The Myth of Muhammad Bin Qasim
My dear friend Dr Syed Muzammil Hussain of Wasaib Explorer recently undertook a bike tour from Multan to Gawadar. While on wheels along the stretch of Makran Coastal Highway, the team stopped by to pay homage to what is believed to be the graves of Arab Invaders of Sind.
140 miles from Karachi, driving along the Makran shoreline on Coastal Highway, a little short of the stop of Kund Malir, lies Aghor. There on a small mound are a few dilapidated graves carved out of sandstone. A roadside board in colours of mystic green announces that they are soldiers from Muhammad Bin Qasim’s army, from the year 712 CE. Now this gives rise to a few questions. Did Arab Armada under the famous Muslim general actually land at this desolate place devoid of any signs of a harbor? Most importantly did our Muhammad Bin Qasim (MBQ) come by the sea? To find our answers, dear reader, we shall retrace our steps on the same Coastal Highway towards Karachi, where we touch upon a few landmarks of interest.
Just outside Karachi along the shoreline where our Coastal Highway begins its journey, the road forms a T junction. From here if heading northward having crossed Uthal we reach Bela, the olden days’ Armanbela of Lasbela. Here a tomb is attributed to one Ibn Harun who was a general in Muhammad Bin Qasim’s (MBQ) army, so we are told.
Back at Karachi, 40 miles further east and bit south, is the ancient port of Bhanbhore. This excavation site is believed by historians to be olden days’ port city of Debal. The place where forces of Muhammad Bin Qasim gave battle to the army of Dahar, Raja of the Kingdom of Sind.
We now have a handful of graves on a mound at Aghor, a general’s tomb in Bela and the ancient port of Debal. To put these puzzle pieces together, dear reader, we shall head back in time.
Fateh Namo Sindh a.k.a Chachnamah and Al-Baladhuri’s Kitab Futuh Al-Buldan are reliable sources on Indo-Arab history. Former is a 13th century work, a Persian translation of a a manuscript in Arabic on the events around the conquest of Sindh. The latter, Futuh Al-Buldan is a 9th century narrative. Both give us a fairly detailed account of Arab invasions of Sind and MBQ’s by no means was the first, he was in fact part of the sixth expedition sent to subdue Sindh.
In the year 636 CE, the second Rashidun Caliph Hazrat Umar Ibn al-Khattab ruled from Medina. It was then that Usman al Saqifi, governor of Bahrain sent naval units to attack Indian ports. Of these raids, one led by his brothers Al-Hakim and Al-Mughirah was on al-Daybul (Debul ,the present day Bhanbhore). On the outcome of this battle we have conflicting narratives. Al Baladhuri tells us of an Arab victory, whereas, Chachnamah goes onto narrate, “Mughirah the father of A’as drew his sword crying ‘In the name of God and in the cause of God and fought till he was killed”. With their commander dead, the army retreated in defeat, so we are told. Futuh al-Buldan also tells us that these seaborne raids were arranged without the knowledge of Caliph Umar. It is said that the Caliph admonished Usman al Saqifi in harsh words and any further adventures towards Indian coasts were put to a halt, for that matter all naval operations were suspended.
During the reign of third Rashidun Caliph Hazrat Uthman ibn Affan, Iraq’s governor was asked to dispatch someone to ‘Al-Hind frontier’ and run a probe. Al-Hakim Ibn Jaballah Al Abdi, the man chosen for the mission, submitted an ‘unfavorable’ report. “Water is scanty, dates are inferior, robbers are bold’, he had replied. It was much later during the time of Umayyads, Muawiya to be precise, that Muslim Navy got organized. The year was 661 CE but it would take ‘Arab seafaring in Indian Ocean’ another 50 years to dare an attack on the well defended coastal cities of Sindh.
From 650 CE onwards, Muslim incursion from Persia had started reaching Zabulistan in north (Kandahar highlands) and Sijistan in south (eastern Iran, Helmand and Baluchistan) up ahead to Makran frontiers. These were not the sea expeditions but took the land route from Persian territories into the Hindu Shahi Afghanistan. Al Tabari, the Arab chronicler much praised by Lesley Hazleton in ‘After The Prophet’, in his Tarikh Al-Rusul wa Al-Muluk tells us of a grand ‘Army of Peacocks’. In 700 CE Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, governor of Iraq assembled an army from around Kufa and Basra, and dispatched under Abd-ar-Rahman bin Ash’ath. ‘Army of Peacocks’ was sent to pacify the state of Sijistan and this expedition much like its predecessors marched through land. It’s a different story how it unceremoniously transformed into a revolt almost dethroning the Umayyad rule.
