It is unfortunate but for a large section of non-Muslims around the world, the defining perception of Islam and Islamic history has been influenced by what they see on news channels. Few realize that the 1,400-year-long history of Islam, across continents, is also a fascinating journey of cultural exuberance evident from Alhambra in Spain to the imperial capitals of Istanbul and Tehran, and further afield in South East Asia.
The recently released book Islam: An Illustrated Journey by Farhad Daftary and Zulfikar Hirji, published by Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, is a richly illustrated account of Islamic history, covering the social, political and cultural landscapes of the vast regions of the world where Islam was adopted and took root.
For centuries, India had strong trade and cultural ties with pre-Islamic Arabia and these continued even with the advent of Islam. Islam first arrived in India through Arab traders in the port cities on the western coast. The conquest of Sindh in 711 CE by the armies of the Ummayad chaliphate under Muhammad bin Al-Qasim Al-Thaqafi opened up a new chapter of Islam in Indian history.
The book makes interesting references to early interactions between the Arab armies and local Buddhist populations on the edges of the subcontinent and how this shaped Islam – something that has not been explored much, especially in India.
While in the North, new dynasties would establish themselves in quick succession across the centuries, Indian ports along the coast remained thriving centres of commercial and cultural exchange with the Islamic world. For instance, in 1067 CE, a community of Yemeni Arabs who were Ismaili Muslims set up base in the ports of Gujarat. They went on to form the rich and influential Ismaili Bohra community which thrives to this day.
The Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt (1250 – 1517 CE) also maintained close ties with the Sultanates of Gujarat and Malwa. Further South, the Deccani Sultanates would closely align themselves with the Persianate world. And other communities like the Siddis from Africa and the Hadramis from Yemen made India their home.
I spoke to co-author Zulfikar Hirji, Associate Professor of Anthropology at York University, Toronto, who specializes in the social history of Muslim societies and cultures. He shared his perspectives on the history of the Islamic world through centuries and its interactions with India.
In your book, you have covered a broad expanse of 1,400 years of Islamic history. What do you feel were the major turning points in the history of Islam?
From its inception, the Revelation of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad’s delivery of that Revelation, constituted a major shift – a philosophical and ethical shift in the Arabian Peninsula which had many ripple effects, so was a major turning point. You know, the pre-Islamic Arabs had a very fatalistic notion of life and what the Quran did was turn that conception of life around into something hopeful. And that, for me, is a recurring trope in Islamic history.
Another major turning point was the arrival of the Mongol armies into Central Asia, and then Iran starting in the 13th century and the eventual sack of Baghdad in 1258 was another moment of despair that eventually turned into hope. There are these reports of heaps of skulls and the burning of books, but within the next few hundred years, the Mongols themselves became Muslims and they articulate Islam in their own way but adopt many of the local traditions and regional influences to which Islam was articulated prior to their arrival.
So, in a sense, there is a shift. The Mongols connected Persia and Central Asia more forcefully with China, and we see a movement and migration of Chinese art, ideas and objects through these realms. The Mongols made this more tenable as they set up a system of secure highways and introduced passports, which traders and artisans could use to travel freely. The Mongols patronized and facilitated those connections.
I think this also happened in the 10th century, under the Fatimid Shi’a Ismaili dynasty (first in North Africa and then from Cairo in Egypt), when allegiance to the Abbasids (Abbasid Caliphate) in Baghdad was being challenged. A moment of confusion and despair about rightful religio-political power and authority turned into a moment of hope.
The Fatimid Caliphate also established amazing trade networks, through the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean, also into Sub-Saharan Africa, into India, providing all kinds of opportunities for goods and services into and out of those realms as well as ideas about science, art, and other forms of knowledge and cultural expression. Much of this is attested to in the Jewish documents of the Cairo Geniza, an archive of commercial, financial and domestic documents dating from the 9th–15th centuries.
