Few topics in South Asian history are as contentious as that of the Turkic conquest of the Indian subcontinent that began in the twelfth century and led to a long period of Muslim rule. How is a historian supposed to write honestly about the bloody history of the conquest without falling into communitarian traps? Conquest and Community is Shahid Amin's answer. Covering more than eight hundred years of history, the book centers on the enduringly popular saint Ghazi Miyan, a youthful soldier of Islam whose shrines are found all over India. Amin details the warrior saint’s legendary exploits, then tracks the many ways he has been commemorated in the centuries since. The intriguing stories, ballads, and proverbs that grew up around Ghazi Miyan were, Amin shows, a way of domesticating the conquest—recognizing past conflicts and differences but nevertheless bringing diverse groups together into a community of devotees. What seems at first glance to be the story of one mythical figure becomes an allegory for the history of Hindu-Muslim relations over an astonishingly long period of time, and a timely contribution to current political and historical debates.
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About the Author
Shahid Amin is former professor of history at the University of Delhi and has also been a visiting fellow at Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, and Chicago. He is the author of Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922–1992.
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Conquest and Community
The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan
By Shahid Amin
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2015 Shahid Amin
All rights reserved.
Sufi and the Ghazi
The politics of the imagination of a 'Hindu India' has depended crucially on a particular reading of the oppression of the disunited denizens of the subcontinent by Muslim conquerors and rulers from the eleventh century till the establishment of British rule in the mid-eighteenth century.
Believing in four Vedas, six Shastras, eighteen Purans and 33 crore devtas Hindus, to begin with, were differentiated according to language, beliefs and customs, and then the [war of the] Mahabharata caused further havoc. The one or two germs of valour that remained were finished off by the Ahimsa of Lord Buddha ... Our ferociousness simply disappeared; our sense of pride deserted us, and as for anger, all sorts of sins were laid at its door. The result: we became devtas, mahatmas, or for that matter nice fellows [bhalmanus], but our spunk, we lost that. No fire, no spark, simply cold ash, that's what we became ...
And on the other side in the desert of Arabia a soul appeared who was brave as his word, and in whose religion killing, slaughtering, fighting and marauding were the principal elements ...
Thus wrote Manan Dwivedi, Bhojpuri poet, Hindi novelist and writer of nationalist prose in the prologue to an impressive two-part 'History of Muslim Rule in India', commissioned by the Hindi-nationalist Kashi Nagari Pracharini Sabha in the year 1920.
There are obvious continuities here with what Partha Chatterjee has called the 'new nationalist history of India' written in Bengali some fifty years earlier in the late nineteenth century. These vernacular histories transmitted the 'stereotypical figure of "the Muslim", endowed with a "national character", fanatical, bigoted, warlike, dissolute, cruel.' This distinct history, says Chatterjee,
[o]riginates in, and acquires its identity from the life of Muhammad. In other words, the dynasty that will be founded in Delhi at the beginning of the thirteenth century and the many changes that will take place in the subsequent five centuries are not to be described merely as the period of Turko-Afghan or Mughal India: they are integral parts of the political history of Islam.
The actors in this history are also given certain behavioural characteristics. They are warlike and believe it is their religious duty to kill infidels. Driven by the lust for plunder and the visions of cohabiting with the nymphs of paradise, they are even prepared to die in battle. They are not merely conquerors but 'delirious at the prospect of conquest' (digvijayonmatta), and consequently are by their very nature covetous of the riches of India.
Jin javanan tuv dharam nari dhan tinhon linhon: 'You Muslim foreigners! You have robbed us [Hindus] of [our] dharma, women and wealth — all three', wrote the Hindi poet Bharatendu Harishchandra in 1888, echoing pithily the stereotypical recollection of Muslim conquest and its effects on a Hindu India.
