Indian History Part 44 THE ADVENT OF ISLAM

Canberra, 12 October 2015

Enough and more has been written about the creation of the religious faith known as Islam, derived from the teachings of the Prophet Muhamad (570-632). Prophet Muhammad lived in a polytheistic society and received a revelation in visions that he explained in the holy book of Islam, the Koran. He called the new faith Islam, meaning the resignation to the will of God and its followers Muslims, ‘the resigned ones’. Both these words are derived from the Arabic for ‘submission’ or ‘surrender’. The fundamental belief and the basis for the religion is an intense acceptance and conviction of the unity and greatness of God and the essential message is the need to yield to this omnipotent God as expressed in its name. It is a religion of clear demarcating lines, of strong light and limited shadows, of definitive doctrine and precise rules.

The necessity for the faith to wage war in order to protect itself was emphasised when the Prophet had to flee from Mecca to Medina in 622. This episode influenced the Prophet’s teachings, hardening its characteristics and entrenching the belief that it will always be necessary to fight for one’s beliefs. [A brief discussion of the relative doctrine, beliefs and practices of Islam and Hinduism that is of direct relevance to this narrative of Indian history is provided in the next chapter. However, that chapter only brings out deeply salient points and does not analyse them in any great depth. An immense volume of literature is available in almost all languages for interested readers to enhance their knowledge of the religion.]

By the time the Prophet Muhammad died in 632, Muslim power had started to dominate most of the Arabian Peninsula, but had not yet spread to the outside. Islam exploded onto the outside world following the infighting for control that took place following his death. The succession struggle that took place within the higher ranks of the Muslims is not directly connected to chronicling Indian history and therefore is not detailed here. Suffice it to state that the Muslim army and the fledgling Islamic State that was forged together was to very rapidly become a powerful entity and later engulf the entire region, and then go on to flood other areas—both near and far. This collection of tribal volunteers transformed themselves into a professional army with relative ease and gathered sufficient momentum to carry the religion to Spain in the west and India in the east, thus creating an empire of Islam.

‘It cannot, however, be explained how a new religion spread so rapidly with so much enthusiasm among the Arabs; nor how it aroused so quickly the zeal of a warlike people and made them invincible. The spread of a new religion is one of the mysteries of human nature, which does not readily yield their secrets to attempts at summary explanation.’

M.S. Natesan,

Pre-Mussalman India, P. 99

The first to face the wrath of the Islamic warriors was the well-entrenched Sasanian Empire. Battles between the two raged from 636 to 651 when the Sasanian King Yazdagird III was killed in battle and the Sasanians collapsed. In a span of a little over a decade of war the mighty Sasanian dynasty and the large empire that it ruled for centuries had been defeated and completely destroyed. Islam now reached the Oxus River, the traditional Persian border with Central Asia. Zoroastrianism was shattered in Iran and never again took hold in the entrenched manner that it had been during the golden days of the Sasanians. The reasons for the collapse of the powerful Sasanians and the rapid disintegration of their empire to attacks by an army that was relatively recent in its origin, and one that was also emerging from a long-drawn succession struggle, has never been fully understood. It is true that the Islamic forces fully believed that God was on their side; it is also true that Muslim warriors were extraordinarily vigorous and strong since they emerged from a region with a harsh and unforgiving environment. However, these two factors alone cannot be the reasons for the Sasanian collapse, considering the established and seasoned army fielded by them. The enigma continues even today.

While the Sasanian Empire was being put to the sword, the Muslim armies had simultaneously conquered lands across all of Arabia, and also capturing the provinces of Syria and Egypt which had so far been part of the Byzantine Empire. The Muslim army pushed further into Armenia and Azerbaijan. From Egypt they pushed west into the Maghrib and reached the Atlantic at the coast of Morocco. In 711, the victorious army crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Spain and captured a large part of the Iberian Peninsula. Thereafter, the Islamic army crossed the Pyrenees into France and defeated the Frankish ruler Charles Martel in the Battle of Poitiers in 732. In exactly one century from the death of the Prophet Muhammad, the armies of Islam had conquered a very large swath of land spreading west and east of the Arabian Peninsula from which they had originated.