These are just a few of the catalytic moments in which Muslim societies were rejuvenated and reinvigorated, because they shared ideas, which then they viewed through the lens of their own faith tradition, in new and exciting ways.
That brings me to the recent period and people ask me, what happened? I think the European colonial period is also a moment of catalytic change. I think it has been read as a state of despair for Muslims, because they lost their autonomy and their lands, but I think it was the same for communities everywhere where European colonialism took root, including South Asia.
The European colonial experience may have been somewhat unprecedented in world history. Empires existed before, but they allowed a certain local autonomy to exist. I think what European colonialism did was that it infiltrated the mind and the culture, not just the territory. That colonial mentality, that you basically restructure the fabric and institutions of society in your own image, in which some histories matter and others don’t, some forms of discourse matter and others don’t, some cultures matters and others don’t, I think we are all still working through that.
What is the next moment of catalytic change for Muslims? I think it is going to be all of us, together. If Muslims embrace and ask these questions themselves, they can use the filters of historical experience, ethics, faith to really reimagine and reposition themselves as creative agents of change. And, you know, there is a whole history of Muslims doing just that.
Each time there have been cycles of despair and hope, there have been different attitudes brought to the table. One is to shut down and repeat exactly what your ancestors did, another is to take a leap of faith and embrace change on your own terms. As a historian, I think embracing change has been a more productive enterprise for Muslims.
How do you see the early interaction between Islam and India?
I think there were many moments of Muslim arrival in South Asia and India, in particular. One moment, for example, was the arrival of the Umayyads (Umayyad Caliphate) in the 8th century at the Indus. Here, there were a lot of Buddhist communities and it allowed for certain kinds of interaction between these Buddhists and the Muslims. And many of these Buddhist kingdoms were kept intact. The Muslims did not dismantle or destroy them.
But the Indus remained a frontier zone. I don’t think the Umayyads tried to go much past it. And I think they were themselves surprised that they managed to get that far. And one has to ask what conquest means in that period anyway? It means, perhaps, converting or gaining the allegiance of a local ruler or getting them to agree to become a vassal state; you get their allegiance and you move on.
Remember, the Arab Muslim armies were small. They were not huge. They surprised everyone, including historians who are still working out how they succeeded. They seemed to have had conviction and strategic force but they were certainly not running around forcibly converting conquered peoples.
The Arab–Sindh experience between the 8th and 10th centuries is interesting. Derryl MacLean, who has written a very good book about this moment, talks about the arrival of the Arab Muslim governors in Sindh and them beginning to ask questions like how do we deal with non-Muslim peoples, and let's not do this and let’s do that; they were working things out based on their interpretation of principles of faith and models of governance they knew.
Thus, Buddhist monks continued to collect alms and temples were rebuilt; people led their lives and conversion was not a priority nor was it achieved through force; as far as we can see from the historical record, there was no compulsion to become a Muslim.
Early Islamic society was often about good governance, with military leaders setting themselves up in garrison towns while letting people manage their own affairs. I don’t think these early rulers had a systematic plan, because many Islamic institutions were still not fully formed, and there were few precedents to follow. And, of course, there was the trade. Early Muslims set up trading partnerships, and enhanced their revenues through trade, they built on pre-exiting networks and diverted routes where needed.
Akshay: Regarding the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad, what do we know of the transfer of knowledge between India, the West and the Islamic world, during the Abbasid Caliphate?
Zulfikar: The first decades of the Abbasid period are fascinating because it is often considered the start of Islam’s so-called ‘Golden Age’ when Islamic learning and culture began to really take off. Baghdad was undoubtedly a centre of learning and culture, and Bayt al-Hikma was a major institution.
Here, it is reported that the Abbasids accumulated books in Greek, Syriac, Arabic, Persian and many other languages. The Sanskrit Panchatantra or Tales of Bidpai animal fables, which were translated from Persian into Arabic as the Kalila wa Dimna by Ibn al-Muqaffa in the 8th century, may have been the kind of literature that was housed in the Bayt al-Hikma along with mathematical, philosophical and other treatises from different parts of Asia. Hence, Baghdad attracted numerous scholars, artists, writers and poets from within and outside the Muslim world.
