Demolishing foundational myths

January 15, 2017


The location of the young general’s own grave is disputed, but some of his soldiers are buried at Hingol, Balochistan. — Dawn file photo
The location of the young general’s own grave is disputed, but some of his soldiers are buried at Hingol, Balochistan. — Dawn file photo

IN 1985, historian Ayesha Jalal published her brilliant doctoral dissertation from the University of Cambridge under the title The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan, a book that changed the way historians see the creation of Pakistan. Of the many arguments Jalal made in her path-breaking book, one was indeed a major revelation to most readers and students of history in Pakistan who had been fed lies by official spokesmen over the decades past. The argument was that Pakistan, for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, did not mean the partition of India.

Jalal informed us that, in fact, the term and concept of ‘Pakistan’ was never defined by any of the Muslim League leaders, least of all Jinnah. ‘Pakistan’ throughout the 1930s and 1940s (even up to 1947 itself) remained an abstract “homeland for Muslims” with often vague and conflicting boundaries and with a clearly undefined constitutional status. British officials in 1941 were stating that most Muslims “including orthodox supporters of Pakistan from Jinnah downwards, were thinking in terms of the British staying on. ... Every Muslim Leaguer interpreted Pakistan as consistent with a confederation of India for common purposes like defence, provided the Hindu and Muslim element therein stood on equal terms.”

Jalal argued that “Jinnah’s ‘Pakistan’ did not entail the partition of India; rather, it meant its regeneration into a union where Pakistan and Hindustan would join to stand together proudly against the hostile world without. This was no clarion call of pan-Islam; this was no pitting Muslim India against Hindustan; rather, it was a secular vision of a polity where there was a real political choice and safeguards, the India of Jinnah’s dreams.” As late as June 1946, Jinnah was “unable still to define the demand for Pakistan precisely.” Moreover, even as late as February 1947, a few months before Pakistan was created, and when evidence of some sort of agreement about a Muslim homeland seemed almost obvious, many “did not know what Pakistan meant, in fact nobody in the Muslim League [knew]”. Three months before August 1947, in May, following negotiations with Mountbatten, Congress, and Jinnah, Jalal concludes, “It was Congress that insisted on Partition. It was Jinnah who was against Partition.”

New research on the Muhammad Bin Qasim narrative reveals the misassumptions with which generations have been raised

At the time her book was published, this central thread in Jalal’s thesis was indeed revealing and an eye-opener to most who had been brainwashed by official ‘historians’ in Pakistan, who had distorted facts to suit their own nefarious designs. The lack of clarity of the great Quaid-e-Azam and his coterie so convincingly illuminated by Jalal contradicts the official spokesmen in this country who had gone out of their way to show that a plan for an independent homeland for Muslims in India was designed as far back as the 19th century by Syed Ahmad Khan and later echoed by Allama Muhammad Iqbal in the early 1930s. Although Jalal’s 1985 thesis has recently been highly criticised by Venkat Dhulipala, who offers a very different, contrarian, thesis in his Creating a New Medina: State Power, Islam, and the Quest for Pakistan in Late Colonial North India, Jalal’s book still holds pride of place amongst books written on and about Pakistan, for demolishing key myths surrounding the creation and evolution of the idea of Pakistan.

Now, three decades later, in the same vein, Manan Ahmed Asif (a colleague of this reviewer at Columbia University where he teaches in the history department) demolishes perhaps the most important and foundational of all myths about the creation of Pakistan: that of Muhammad bin Qasim and the conquest of Sindh, which for some historians is a conquest that forms the ‘beginnings of Pakistan’. In his superb and pivotal book A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia, Asif makes the case for his book being “an argument against origins”. Considering that the entire construction of Pakistan — as a country, state, nation, ideology, as a discursive space and identity — is motivated by “the beginning narrative of Muslim origins”, such a dismantling has consequences that will not be easy to come to terms with for the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis who have bought into this foundational lie. Truth, in any guise, but especially backed up by sound scholarship, has serious consequences.

Every Pakistani, of every generation, educated or not, believes as a matter of faith Pakistan’s ‘sacred myth’: that a 17-year-old general, Bin Qasim, invaded what is now Pakistan in 712CE to rescue a group of Muslim women who had been abducted by pirates at Daybul. They appealed to Hajjaj bin Yusuf Thaqafi, the Umayyad governor of Iraq, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Or is it?

Asif, using sources from the ninth century historian Baladhuri, shows that actually, “Baladhuri places this account more than a decade before the campaign of Muhammad bin Qasim.” Asif writes that “yet this account of the ‘abduction of Muslim women’ dramatically reverberates in historiography and popular imagination to this day. It is an incredibly potent account ... The episode of the captured Muslim women is the totemic origins narrative framing Muslim arrival in India ... [yet] predates the expedition of Muhammad bin Qasim in 712”. The Arab communities present in Sindh and Gujarat, predating the conquest and flag-bearer of Islam, give “prima facie lie to an originary encounter which posits conquest as the first contact”. It was, in fact, “colonial epistemology [which] framed Chachnama as the story of the origins of Muslims in India”.