Conditions in the East

The destruction of the Sasanian Empire released their eastern provinces and the vassal kingdom of Gandhara from the formalised central control, leaving a vacuum of authority. The Khyber Pass, which had been a prized strategic possession of the Sasanians for centuries, became marginalised for a short period of time. Although the Arab armies had seized Bactria, they did not venture into Gandhara or beyond to India. The only attempt aimed at encroaching on the sub-continent was the earlier minor Arab incursion into Sindh, which could be considered the only and fairly tenuous Muslim foothold in India at that time.

At this juncture Gandhara was ruled by the descendants of the White Huns, the remnants of the dynasty that had been conclusively defeated by the combined might of the Sasanians and Turks, having only vassal status. When the Sasanian debacle and destruction became apparent, they declared independence from the overarching Persian rule. Called the Shahi dynasty, they ruled Gandhara till the mid-8th century, their territory extending all the way to Kabul. During this interim of nearly three centuries North-West India remained relatively stable with no marauding mobs descending through the Khyber to invade, plunder, and then to be finally assimilated. The western part of the erstwhile powerful ‘Persian’ empire was preoccupied by the advent of violent and virulent Islam giving Gandhara and its surrounds unprecedented respite from the usual and almost continuous invasions. An analysis of the period creates the impression that it was one where a well-defined separation existed between the spreading concept of Islam and India. Obviously such a situation could not last for long.

In late 9th century the Shahi dynasty was displaced, not by external invasion as had been the case so far in the region, but by a local Hindu Brahmin family that came to be called the Hindushahi dynasty. The Hindushahis extended their control into the Punjab and were in control of the North-West Frontier when the Islamic onslaught from the west started in late 10th century.

The Origin of the Caliphates

The almost unimpeded spread of the Islamic Empire through the unmatched success of its armies was not without its challenges. It had the distracting effect of creating disunity at the higher reaches of the controlling hierarchy. In a short span of few decades, they had become rulers of vast lands that were comparatively more fertile than the arid wastes of Western Arabia from where they had originated. The greater prosperity this brought about had naturally sown the seeds of rivalry within the leadership. In an attempt to maintain their unity, the position of Caliph as the overall ruler had been established. In 656, the third Caliph was murdered, which triggered the first civil war within the Muslim community.

Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet claimed the position of Caliph and although he was opposed, established himself at Kufa in Southern Iraq. He was challenged by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the then governor of Syria, a situation that led to an inconclusive conflict and subsequent negotiations. In 661 Ali was murdered, which triggered further unrest. The murder of Ali is also the origin of the sectarian division of the Muslim world between the Sunni and the Shi’a sects. The Shi’a—Shi’at Ali—are the followers of Ali who believe that the rightful authority over the Islamic religion belongs to the line of Ali, since he belonged to the Prophet’s family. This sectarian rift persists to the present times, perhaps in a more exaggerated form than when the divide originally took place.

After the murder of Ali, Muawiya was proclaimed Caliph and established his capital in Damascus. He transformed the office of the Caliph into a hereditary position, originating with himself, establishing the Umayyad dynasty that ruled from Damascus for nearly a century. However, the Umayyad caliphate collapsed in revolt, internal turmoil and civil war. In 750, Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet became Caliph, coming to power with the help of an army derived mainly from the eastern provinces. He established the Abbasid dynasty and the centre of power shifted to Iraq with the building and establishment of Baghdad as his capital. This eastward movement of the centre of power was indicative of the increasing strength and power of the eastern provinces. These provinces continued to grow in importance with the by now ‘converted’ Iran exercising greater cultural influence on the broader Islamic world. The remnants of the disintegrated Umayyad dynasty moved to Spain and established a kingdom in Iberia. This kingdom continued to be a direct challenge to the unrestrained authority of Baghdad for some time, claiming that they were the rightful successors of Prophet Muhammad.

Under the Abbasids, the Arab-Muslim Empire reached the zenith of its power and glory. The visible material splendour of the empire was matched by intellectual brilliance and flourishing developments in literature and science. The legendary Harun al-Rashid, celebrated ruler depicted in the tales of the Thousand and One Nights, ruled in the early 9th century and was undoubtedly the most accomplished and famous Caliph of the dynasty. By mid-9th century however, the territorial integrity of the empire had started to be questioned by lesser dynasties ruling as vassals at the extreme fringes of empire, who were growing impatient for independence.

