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Arab Spears

Chapter 1 – Mohammedan Invasion – The Arabs in Sind – 712 A.D.

The population of India in the present day is over three hundred millions, and every sixth man is a Moslem. Nine hundred years ago there were no Mohammedans east of the Indus, where now there are more than fifty millions and the King of England rules twice as many Moslem subjects as the Sultan of Turkey and the Shah of Persia together. For six centuries the Hindus submitted to the sovereignty of Mohammedan kings, and when the great effort was made in 1857 to throw off the British yoke, it was round the Mohammedan Emperor of Delhi, though but a shadow of a famous name, that the mutineers rallied. How the Moslems, foreigners both in creed and race, came to conquer India, and how this small but increasing minority imposed its will upon the greater part of the people of the land, is the subject of this and the succeeding volume.

When we speak of the Mohammedans as foreigners, we mean of course the original conquerors. The present Moslem population is almost as native as the Hindus

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themselves. The invaders consisted of armies of men, very few of whom brought their women with them. They married Hindu wives, and the mixed race thus formed intermarried further with the natives, and each generation became more and more Indian. Besides the Moslems descended from the successive armies of invaders and their native wives, a very large proportion of the Indian Moslems were and are native converts from Hinduism. It has been estimated that about fifty thousand Hindus “turn Turk” annually, and neither the religion nor the rule of the Moslems has proved intolerable to the natives. Islam commended itself to the Indian intellect as a more congenial faith than Christianity, and the disorder and corruption of Mohammedan government were not distasteful to a people who had never known anything better.

Yet the real Mohammedan conquerors of India were not Arabs, but Turks. When the armies of the Saracens spread out over the ancient world in the seventh century, they overcame most human obstacles, but nature itself was sometimes impregnable. They overran North Africa, but the inhospitable desert of the Sahara discouraged any southern expansion; they occupied Spain, but the Atlantic checked their progress west, and being but indifferent sailors they left to their European successors the glory of discovering the New World. In the East they conquered Persia as far as the great rivers of Central Asia, but the icy walls of the Hindu Kush saved India. The famous Arab general Ali Tigin subdued Bokhara and Samarkand, but he did not venture

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to surmount the snows that barred the way to Hindustan. The Arabs never opened that perilous northwest passage from Afghanistan, which has poured so many foreign hordes into the teeming plains below.

The only Arab attempt upon India came from a different quarter. Little as the Moslems of the desert relished the dangers of the deep, there were seafaring traders on the Arabian coasts to whom the ports of Western India had been familiar from the earliest times. Arab merchants sailed from Siraf and Hurmuz in the Persian Gulf, coasting along till they came to the mouth of the Indus, and thence on to Sapera and Cambay; or they even struck boldly across from their harbours at Kalhat and Kurayyat in Oman to Calicut and other ports on the Malabar coast. These men brought back tidings of the wealth and luxury of India, of gold and diamonds, of jewelled idols and gorgeous religious rites, and of a wonderful civilization. The temptation of such wealth was sanctioned by the zeal of the iconoclast, and the spoliation of the idolaters became a means of grace. At a time when the armies of Islam were overrunning the known world, such a field of operations as India could not be overlooked, and accordingly we find a pillaging expedition visiting Tana (near the present Bombay) as early as 637, during the reign of the caliph Omar, the second successor of Mohammed the Prophet. Other forays followed, for the Arabs of the Persian Gulf were a venturesome folk.

All these, however, were mere raids. Plunder, not conquest, was their aim, and they led to nothing more.

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The only serious invasion of the Arabs was by land from Mekran, the most eastern province of the caliphate on the Persian coast, whose Mohammedan governors frequently came to blows with the Indians across the frontier, where no natural barrier intervened. The invasion was belated, compared with the other campaigns, for the caliphs’ hands were full of more pressing affairs. The tremendous successes of the first sweep of Arab conquest are apt to blind us to the tedious and toilsome progress of their arms in all but the earliest campaigns. No doubt their triumph over the degenerate empires of Rome and Persia was comparatively swift. Five years sufficed for the subjugation of Syria, seven more saw Persia at their feet, and two were enough for the conquest of all Egypt. But when the Arabs were opposed by tribes as untamed and warlike as themselves, their advance was slow and difficult, and every mile was obstinately disputed. Carthage, for example, was all but reached within a few years of the conquest of Egypt, but it did not actually fall for nearly half a century, and the vigorous resistance of the Berber tribes delayed the progress of the Moslems in Africa till the close of the seventh century. It was the same in the East. While Persia was speedily overcome as far as the river Oxus, it was not till the first decade of the eighth century, almost two hundred years later, that the country beyond its banks was added to the settled provinces of the caliphate. The Arabs were too few for all the work they attempted in widely separated lands, and up to 700 A.D. they had quite enough to do

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without burdening themselves with such an enterprise as the conquest of India.

