Arab Invasions: The Caliphate Looks East (8th CE - 11th CE)

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    The year 628 CE was momentous for the Sassanian Empire. It marked the end of the rule of Khusrow II Parviz, the last great Sassanid Emperor of Persia. He had brought great peace and an end to the war with the Byzantines, and had married Maria, Princess of Constantinople. With his death came a terrible succession war in Persia for the next 4 years. Ultimately, Yezdegird II Sheriyar (632-641 CE) ascended the throne in 632 CE. He was to be the last Sassanid Emperor.

    Deep in the heart of Arabia, something was stirring. In 622 CE, Mohammed the Prophet of Islam, performed the Hejira, the return to Arabia, Medina to be precise, from Abyssinia (Ethiopia). He established the Constitution of Medina and forged the young Islamic nation-state in a series of battles and offensives. By 629 CE, he had taken Mecca, the holiest city in Arabia, and by 632 CE at the age of 62, he had united all the Arab tribes under one banner and one religion. His death in 632 CE, and that of his successor Abu Bakr in 634 CE, led to Umar taking charge of the caliphate, and he soon sent the fractious armies of Islam on a conquest against their neighbours, the Byzantines and the Persians.

    Persia fell to the Arab armies in 641 CE at the battle of Nehavand, and in a few decades, the entire Persian Empire was securely a part of the newly emerging Islamic Caliphate.

    Umar was assassinated by the Persians in 644 CE. A war of succession of sorts followed, which only saw peace truly restored with the ascension of Muʿāwiyah ibn Abī Sufyān and the start of the Umayyad Dynasty. In 685 CE, Ad al-Malik became the new Caliph and undertook the expansion of the Caliphate to the east.

    Islamic armies invaded Makran (coastal Pakistan) and Sind; they overran the Khorasians in Bukhara, Samarkand, Khwarem, Fergana and Tashkent. They then turned their faces to the west, extending their rule through North Africa and Spain but they came undone at the hands of the Byzantine Emperor, Leo III, in 717 CE.

    The Arab attacks on the Western frontiers of India had started very early, during the Rashidun Caliphate when Hakim ibn- Jabalah al-Abdi attacked the Makran coast in 649 CE. Makran faced more attacks in 658 CE but remained independent.

    In 711-12 CE, Muhammad bin Qasim, an Umayyad military commander, led his troops into the western borders of India. He had gained great fame as the governor of Fars province (in modern Iran) and had subjugated the Kurds. In a blistering campaign that lasted 3 years, he finally defeated the kings of Multan and Sind.

    Interestingly, the main reasons behind the campaign were pirate attacks from this region on Caliphate shipping.

    The main ports of the Meds (the tribe of pirates) were in Kutch, Debal and Kathiawar.

    A daring seizure of Muslim women and gifts for the ruler of Sri Lanka by the Debal (an ancient port located very close to Karachi, it was the main port of the Med pirates) Meds was the excuse for the campaign of Muhammad bin Qasim.

    The Meds, from what little we know historically, were a group of pirate lords who were centred at Debal (the Arabs called it Daybul) and spread along the Makran and nearby Kutch coasts who preyed on shipping in the adjacent Arabian Sea region. The Med peoples are today an ethnic community found in the Baluchistan and Makran coasts and at Las Bela in Pakistan.

    The Attack on Sind

    At this time, Sind, which was an almost lawless frontier between Persia and India, was ruled by the Sindhi king Raja Dahir. Dahir had supposedly not checked the pirates and he was first in the line of attack. The first campaign in the war was against Debal (modern Daybul in Pakistan), in direct retaliation. The fighting was fierce and the slaughter formidable.

    Debal was completely and systematically destroyed. The city was sacked, its citizens enslaved and the army moved further into Sind.

    Surprisingly, the ranks of the army were swelled by Meds and Jats from the region, who smelt plunder. In the meantime, Dahir had consolidated his forces on the western banks of the Indus.

    Muhammad bin Qasim was on the eastern bank. He made an alliance with a local island ruler, Mokah Basaya, on the Indus for transport and with the Thakurs of Bhatta. They crossed the river and engaged Dahir’s armies at Rohri. It was a short, hard but decisive battle and Dahir fell in the course of the conflict.

    After defeating Dahir, Qasim's armies soon took the provincial capitals of Brahmanabad, Alor (Rohri) and Multan (all in modern Pakistan). Multan and Sind yielded much bounty and slaves for the Umayyad treasuries of the Governor of Iraq, Al-Hajjaj -ibn Yusuf, and the Caliph Abu al-Abbas al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik Marwan (ibn Walid 705-715 CE).

    We know of the reign of Dahir from a very interesting chronicle, perhaps the earliest from Sind, called the Chach-nama. This document is a later 13th CE ‘history’ of the Rai and Chacha dynasties of Sind 7th-8th CE and culminates with the death of Raja Dahir, it tells a glorious tale of the rule and martyrdom of Dahir, who is painted as a great hero of Sind, who fought for its independence and nationhood. The Chach-nama records the names of Dahir’s queen Ladi and their three daughters Surya, Premala and Jodha, who are important icons in Sindhi history.

