Muhammad b. Qasim and the true story of “damsels in distress”


Waqar Akbar Cheema


In a bid to rewrite history on the pattern of orientalists some people today seek to question the authenticity of the popular narrative about Muhammad bin Qasim being sent to Sindh after the local ruler had clandestinely captured an Arabia bound ship following which news of some Muslim women calling  for help reached the governor of Iraq. Taking a particular write up to this effect as an immediate reference point, this article analyzes the reality of arguments of such people with recourse to earliest sources.

1. Introduction

In recent times we have seen a host of pseudo-intellectuals and self-styled historians with borrowed minds questioning the episodes of Islamic history that they fail to reconcile with the peculiar image of the Muslim heroes originally painted either by the Orientalists or Hindu fanatics.

Backdrop of Muhammad bin Qasim’s conquest of Sindh is one such episode. It is being contended that there is no truth in the story of plundered and kidnapped Muslim women calling for help and that it was only a political expediency and pursuit of some rebels that made the Umayyads launch an offensive against Hindu ruler of Sindh, Raja Dahir. Lately a certain Farhan Ahmad Shah[1] has suggested that the rebels were actually the loyalists of Sayyidina Hussain, may peace be upon him. Moreover, he says, since Hajjaj was a governor for the Umayyads and is known for killing even some companions of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, how can it be fathomed that he did something for such a noble cause? He also tells us that it is nothing short of an irony that on one side we hold Hussain, may Allah bless him, in respect and then “in the same breath we idolise his killers.”

2. The story of “damsels in distress”

Let’s first dwell on the story referred to as that of “damsels in distress.”

Mr. Farhan Ahmad Shah had the audacity to write:

The earliest source mentioning MbQ’s adventure in Sindh is Baladhuri’s ‘Futuh al-Buldan’. No maidens are mentioned therein and they found their way into historical accounts centuries later.

Seemingly he was over confident that every reader will swallow his blatant lies hook, line and sinker. Following exposes the ignorant rambling of this graduate from “Angraizistan.”

2.1 Al-Baladhuri’s account

Al-Baladhuri (d. 279/892) mentions the story in most categorical words. Here is the original Arabic:[2]

ثُمَّ استعمل الحجاج بعد مجاعة مُحَمَّد بْن هارون بْن ذراع النمري فأهدى إِلَى الحجاج في ولايته ملك جزيرة الياقوت نسوة ولدن في بلاده مسلمات ومات آباؤهن وكانوا تجارا فأراد التقرب بهن، فعرض للسفينة الَّتِي كنا فيها قوم من ميد الديبل في بوارج فأخذوا السفينة بما فيها فنادت امرأة منهن وكانت من بني يربوع يا حجاج، وبلغ الحجاج ذلك فقال: يا لبيك فأرسل إِلَى داهر يسأله تخلية النسوة. فقال: إنما أخذهن لصوص لا أقدر عليهم، فأغزى الحجاج عُبَيْد اللَّه بْن نبهان الديبل فقتل، فكتب إِلَى بديل بْن طهفة البجلي وهو بعمان يأمره أن يسير إِلَى الديبل، فلما لقيهم نفر به فرسه فأطاف به العدو فقتلوه … ثُمَّ ولى الحجاج مُحَمَّد بْن الْقَاسِم بْن مُحَمَّد بْن الحكم بْن أَبِي عقيل في أيام الوليد بْن عَبْد الملك فغزا السند

And the translation;

 Then, after Mujja’ah, al-Hajjaj appointed Muhammad ibn-Harun ibn Dhira an-Namari, and during his administration the king of the island of Rubies (Ceylon) sent to al-Hajjaj some women who were born in his country as Moslems, their fathers, who had been merchants, having died. He wanted to court favor with al-Hajjaj by sending them back. But the ship in which they were sailing was attacked by some of the Mid of ad-Daibul in barks (bawarij), and was captured with all that was in it. One of the women, who was of the tribe of the banu-Yarbu‘ cried out, “O Hajjaj!” al-Hajjaj heard of this and exclaimed, “Here am I (ya labbayk).” He sent to Dahir, asking him to set the women free, but Dahir replied, “Pirates over whom I have no control captured them.” So al-Hajjaj sent ‘Ubaidallah ibn-Nabhan to raid ad-Daibul, but he was killed. Then al-Hajjaj wrote to Budail ibn-Tahfah al-Bajali, who was in ‘Uman, ordering him to go against ad-Daibul. But when Budail met the enemy his horse ran away with him, and the enemy surrounded him and killed him … Then al-Hajjaj put Muhammad ibn-al-Kasim ibn-Muhammad ibn-al-Hakam ibn-abu-‘Ukail in charge, during the reign of al-Walid ibn ‘Abd-al-Malik. He raided as-Sind.[3]

 2.2 The narrative from Chachnamah

The same is recorded in another early work Tarikh Sind wa Hind, commonly known as Chachnamah:

It is related that the king of Sarandeb (Ceylon/Sri Lanka) sent some curiosities and presents from the island of pearls, in a small fleet of boats by sea, for Hajjaj. He also sent some beautiful pearls and valuable jewels, as well as some Abyssinian male and female slaves, some pretty presents, and unparalleled rarities to the capital of the Khalifah. A number of Mussalman women also went with them with the object of visiting the Kaabah, and seeing the capital city of the Khalifahs. When they arrived in the province of Kazrun, the boat was overtaken by a storm, and drifting from the right way, floated to the coast of Debal. Here a band of robbers, of the tribe of Nagamrah, who were residents of Debal, seized all the eight boats, took possession of the rich silken cloths they contained, captured the men and women, and carried away all the valuable property and jewels.