The first and only Arab invasion of the land of the Ganges coincided in date with two other signal successes of Mohammedan arms in distant parts of the globe. Gothic Spain was shattered at the battle of the Guadalete in 710; the standards of Islam were carried from Samarkand to Kashghar in 711–14; and the valley of the Indus was invaded in 712. These three steps mark the zenith of the power of the Omayyad caliphate, and coincide with the administration of one of the ablest and most relentless of all Moslem statesmen. Al-Hajjaj, the governor of Chaldea, sent Kutaiba north to spread Islam over the borders of Tartary, and at the same time despatched his own cousin, Mohammad ibn Kasim, to India. The reigning caliph consented unwillingly; he dreaded the distance, the cost, the loss of life. Even in those days, to adapt modern phrases, there were the opposing policies of “Little Arabians” and “Imperialists.” Al-Hajjaj was imperialist to the core, and to him the Arabs owed the impulse which gave them all they ever won in India.

The story of Mohammad ibn Kasim’s adventures is one of the romances of history. He was but seventeen, and he was venturing into a region scarcely touched as yet by Saracen spears, a land inhabited by warlike races, possessed of an ancient and deeply rooted civilization – there to found a government which, however successful, would be the loneliest in the whole vast Mohammedan empire, a province cut off by sea, by mountains,

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and by desert from all peoples of kindred race and faith. Youth and high spirit, however, forbade alike fear and foreboding. The young general had at least six thousand picked horsemen at his back, chosen from the caliph’s veterans, with an equal number of camelry, and was supplied with a baggage-train of three thousand Bactrian camels. Marching through Mekran, along the Persian coast, he was joined by the provincial governor with more troops; and five stone-slings for siege-work were sent by sea to meet him at Daibul, or Debal, in Sind, the great medieval port of the Indus valley and forerunner of the modern city of Karachi

There at Daibul, in the spring of 712, Mohammad ibn Kasim set up his catapults and dug his trench. A description of this siege has come down to us from the early historian al-Baladhuri (about 840), from which it appears that the Arab spearmen were drawn up along the trench, each separate company under its own banner, and that five hundred men were stationed to work the heavy catapult named “the Bride.” A great red flag flaunted on the top of a tall Hindu temple, and the order came from Hajjaj, with whom the general was in constant communication, to “fix the stone-sling and shorten its foot and aim at the flagstaff.” So the gunners lowered the trajectory and brought down the pole with a shrewd shot. The fall of the sacred flag dismayed the garrison; a sortie was repulsed with loss; the Moslems brought ladders and scaled the walls, and the place was carried by storm. The governor fled, the Brahmans were butchered, and after three days of carnage

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Arms of Sind

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a Mohammedan quarter was laid out, a mosque built, and a garrison of four thousand men detached to hold the city.

After the storming of Daibul, the young general marched up the right bank of the Indus in search of the main body of the enemy. Discovering their outposts on the other side, he tied a string of boats together, filled them with archers, made one end fast to the west bank, and then let the whole floating bridge drift down and across, like an angler’s cast of flies, till it touched the opposite side, where it was made fast to stakes under cover of the archers’ arrows. The enemy, unable to oppose the landing, fell back upon Rawar, where the Arabs beheld for the first time the imposing array of Hindu chiefs, mounted on armoured war-elephants, and led by their king Dahir. Naphtha arrows, however, threw the elephants into confusion and set fire to the howdahs; the king was slain, the Hindus fled, and “the Moslems were glutted with slaughter.” The Indian women showed the desperate courage for which they were famous. The king’s sister called them together, on seeing the defeat of their men; and, refusing to owe their lives to the “vile cow-eaters” at the price of dishonour, they set their houses ablaze and perished in the flames. Another victory at Brahmanabad opened the way to Multan, the chief city of the upper Indus, which surrendered at discretion, but not without an exhausting siege. The fighting men were massacred, and the priests, workmen, women, and children were made captives.

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The fall of Multan laid the Indus valley at the feet of the conqueror. The tribes came in, “ringing bells and beating drums and dancing,” in token of welcome. The Hindu rulers had oppressed them heavily, and the Jats and Meds and other tribes were on the side of the invaders. The work of conquest, as often happened in India, was thus aided by the disunion of the inhabitants, and jealousies of race and creed conspired to help the Moslems.

