Muhammad Ibn Qasim and the policy of religious tolerance in the Islamic conquest of India11/19/2020
Muhammad bin Qasim al-Thaqafi (695-715), also called Imad ad-Din, was a great military commander of the Umayyad Caliphate during the reign of Al-Walid Abd al-Malik (r. 705-715), the sixth caliph. Born in 695 in Hejaz (Western Arabia) in the city of Taif, from the Thaqif tribe, Muhammad would become one of the great commanders and conquerors of the first centuries of Islam and its entire history.
The Thaqif tribe embraced Islam around AD 630 and later came to reach higher military and administrative positions in the nascent Rashidun Caliphate, playing an important role in the command and economy of Islamic governments during (and after) the first muslim conquests, mainly in Iraq.
Before Muhammad bin Qasim was born, his tribe would have already played an important role in the Islamic conquests in the Indian subcontinent, as example is that Bahrain’s Thaqif ruler, Uthman ibn Abi al-As would dispatch some naval expeditions against the Indian ports of Debal, Thane and Bharuch.
With the emergence of the Umayyad Caliphate in 661, the Thaqif’s influence and prestige grew even more, and Muhammad would be born within the Banu Awf, one of the two main branches of the Thaqif, in the Abu Aqil family. This family would gain prestige mainly with the rise of al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, cousin of Muhammad’s father, al-Qasim ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hakam.
Al-Hajjaj would become commander of the army of the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705), predecessor of al-Walid.
Unfortunately, there is little information in Arab sources about Bin Qasim’s childhood and youth, but modern historians say that he initially grew up in Taif and soon after moved to Basra and later to Wasit, the capital of the province of Iraq and founded by nobody less than his influential relative, al-Hajjaj. Later in 692, Hajjaj would kill the Umayyad’s rival chief, Abd Allah ibn al-Zubayr, being appointed as the viceroy of Iraq and the eastern part of the Caliphate, further increasing his already high prestige and influence.
Because of this and not forgetting his origins, al-Hajjaj went on to appoint members of the Thaqif to important offices in Iraq and their dependencies, with Muhammad bin Qasim’s father being appointed in a post in Basra that was second only to that of the local governor.
Muhammad was a “golden boy”, described as “the most noble Thaqif of his time“. It is said that he received a high command post when he was only 17 years old and proved to be an efficient commander and a wise and tolerant governor (KENNEDY, 2007).
Muhammad’s first mission was in the province of Fars, located in modern Iran, where he was ordered to subdue a group of Kurds. Successful in his endeavor, he was appointed governor of Fars, probably succeeding his uncle Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi, brother of al-Hajjaj.
Later, Muhammad would participate in his emblematic journey through Sind, Pakistan’s border region with India.
Muslims had already had contact in Sind before bin Qasim, more specifically on expeditions during the Rashidun Caliphate, where Al-Hakim ibn Jabalah al-Abdi would attack Makran in 649. Not only, but during the reign of Islam’s fourth caliph, Ali, the Prophet’s nephew, many were under the influence of Islam. Almost 10 years after ibn Jabalah, Harith ibn Murrah al-Abdi and Sayfi ibn Fasayl al-Shaybani, both officers in Ali’s army, would again attack Makran in 658.
During the Umayyad period, Sind was an important border region, inhabited mainly by nomadic peoples. In addition, at that time there was an ethnic group called Meds, who practiced piracy in the region, attacking ships from the Sassanid Empire, which began to target Arab ships as well. Because of this interest, a ship with Muslim women travelling from Sri Lanka to Arabia was captured by the Meds during the government of al-Hajjaj.
One of the women, in her distress, would have invoked the name of Hajjaj and, when he learned of the attack, he decided to do something. He first wrote to Dahir, the king, ordering him to release them, but the king replied that he had no control over the pirates who had captured them and could not help. Hajjaj then sent two small expeditions, but in both cases they were defeated and the leaders were killed. He then decided on a large-scale campaign.
Faced with this complicated situation that drastic measures should be taken, he chose as his leader his young relative Muhammad bin Qasim, whose brief and meteoric career left a lasting memory both in Sind and in the central Islamic lands. Hajjaj ordered him to assemble an army in the newly founded city of Shiraz, in southwest Iran; 6,000 professional soldiers from Syria were sent to form the army’s core and he sent all the equipment he needed. When everything was ready, they set out on the long overland route through southern Iran and then to Makran, taking the city of Fannazbur on the way. Meanwhile, ships were sent with men, weapons and supplies (KENNEDY, 2007).
During the expedition, Bin Qasim and al-Hajjaj maintained contact via special messengers between Sind and Basra, thus informing al-Hajjaj that he was in Kufa, Iraq.
When Muhammad bin Qasim was already in the border with Sind, he received support from over 6,000 camel-mounted soldiers and eventually captured Sind, having to pass through the Makran desert first and conquer the cities of Fannazbur and Lasbela that had previously been conquered by Arab-Muslims.
