The origins of our origin

Nationalism arose from the ashes of Renaissance era Europe and spread around the world in the twentieth century. Nationalism requires a national story, a narrative, to which the nation would adhere to. The narrative and story is not usually based entirely on facts and is transmitted to future generations through textbooks. Every story needs an origin. If the origin is not good enough or it doesn’t suit the story, it can always be fabricated. That seems to be the case with Pakistan’s official narrative. Professor Manan Ahmad recently gave an excellent talk about the story of Pakistan’s origin (involving Muhammad bin Qasim) and how the ‘origin myth’ came into being. The year 712 A.D is heralded as the time when Pakistan was actually founded in the Indian subcontinent through a 17-year old general named Muhammad bin Qasim. This ‘factoid’ is used as to demonstrate the ‘outsider’, ‘Arab’ origins of Islam in the subcontinent and by extension, Pakistan.
Where did this myth come from and why does it dominate our narrative even today? Why is our current narrative the only story that we have? All narratives have a history of construction. The first instance where we find Muhammad bin Qasim and his expedition to Sind is in the book ‘Kitab Futuh al-Buldan’ (Book of the Conquests of the Lands) written by Persian historian Ahmad Ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri. The book details conquests of the Arabs from the 7th century, and the terms made with the residents of the conquered territories. It covers the conquests of lands from Arabia west to Egypt, North Africa, and Spain and east to Iraq, Iran, and Sind. The Sind expedition was not given much importance by the writer and only 13 pages were devoted to it. Baladhuri mentioned that upon his return to Iraq, Muhammad bin Qasim did not receive a hero’s welcome. His mentor Hujaj bin Yusuf had fallen from favour and on the orders of Caliph Walid, Muhammad bin Qasim was imprisoned where he succumbed to torture.
Another major work of history that mentioned the event was Chachnama. The Chachnama takes its name from Raja Chach of Sindh, whose son Dahar stood against the Arabs (led by Muhammad bin Qasim). The Chachnama was originally written by Kazi Ismail, the first Kazi of Alor appointed by Muhammad Qasim after the conquest of Sind and translated into Persian by Ali bin Mohammad Kufi in 1224-26 A.D. The book chronicles the Chach Dynasty’s period, following the demise of the Rai Dynasty and the ascent of Chach of Alor to the throne, down to the Arab conquest by Muhammad bin Qasim in early 8th century AD. In the book, we learn that when virgin daughters of Raja Dahar were presented to Caliph Walid bin Abdul Malik, they confessed to having already spent time with Muhammad bin Qasim. Upon hearing this, the incensed caliph ordered Qasim to have himself sewn in a fresh cowhide and dispatched back to the capital.
In the eighteenth century, East India Company was making rapid advances in India and other parts of the world. A project was started in England by the company to compile histories of people with whom the Company dealt with. It was during this history project that local history of India and invasion by Arabs was discussed in English language for the first time. The ultimate purpose of this exercise was to prove that Arabs and Mughals were despots and their rule was immoral. James Mill in his book ‘History of India’ used Muhammad bin Qasim’s invasion as the start of Muslim despotism. Chachnama was also translated by employees of the Company, with aid of expert archivists. In the nineteenth century ‘Oxford history of India’ was compiled to be used as a textbook at British Universities.
In response to Orientalist rendering of Indian history, social and cultural historians from India did tremendous work on Indian history, in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, a relatively unknown journalist called Naseem Hijazi had started writing ‘historical fiction’ (more fiction and romance than history) and he did not find much popularity in public discourse. He wrote a novel titled ‘Muhammad bin Qasim’ in 1944. After partition, Pakistan’s history textbooks focussed more on Indian history that predates arrival of Arabs to these shores.
The discoveries of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were highlighted by the government to attract tourists and students of history from across the world. S.M. Ikram, a nationalist historian from Pakistan wrote three books on Pakistan’s history which focussed on our glorious Mughal and Arab ancestors and two-nation theory. The three books were later translated as a single-volume while his stay at Columbia University. He traced the origins of Pakistani nation to Mohammad bin Qasim. It was only after the loss of East Pakistan in 1971 that our priorities changed.
The Pakistan educational conference was held in the year 1975, chaired by I.H. Qureshi, a Pakistani historian. It was decided during the conference that new history of Pakistan needed to be written. The need for new narratives and origin was also highlighted. In 1978, a second conference on this theme took place, chaired by Dictator Zia-ul-Haq. It was decided in the conference that the version of history favoured by I.H.Qureshi and S.M. Ikram would be taught in Pakistan’s textbooks. It was around the same time that Naseem Hijazi’s ‘Mohammad bin Qasim’ republished by Adabi boards and its preface was written by Zia himself.
It has been recorded in history that the first Muslims (as traders) to land in India came decades before Qasim’s foray into Sind. The ‘military invasion’ theory trumped the ‘trader’ theory because of our national narrative being shaped more by the military than the trading classes. Maybe we should think about the alternative narrative now?

The writer is a freelance columnist.


The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter

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