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Home > eBooks > Unpublished Manuscripts > The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire > 4 The First Muslim Incursion into the Indian Subcontinent

The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire

Alexander Berzin, 1996
lightly revised, January 2003, December 2006

Part I: The Umayyad Caliphate (661 – 750 CE)

4 The First Muslim Incursion into the Indian Subcontinent

The Situation of the East-West Trade Routes

The overland Silk Route from China to the West passed from East to West Turkistan, and on through Sogdia and Iran to Byzantium and Europe. An alternative route passed from West Turkistan through Bactria, the Kabul and Punjabi portions of Gandhara, then by ship down the Indus River to Sindh, and on through the Arabian and Red Seas. From Gandhara, Chinese and Central Asian trade also continued to northern India.

[ View Map Seven: The Silk Route.]

Buddhist monasteries dotted the Silk Route from China to the Sindh ports. They provided rest facilities and capital loans for merchants. Further, they housed lay Buddhist artisans who cut the semiprecious gems brought from China. The Buddhist merchants and artisans provided the main financial support for the monasteries. Thus, commerce was essential for the welfare of the Buddhist community.

Before the Arab conquest of Iran, the Sassanids ruling Iran exacted a high tariff on any goods transported overland through their territory. Consequently, Byzantium favored trade via the less costly sea route through Sindh to Ethiopia and then on by land. In 551, however, silk worm cultivation was introduced to Byzantium and the demand for Chinese silk went down. The Arab military campaigns in the seventh century further inhibited trade until the overland commercial route through Iran could be secured. At the turn of the eighth century, the Han Chinese pilgrim Yijing reported that the trade from China to Sindh was severely curtailed in Central Asia due to incessant warfare among the Umayyads, Tang Chinese, Tibetans, Eastern Turks, Turki Shahis, and Turgish. Consequently, Chinese goods and pilgrims traveled primarily by sea via the Strait of Malacca and Sri Lanka. Thus, on the eve of the Umayyad invasion, the Buddhist communities in Sindh were experiencing difficult times.

The Invasion of Sindh

Throughout the early years of their caliphate, the Umayyads had tried several times to invade the Indian subcontinent. Undoubtedly, one of their main objectives was to gain control of the trade route branch that ran down the Indus River valley to the seaports of Sindh. As they never succeeded in wresting Gandhara from the hands of the Turki Shahis, they were never able to pass through their territory to enter the subcontinent through the Khyber Pass. The only alternative was to skirt Gandhara, take Sindh to its south, and attack Gandhara on two fronts.

[ View Map Eight: Umayyad Campaigns against Sindh and Bactria.]

The first two attempts to take Sindh were unsuccessful. However, in 711, at about the same time as they took Samarkand, the Arabs finally achieved their aim. At that time, Hajjaj bin Yusuf Sakafi was the governor of the easternmost provinces of the Umayyad Empire, which included modern-day eastern Iran, Baluchistan (Makran), and southern Afghanistan. He decided to dispatch his nephew and son-in-law, General Muhammad bin-Qasim, with twenty thousand troops, to launch a double-pronged invasion of Sindh by land and by sea. The initial target was the coastal city of Debal, near present-day Karachi.

Sindh, at this time, had a mixed population of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. Xuanzang reported more than four hundred Buddhist monasteries there with twenty-six thousand monks. The Buddhists constitiuted the majority of the urban mercantile and artisan class, while the Hindus were mostly rural farmers. The area was ruled by Chach, a Hindu brahmin with a rural basis, who had usurped control of the government. He supported agriculture and was not interested in protecting trade.

The Hindus had a warrior caste which, along with their political and religious leaders, fought the huge Umayyad force. The Buddhists, on the other hand, lacking any martial tradition or caste, and discontent with Chach’s policies, were willing to avoid destruction and submit peacefully. General bin-Qasim’s troops won the victory, and reportedly massacred large numbers of the local population, inflicting heavy damage on the city as punishment for their stiff resistance. It is hard to know how exaggerated that report was. After all, the Arabs wished to preserve a financially viable Sindh in order to increase and profit from the trade that passed through it. Nevertheless, the Umayyads razed the main Hindu temple and erected a mosque on its site.

