Illustration by Sheece Khan


The conquest of Sindh opened a gateway of knowledge between the expanding Muslim empire and the Indus Valley.
Published January 15, 2023

Contrary to statist narrations about the advent of Islam into South Asia as being of one-sided benefit to the ‘pagan’ region, there is plenty of evidence from Islam’s ‘Golden Age’ to show that the benefits were very much a two-way street.

The Islamic ‘Golden Age’ was an era spread across the initial centuries of the rise and spread of Islam, when a heightened amount of intellectual contact of Muslims with the neighbouring world led to unrivalled gains in various sciences, as more and more nations entered the fold of Islam.

The conquest of the formerly Byzantine Levant and Sassanid Persia introduced the nascent Muslim world to great new spheres of intellectual progress. With the conquest of the Indus Valley, situated in modern-day Pakistan, in around the year 711 CE, Muslims effectively stretched the Islamic frontiers inside South Asia — a region which would evolve to become one of the most significant influences for the pursuit of knowledge amongst early Muslims.

The Indus Valley not only enlightened the Muslim world by lending Baghdad its most learned scholars, but also served as the primary vehicle for the movement of knowledge from the rest of South Asia to the Islamic world.

As Islam spread across South Asia in the early 8th century, the Indus Valley emerged as a region which had plenty to offer to the Muslim world. The conquest of Sindh opened a gateway of knowledge between the expanding Muslim empire and the Indus Valley, resulting in a great exchange of intellectual ideas, knowledge, practices and practitioners


Early Islamic geography was a subject under constant evolution. However, one notion that Muslim geographers upheld initially was the division of South Asia into Sindh and Hind, with the former being the Indus Valley and the latter being the rest of South Asia.

The geographer Ibn Khordadbeh’s (820-912 CE) 9th century description of ‘Sindh’ (the Indus Valley) covered portions of the Indus basin and much of modern Pakistan, as his Sindh comprised of the regions of Makran, Turan, al-Qiqan, Multan and Sindh proper, essentially covering much of today’s Balochistan, Sindh and portions of Punjab.

Apart from Sindh’s status both as a geographic entity and a strong kingdom before its conquest, the probable reason that the Muslims adopted such nomenclature to differentiate between Sindh and Hind would be to distinguish between the areas with a Muslim stronghold and those that lay beyond the frontiers of the Islamic world.

This religious and geographic distinction is apparent in the early Muslim geographic book Kitab Al Masalik Wa Mamalik [The Book of Roads and Countries] where the author, through differentiating between the portions under Muslim rule with that of the non-Muslim portion, refers to South Asia by employing the term “Sindh-wal-Hind” (Sindh and Hind).

This geographic division along religious lines appears to have become a strongly ingrained concept in the Islamic world since we later see the 11th century Ghaznavid chroniclers Utbi and Gardezi repeatedly refer to the Indus River as “Sayhun,” which was the name of the Jaxartes River in Central Asia. The reason behind this, according to the esteemed scholar Clifford Bosworth, was because both rivers “marked the frontier zone between the land of Islam and Paganism.” 

The method employed for discovering the origin of individuals in the Islamic world is through nisbahs, which are attached adjectives used as surnames to depict the original homeland of a person. For the people of the Indus Valley, this mainly pertained to ‘Sindhi,’ ‘Mansuri,’ ‘Deybali,’ ‘Qusdari,’ ‘Makrani’ etc. However, because of the vague early Islamic geography, the term ‘Sindhi’ was also at times applied to people within modern Afghanistan, just as the term ‘Hindi’ was applied to the people of Sindh in modern-day Pakistan.


The initial Islamic advances into Sindh’s neighbourhood coincided with the transition of Sindh from the Buddhist Rai dynasty to the Hindu Chach dynasty. The battle of Rasil, fought by the forces of the Caliph Umer (584-644 CE) in Sindh, marked the beginning of this Islamic advance. However, the conquest of Sindh began nearly a century later, in the era of the Umayyad Caliphate, in 711 CE.