The first city that received Muhammad’s attacks was Debal, close to modern Karachi in Pakistan, and in sequence came the cities of Nerun and Sadusan (modern Hyderabad and Sehwan respectively), the last two of which were conquered without military confrontations, different from Debal who offered resistance to the attacks of Muhammad and his army.
Although these achievements were relatively easy for a talented commander like bin Qasim with his significant army, King Dahir’s troops on the other side of the Indus River had not yet been faced. Therefore, Muhammad would return to Nerun to resupply his army and receive new support from al-Hajjaj. After that, while Muhammad was camped near the Indus, he sent emissaries to negotiate with the Jats1 and local boatmen to assist in the transport of his troops, even contacting the king of the island of Bet (India), Mokah Basayh, getting his support and thus successfully crossing the Indus River, the longest Pakistani river.
When Muhammad reached the city of Rohri, he faced Dahir’s troops and some Jats allied with him. As a result, Dahir ended up dying in battle and his army was consequently defeated, but artisans and farmers were spared. Thus, Sind would now be controlled by Muhammad bin Qasim.
Part of the success of the Islamic conquest in Sind is due to the leniency of the Buddhists and the Dalits (lowest caste in Hinduism), who welcomed the Islamic conquerors with open arms, who saw the government of the Maharajah Chach and his kins as illegitimate who had usurped the power of the Rai Dynasty, being also greatly oppressed by the governments of the Brahmins.
After this great victory for Muhammad, other provincial capitals such as Brahmanabad, Alor and Multan would also be successfully conquered along with the nearby cities, all with few casualties on the Muslim side, proving to be other easy conquests for bin Qasim.
During the Arab conquests, the objective was generally to conquer the places with the fewest casualties and losses possible, seeking to preserve the local infrastructure and economy. Because of this, cities were usually offered the option of surrender, and the capture of many was even through agreements with some local parties and the guarantee of special privileges if the surrender was obtained successfully.
This time, when the conquest of the cities was carried out with the least number of casualties possible and through agreements (sulh), the conquerors used to treat the conquereds with mercy and compassion, however when they offered great resistance and consequently caused the death of many Muslims, there was retaliation by one army against the other after the actual conquest of the target city. Cities like Rawar, Brahmanabad, Multan and Iskalandah offered great resistance to Muslim conquerors, but other cities like Armabil, Nirun and Aror were conquered through the aforementioned sulh, that is, a peaceful and through agreement way of conquering territory, which proved to be the favorite and most used method by Muhammad bin Qasim in his conquests through Sind.
After the conquest of these places, Muhammad was able to implement law and order in the conquered territories, demonstrating a great tolerance with the local inhabitants and their creed, as well as incorporating the old ruling classes (Brahmins and Sramanas) in his administration. Muhammad would bet on a conciliatory policy to govern the new conquered lands, asking for the acceptance of native peoples to the Muslim government, thus promising to keep the local religiosity properly preserved while the natives paid their fees and fulfilled their obligations. In this way, the new Muslim State of Sind would protect non-Muslims from possible attacks, saving them from enlisting in the army to defend the cities.
Although the new territory was governed by shariah (Islamic law), Hindu communities still maintained their local independence and were able to resolve their disputes according to the dictates of their own faith, just as it was granted to Christians and Jews at other times of Islamic history, also maintaining their traditional hierarchical and leadership institutions. However, there were not only Hindus among non-Muslims, but also Buddhists, who, like Hindus, were incorporated and included in the new administration and respected if they fulfilled their legal obligations2.
The spread of Islam in these regions took centuries, even with great proselytism happening, mainly due to the conditions and social dynamics of Sind at the time of the Islamic conquest. The majority of the population maintained their religion, thus paying taxes to the Muslim government, which in matters of state were more convenient, as it was an additional income for the government, better for a leader of a secular power than a conversion to Islam, which is why forced conversions were rare or almost nonexistent at given times in the history of the expansion of Islamic states.
In 714 al-Hajjaj would die, and the new ruler, Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik, successor to the caliph al-Walid I, would arrest Muhammad bin Qasim and take revenge on al-Hajjaj’s supporters. According to the account of Chach Nama, a 13th-century Persian manuscript about the eighth-century conquests of bin Qasim, reports that Muhammad was killed due to the false accusations of having raped Dahir’s daughters made against him, being wrapped in oxen hides and transported to Syria, dying suffocated halfway.
Despite this tragic end, his ascending and meteoric career draws attention due to his military competence and the characteristic tolerance he often provided to the conquered peoples, even though they were part of other religions than the traditional Abrahamic ones, Christianity and Judaism.
 Essentially agricultural community in North India and Pakistan.
 A Hindu reached the second highest office in the public administration, and members of the old Dahir government also found space in the new governance.
KENNEDY, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests. Da Capo Press. 2007.
KEAY, John. India: A History. Harper Press. 2010.
MACLEAN, Derryl N. Religion and Society in Arab Sind. 1989.
SCHIMMEL, Annemarie, Islam in the Indian Subcontinent. Brill Academic Publishers. 1980.
LANE-POOLE, Stanley. Medieval India Under Mohammedan Rule (712-1764). S. Gupta. 1970.