The Umayyad forces then set out against Nirun near present-day Pakistani Hyderabad. The Buddhist governor of the city surrendered voluntarily. However, to set a further example, the triumphant Muslims constructed here as well a mosque on the site of the main Buddhist monastery. They spared the rest of the town.

Both Buddhists and Hindus cooperated with the Arabs, although more Buddhists did than Hindus. Thus, two-thirds of the Sindhi towns submitted peacefully to the invaders and made treaty agreements. Those who resisted were attacked and punished; those who submitted or cooperated gained security and freedom of religion. 

The Occupation of Sindh

With the consent of Governor Hajjaj, General bin-Qasim now pursued a policy of tolerance. The Buddhists and Hindus were given the status of protected subjects (dhimmi). So long as they remained loyal to the Umayyad caliph and paid the poll tax, they were allowed to follow their faiths and keep their land and property. Many Buddhist merchants and artisans, however, voluntarily converted to Islam. As competition arose from Muslim quarters, they saw economic advantage in changing religions and paying less tax. In addition to the poll tax, dhimmi merchants had to pay double duty on all goods.

On the other hand, although the general had a certain interest in propagating Islam, this was not his main concern. Of course, he welcomed conversion, but his primary preoccupation was maintaining political power. He needed to raise as much wealth as possible to pay back Hajjaj for the huge expense of his campaign and all the previous military failures.

The Arab general accomplished his aim not only by means of the poll, land, and trade taxes, but also through a pilgrim tax that the Buddhists and Hindus had to pay to visit their own holy shrines. Perhaps this indicates that the Buddhist monks of Sindh, like their counterparts in Gandhara to the north, also had the degenerate custom at this time of charging pilgrims admission to their temples and that the Umayyads merely took over the income. Thus, for the most part, the Muslims did not destroy any further Buddhist or Hindu temples in Sindh, or the images or relics enshrined within them, since they attracted pilgrims and generated revenue.

The Expedition to Saurashtra

The largest center of Buddhist activity in western India at the time was at Valabhi, located on the coast of eastern Saurashtra in present-day Gujarat. The region was ruled by the Maitraka Dynasty (480 – 710) that had broken away from the First Gupta Empire during its final years of decline before the White Hun takeover. According to Xuanzang, there were over a hundred monasteries in the area with six thousand monks.

The greatest of these institutions was the Dudda Vihara Complex, a vast monastic university where monks received a broad education that included not only Buddhist religious subjects, but medicine and secular sciences as well. Many of its graduates went on to government service under the Maitrakas. Its kings, in turn, granted the monasteries several villages each for their support. The Han Chinese pilgrim Yijing visited Valabhi in the final years of Maitraka rule and attested to its continuing greatness.

In 710, one year before the Umayyad invasion of Sindh, the Maitraka kingdom dissolved, with the Rashtrakutas (710 – 775) taking charge of most of it. The new rulers continued their predecessors’ patronage of the Buddhist monasteries. The training programs at Dudda Vihara were not disturbed.

Shortly thereafter, General bin-Qasim sent expeditions to Saurashtra, where his forces made peaceful treaty settlements with the Rashtrakuta rulers. Sea trade from central India to Byzantium and Europe passed through the Saurashtran ports. The Arabs wished to tax it as well, especially if Indians tried to divert commerce there from Gandhara to avoid the Sindhi ports.

The Muslim soldiers inflicted no damage on the Buddhist institutions of Valabhi at this time. They continued to flourish and take in refugee monks displaced from Sindh. In the subsequent years, many new monasteries were added at Valabhi to accommodate the influx.