The conquest and fighting began at the port city of Deybul and slowly expanded north. A final success at the battle of Alor against Raja Dahir (633-712 CE) of Sindh proved to be pivotal for the Muslim forces and led to them capturing hefty amounts of booty and slaves. The conquest of Sindh was complex in nature, since the Muslim forces were so far from home and in a completely alien land. They relied heavily on using strong, brute force and enslavement, where deemed necessary, but also on the extension of peace treaties and the assimilation of local elements in civil and military administration for easy governance.

Though the policy for non-Muslims varied from place to place and on the extent of cooperation, for ease of administration, the Muslims adopted several surprising policies, such as the extension of the dhimmi (protected person) status to Hindus and Buddhists, and equating them to the ’people of the covenant.’

The jizya (tax) was imposed upon non-Muslims, yet the Brahmins were exempted from it, and they were also favoured in retaining certain governmental posts. The famous sun temple of Multan was protected from destruction, but a mosque was created proximate to it.

The mercantile Sindhi Buddhists largely cooperated with the Muslims both during and after the conquest, due to ideological reasons and mercantile interests, whereas the agrarian Hindus were unaffected by Islamic policies. The most strongly impacted was the Hindu ruling class, which was deposed.

The beginning of Islamic theological studies in Sindh started swiftly after the conquest of its portions in 711 CE and the establishment of the city of Mansura upon the banks of the Indus River soon after. Sindh soon became a fountain for theological studies, especially the Ahadith (traditions of the Prophet, PBUH).

A page from the Medicinal treatise Kitab al-Tasrif by al-Zahrawi regarding surgical tools | Library, Museum and Document Center of Iran Parliament, Tehran
A page from the Medicinal treatise Kitab al-Tasrif by al-Zahrawi regarding surgical tools | Library, Museum and Document Center of Iran Parliament, Tehran


The beginning of Islamic theological studies in Sindh started swiftly after the conquest of its portions in 711 CE and the establishment of the city of Mansura upon the banks of the Indus River soon after. Sindh soon became a fountain for theological studies, especially the Ahadith (traditions of the Prophet, PBUH).

This new age of the study of the science of traditions was brought forth by three groups: locals who resided and studied in Sindh, locals who had travelled elsewhere in the Islamic world to attain knowledge, and war prisoners from Sindh who had been settled elsewhere in the Islamic world.

One of the earliest figures from the Indus Valley to earn fame in the Islamic world was the historian Abu Mashar al-Sindhi (d. 786 CE). Believed to be a slave from Sindh, he travelled to Medina, where he bought his freedom and was patronised by the then Caliph.

The famous 9th century biographer Ibn Nadim regularly quotes him for chronology in his famous book Kitab al-Fihrist [The Book Catalogue] and also credits him to have written Kitab al-Maghazi [Book of Conquests], which was an exceptional book on the life of the Prophet and his military campaigns.

Abu Mashar’s works won him the title of “Imam Al-Fann” (Leader of the Arts) and his status amongst the intellectuals of the Golden Age can be estimated through the fact that, upon his death, his funeral prayers were led by none other than the famous Caliph Harun al-Rashid himself.

The only one to surpass Abu Mashar in his theological knowledge was his own son Muhammad bin Abu Mashar al-Sindhi (765-861 CE). Muhammad’s tutoring by his father in Baghdad soon made him a scholar and theologian in his own right, whose acclaim can be measured through his students, many of whom travelled to study under him from all over the Muslim world.

Of the many students who went on to become famous traditionists, historiographers and theologians, some of the most famous are reputed Islamic figures such as Abu Isa al-Tirmidhi, al-Tabari, Abu Hatim al-Razi and Ibn Abi al-Dunya.

The theologian Rija or Raja al-Sindhi (d. 837 CE) travelled to the city of Isfarain in Persia and acquired high prestige in the study of Ahadith, where his works and studies yielded him the title of “Rukn Min Arkan Al-Hadith” (One of the Pillars of the Hadith). Rija’s grandson Muhammad (821-899 CE) was also an outstanding theologian and a much-celebrated author of a mustakharaj, a sub narration, on the renowned Hadith book Sahih Muslim.

