Islam On The Retreat. Indian Scene In Civilizational Terms: Girilal Jain

It to be said straightaway that for the purpose of analyzing the Hindu-Muslim problem, our view and sense of history is as inadequate and muddled as the idiom of our public discourse which I discussed in this space on December 30/31. This proposition has little to do with whether we regard Muslim conquest and rule as benevolent or malevolent. That is a different issue.

The study of Indian history is vitiated at the very source by the widely accepted Aryan invasion/migration theory. All efforts extending over two centuries to substantiate it via linguistics and archaeology have failed. But the theory holds and infiltrates into our thinking in a variety of ways. That, however, is also not pertinent in this discussion, though its overall importance cannot be over-emphasized.

Narrow Approach

We gave followed what may be called the frog-in-the-well approach to history relating to Muslim conquest and rule. Thus we discuss Mohammad bin Qasim’s invasion of Sind more or less independently of the expansion of Arab Islam as far as North Africa and the Iberian peninsula in the West, with Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and Palestine thrown in, and Transoxania in the north, with the once mighty Iran, Medea, Khurasan and Sistan included in it.

Similarly, we discuss Babar’s conquest of parts of north India without reference to the larger Turkish upsurge culminating in the Ottoman empire which at its height included present-day Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, islands of eastern Mediterranean, parts of Hungary and Russia, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, the Caucasus, Egypt, north Africa as far west as Algeria and part of Arabia.

This lopsided and parochial view of history was designed, perhaps deliberately, by British historians inculcate in us a deep sense of inferiority. But whether deliberate or not, the effort succeeded remarkably well. Many educated Indians accepted that everything worthwhile in India, including Sanskrit, has come from outside and that Indians have never been able to resist foreign invasions and occupations. Mr Nirad Chaudhuri’s Continent of Circe is perhaps the best known expression of this British promoted view of us as a de­generate people.

The truth, of course, is very different. For example, the hordes from the steppes, who laid much of Europe waste, overwhelmed the Roman empire and pushed the warlike Celts out of Western Europe into Ireland and Wales across the channel, could not penetrate into the heartland of our civilization in the Gangetic plains.

Similarly, while Arab Muslim ar­mies cut through Christian and Zoroastrian lands like knife through butter, in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the region of Zamindawar (land of justice-givers) and Kabul, the Arabs were effectively opposed for more than two centuries from 643 to 870 AD by the indigenous rulers, the Zunbils and the related Kabulshahs … “with Makran and Baluchistan and much of Sind this area can be reckoned to belong to a cultural and political frontier zone between India and Persia. It is however clear that in the seventh to the ninth centuries the Zunbils and their kinsmen Kabulshahs ruled over a predominantly Indian rather than Persian realm. The Arab geographers, in effect, com­monly speak of that King of al- Hind … (who) bore the title of Zunbil.” (Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, Andre Wink, OUP). Zun was a Shaivite god. Wink has detailed an equally prolonged resistance on the Makran coast.

This gap between fact and his­tory, as generally written and taught, is, however, also not my main interest right now. I wish to emphasize, to quote Andre Wink again, that in the eighth century Muslims acquired from Spain to India “a core position from where they were able to link the two major economic units of the Medi­terranean and the Indian Ocean … Muslims dominated all maritime and caravan trade routes with the exception of the northern trans- Eurasian silk route … the Arab caliphate from the eighth to the eleventh century achieved an un­questioned economic supremacy in the world … in monetary terms the result of the Muslim conquests was a unified currency based on the gold dinar and the silver dirham … Possession was taken of all impor­tant gold-producing and gold-collecting areas”.

Economic Supremacy

This economic supremacy provided so powerful an under­pinning for the Muslim ummah (universal community) and civ­ilization that they could survive all internal upheavals, including the Shia-Sunni divide, the decline of the Abbasid caliphate from the tenth century onwards culminating in the sack of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, the upsurge of Turks, so much so that they can be said to have dominated the entire Islamic enterprise from the tenth century to the abolition of the caliphate in 1924. The Safavid rulers of Iran too were Turkic and so were the Ghaznavids in Kabul.

It follows not only that to be fully effective the challenge to Muslim dominance had, in the final analysis, to be maritime but also that the ummah and Muslim civ­ilization would find it difficult to survive in a meaningful sense the loss of control of the Mediter­ranean and the Indian Ocean. The Ottoman empire doubtless provided a second powerful under­pinning. But its fate too was linked in no small way to the correlation of forces on the high seas.

Mediterranean Europe began to stir in the 11th century. The crusades beginning towards the end of the century were an ex­pression of that awakening, though they took a religious form. But the crusaders were first absorbed in the Muslim population and civ­ilization and then beaten back. So it was not before the end of the 15th century when Vasco da Gama discovered a new route to India via the Cape of Good Hope (out of Muslim control) and landed in India (1498) that a serious challenge to Muslim power can be said to have arisen. This challenge took around three centuries to fully mature and get consolidated.


This is a long and complicated story. The details, however signifi­cant and fascinating like the siege of Vienna by Turks in 1688, or Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, exactly three centuries after Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India, need not detain us. What is ma­terial for our purpose is the steady erosion in Muslim control of the Mediterranean-Indian Ocean trade, the decline of the Ottoman empire and with that the replace­ment of the Islamic by the Euro­pean civilization as the dominating reality on the world scene. The Turkish decision to opt for a nation-state and abolish the caliphate in 1924 completed the process. This has also meant fragmentation of the ummah.

It will, of course, be ridiculous to suggest that developments in In­dian Islam, including the demise of the Mughal empire, should be viewed wholly in the larger context, as if local factors were not at play. But when we talk in civilizational terms, which is necessary in view of the universal nature of Islam, is­sues have to be framed in the broader context. And this is not what we have been doing. Indeed, even honest discussion has been a taboo. As in many other respects, the Indian elite has chosen to live in a small make-believe world of its own in this regard as well.

The Times of India, 14 January 1993

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