On balance, these openness stories about what they were doing were probably true. Some of the inventions that you see, the movement and migration of ideas like navigational instruments, star charts, boat-building techniques and so on are all products of shared knowledge. As for Dar al-Hikma, people are writing about it, debating and there is a new scholarship that will provide a new lens into this.
Akshay: History has traditionally been seen from the perspectives of land-based empires. But you emphasize the importance of looking at trade routes and the migration of people, the so-called ‘liquid empires’. Tell us about that.
Zulfikar: The focus on land-based empires produces a certain kind of historical narrative, which can assume that territories are conquered from land routes and that people are mostly sedentary. I think it is equally important to look waterways. So, when you look at the Indian Ocean, you look at these areas, you actually begin to see the culture of the sea, port cities like Mombasa, Muscat, Mumbai and Cochin dotted, as they are, around a large body of water, these are great locations to look at as places of interaction between peoples and hubs of cosmopolitan culture. So you have these people moving to the ports and how they live and work together tells a very different story to the ones in more isolated or inland locations. That’s why I am particularly interested in the Western Indian Ocean as a ‘liquid continent’ and one of the world’s earliest diasporas. I do think that examining these spaces brings a different kind of perspective to our understanding of human history: one where movement and exchange are constant.
It should not be forgotten that a big impetus that has carried Muslims to other places in the world is the Hajj. There are many narratives there and I talk about some of them in the book: the Hajj caravans and pilgrimage ways were taken along land routes, across sub-Saharan Africa, for example, as well as sea routes, such as those from Southeast Asia.
If you lost your life at sea, your Hajj was fulfilled as the intention was there, and when they returned, they brought back stories, ideas and cargo. I just love the oceans as a kind of counter-narrative. The idea of ‘liquid continent’ was first developed by the 20th-century French historian Fernand Braudel when he talked about the Mediterranean. It’s a good analytical tool to work with. That’s how my own interest in the Western Indian Ocean study was sparked.
Akshay: Today, on one hand, you see tremendous human and technological progress, and on the other, the rise of extremism. How do you view the phase that Islam is in today?
Zulfikar: We should be careful to not generalise the positions of millions of Muslims around the world based on the voices of people who have the loudest megaphones but represent a small community: they don’t represent the sum total of Muslim experience and understanding of Islam historically or in the contemporary period.
I think in the contemporary period what is more important is to ask what the vast numbers of Muslims in the world are doing? They are living close to and in harmony with their non-Muslim neighbours, working in their communities for a better life and paying for their child's education. They are not sitting and worrying about the same things that perhaps a TV channel would obsess about and they are just trying to live their lives in a way that is productive and peaceful.
I think what is unfortunate is that the breadth and depth of Islamic history and culture are unknown to both non-Muslims and Muslims. I can say, based on my own teaching experiences, that many Muslims are not fully aware of their own histories. One reason could be that the European colonial period and its educational systems severed knowledge about their traditions of learning, of culture, of art and architecture.
My Muslim students are more likely to have heard about the inventions of the 16th-century polymath Leonardo da Vinci than his 10th-century Muslim predecessor Ibn al-Haytham. And it would be important to state that Muslims have made inroads because of original ideas but often also because of their close collaboration and willingness to engage with the cultures they have been part of, such as those of South Asia. It is argued that Islam’s mathematical achievements were based on the integration of Greek and Indic concepts, particularly the numeral zero.
I think it is important to recognize that this idea that everybody in the Muslim world thinks the same way about Islam and has the same position on it, is not correct, as a point of fact. But also that everybody should think exactly the same way, is not what many Muslims hold to be true: there is a rich history of debate and contestation in the Islamic tradition and a shared set of foundations. It is an incredibly pluralistic tradition that has many diverse histories.