Abu Ali al-Sindhi was one of the first figures from the Indus Valley to be recorded as a tutor of the famous Sufi Bayazid a-Bistami (d. 848 CE), whose status amongst the Sufis has led to him being remembered as “Sultan Al-Arifeen” (King of Gnostics). Bayazid was known for his concept of fanaa (self-annihilation) and it’s believed that Abu Ali Al-Sindhi tutored Al-Bistami in this concept.

Though this is strongly debated amongst historians, it is believed that Al-Sindhi was a Buddhist convert who had studied the concept of Nirvana and thus imparted his knowledge to Al-Bistami.

Perhaps the most famous of the theologians with hypothesised possible links to the Indus Valley is Imam Awzai (707-774 CE). Though his origins are debated upon, with some scholars pointing towards Yemen — since his name ‘Awzai’ is seen to be synonymous with an Arab tribe — certain historians also believed the name to be a nisbah (attribution) derived from the village Awza where he settled, thus hinting towards an eastward origin.

The famous 10th century historian Zura al-Damishqi also stated that Awzai was a descendent of people from Sindh and that his name signified the village and not the tribe.

Regardless of whether he was connected to the Indus Valley or not, Imam Awzai was a figure of legendary fame in the Islamic world, who had received theological knowledge before his teen years and was deciding upon legal issues at the age of thirteen.

As one of the most acclaimed jurists and scholars of his time and a pioneer in the collection and compilation of traditions, he not only decided upon more than 7,000 legal points, but also wrote two books on Islamic jurisprudence. By the end of his acclaimed life, he had his own school of thought, which enjoyed a strong position in Andalusia before eventually being superseded by other schools.   

According to historical records, there were more than 70 other figures from the Islamic ‘Golden Age’ with nisbahs linking them to the Indus Valley who were pioneers in theology and literature.


The history of military interactions between groups from modern-day Pakistan and the Islamic world predates the actual inclusion of the Indus Valley into the Islamic caliphates, due to the pre-existing connections between the region and the Sassanian Empire.

The Persian custom of recruiting foot soldiers, archers and cavalry from the Indus Valley goes back to the Achaemenid era, since we learn through Herodotus (484-485 BCE) of warriors of the Satrapies in the Indus basin present at the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon.

A similar pattern of recruitment was followed by the Sassanians, with emperors such as Bahram V recruiting and settling large numbers from the nomadic Jatt community of the Indus Valley across his empire. The soldiers amongst them were concentrated in southwestern Persia and were employed both as soldiers in the Sassanid armies and also served to protect the roads, means of trade and transportation in Persia.

These groups were amongst the earliest to engage with the Muslim armies on behalf of the Sassanians and they not only formed auxiliary units in the Sassanid armies for further support, but were also charged with defending core Sassanid cities like Ahvaz.

Following the crushing defeats given to the Sassanid Empire at the hands of the Rashidun Caliphate, these Jatts, known as Zutt in Arabic, were amongst the earliest in Persia to accept Islam and thus join with the Muslim armies in their further conquests. They were also later replenished with more of their men, when the Indus Valley fell into the hands of the Ummayad Caliphate in 711 CE.

Jatts enjoyed a spot of significance in the early Islamic age, which is evident since they were employed by the Caliph Ali (601-661 CE) for defending the city of Basrah and the royal treasuries during one of the most pivotal and politically significant battles in Islamic history — the Battle of the Camel (656 CE).

These Jatts, according to Spanish author Juan Signes Codoner, would be mentioned by Byzantine historians as possibly the ‘Indians’ who were part of the forces in the armies of Thomas the Slav during his revolt (821-823 CE) against the Byzantine empire, possibly as a contingent of fine warriors sent by the Abbasid Caliph to Thomas as aid.

A set of 8th century Syriac texts, known as the Chronicles of Zuqnin, also mention by name Sindh for its warriors being present in the vast armies which were involved in the 767 CE attack on the Byzantine territory of Edessa. The existence of these soldiers as Mamluks (slave soldiers) is vastly significant, since it occurred about two centuries before the proper concept of Mamluk soldiers in the Indus Valley was introduced by the Ghaznavids.