The eastern region of the empire contained the developed Iranian provinces and were essentially minor principalities already exercising some amount of independence. This situation set in motion a peculiar and unique kind of relationship between the vassal king and the Caliph. The relationship pattern was of a large, powerful and ambitious family expanding their sphere of influence and starting to rule as de facto independent kings for all purposes, and then eventually seeking the Caliph’s blessing to do so. Seeking the Caliph’s blessing was obviously an attempt to attach some amount of spiritual authority to their continued rule, thereby combining the worldly possession of power with spiritual sanctity, albeit obtained by demonstrated power. In these circumstances the Caliphs, more often than not, granted permission and recognition; necessitated by the growing loss of control of their vast holdings combined with an expedient outlook to continue to stay in power. Not granting recognition may have led to open revolt and the loss of even the transitory and ephemeral power that the Caliph could exercise. The peculiarity of this arrangement was that it was not characterised by any open and direct antagonism towards the Caliph. In bare terms, the dealings were all within the bounds of courtly civility.

The Samanids

By the late 12th century, the Caliphs were mere figure heads and even Baghdad had been absorbed into newly formed kingdoms. Although the Abbasids ruled effectively for a period of time, the start of the decline of the Caliph’s power can be traced to the fall of the Umayyads from which time onwards local governors had started to assume greater independence in their rule. Even during the Abbasid rule the decline continued in a gradual manner. A trend that was prominent at this time was the proselytization of the Islamic religion by Sufi mystics predominantly to the ‘dihqans’, the hereditary landlords of the region, who for some inexplicable reason responded to the call of Islam. In the 9th century one such family, headed by Saman-Khuda who originally came from a family of Iranian chiefs from Bactria, was one of the dihqans to have converted to Islam. Saman-Khuda was encouraged by the Abbasid caliphs to gather power at the expense of some other families who were out of favour.

Saman-Khuda and his successors went on to build an empire that encompassed Afghanistan, Khorasan and neighbouring territories, founding the Samanid dynasty. They seized Khorasan in 903, established their capital in Bukhara and controlled Samarkhand. The lands north of the River Oxus became the core territory of the Samanids and this kingdom situated in trans-Oxiana became fully independent under Ismail one of the successors to Saman-Khuda. Under the Samanids, Samarkhand and Bukhara rose as unquestioned cultural centres, the epitome of a resurgent Iranian culture, now fused indelibly with Islam. They became home to a new version of Persian literature, written in the Arabic script, a genre that is still vibrant and continues to be practised even today.

Ibn Sina

Ibn Sina lived in the Samanid court in the late 10th century, and is considered to be the greatest mind that the Islamic world has produced. His name was Latinised to ‘Avicenna’. He was a philosopher, physician and scientist becoming known even during his life as the ‘Supreme Master’. He wrote influential works in medicine, mathematics, logic, botany, psychology and astronomy. His best known work is the ‘Canon of Medicine’ which was widely read and studied in Medieval Europe and often referred in Latin texts of the time.

The Samanids were also instrumental in institutionalising the existing system of ‘Turkish slave-warriors’ of ‘ghulams’ or mamluks, drawing them into the politico-social and economic fabric of the kingdom, a development that was to have far reaching consequences for the Indian sub-continent.

Enter the Turks

By the end of the 10th century a new people, the Turks, forced their way into the mix. The exact origin of the Turks have not been established and is still a matter of lively debate. They emerged from Inner Asia speaking Turkic, which resides within the Altaic family of languages. Their cross-culturing and assimilation of Mongol traditions and customs was obvious from the earliest times. Essentially their eclectic ethnicity is the only certainty regarding their origin, at least for the present. The first known use of the word ‘Turk’ is traced to the mid-6th century when the Turk Khanate of Mongolia was established. They rose to power ruling vast areas of Central Asia from the Great Wall of China to the borders of Iran.

The Turks joined hands with the Sasanian Emperor Khusrau to defeat the White Huns and annexed their territory. Further they demolished the power of the Iranian nomads who had dominated the steppes of Central Asia for more than a thousand years. This region was generally known as Scythia, after the Scythian tribes that ranged widely across the entire area. After the Turks established their control in this region, it came to be called Turkestan—the Land of the Turks.

