Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Contest of Religions in the Indian Subcontinent

The Islamic armies poured out of Arabia in 634 AD, and it took them less than three years to conquer the two major provinces of the Byzantine Empire: Palestine and Syria. After that they turned their attention to the Sassanid Empire (the Second Persian Empire), which comprised Iran, Iraq, and Khorasan. In 637, the Persians were defeated, and by 651, all of the Sassanid Empire was under Arab control. By 650, the Arabs had annexed much of Transoxiana. It took them seven years (639 and 646) to conquer the Byzantine province of Egypt. In 711, they invaded the Iberian Peninsula and conquered it in seven years. 

The toughest resistance that the Islamic armies faced was from the Hindu kingdoms in the Indian subcontinent. It is a myth that the Hindus were militarily disorganized and did not resist the Islamic invasions. It is a myth that the Indian subcontinent was a vast open area which could be easily captured by any foreign army. The Islamic invasion of the Indian subcontinent began in 636 (it was a failed naval expedition to Thana). The Islamic armies could not conquer any Hindu kingdom quickly, in one to seven years, as they had conquered the empires in the Middle East, Europe, North Africa, and Transoxiana. 

Mahmud of Ghazni is regarded by most historians as a very successful Islamic invader. He invaded India 12 to 17 times, depending on the account that you choose to believe, between 1001 and 1025. He plundered a number of cities, towns, and temples, but he did not conquer a single Hindu kingdom. He had conquered other kingdoms with ease: Iraq, Iran, and most of Transoxiana—but in the Indian subcontinent, he faced stiff resistance. After a prolonged struggle, he managed to annex some regions in Pakistan: the North-West province, Multan, and parts of Punjab. But these regions were already under Islamic rule.

The Islamic armies had to fight several wars, over a period of almost 570 years, before they succeeded in establishing the Delhi Sultanate in 1206. The Delhi Sultanate was constantly under siege by rebellious Hindu forces, and by the time of Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, it was finished, and the Maratha Empire (founded by Shivaji in 1674) had emerged as the dominant power in India. When the British took control of Delhi, the principal opposition that they were facing was not from the Mughal Empire, which did not exist at that time, but from the Marathas. The Marathas fought three wars with the British: 1775–82, 1803–05, and 1817–18. 

About ten years ago, I read a rather unique kind of book on the contest between the Indians and the Islamic armies during the Middle Ages: this was Ram Gopal Misra’s 1983 book, Indian Resistance To Early Muslim Invaders Till 1206 AD. On the subject of the early Islamic victories in the Middle East, Egypt, North Africa, and Transoxiana, Dr. Misra writes: “Astonishing as these victories of Islamic armies were, equally amazing was the ease and rapidity with which people of different creeds and races were assimilated with the Islamic fold. Syrians, Persians, Berbers, Turks and others—all were rapidly Islamized and their language and culture Arabicised.”

In contrast, Dr. Misra asserts, the conquest of the Indian subcontinent was not easy. This region could not be fully Islamized. Hinduism was severely wounded in the centuries of struggle against, first the Islamic forces and then the Christian forces, but it continues to flourish till this day. In the seventh century AD, when Islam was born, Hinduism was the largest religion in the world; today Hinduism is the third largest (after Christianity and Islam), with about 1.8 billion practitioners (including 535 million Buddhists).

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