Ruled by Muslim kings of different dynasties, the Sultanate of Delhi, c. 1200 ce, expanded over the next three centuries to encompass large portions of northern and peninsular India. And when it was snuffed out in the 1520s by Zahir-ud-din Babur, an adventurer from the petty principality of Farghana in present-day Uzbekistan, the Delhi Kingdom was replaced by the more glamorous Mughal Empire, which lasted as an expanding imperial venture till the early eighteenth century, and nominally till the suppression of the Rebellion of 1857. It was then that the last of the Mughals was exiled by the triumphant British to oblivion in distant Rangoon. In their exercise of imperial hegemony and subcontinental power, the Mughals totally transformed the predatory meaning of the term 'Mongol/Mughal', reconfiguring in the process (in active interaction with the indigenous/local/'Hindu') a wide swath of the social, cultural and intellectual world of India.
Medieval 'Muslim' warfare and rule, c. 1000 onwards, has understandably been the object of considerable narrative anxiety from the nineteenth century to the present. And for good reason, for at its heart is the issue of the pre-colonial conquest of the subcontinent — and of its consequences. How different was this medieval 'Muslim' India of Turkish sultans and Mughal padshahs from the conquest and colonisation of India by industrial Britain? Here most accounts have been unable to extricate themselves from the blame/praise format — and a good deal of this has to do with the tie-up between history-writing and nation-formation. For a large part, mainstream history-writing usually relates to one form of community — the national community. Modern history invokes the idea of a people as sovereign and historically constituted, and this has been productive of most national histories. The triumph of the idea of self-determination has meant that all conquest has come to be regarded as unjust. It is in this context, writes Camal Kafadar in his study of the formation of the Ottoman state, 'that the meaning of medieval Muslim invasions has been particularly problematic one to deal with among many Eurasian nations', for to take 'one's comingling with the "other" seriously in the historical reconstruction of heritages ... seems to demand too much of national historiographies'. How can the historian's history then reengage in newer ways the issue of conquest — in this case, the Turkish conquest of north India, c. 1000–1200?
What was the nature of iconoclasm and pillage, especially of the notorious Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, whose repeated raids into northern and western India, 1000–1026 ce, resulted in widespread despoliation and destruction? Writing in his wake, the eleventh-century savant Al Beruni seems to have predicted uncannily the path of the memories of Mahmud's invasions:
Mahmud utterly ruined the prosperity of the country, and performed there wonderful exploits, by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions, and like a tale of old in the mouth of the people. Their scattered remains cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims.
Its metaphoric charge notwithstanding, this sentiment has been echoed in every textbook of Indian history, beginning with a Bengali tract written in 1858: 'Of all the Muslims it was [Mahmud's] aggression which first brought devastation and disarray to India, and from that time the freedom of the Hindus has diminished and faded like the phases of the moon'. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni is then the familiar conqueror-marauder of history textbooks, as he is the idealised iconoclast of Indo-Persian chronicles, panegyrics and medieval treatises on governance.
There have been a series of retorts to this 'communalisation of history', as it is called in South Asia, the term 'communal' implying an adherence to narrow religio-sectarian loyalties that colour and impede the development of a properly contextualised history and a composite cultural past and present, not exclusively Hindu or Muslim. The most powerful (and very nearly the first) such critique came from Professor Mohammad Habib, who in a series of essays, c. 1920–1950, sought to counter the communalisation of India's medieval history from a broadly Marxist perspective. His ire was directed particularly against the partisan scholarship of British administrator-orientalists who had consistently projected the 'Muslim India' of c. 1000–1700 as a period of oppression and fanaticism from which colonial rule had finally liberated the grateful Hindus.
Habib countered by arguing that the 'real motives of the plundering expeditions' of the beginning of the eleventh century, associated with the name of Mahmud of Ghazni, were 'greed for treasure and gold. The iconoclastic pretensions were meant only for the applause of the gallery'. The Muslims of India were not so much the progeny of Turkish conquerors, he wrote, as local converts from the artisanal classes, socially and spatially at the margins of both Hindu society and early medieval towns: 'an Indian Muslim had as little chance of becoming a warlord of the empire of Delhi as a [low caste] Hindu Sudra of ascending a Rajasthan throne' occupied by Hindu rajas and maharajas. For Habib, 'such limited success as Islam achieved in India' as a proselytising force 'was not due to its kings and politicians but to its saints'.