“I make two essential claims in this book: that Chachnama, central to the origins myth of Islam in South Asia, is not a work of translation, and it is not a book of conquest. ... The reading of the text as a whole is a necessary methodological step because Chachnama entered the archive for British Orientalists and historians miscatalogued, mistaken, and missing the full body of its text. Starting with Alexander Dow in 1782, segments of the text mainly concerning its ‘Muslim’ portions, were translated and reproduced in antiquarian articles and broad histories. These excerpts were labelled as ‘history’ and were read at face value, solely to answer the question of what happened in the early eighth century. Such was the radical consequence of reading Chachnama as a translation and a text foreign to India that an inquiry into Islam’s origins could summarily disregard any ‘pre-Islamic’ portion of this text. So it occurred that in the work of British Orientalists and the historians who followed (specifically the nationalist and socialist schools) Chachnama became the social, philological, and historical foundation for a unitary understanding of Islam’s origins. Scholars did the careful work of Arabic philology to ascertain the urtext. They were guided by the unerring belief that the historical truth is clearest when it is closest to the historical time of the event. Modern scholarship scanned sentences for ‘facts’ that were then compiled in relation to other textual facts and were made to stand in for the truth of the origins. The actors in the text — no matter their textual or historical specificity — became the heroes and the villains of the present.” — Excerpt from the book

While the conquest by Bin Qasim did actually take place and is represented in the 13th century text Chachnama (although not for the reasons taught in Pakistani textbooks, but on account of Umayyad expansionism), it is the intriguing story of the Chachnama itself that forms a major part of Asif’s book.

It is the Chachnama, written in 1226CE, that has for 200 years — importantly, from the time of British colonialism and not before — “been read as a book of conquest, providing a narrative of Islam’s arrival in India ... [and] is understood to be the primary account of the origins of Muslims in India which contains the history of their rise to dominance.” The Chachnama claims “to be a translation of an Arabic history and it calls itself a book of conquest”, a claim taken by colonialists at face value which helped them build their own notion of the history of the region (Sindh and Uch), and subsequently of the advent of Islam into what became India. Believing that the Chachnama is “a history of the early 8th century Arab conquest, written at the time of the events ... a text closest to the historical events of 712CE, with testimony from direct participants” made it the main text forming the “central evidence explaining the origins of Islam in India”. It is the particular colonial reading of the Chachnama which allows the colonialists to show Muslim despotism and loot and plunder, and Muslim fanaticism. Rereading the text (or, ‘unreading’ it, as he says), Asif argues that the Chachnama is “misread, mischaracterised, and misplaced”, and argues persuasively that this is a work of political theory, not the book of conquest as it is perceived to be, and “represents a politically heterogeneous world of 13th century Sindh”.

I have only chosen one, albeit central, aspect that emerges from Asif’s short book which otherwise raises numerous issues about historiography, interpretation, ideology, and the manipulation of history to justify certain subsequent means. The book raises questions about the “composition of the idea of ‘Muslim’ in India since the 19th century”, about the study of Muslim pasts in South Asia, about how students of history ought to carefully read and study so-called original sources, and much more. By locating the Chachnama in its particular social and geographical space and context, in Uch, where he spent much time and travelled extensively, Asif also explores local histories of the region and shows how an entire foundation of the past has been erroneously forged into an interpretation which is blatantly false.

Partha Chatterjee (also at Columbia University) has recently shown in his quite brilliant The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power, that the Calcutta ‘Black Hole’ story so central to South Asian history, where supposedly 146 persons were packed into a room 18 feet by 15 feet, is the “founding myth of empire”, and had been proven to be a “gigantic hoax” as early as 1915, but the myth of Indian atrocities against the British in 1756 continued to hold the imagination of many generations of colonialists. Chatterjee argues that “it is not easy to debunk well-established myths with theories and facts”, but one must give Asif credit for attempting to do so with regard to a myth that has lasted 13 centuries.

One hopes, as does Asif in his concluding sentences, that “other anti-foundational histories that re-examine the origins narrative would force a paradigmatic shift in how we conceive of Muslim pasts in India”. His book has to be made available to a readership in Pakistan, and must be read by anyone who has any interest in history, especially those who think they know, and believe in, the beginnings-of-Pakistan narrative. It is time to unlearn what we take as gospel truth.

The reviewer teaches history at Columbia University in New York and at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.

A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia
Manan Ahmed Asif
Harvard University Press, US
ISBN: 978-0674660113

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 15th, 2017