Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Arab conquest of Sind, and the Spanish conquest of Mexico

Contrasts in the historical trajectories of different regions can provide fresh perspectives. That is why my favorite books are those that synthesize anthropological and historical knowledge across continents – Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange, Jared Diamond’s Guns Germs and Steel, Charles Mann’s 1491. And in literature, Octavio Paz and VS Naipaul are superb at interweaving the contrasts of world history in their nonfiction.

In Among the Believers for example, Naipaul dedicates a chapter analyzing the seventh century Arab conquest of Sind as narrated in historical text Chachnama. That first incursion of Islam in Hindu-Buddhist South Asia – now Pakistan – has a striking similarity to the violent advance of a different but ideologically similar monotheism, Catholisicm, almost eight hundred years later, in the Americas. I’ll let the excerpts below tell the full story:
In the imagination, the Arabs of the seventh century, inflamed by the message of the Prophet, pour out of Arabia and spread east and west, overthrowing decayed kingdoms and imposing the new faith. They move fast. In the West, they invade Visigothic Spain in 710; in the east, in the same year, they move beyond Persia to invade the great Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Sind. The symmetry of the expansion reinforces the idea of elemental energy, a lava flow of the faith. But the Arab account of the conquest of Sind – contained in the book called the Chachnama, which I read in Pakistan in a paperback reprint of the English translation first published in 1900 in Karachi – tells a less apocalyptic story.

The Arabs had to fight hard. They turned their attention to Sind at some time between 634 and 644, during the reign of the second caliph or successor to the Prophet, and in the next sixty or seventy years made ten attempts at conquest. The aim of the final invasion, as the Chachnama makes clear, was not the propagation of the faith. The invasion was a commercial-imperial enterprise; it had to show a profit.

There are resemblances to the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru, and they are not accidental. The Arab conquest of Spain, occurring at the same time as the conquest of Sind, marked Spain. Eight hundred years later, in the New World, the Spanish conquistadores were like Arabs in their faith, fanaticism, toughness, poverty and greed. The Chachnama is in many ways like The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the Spanish soldier who in his old age wrote of his campaigns in Mexico with Cortes in 1519 and after. The theme of both works is the same: the destruction, by an imperialist power with a strong sense of mission and a wide knowledge of the world, of a remote culture that knows only itself and doesn’t begin to understand what it is fighting. The world conquerors, the establishers of long-lived systems, have a wider view; men are bound together by a larger idea. The people to be conquered see less, know less; their stratified or fragmented societies are ready to be taken over. And, interestingly, both in Mexico in 1519 and in Sind in 710 people were weakened by prophecies of conquest.

There is this difference between The Conquest of New Spain and the Chachnama. Bernal Diaz, the Spaniard, was writing of events he had taken part in. The Chachnama is Arab or Muslim genre writing, a “pleasant story of conquest”, and it was written five hundred years after the conquest of Sind. The author was Persian; his source was an Arabic manuscript preserved by the family of the conqueror, Bin Qasim.

The intervening five centuries have added no extra moral or historical sense to the Persian narrative, no new wonder or compassion, no idea of what is cruel or what is not cruel, such as even Bernal Diaz, the Spanish solder, possesses. To the Persian, writing in 1216, the Arab conquests are glorious; they are the story of the spread of true civilization. Conquest is pleasant to read about because conquest is “based on spiritual rectitude and temporal excellence… of which learned philosophers and generous kings would be proud, because all men attain advancement to perfection by acknowledging as true the belief of the people of Arabia.” There is an irony in this praise of conquest: not many years after those words were written, the invading Mongols were to arrive in Persia and Iraq, and the Arab civilization which the Chachnama celebrated was to be shattered, stupefied for centuries.
And at the end of the chapter, Naipaul writes:
The Chachnama shows the Arabs of the seventh century as a people stimulated and enlightened by the discipline of Islam, developing fast, picking up learning and new ways and new weapons (catapults, Greek fire) from the people they conquer, intelligently curious about the people they intend to conquer. The current fundamentalist wish in Pakistan [Naipaul was writing in 1979] to go back to that pure Islamic time has nothing to do with a historical understanding of the Arab expansion. The fundamentalists feel that to be like those early Arabs they need only one tool: the Koran. Islam, which made seventh-century Arabs world conquerors, now clouds the minds of their successors or pretended successors.

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