In this view, 'the Indo-Muslim mystics, without perhaps consciously knowing it, followed the footsteps of their great Hindu predecessors ... And Hinduism in its cosmopolitan outlook enrolled the Muslim mystics among its rishis, and neighbourly feelings soon developed a common calendar of saints. So it was in the thirteenth century and so it remains today'. A part of the 'age-old moral and spiritual traditions of our people', syncretism for Habib and several others delineates an essential Indian characteristic, one marked by emotive floral, faunal and cultural signifiers. In such an understanding, syncretism is not a historical process, a product of coming to terms with events like political conquest and the otherworldly challenge posed to the indigenous jogis (yogis) by what must have seemed like arriviste Sufis. It springs, fully formed, so to speak, from the same 'sacred land where the black gazelles graze, the munja grass grows and the pan [betel] leaf is eaten, and where the material and the spiritual are organically intermixed'. I take these evocative markers of India's sacred topology from Habib's powerful address to the Indian History Congress in the immediate aftermath of Independence and Partition in December 1947.
But we know that the medieval Sufis, though gentle in their persona, especially in archetypal opposition to the 'holy warrior', had to forcefully carve out their spiritual domain against the locally ensconced authority of jogis. Hagiographies constantly harp on contests between the Sufi and the jogi for spiritual supremacy, contests in which the jogi is invariably bested: he either converts along with his disciples, or retires, leaving the Sufi in triumphant possession of a prior holy and tranquil spot (often by a lake). One of India's most venerable Sufis, Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, is said to have established his hospice only after successfully overcoming ogres and warriors attached to a pre-existing site commanded by a jogi and his entourage. Sometimes, all that remains of the preceding jogi is a wisp of a name, carrying the toponymic stigmata of a 'historic' defeat for all to utter. Many place names in the Gangetic heartland enshrine the memory of such holy victories and defeats (though I am far from arguing that every time a local mentions, say, the name Mau-nath-bhanjan, she necessarily recollects the destruction [bhanjan] of the lord and master [nath] of Mau, a thriving manufacturing town near Banaras since the seventeenth century). In other cases, the defeated spiritual master is transformed into an ogre by the sheer act of transcription from one language to another. While the Sanskrit dev stands for a god, or the title of a revered person, when written in Persian without this gloss the word deo stands for a ghost, demon or monster. Spiritually and linguistically mastered, the holy-harmful figure often submits before the majestic Sufi, who grants the vanquished and now subservient deo his last wish that his memory be recorded for posterity in terms of some trace. This frequently gets enshrined in the nomenclature of a place — for example, Maunath Bhanjan, or Deoband, the place of the incarcerated deo-demon, incidentally the locale of an Islamic seminary since the 1860s. The trace could be retained as a visible sign of an equally monstrous sort. At the Bahraich shrine of Salar Masud Ghazi in northeastern Uttar Pradesh (UP), for example the earrings of the subdued deo Nirmal are the size of grindstones.
These are some of the ways in which eventful encounters between the holy men of Islam and of the Hindus get enshrined in the life histories of popular Sufi sites. And of course these shrines attract both Hindus and Muslims as devotees. Muzaffar Alam has shown with great acuity how many descriptions of such Sufi saints are subsequent representations, probably guided by the political necessity, either to overcompensate for a founding head's politically incorrect dealings with an earlier Sultan, or to elevate him (as with Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer) into a full-fledged Indian prophet (Nabi-yi-Hind). As the dominant Chishtiya silsilah faced threats in the seventeenth century from 'new Central Asian sheikhs' from the erstwhile homelands of the Mughals and their Indian disciples, such efforts to save the phenomena of dominance and fame of the Chishti Sufis became more pronounced.