It was inevitable that the Turks would come into contact with the Arabs who were extremely busy expanding in all directions. The two groups agreed on a boundary, similar to the one that had in earlier times been drawn between the ‘civilised’ Iran and the nomad-controlled regions, around the River Jaxartes slightly beyond the River Oxus. The Turks, already exposed to a number of religious beliefs in their sprawling adventures, started to assimilate the Muslim religion. Over the next two centuries a majority of the Turks became Muslims, through conversions as well as benign acceptance. The Turks were considered by every other group to be extraordinary soldiers and superior warriors—hardy, brave, proud and extremely loyal. In short they were the epitome of the warrior class, the term Turk almost becoming synonymous and used generically to indicate a good soldier.

The Ghulams or Mamluks

Ghulam is a term that even today means a ‘slave’ and was used for Turkish slave-soldiers who were either purchased in the slave market or acquired as captured prisoners of war. This process was started by the Abbasid Caliphs and perpetuated by the Samanid dynasty. Since the Turks were renowned for their fighting qualities, they were highly valued and were primarily employed as personal bodyguards of the Caliph and also by lesser rulers. These Central Asian Turkish slaves, called Mamluks, came to be purchased and imported in considerable numbers to bolster the armies of a sagging Caliphate. Since military power almost always encroached on political power in the medieval era, the political and social influence wielded by the Mamluks increased gradually, a process supported by their own rising ambition as a group. [In this narrative the terms of Ghulams and Mamluks are used interchangeably, since they were are one and the same.]

The Samanids used the slave soldiers to counter and curtail the rising power of families within their kingdom ignoring the Ghulams own ambition to expand their power base. The Samanids based their employment of the Ghulam soldiers on their supposed loyalty and high reliability. As a result the Samanid Ghulams became very powerful, assuming the role of ‘king makers’ and even being arbitrators to settle disputes at the local level. This in turn became a source of internal instability and the Ghulams developed into a divisive force within the Samanid Empire.

Alptigin of Ghazni

The increasing power of the Ghulams is indicated by the Samanids permitting their senior Ghulams to acquire and maintain their own group of Ghulams whose loyalty was only to the senior Ghulam and not to the Caliph or the local chief/Amir. Alptigin, a senior Samanid Ghulam was appointed the Governor of Khorasan and headed a force of 2700 Ghulams who were fiercely loyal to him and not to the Amir ruling in Bokharo. This was the beginning of the division of Mamluk loyalty to the Samanid Amir and the powerful Ghulam commander, leading to events that ultimately resulted in the creation of the Ghaznavid dynasty.

In 961, the Samanid Amir Abd al-Malik died in Bokhara. Alptigin, the Ghulam governor of Khorasan initiated a violent coup in order to place his choice of candidate on the throne as Amir. The coup failed and Alptigin retreated from Khorasan, marching east with his group of slave soldiers. He captured the town of Ghazni in south-east Afghanistan, situated on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, and established himself as its sovereign ruler. The Samanid Amir who had come to power send an army to defeat the renegade, which was soundly beaten at the gates of Ghazni by Alptigin. The Amir was left with no choice but to accommodate the rebellious commander and legitimise Alptigin’s independent status, a clear indication of the declining power of the Samanids.

Alptigin died in 963 and when his son Ishaq succeeded to the throne, he had created the first Mamluk dynasty. This was the signal for other powerful Ghulams also to declare different levels of independence from the weakening control of the Samanids. There is no image that is available of Alptigin, who was a devout Muslim and therefore had banned the creation of representative art in keeping with pious Islamic injunctions. However, there is no doubt that he was ruthless and ambitious; pragmatic and politically astute; and skilled in the art of war and personally an exemplary warrior. His significance to Indian history is the fact of his establishing an independent kingdom centred on Ghazni in the mountain frontier of the Indian sub-continent. Since he had fled east in adversity, the natural progression of advance for his successors would obviously also be eastward.

Shortly after Alptigin’s death, the conflict with the Hindushahi rulers of Kabul and Gandhara started, marking the beginning of a rhythmic progression of regular violence that was to become endemic in the region. Ishaq died in 966, three years into his rule, and was then followed on the throne by three indifferent rulers who were all Ghulam commanders. Then in 977, Sabuktigin, slave and son-in-law of Alptigin seized the throne of Ghazni.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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