While in Sijistan lets talk of Makran, the city on its frontiers. Makran was successfully annexed by the Caliphate in 670 CE and since then had an Umayyad governor in place. It was from here that raids onto Kikan (present day Baluchistan) were launched. Al Baladhuri gives us a couplet from an Arab poet on Makran from those days:
During the time Hajjaj was governor of Iraq, the outpost of Makran had Muhammad Ibn Harun Ibn Dhira Al_Namari was its governor. If my readers recall Ibn Harun is our person from the tomb of Armanbela, one of the puzzle pieces we discussed towards the beginning of this post.
As it happens in all stories, there’s now a twist in our tale. It was around this time that, off the coast of Debal some pirates raided the Muslim merchant ships returning from Ceylon towards the Persian Gulf and held captive some widowed women. Futuh Al-Buldan tells us that these were the widows of merchants who had settled in Serendib (present day Sri Lanka) and were now dead. The raja of Serendib was sending them back as a court favour to Hajjaj. Al Baladhuri gets dramatic here on how one of these women cried out in distress “O, Hajjaj!’ and al_Hajjaj hearing it in Iraq returned the call with ‘Here I am’. Chachnamah takes a more objective stand in telling that the news reached Hajjaj through those who escaped the raid. Hajjaj demanded action from Dahar, who had no control over the pirates. Now was the time to persuade Caliph Al Walid for sending out an expedition to Sind to punish Dahar, but the Caliph did not agree. Chachnamah & Tuhfatul Kiram deliberate on the offer made by Hajjaj to Al Walid. The raid portrayed as an opportunity for Islam to gain a foothold across Indian Ocean. But what actually did the trick was the promise to deposit an amount twice to what would be spent on annexing Sindh to the Caliphate. The permission was granted, but it wasn’t the turn of MBQ, not yet.
An Arab force under Ubaidullah Ibn Nabhan attacked Debal and was routed outside city walls with their commander killed. We don’t get much from historical sources on this failed attempt. Considering this force wasn’t helped by governor in Makran, it’s likely that this ‘attempt’ came by sea. And then come another expedition yet again by the sea. Muslim expedition under Buzail Ibn Tahfah sailed to Debal. Ibn Harun, the Makran governor marched overland joining the force at Debal. Some additional reinforcements set sail from Uman and the force besieged the city. Chachnamah tells us that Dahar sent his son Jaisiah with 4000 cavalry and four elephants to give battle outside Debal. The elephants proved decisive for these beasts frightened the horses in the Muslim camp. With their commander Buzail killed, the battle was all over for Arabs.
With two armies sent through sea routed succession, Hajjaj deliberated on the change in plan and preparations. 6000 Syrian Cavalry augmented by 9000 Camels of which 6000 were riders was prepared and put under Muhammad ibn Qasim ath-Taqafi (our MBQ) 17 years old relative of Hajjaj. With this force sent to Shiraz in present day Iran and ordered to wait, the artillery (battering rams and catapults) were shipped by sea. Now when the force in Shiraz eventually advanced, we get a detailed route of this marching army from Chachnama. Muhammad Bin Qasim from Shiraz made for Turbat and thence to Makran from where he was joined by Mohammad Ibn Harun, the Arab overseer at Makran. Now this force never passed through Aghor, not even near to it. While at Makran, Ibn Harun provided reinforcements, 5 catapults each manned by 500 men and despite for being sick accompanied MBQ. Repeated attacks of illness and hazards of travel got him and our Makran governor breathed his last at Armanbela, where he now rests in eternal peace buried in a tomb on a quiet periphery of the town. Muhammad Bin Qasim from Bela set off for Debal in battle formation where he would reach by Friday, 10th of Muharram and the year (likely) was 711 CE. He would win Debal 75 years after it was first invested by Arabs, but that battle, dear reader, will be a story for another day.
Coming back to the myth of Aghor, putting our puzzle pieces together, MBQ did not come by sea, his forces took the route 60 – 70 miles north of the shoreline. The graves on a small mound of Aghor near Hingol River have nothing to do with Muhammad Bin Qasim or his army. That green wall beside the Makran Coastal Highway with a baseless announcement is a total fraud!