Let me clarify. My point is not to deny the composite following of India's justly famous Sufi saints. All I wish to do is to create a space for encounter, clash and conquest as necessary elements of the conflictual prehistory of such cultic sites as that of Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, and Nizamuddin Auliya, medieval and modern Delhi's greatest Sufi saint. Wrathful, hypostatical, miraculous events and encounters, I am suggesting, not a simple, longstanding Indian spirit of accommodation, go into the making of India's vaunted syncretism. Or, to put it sharply: accommodation is predicated, necessarily in such stories, on a prior clash of two opposing wills. The hermetically cloistered figures of rosary-fondling Sufis (saints) and saber rattling ghazis (warriors), even when yoked to the cause of good pluralistic politics, produce bad history. Not History with a capital 'H', but the representation and recollection of their exploits outside proper, verifiable, contemporary medieval archives are some of the elements of a new history that we should strive towards. I say this for two reasons: one, because irrespective of their specificities of time and place, such accounts feed into the life stories of prominent Sufis, forming the template for recollecting the exploits of subsequent, lesser, (but no less important) local figures. And also because standard tropes such as the dumb idol breaking its silence under the power of a Sufi shaikh to recite the shahada (the Islamic credo), as found in medieval Persian texts, contribute to the valorisation of that credo — There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger. Even everyday Indian-Muslim signs (like the index finger which is raised during prayers in testimony of the singularity of Allah, or the ablutionary water pot badhna) become imbued with a certain power in a whole range of popular accounts of warriors and Sufis in the east-UP countryside.
The notion of syncretism has come in for criticism recently from several scholars working with a variety of historical and ethnographic materials. Tony Stewart in his analysis of the Janus-faced popular Bengali deity Satya Pir, criticises the votaries of syncretism for taking recourse to metaphor to underscore their point, comparing the category 'to some other entity that is impermanent, the most popular being organic (such as hybrid or half-breed), alchemical (such as mixture or solution), or construction (bricoleur)'. This metaphorical charge, in Stewart's view, 'implies that no syncretic entity is viable in its own right', for it is after all a mixture of two very separate elements — Hindus and Muslims — and hence, in a sense, inherently unstable. Aditya Behl characterises the Awadh-based Hindvi Sufi poets of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries as 'fully part of the Indian cultural landscape, indigenized yet competing with other groups to articulate their distinct theology'. Muzaffar Alam has analysed the north Indian Sufis' output and attitudes in the context of their complex relationship to state and society between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, which was as political, theological and cultural as it was competitive, adversarial and contributory. Such a multi-layered relationship, with its own chronology and politics, was moulded firmly by the development of Indo-Islamic concepts such as wahdat-al wujud (unity of being), tending towards 'the process of religious synthesis and cultural amalgam'. The same seventeenth-century Sufi writer, writes Alam, while appreciating certain portions of the Gita that he found 'close to some Quranic verses and hadises as read by proponents of wahdat-al-wujud', could write another text which 'reads like a polemic against Hindu beliefs and traditions'. Faced as we are today with a Manichean clash between Islam and Hinduism in India's medieval past, and a conflictual present in many parts of the world, historians need to fashion newer histories of this encounter.
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Table of Contents
List of Maps and Figures ix
List of Abbreviations xi
Prominent Figures in the Cult of Ghazi Miyan xv
1 Introduction: Sufi and the Ghazi 1
Part 1 A Life 17
2 The Hagiography 19
3 An Urdu Mirror of Masud 41
4 The Author as Hero 46
Part 2 Lore 53
5 Tales and the Text 55
6 Reproductive Anxiety 59
7 Zohra Bibi 64
8 Birth-Marriage-Martyrdom 71
9 Ghazi Miyan and Cowherds 79
10 Grey Mare, Lilli 91
11 Cooking for a Turkic Brother 98
12 Idols 108
Part 3 Shrine 115
13 Altars 117
14 Dafalis and Servitors 124
15 The Bahraich Shrine 133
16 Sites and Cenotaphs 146
Part 4 Counter-Histories 155
17 Investing the Ghazi 157
18 Demotic Warfare 163
19 Downplaying the Iconoclast? 174
Part 5 A Long Afterlife 177
20 Everyday Memories 179
21 Epilogue 192
Appendix 1 The Ballad of Basaurhi Dafali, Recorded Near Rudauli, May 1994 198
Appendix 2 The Ballad of Set Mahet, Recorded, c, 1900 W. Hoey 218
Appendix 3 A Poetical Description of the Ghazi Miyan Fair at Bahrakh, c. 1800 Cazim Ali Jawan 237