“A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia” by Manan Ahmed Asif

In 1900 Mirza Kalich Beg, celebrated as the first Sindhi novelist, translated a 13th-century Persian text called Chachnama into English. Ali Kufi, the author of Chachnama, in turn, claimed his work was a translation of an 8th-century work in Arabic. The English-language Chachnama is thus apparently twice removed from the  ever-elusive original text, a rumoured book that deals with the conquest of Hindustan by Muhammad bin Qasim.

The colonial scholars and the Indian and Pakistani historians  plundered  Chachnama  to pin down the arrival of the Arab rulers in Sindh and, consequently, the origins of Islam in South Asia. Since then, Chachnama has seeped into both the collective unconscious of South Asia and reputed scholarship on the subject and gives an impression that Hindu identity that had been oppressed by the Muslim invaders for centuries. South Asians have not investigated the creation of the stereotypical Muslim. Hindus and Muslims alike associate the coming of Islam with the destruction of Hindu sacral sites and forced mass conversions.

A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia, Manan Ahmed Asif (Harvard University Press, September 2016)
A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia,
Manan Ahmed Asif (Harvard University Press, September 2016)

Manan Ahmed Asif’s powerful study A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia debunks this origins narrative and reveals new frames of reference that will replace the question of arrival of Muslims in South Asia with idea of being Muslims in India.

 

Chachnama has been traditionally read as the oldest history of Sindh. Written in the 13th century, the text calls itself a translation of historical account of the events that occurred in the 8th century. Ali Kufi dedicates the text to the then governor of Multan, Nasiruddin Qabacha. The book first describes how Chach, a scribe at the court, becomes king upon the death of the previous king Sahiras. Chach consolidates the boundaries of his empire and is succeeded by his son Dahar. The second part of the text focuses on how Hajjaj, the governor of Iraq, sends Qasim to “Hind and Sind” to declare a religious war when he hears of some Muslim women held in captivity by a band of robbers in Debal near Sindh. The third part details the expedition of Qasim, the war between Dahar and Qasim and Qasim’s taking over of Sindh.

Chachnama, and its discussion of Chach as a just ruler, was incorporated in subsequent regional histories Masum’s Tarikh-i Masumi (1600) and Qani’s Tuhfat ul-Kiram (eighteenth century). Chachnama also finds a mention in Firishta’s history of cluster of regions in India, Gulsham-i Ibrahimi/Tar’ikh (1606-16). It is with Alexander Dow’s summary/translation that Chachnama came to be seen as “exposing” the origins of the “brutal” and “despotic” “Mahommedan empire in India”. Dow’s attempt was a part of larger project of conquest of Sindh by the British. Sindh was annexed to the empire of the East India Company in 1843. James Mill’s History of British India (1817) draws upon Dow’s interpretation to package the political arrival of Arabs as the history of Islam in India and to frame the British rule as enlightened and civilized. The British were manufacturing a Hindu past and thereby a 19th-century present that needed to be “rescued” from the Muslims.

 

Asif studies the aftermath of Chachnama and argues that it is misunderstood and misclassified as a work of history. It claims to be a translation of an earlier Arabic text but that claim is, as Asif argues, a gesture in gaining currency, legitimacy and authority in the period it was written—the 13th century.

Asif’s critical reading of Chachnama goes on to substantiate his opening sentence: “Beginnings are a seductive necessity”. In claiming to be a work of history, an authentic account that originates in an Arabic text written in 8th century, the author of Chachnama, Ali Kufi, strategically positions his creation to be perceived as carrying a certain magnitude. Asif demonstrates that this self-styling as history cannot be taken at its face value. He systematically makes a case for studying the case as a text of political theory after comparing it with other texts in the genres of so-called “conquest narratives” and “advice literature”.

Chachnama fails on all the points of reference of a conventional conquest narrative. To begin with, it does not describe all the conquests of the protagonist’s, that is, Qasim’s, achievements. The title “Chachnama” itself is inconsistent with a work purported to be about the conquests of Qasim. Asif shows that the text is a work of political theory and is concerned with dos and don’ts of governance, justice, ethics, kingship and warfare:

 

Chachnama argues that recognizing forms of difference and translating them into politically viable structures allows for communities to coexist. Chachnama’s theory of making difference commensurable and citing precedents is remarkable from a text that is understood as a conquest narrative.

 

The first part of Chachnama devoted to the native Hindu ruler Chach, his rise to power and the consolidation of his kingdom, creates a precedent of a just ruler. Further, Ali Kufi cites a huge number of letters exchanged between Qasim and Hajjaj, the then governor of Iraq (or at least as given in Chachnama). These letters contain several dicta regarding warfare and polity and come very close to the other texts of advice literature from both the Sanskrit and Arabo-Muslim traditions— Siyasatnama, Qabusnama, Rasa’il Ikhwan Safa’ (or the letters exchanged between Alexander and Aristotle), Arthasastra and Pancatantra. In describing how Qasim dealt with the Hindus and how the Hindu Chach dealt with the Buddhists, Ali Kufi incorporates various strategies of acquiring territories: alliance, rewards, force, and causing further dissension among the enemies. Hajjaj’s advice to Qasim mirrors Kautilya’s to King Chandragupta Maurya in third century BC.

Asif closes his book with the statement, “The stories we tell have consequences” after providing an extraordinary account of the kinds of stories left out of about thirteen centuries of the story of Islam in India: the stories of the women in Chachnama, and the strength of their participation in the definition of right conduct, or the stories of Buddhism, or the stories of the violence that Qasim did not commit.

The nineteenth century distortion of a text continues to have repercussions on national identity and communal harmony in South Asia and all around the world. The notion that Muslims are outsiders and thereby have a separate identity had been the premise behind the demand for the creation of Pakistan. It has also been used by the Hindu right to avenge the “humiliation” of its past. Muhammad bin Qasim’s invasion is time and again invoked to provoke and justify terrorist actions. Asif’s book is a timely reminder that the questions of origins cannot be answered categorically and need to scrutinized carefully.


Soni Wadhwa is a research scholar based in Mumbai.