The historian Al-Tabbari (839-923 CE) in his 33rd volume also speaks of a warrior named Al-Sindhi Ibn Bukhtashah leading the right flanks of the general Wasif al-Turki, in what was one of the earliest Muslim offensives into Anatolia in 862 CE. However, the original homeland of the warrior is not properly known.


South Asia’s ancient reputation as one of the strongholds of medicinal sciences and its position as the primary region for the procurement of medicinal herbs, was what initiated intellectual contact between the Abbasid Caliphate and the Indus Valley, as well as South Asia, and helped usher Islamic sciences into a new age.

It was the party sent by Yahya Al-Barmaki (d. 806 CE) to the Indus Valley to procure medicinal herbs and study South Asia which led to further contacts and resulted in a delegation of native non-Muslim scholars and proponents of sciences from Sindh/Indus Valley carrying Sanskrit books and treatises to Baghdad upon the invitation of the Barkamid Vizirs. In the field of medicine, two names tower above the rest: Ibn Dahn and Mankah.

Ibn Dahn was an erudite scholar of medicine, who was appointed as the chief physician of the Abbasid Hospital (Bimaristan) and was the chief of the medicinal school of Baghdad.

Of the multiple medicinal texts that he wrote and translated into Arabic, some worth mentioning include books on 404 diseases and their symptoms, medicinal herbs, the descriptions of snakes and the medicines to their poisons, dealing with pregnancies and another on diseases primarily contracted by women, multiple forms of poison, diseases of animals, and another on diseases faced only by children.

But perhaps the greatest exchange of medicinal knowledge took place when the scholar Mankah translated the two most significant ancient compendiums of Sanskrit medicinal knowledge — The Compendium of Sushruta, at the behest of Caliph Harun Al Rashid (763-809 CE), and The Compendium of Charaka, both of which held immense significance in the Ayurvedic medicine of ancient South Asia.

The former was composed by an excellent physician in the city of Kashi in modern India, whereas the latter was compiled by an exceptional physician who studied and practised in the ancient city of Taxila, adjacent to Pakistan’s capital today. These texts, which dealt with a wide range of phenomena pertaining to surgery, medicine and poisons, helped the early Muslim physicians greatly in expanding their understanding of the medicinal world.

Pages from the astronomical treatise al-Mulakhkhas | Al-Khalil Collection of Islamic Art
Pages from the astronomical treatise al-Mulakhkhas | Al-Khalil Collection of Islamic Art


Another character of primary importance from the delegation of Sindh was the astronomer known as Kankah, who worked both in the courts of Caliph Harun al-Rashid and Caliph Al-Mamun (786-833 CE).

Though Kankah’s contributions delved into multiple fields, his greatest gift to the Islamic world was the passage of the most detailed and efficient work on South Asian astronomy to Muslim astronomers. According to certain historians, it was at the behest of Harun al-Rashid that Kankah was ordered to get the Brahma Siddhanta — one of the finest mathematical and astronomical works of South Asia, by the Indian mathematician Brahmagupta — translated into Arabic.

The astronomer Al-Fazari (b. 746 CE) is known for having shouldered the responsibility of helping translate the texts, which in its final forms yielded the greatest astronomical work of the Islamic Golden Age, a work given the Arabic name Zij al Sindh-Hind.

The Zij al Sindh-Hind of Al-Fazari was a text created by the union of South Asian, Persian and Greek astronomical knowledge, and enjoyed legendary prominence amongst astronomers and mathematicians alike. Being employed and studied by Muslims from the banks of the Euphrates to the Spanish coasts, it would go on to “produce over the centuries the spectacular tradition of Arabic astronomy.”

The great polymath Al-Khwarizmi (780-850 CE), responsible for creating algebra, also created a version of the Zij al Sindh-Hind from Al-Fazari’s text. A Berber polymath named Abbas Ibn-Farnath carried it to Spain, where it would go on to greatly impact the Christian world.