    Onward to Rajasthan

    Qasim then turned his armies onwards to Rajasthan and attacked Bhinmal (Jalore district, Rajasthan), whose Rajput rulers are said to have accepted Qasim’s suzerainty. We will never really know for sure if this happened but what we do know that makes us believe it did is that the Arab chroniclers of Sind mention not just Qasim’s invasion but a second one by his successor, Junayd ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Murri, between 723 and 726 CE.

    It is further reinforced by the fact that a completely new dynasty came to power in Bhinmal around 730 CE (after the removal of Junayd as Governor) by defeating the Arabs. This was, of course, the Gurjara Pratihara dynasty under its founder Nagabhata I (730-760 CE). This is further alluded to in the Gwalior inscription of Mihir Bhoja of the Gurjara Pratiharas (836–885 CE).

    The other great conquest by Qasim is even more difficult to believe, that he launched a further expedition to the borderlands of Kashmir and invaded the Kangra Valley. Arab historians call the region ‘al-Khiraj’ and there might have been a lightning raid but the region definitely did not come under Arab rule.

    A Second Wave

    The second set of Arab invasions into India occurred during the time of Junayz, a successor of Qasim and who ruled Sind from roughly 723-726 CE, and then again under al-Hakam ibn Awana al-Kalbi (731-740 CE). There had been uprisings in Sind and Junayd was responsible for suppressing them. He then carried out a series of campaigns into what the Arabs called Mermad (Jaisalmer), al Baylaman (Binmal) and Jurz (the country of the Gurjaras). He also sent a force against Ujjain but no outcome is recorded, leading historians to believe that the campaign failed miserably.

    The expansionist plans of the Caliphate were rebuffed in Kashmir by Lalityaditya Muktipada (724–760CE) and in Gujarat (735 CE) by the Gujarat/Navsari Chalukya ruler Avanijanashray Pulakesin, and then by the Maitrakas and their Saindhava vassal Agukka I (770-790 CE). The three attacks against Gujarat laid waste too many towns and were ultimately responsible for the fall of the Maitraka Dynasty but the Arabs did not gain a foothold in Gujarat and faced very heavy losses.

    The heavy losses suffered by the Arab armies during their Punjab-Kashmir campaign and the campaigns against Gujarat brought a halt to all further expansion, and in 740 CE the Caliphate decided that further expansion into India (al Hind) was futile and brought an end to their campaigns.

    Sind, on the other hand, became a permanent province of the Caliphate. When the Umayyads gave way to the Abbasids, Sind continued to be a prominent part of the Empire, barring a few internal revolts within the Arabs.

    The Abbasid governors continued to conduct raids into al Hind and their control ended only in the 9th century CE, when Umar ibn ‘Ald al-Aziz al-Habbari was appointed governor in 854 CE.

    The Habbarid Emirate of Al-Sind

    Habbari took full advantage of the Abbasid troubles and declared a hereditary governorship, which was in everything in name but a dynasty. The Habbarids ruled Sind from 854-1024 CE until they were defeated by the Ghaznavids in the invasion of 1026 CE. Interestingly, 1026 CE is also when the Hindu Shahi kingdom (850-1026 CE) of the Kabul Valley to the north of the Habbarid realms, was defeated by the Ghaznavids.

    Between the Habbarids of Sind and the Hindu Shahis was the Emirate of the Banu Munabbih which was established at the same time as the Habbarids. The Banu Munabbih (855-959 CE), who claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed, established their own Emirate with their capital at Multan. This was part of the Abbasid Caliphate, though virtually independent, like the Habbarids.

    In 959 CE, the Qarmatians (a Shiite branch of Twelvers from Egypt and Iraq who were expelled by the Caliphate) took on the Banu Munabbih and wrested control of the Emirate. The new Ismaili Emirate as it was called lasted from 959-1010 CE. Multan became a very prosperous and flourishing town as witnessed by the Arab geographer al-Maqdisi in 985 CE. The Ismaili Emirate came to an end in 1010 CE after being successfully conquered by the Ghaznavids.

    The Habbarids did not really expand in any direction but they traded extensively with the western coast of India and with Persia, Arabia and the eastern coasts of the Red Sea and Africa. They also appear to have had very good relations with the Hindu Shahis to their north.

    Islamic historian Finbarr Barry Flood details the very close relationship of the Habbarids with the Rashtrakutas of the Deccan as they had a common enemy i.e. the Gurjara Pratiharas. Habbarid coins found at the 10th-12th CE levels at the Sanjan Excavations (in south Gujarat) are proof of this. Their main cities were Mansura and Multan (both in Sind).

    Merchants travelled here from the roof of the world and from the Indian Ocean Littoral. Their main port was the city of Banbhore near the confluence of the Indus and the Arabian Sea. At Banbhore too, archaeologists have found extensive evidence of the Indian Ocean trade. Merchants from the heartland of India too traded with these regions and Habbarid coins are found in many places in Rajasthan and in Gujarat.

    The Habbarid Emirate finally came to an end with the Ghaznavid invasion of Sind in 1025-26 CE and with the end of the Habbarid Emirate came to an end a fascinating Arab chapter in the history of Sind.

    This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

    This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

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