Evaluation of the Sindhi Campaign

Umayyad destruction of Buddhist monasteries in Sindh seems to have been a rare and initial event in their occupation. The conquering generals ordered it in order to punish or deter opposition. It was not the rule. When, later, areas such as Saurashtra submitted peacefully, the Umayyad forces left the monasteries alone. If the Muslim Arabs were intent on eliminating Buddhism, they would not have left Valabhi untouched at this time. Thus, we may infer that the acts of violence against the Buddhist monasteries were, for the most part, politically, not religiously motivated. Of course, individual participants in the events may have had their own personal motivations.

After spending only three years in Sindh, General bin-Qasim returned to Hajjaj’s court, leaving to his underlings the task of implementing his pragmatic policy of exploiting the Buddhists’ and Hindus’ religious sentiment to generate revenue. Within a very short time of his departure, however, the local Hindu rulers regained control of most of their territories, leaving the Arabs in only a few of the major Sindhi cities.

The Umayyad Recapture of Bactria

In 715, Governor Hajjaj, encouraged by the success of his nephew in Sindh, sent General Qutaiba to retake Bactria by attacking from northeastern Iran. The general was successful and proceeded to inflict heavy damage on Nava Vihara as punishment for the previous insurrection. Many monks fled eastward to Kashmir and Khotan. The Karkota king, Lalitaditya (r. 701 – 738), built many new monasteries in Kashmir, at the encouragement of his Bactrian Buddhist minister, to accommodate the great influx of learned refugees. This greatly boosted the level of Kashmiri Buddhism.

Nava Vihara quickly recovered and soon was functioning as before, indicating that the Muslims’ damaging of Buddhist monasteries in Bactria was not a religiously motivated act. Had it been, they would not have allowed the rebuilding of such an institution.

After the Umayyad victory in Bactria over the Turki Shahis and their Tibetan allies, the Tibetans changed sides and, for political expediency, allied themselves now with the Arabs. Having failed in their other alliances to regain the East Turkistani oasis cities that they had lost twenty-two years earlier, the Tibetans undoubtedly hoped that, with the Umayyads, they could conquer the Silk Route and then share its control. Religious differences apparently played no role when it came to expanding power and increasing the coffers of the state.

With the help of the Tibetans, General Qutaiba next took Ferghana from the Turgish, but was killed in battle while preparing to launch a further expedition to conquer Kashgar from the Turgish as well. The Arabs never found another opportunity to advance into East Turkistan.

First Attempts to Spread Islam

Despite the general trend of religious tolerance by previous Umayyad caliphs, Umar II (717 - 720) inaugurated a policy of spreading Islam by sending spiritual teachers (Arab. ulama) to distant lands. His position, however, was rather weak and he could not enforce his policy strictly. For example, the Caliph decreed that local chieftains could rule in Sindh only if they converted to Islam. However, since the Umayyads had lost effective political control of Sindh at the time, he was mostly ignored and did not force the issue. The Muslim converts lived in harmony with the Sindhi Buddhists and Hindus, a pattern that continued even after the decline of Umayyad rule. Pala Dynasty (750 – late twelfth century) inscriptions from northern India during the subsequent centuries continue to refer to Buddhist monks from Sindh.

Umar II also decreed that all Umayyad allies should follow Islam. Thus, the Tibetan imperial court sent an envoy requesting a teacher come to its land to preach the new faith. The Caliph sent al-Salit bin-Abdullah al-Hanafi. The fact that this teacher had no recorded success in gaining converts to Islam in Tibet demonstrates that the Umayyads were not insistent in their attempt to spread their religion. In fact, Arab tribalism was far more important to the Umayyads than establishing a multicultural Islamic society. Wherever they conquered in Central Asia, they transplanted their religion and culture primarily for themselves.

There were other reasons as well why Tibet was not receptive to the Muslim teacher. These had little to do with the doctrines of Islam itself. Let us look more closely at the political background of this first encounter between Islam and Buddhism in Tibet.