Another Spanish polymath’s upgraded version of the Zij al Sindh-Hind would be translated by Aberland of Bath (1080-1152 CE) into Latin and taken to benefit Christian Europe. Another Spanish polymath would utilise the Zij al Sind-Hind in the creation of his book, which would be employed for important tasks such as finding the direction of Mecca, establishing times of prayer and inquiring about the visibility of the moon to use for the Islamic calendar.

Zij al Sind-Hind’s significance in the Islamic world can be measured from the fact that, even in the late 12th century, the Jewish polymath Ben Ezra was known for creating a Hebrew translation of a commentary of the astronomical work in Spain, and another Spanish Jew, Petrus Alphonsi, would carry it to England in the same era.

Apart from the passage of the Brahma Siddhanta, Kankah is believed to have written various books on astronomical knowledge, such as The Book of Nativities, The Book of Namudar for the Ages, The Great Book of Conjunctions, and The Small Book of Conjunctions. Kankah would go on to occupy a position of great reverence in the Muslim world, to the point that many legends and myths would be attributed to him over time.

The empire of the Caliphs till 945 CE — from the historical atlas by Gustav Droysen
The empire of the Caliphs till 945 CE — from the historical atlas by Gustav Droysen


Perhaps the largest benefit that the Muslims received due to the Zij al Sindh-Hind was their introduction to the numbering system of South Asia, known to the Arabs as ”Arqam al-Hindi” or the Indian numerals.

The Indian numerals were based on the decimal notation system, which was a base ten system, where counting was concrete and not abstract in nature like its contemporary systems. One of the oldest written manuscripts of this Indian numeral system, containing one of the world’s oldest written depiction of the ‘0’ numeral, was discovered in 1881 by a farmer in the village of Bakhshali near Mardan in today’s Khyber Pukhtunkhwa.

Pioneer Muslim polymaths adopted and worked on the Indian numeral system, not only deriving much benefit from it but also trying to perfect it for better efficiency.

The famous polymath Al-Khwarizmi’s 8th century work Addition and Subtraction in Indian Arithmetic not only aided the Muslims but its translation into Latin, and movement into Europe, ushered the West into a new age of mathematical knowledge.

Multiple pioneer Muslim polymaths, such Al-Uqudisi, Abu al-Wafa and Al-Nasawi, would prepare manuscripts and treatises on Indian numerals. By the 12th century, the Muslim world was saturated completely with the new numbering system, as the West was acclimating to it, changing every aspect of life, from study to trade and ushering in a new age.


As the later stages of the 9th century commenced, the authority of the Abbasid caliphate began to wane in the Indus Valley, just as that of the locally settled Arab tribes began to increase. This resulted in the latter half of the 9th century witnessing a complex political situation arise in the Indus Valley, with quasi-independence coupled with loose nominal dependence on the Abbasids.

This situation ultimately brought about the complete extinction of Abbasid rule in the Indus Valley near the turn of the century, with the former Abbasid territories fissuring into two states: the Emirate of Multan in the north under the Banu Samahs, and the Emirate of Mansura in the south under the Habbarids.

The rise of smaller weaker states allowed for Ismaili preachers to accumulate great power and they eventually managed to take over the Emirate of Multan and extended their regional influence. This happening replaced the relevance once enjoyed by the Abbasid rulers of Baghdad with a growing relevance of the Fatimid rulers of Egypt, shifting the Indus Valley’s connection from the Tigris and the Gulf to the Nile and the Red Sea.

Such volatile political situations did not allow for a large volume of theological and intellectual contact to persist between the Indus Valley and its immediate western neighbours, which naturally declined with time.

The later rise of Turco-Mongol warlords from Central Asia during and after the 11th century once again connected the Indus Valley westwards and brought with it a new era of scholarly interaction, initiating a new tradition of intellectual and theological contact between South Asia and the Muslim world — one which remained active for more than half of the previous millennium.

The writer’s areas of interest are Pakistan history and folklore. He is based in Peshawar. He tweets at @MHuzaifaNizam

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 15th, 2023