Jat Nobles

To such suppliants Mohammad ibn Kasim gave the liberal terms that the Arabs usually offered to all but inveterate foes. He imposed the customary poll-tax, took hostages for good A’.14” conduct, and spared the people’s lands and lives. He even left their shrines undesecrated: “The temples,” he proclaimed, “shall be inviolate, like the churches of the Christians, the synagogues of the Jews, and the altars of the Magians.” There was worldly wisdom in this toleration, for the pilgrims’ dues paid to the temples formed an important source of revenue, and the Moslems found it expedient to compound with idolatry, as a vain thing but lucrative, in the interests of the public treasury. Occasional looting of Hindu fanes took place – we read of “a cart-load of four-armed idols”

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sent as a suitable gift to the caliph, who no doubt preferred specie – but such demonstrations were probably rare sops to the official conscience, and as a rule the Mohammedan government of Multan was at once tolerant and economic. The citizens and villagers were allowed to furnish the tax-collectors themselves; the Brahmans were protected and entrusted with high offices, for which their education made them indispensable; and the conqueror’s instructions to all his officers were wise and conciliatory: – “Deal honestly,” he commanded, “between the people and the governor; if there be distribution, distribute equitably, and fix the revenue according to the ability to pay. Be in concord among yourselves, and wrangle not, that the country he not vexed.”

The young general’s fate was tragic. A new caliph succeeded who was no friend to the conqueror of Sind. Hajjaj was dead, and there was none to oppose factious intrigues at the distant court of Damascus. In spite of his brilliant achievements. Mohammad ibn Kasim was disgraced and put to death. The story runs that he was accused of having made too free with the captive daughters of Dahir before presenting them to the caliph’s harem, and that he was punished for the presumption by being sewn up alive in a raw cowhide. “Three days afterward the bird of life arose from his body and soared to heaven;” and the hide with its noble burden was sent to Damascus. The young hero had made no protest, never questioned the death-warrant, but submitted to the executioners with the fearless dignity he had shown throughout his short but valiant

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life. When the sacrifice was accomplished, however, the Indian princesses, moved perhaps by the courage of a victim brave as their own devoted race, confessed that their tale was deliberately invented to avenge their father’s death upon his conqueror. The caliph in impotent fury had them dragged at horses’ tails through the city till they perished miserably, but the second crime was no expiation for the first.

The Arabs had conquered Sind, but the conquest was only an episode in the history of India and of Islam, a triumph without results. The Indus province, it is true, is as large as England, but it consists chiefly of desert, and the Arabs made no attempt to extend their dominion into the fertile plains beyond. It has been supposed that the crude civilization and austere creed of the Moslems stood aghast before the rich and ancient culture, the profound philosophy, and the sensual ritual of the Hindus; but these contrasts did not check the later successes of Islam in the same land. The more obvious explanation of the Arabs’ failure is found in the as yet unbroken strength of the Rajput kings on the north and east, and in the inadequate forces despatched by the caliphs for so formidable a project as the conquest of India. After the first expedition under the ill-fated Mohammad ibn Kasim we hear of no reinforcements, and twenty years after his death the Arabs were still so insecure on the Indus that they built a city of refuge as a retreat in times of jeopardy. The province was not only imperfectly subdued but extremely poor, and the caliphs soon abandoned it in all

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but name, as too unremunerative to be worth maintaining. The Arab settlers formed independent dynasties at Multan and at the new city of Mansura, which Mohammad ibn Kasim’s son founded in lower Sind; and when the traveller Mas’udi visited the valley of the Indus in the tenth century, he found chiefs of the Prophet’s tribe of the Kuraish ruling both the upper and the lower province. A little later another traveller, Ibn Haukal, explored Sind, where he heard Arabic and Sindi spoken, and observed much friendly toleration between the Moslem and Hindu population. Soon afterward Multan became a refuge for scattered bands of Karmathians, when the power of those Mohammedan sectaries waned before the rising ascendency of the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt, and when Arabia was delivered from the Karmathian reign of terror. But the meagre annals of this limited and ineffectual occupation of an unimportant province need not long detain us. The Arab conquest of Sind led to nothing, and left scarcely a vestige, save in the names of certain Arab families and in the ruins of the buildings they destroyed. The Arab cities have perished, but the wrecks of the castles and cities of their predecessors, which formed as usual the quarries for the conquerors’ buildings, still bear witness to the civilization which they uprooted.

This collection transcribed by Chris Gage
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