The officers of the king of Sarandeb and the women informed them that, the property was intended for the Khalifah then regnant, but they paid no heed and said: “If there is anyone to hear your complaint, and to help you, purchase your liberty.” Then they all cried with one voice: “O Hajjaj, O Hajjaj, hear us and help us.” The woman who first uttered that cry belonged to the family of Bani Aziz. Wasat Asaadi states that when Debal was conquered he had occasion to see that woman, who was fair-skinned and of tall stature. The merchants (who were in the boats) were brought to Debal, and the people who had fled from the boats came to Hajjaj and informed him of what had happened. “The Mussalman women,” said they, “are detained at Debal and they cry out: ‘O Hajjaj, O Hajjaj, hear us, help us’.” When Hajjaj heard this, he said, as if in reply to the call of the women: “Here am I, here am I.” It is also stated in a tradition about Hajjaj that, when the Mussalman women were asked what they meant by calling Hajjaj to their help, they replied: “We were in a sleep-like repose and we were disturbed in it, and so we called him to save us from the cruel and  unmerciful people, who had confined us in captivity.”[4]

For the antiquity and authenticity of Chachnama it should suffice to say that both Muslim and Orientalist historians have considered it reliable especially for cases where there is no rival narrative in any other early work. For multiple factors “it is reasonable to say that the book was written not long after that conquest was completed.”[5] H.M. Elliot has an elaborate discussion arguing for the same.[6]

The story is also narrated in a work, later but of established authority, Tarikh Farishta, of Muhammad Qasim Farishta (d. 1029/1620).[7]

3. The case of rebels

Before we look into the details of the rebels let it first be said that attempts to conquer Sind and Hind started as early as the time of Caliph Umar.[8] And such attempts were periodically made thereafter. Some of these efforts were actually successful but were not followed up passionately while others met failure.

According to Chachnamah when Hajjaj was appointed as the governor of Iraq and lands further east, he appointed Sa’id bin Aslam bin Zur’ah al-Kilabi as his representative in Makran. There he met a certain Safhawi bin Lam al-Humami[9] who refused to obey him. Sa’id had him killed. Author of Chachnama then states:

It is said in a tradition on the authority of Kaibat son of Ashas, that one day, Kublaibat son of Halaf Mughanni, Abdullah son of Abdur Rahím ‘Ilafi[10], and Muhammad son of Muawiyeh ‘Ilafi, conspired among themselves, saying  “Safahwi son of Lam was from our country. He belongs to ‘Uman[11] and our part of the country jointly. How dared Sa’id to kill a kinsman of ours?” So when they met him accidentally near Marali-Bakhraj, while he was coming to that place, (as said above) an altercation occurred between them, which ended in a fight and the ‘Ilafís made an assault on Sa’id and killed him.[12]

According to Khalifa bin Khayyat (d. 240/854) the chief perpetrators were two brothers Muhammad bin Harith al-‘Ilafi and Muawiya bin Harith al-‘Ilafi. This happened in the year 78/697.[13]

Sa’id was a trusted man of Hajjaj and his murder naturally infuriated him. In the year 80/699 he appointed Muhammad bin Haroon[14] in his place and ordered him, “Find out the Ilafis, and try your best to secure them, and exact the vengeance due to Sa’id from them.”[15] Muhammad bin Haroon killed Muawiya al-‘Ilafi while Muhammad bin Harth al-‘Ilafi took refuge with Raja Dahir. Hajjaj sought for Abdul Malik bin Marwan’s permission to launch an offensive in pursuit of these rebels but before the decision could be made Abdul Malik (d. 86/705) passed away. Thereafter the matter was pushed under the rug before the incident of plunder of ships with Muslim pilgrims drew Hajjaj’s attention to Sind once more.[16]  Muhammad bin Qasim attacked Sind in the year 90/711.[17]

It is therefore clear that while there was a will to conquer Sind from very early times and the support of then rulers of Sind for the rebels incited Muslims to attack it, the immediate cause and the “straw that broke camel’s back” was the very incident of Muslims, including women, getting plundered and kidnapped by Dahir’s thugs.

Further, it proves the incident that lead to the rebellion by the al-‘Ilafi brothers and their subsequent asylum in Dahir’s dominion was all about personal row between two individuals that lead to so-to-say a limited-scale ethnic feud which in turn resulted in a rebellion. There is no suggestion of it being related to opponents and loyalists of Sayyidina Hussain, may Allah be pleased with him.

