The Byzantine provinces of Palestine and Syria fell to the Islamic armies after a six month’s campaign in AD 636-637. Next came the turn of the Sassanid empire of Persia which included Iraq, Iran, and Khorasan. The Persians were defeated decisively in AD 637, and their entire empire was overrun in the next few years. “By A.D. 643 the boundaries of the Caliphate touched the frontiers of India.” The Turkish speaking territories of Inner Mongolia, Bukhara, Tashkand, and Samarkhand, etc. were annexed by AD 650. Meanwhile, in the west, the Byzantine province of Egypt had fallen in AD 640-641. The Arab armies marched over North Africa till they reached the Atlantic and crossed over into Spain in AD 709.
These were not mere territorial conquests. Dr. Misra observes: “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 within the Islamic fold. Syrians, Persians, Berbers, Turks and others – all were rapidly Islamized and their language and culture Arabicized.” He also quotes and appropriate passage of the Quran which had inspired the Arabs to decimated and denationalize those who were defeated by them: “Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, and seize them, beleaguer them and lie in wait for them in every stratagem till they repeat and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity.”
The same Islamic armies, however, had to struggle for 69 long years to make their first effective breach in the borders of India. In the next three centuries, they pushed forward in several provinces of Northern and western India. But at the end of it all, India was far from being conquered militarily or assimilated culturally. The Arab invasion of India ended in a more or less total failure.
The Arab invasion of Sindh started soon after their first two naval expeditions against Thana on the coast of Maharashtra and Broach on the coast of Gujarat, had been repulsed in the reign of Caliph Umar (AD 634-644). The expedition against Debal in Sindh met the same fate. “The leader of the Arab army, Mughairah, was defeated and killed.” Umar decided to send another army by land against Makran which was at that time a part of the Kingdom of Sindh. But he was advised by the governor of Iraq that “he should think no more of Hind”.
The next Caliph, Usman (AD 646-656), followed the same advice and refrained from sending any expedition against Sindh, either by land or by sea. The fourth Caliph, Ali (AD 656-661), sent an expedition by land in AD 660. But the leader of this expedition and “those who were with him, saving a few, were slain in the land of Kikan in the year AH 2 (AD 662)”. Thus the four “pious” Caliphs of Islam died without hearing the news of a victory over “Sindh or Hind”.
Muawiyah, the succeeding Caliph (AD 661-680), sent as many as six expeditions by land. All of the were repulsed with great slaughter except the last one which succeeded in occupying Makran in AD 680. For the next 28 years, the Arabs did not dare send another army against Sindh. The next expedition was dispatched to take Debal in AD 708. Its two successive commanders, Ubaidullah and Budail, were killed and the Arab army was routed. When Hajjaj, the governor of Iraq, asked the Caliph for permission to send another expedition, the Caliph wrote back: “This affair will be a source of great anxiety and so we must put it off, for every time an army goes, [vast] numbers of Musalmans are killed. So think no more of such a design.
But Hajjaj was a very tenacious imperialist. He spent the next four years in equipping an army more formidable than any which had so far been sent against Sindh. While sending off his nephew as well as son-in-law, Muhammad bin Qasim, with this army in AD 712, Hajjaj said: “I swear by Allah that I am determined to spend the whole wealth of Iraq, that is in my possession, on this expedition.”
Muhammad was successful in overcoming the fierce resistance he met at every step in his progress through Sindh. By AD 713 he had occupied the whole of this province as well as Multan. He was helped to a certain extent by the treachery of some merchants and local governors at a few places. But as soon as he was recalled in AD 714, “the people of India rebelled, and threw off their yoke, and the country from Debalpur to the salt Sea only remained under the dominions of the Khalifa.” This was only a narrow coastal strip.
Subsequently, the Islamic armies reconquered Sindh, and advanced through Rajputana up to Ujjain in the East and Broach in the south. “But the success of the Arab armies was short lived. Their advance to the south was signally checked by the Chalukya ruler of Lat (S. Gujarat), Pulakesin Avani-Janasraya. The Navasari inscription (A D 738) records that Pulakeshin defeated a Tajika (Arab) army which had defeated the kingdoms of Sindhu, Cutch, Saurashtra, Cavotaka, Maurya and Gurjara and advanced as far south as Navasari where this prince was ruling at this time. The prince’s heroic victory earned him the titles of ‘solid Pillar of Dakshinapatha (Dakshinapatha-sadhata) and the Repeller of the Unrepellable (Anivarttaka- nivartayi)’.”
The Gwalior inscription of the Gurjana-Pratihar King, Bhoja I, tells us that Nagabhatta I, the founder of the family who ruled in Avanti (Malwa) around A.D. 725, ‘defeated the army of a powerful Mleccha ruler who invaded his dominions’. The Gurjara-Pratiharas were known to the Arab historians as ‘kings of Jurz’. Referring to one of these kings, an Arab historian wrote that ‘Among the princes of India there is no greater foe of the Mohammaden faith than he’.
The Arabs also made advances to the North of Sindh into the Punjab and towards Kashmir. Here they were blocked and driven back by Lalitaditya Muktapida (AD 724-760) of Kashmir. He was in alliance with Yasodharman of Central India. “He is said to have ordered the Turushkas to shave off half of their heads as a symbol of their submission.
Biladhuri wrote that “the Mussalmans retired from several parts of India and left some of their positions, nor have they up to the present advanced so far as in days gone by”. And he mourned, “The people of India returned to idolatry with the exception of the inhabitants of Qasbah. A place of refuge to which the Moslems might flee was not to be found, so he [Arab governor] built on the further side of the lake, where it borders on al-Hind, a city which he named at-Mahfuzah [the protected] establishing it as a place of refuge for them, where they should be secure and making it a capital.” Arab travelers to India of the 10th century “all speak of only two independent Arab principalities with Multan and Mansurah as their capitals”.
The Pratihara kings waged constant war “against the Arab prince of Multan, and with the Mussalmans, his subjects on the frontier”. Multan would have been lost by the Arabs but for a Hindu temple, Dr. Misra quotes Al-Istakhri who wrote about AD 951 that in Multan “there is an idol held in great veneration by the Hindus and every year people from distant parts undertake pilgrimages to it… When the Indians make war upon them and endeavor to seize the idol, the inhabitants [Arabs] bring it out pretending that they will break it and burn it. Upon this the Indians retire, otherwise they would destroy Multan.”
Finally, Dr. Mishra observes: “Thus after three centuries of unremitting effort, we find the Arab dominion in India limited to two petty states of Multan and Mansurah. And here, too, they could exist only after renouncing their iconoclastic zeal and utilizing the idols for their political ends. It is a very strange sight to see them seeking shelter behind the very budds, they came here to destroy.”
It has to be kept in mind all along that the Arab empire in this period was the mightiest power on earth. Compared to this monolithic and highly militarized giant, the Hindu principalities of Sindh and other border areas were no better than pygmies. Yet the pygmies had the last laugh at the end of the 10th century when the Islamized Turks took over from the Arabs the Islamic crusade against “Sind and Hind”. It was the old story of Alexander and the small republics of the Punjab and Sindh, all over again.