the temple in Debal, another Buddhist priest acted as the messenger between the Arab prisoners in Debal and the Arab general. It is not impossible that the prophecy regarding the fall of Debal if the flag of the temple could be demolished was fabricated for the benefit of the Muslims. Nirun which was under a Buddhist chief, had been in correspondence with the Arabs even before Muhammad ibn al-Qasim set foot on the soil of Sindh. A Buddhist chieftain provided a boat to Muhammad ibn al-Qasim to cross the Indus river. There is overwhelming evidence suggesting Buddhist connivance in the Arab conquest of Sindh. They were not averse to the Arab conquest and they cooperated with the invaders. Arabs inspired more confidence among them than their own compatriots. The Buddhist antipathy to Hindus was considerable and it made the task of the conqueror easier. 

However, the main role in the subsequent conversion of Sindhi Hindus to Islam was that of Ismaili missionaries. The converted Hindus remained nominal Muslims till the rise of Sunni fundamentalism in the wake of Mahmud Ghaznawi’s invasion which strengthened Multan as the centre of Sunni divines who brought about the second cultural conversion. Ironically Ismailis belonged to a heterodox Muslim community of Iran and fled the country because of Arab persecution. Ismaili missionaries’ secretive ways of conversion are reminiscent of Christian missionaries talking in native language to win over Hindus. Sindhi Hindus were also contacted in other important towns where Arabs had settlements. Multan became a famous centre of Islamic culture. Debal produced a number of famous Muslim scholars.

The advent of Islam in Arabia brought to India a totally different invader who was fired with religious zeal. Conversion to Islam meant not only conversion of faith but also of culture. Fortune favoured Muhammad ibn al-Qasim. A ball of fire struck Dahir’s elephant. The elephant panicked and fled from the battlefield. After showig much heroism Dahir was killed by the enemy and his capital besieged. 
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