4. An appeal to emotion about Hajjaj

No doubt Hajjaj was a cruel man and he did many wrongs and even treated some of the blessed companions very cruelly. This, however, does not mean that he could never do any good.  Mr. Shah’s arguments are nothing but an appeal to emotion far removed from objectivity of even the least degree.

5. The crime of Dahir

Dahir was actually the patron of the thugs who plundered the ships carrying Muslim women and pilgrims. This is proven by the fact that they were held as prisoners in the fort of Debal and were recovered therefrom after the fall of the fort.[18]

6. Muhammad bin Qasim’s conquests and the spread of Islam

 Muhammad bin Qasim like other Muslim conquerers of that time did not force people to embrace Islam. Their conquests, however, certainly removed the physical obstruction in the way of Islam in the form of non-Muslim rulers.[19] Moreover, an important aspect of the conquests of that era is mentioned by Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373) in his comment immediately following the account of Muhammad bin Qasim’s victories. He writes:

وكان في عساكرهم وجيوشهم في الغزو الصالحون والأولياء والعلماء من كبار التابعين، في كل جيش منهم شرذمة عظيمة ينصر الله بهم دينه

With their armies in these campaigns there used to be  righteous men, saints and scholars from amongst the elder tabi’un (i.e. successors of Prophet’s companions). In every army there was a large group of them that supported the deen of Allah.[20]

7. Summary and Conclusion

 a. The well-known story of a ship with Muslim women getting plundered is authentic and recorded in the earliest sources.

 b. While there were other reasons for Muslims to attack Dahir it was this incident that finally brought about the expedient.

 c. The issue of rebels that lastly caused the trouble had nothing to do with opposition and loyalty to Imam Hussain (may Allah be pleased with him).

 d. There is no point in questioning the account of Hajjaj feeling for Muslim women because he had been doing wrongs otherwise.

 e. Dahir was indeed the patron of those plundered the ship with Muslims and captured those aboard including women.

 f. Hatred for Muslim heroes is actually leading some people to divorce with reason and honesty.


References & Notes:

[1] Shah, Farhan Ahmad, “Of textbooks, extremism and Mohammed bin Qasim”, Daily Times, Last Accessed Jan. 19, 2014 12:08 pm GMT

[2] Al-Baladhuri, Ahmad bin Yahya, Futuh al-Baldan, (Beirut: Maktaba al-Hilal, 1988), 419-420

[3] Murgotten, Francis Clark, The Origins of the Islamic State- Translation from Kitab Futuh al-Baldan of al-Baladhuri, (New York: Columbia University, 1924)  215-216

[4] Fredunbeg, Mirza Kalichbeg (trans.), The Chachnamah- An Ancient History of Sind, (Karachi: Commissioner’s Press, 1900) 67-68

[5] Jaffar, S.M., “End of ‘Imad-ud-Din Muhammad ibn Qasim. The Arab Conqueror of Sind” in Quarterly Islamic Culture, (Hyderabad Deccan, Jan. 1945) Vol.19, 57-59

[6] Elliot, H.M., The History of Indians as told by its Own Historians, Edited by John Dowson, (London: Trubner and Co., 1867) 131, 134-136ff.

[7] Farishta, Muhammad Qasim,  History of the Rise of the Mahomedan Power in India– Translated from the Original Persian by John Briggs (New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, n.d.) Vol.IV, 233-234

[8] The Chachnamah- An Ancient History of Sind, 57

[9] Athar al-Mubarakpuri puts it as al-‘Umani instead of al-Humami, See his al-‘Iqd ath-Thameen, 121. Perhaps Safahwi was al-Humami in lineage and al-‘Umani by region. (cf. al-Ansab of as-Sam’ani, Vol.4, 235)

[10] Translator actually put it as “Alafi” which is wrong. I have, therefore, changed it to al-‘Ilafi. Moreover, al-Mubarakpuri names him al-‘Umani instead of al-‘Ilafi, (al-‘Iqd ath-Thameen, 121)

[11] The translator put it is as “Amman” which is a mistake. It should be ‘Uman (= Oman)

[12] The Chachnamah- An Ancient History of Sind, 66

[13] Khalifa bin Khayyat, at-Tarikh, (Beirut: ar-Resalah publications, 1397 AH) 277

[14] ibid., 298

[15] The Chachnamah- An Ancient History of Sind, 67

[16] Najeebabadi, Akbar Shah, Aina Haqeeqat Numa, (Najeebabad: Maktaba ‘Ibrat, n.d.) 103

[17] Ibn Kathir, ‘Imad a-Deen, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, (Beirut: Dar al-Fekr, 1986) Vol.9, 77

[18] The Chachnamah- An Ancient History of Sind, 79-81

[19] For more on wisdom and rationale of Jihad on this account see Mufti Taqi Usmani’s “Islam and Modernism” Art. Aggressive and Defensive Jihad

[20] Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, Vol.9, 87

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Waqar Akbar Cheema

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