Making Medieval Histories Or How To Name Ballistic Missiles

Pakistan has said it will not rename some of its missiles, despite objections from Kabul which says Afghan heroes’ names are being misused.

Afghan Information Minister Sayed Makhdum Rahin had asked Islamabad not to link Afghan rulers’ names with “tools of destruction and killing”.

The missiles are named after Muslim conquerors who defeated Hindu rulers.

The Ghauri, Ghaznawi and Abdali ballistic missiles – capable of carrying nuclear warheads – were developed by Pakistan to counter the threat posed by its arch-rival India’s nuclear arsenal.

The missiles are a source of national pride in Pakistan.

The Muslim conquerors they are named after won battles between the 11th and 18th centuries and governed parts of what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

BBC News, Thursday, 23 February 2006

The process of forging a state out of the idea of Pakistan has required severe surgical procedures against India’s history. The very nature of an ‘Islamic’ state (though one can question whether this had ever been the intentions of the nation’s founders) necessitates the creation of a composite, homogenous Muslim culture and identity out of what is a very diverse and complex body politic.

But perhaps most damagingly it requires the disowning of several thousand years of Indian heritage and the adoption of a more consistent and pure ‘Islamic’ one. A part of this process of historical revisionism is the selection and appropriation of suitably Muslim characters, rulers, warriors, poets, and intellectuals into the pantheon of Pakistan’s officially sanctioned heritage. Their complexity and human agency is largely erased and replaced by a simplistic and potted recasting of their lives and actions in terms ‘Islamic’ and sectarian.

So a marauder like Mahmud of Ghaznawi, who is immortalized in the form of a ballistic missile aimed somewhere towards at the Indian heartland, is transformed into an Islamic hero, his actions reinterpreted as a ”theology of iconoclasm’ against pagan Hindu kings. This martyr for Islam is created out of an ignorant reading of history, and a completely infantile understanding of the complex social, political, economic and human realities of his time and his place.

The Ghaznavid’s were Afghan rulers who repeatedly looted and raided Indian cities and attacked Hindu temples for their gold and valuable gemstones as a way to help finance their larger campaigns. Their armies were based around elite archers, slaves, who were bought, equipped and compensated in cash ‘earned’ from regular predatory raids across Iranian and Indian cities.

Mahmud of Ghaznawi, this apparently great warrior of Islam, felt no compunction razing cities across the Iranian frontier, sacking and pillaging his fellow Muslims for booty. His campaigns in the Khurasan region were he worked to establish his hegemony were the reasons for raids on cities and temples. His plunder of the Iranian city of Ray left thousands of dead and but provided his army with the wealth it needed to continue its wars elsewhere.

But compared to the vast and thinly populated areas of Iran, Indian cities offered greater and more easily obtained wealth; Somanatha alone was attacked a number of times, acting as a crucial cash generation scheme that helped finance Ghaznavid aspirations in the west in Khurasan.

The political and, given the societies military structure, economic motivations for these raids is most evident when reading works such as C.E. Bosworth’s The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran, 994 – 1040. In fact, the book begins by attacking a central arrogance of recent Ghaznavid research that always treats the Ghaznavids from the standpoint of Indian history and fails to pay attention to the Turkishness of the Sultans and of a large part of their military following.

Famous as the destroyer of the great temple of Somanatha, Mahmud of Ghaznawi however appears in a different light in the works of one of India’s most eminent historians. Romila Thapar investigates this seminal act – the repeated plundering of the temple at Somanatha in Gujarat, in her latest work Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History.

Her book centralizes the complexities of medieval life and returns us to the ambiguities that define life as we know it; that Turko-Persian accounts homogenize ‘Islam’ ignoring the variety of Arab groups and their engagement with traders in Gujarat; that the sacking of Hindu temples was a practice when Hindu rulers conquered their enemies – for example the sacking of Jain temples by Shaivites, or the sacking of other regions by the Hindu rulers of Kashmir; that temples were not just religious sites, but political sites as well; and that each group of conquerers, whether Turkish or Shaivite Hindu used the plundering to proclaim its own values of Islam’s superiority over Hinduism or Jain over Shaivite.

Only a heavy handed, perhaps seriously anti-intellectual effort can reduce the lives and actions of men as Mahmud of Ghaznavi and vast dynasties such as the Ghaznavids to be merely about Islam or theocratic convictions. But of course many modern day Indian historians have made much of this incident, using it as a representative of the barbarism and devastation that was India’s fate under the Muslim dynasties. And the Muslims on the other hand, have celebrated the unconscionable.

Few of them can find the courage of Aligarh historian Mohammed Habib who in his work Sultan Mahmud Ghaznin (Delhi, S. Chand, 2nd Edition) at least had the decency to admit that:

No honest historian should seek to hide, and no Mussalman acquainted with his faith will try to justify, the wanton destruction of temples that followed in the wake of the Ghaznavid army. Contemporary as well as later historians do not attempt to veil the nefarious acts but relate them with pride.

The Pakistani intellectual and writer Eqbal Ahmed referred to such iconoclastic re-appropriations of historical acts and characters as the works of medieval minds. In a lengthy set of interviews with David Barsamian (available as a book Eqbal Ahmed: Confronting Empire) he pointed out that modern day nationalist Pakistani and Indian historians are busily involved in the creation of what he called ‘a new kind of medieval history: “Hindu history” and “Muslim history”.

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Pakistan and Indian obscurantist historians and intellectuals are locked in a waltz where the one mirrors the movement of the other and working with similar underlying reductivist and simplistic perspectives on India’s heritage, history, society and influences. Martha Nussbaum documents this extensively in her book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future. I will discuss the assault on history in greater detail in a separate post.

The aim of the Hindu right is to portray the Muslims as brutal, barbaric, destructive, foreign, separate and with a history and heritage devoid of syncretism and Indian influence. Ironically, that is precisely what the modern day Muslim historians want to celebrate, but with a sense of pride at their ‘theology of iconoclasm’, their separation and independence from the culture, society, traditions and heritage of India. All in the service of that flawed and today completely discredited ‘Two Nation Theory’.

In Pakistan the Jamaat-i-Islami, a fundamentalist party which categorically asserts the superiority of the Islamic Shariah over other political and social organisation and derives much of its appeal from rhetorical denunciation of Western civilisation and Western democracy, has since the late 1970’s had a defining influence in the educational agenda in Pakistan. Ironically, this is the same Jamaat-i-Islami that was categoricaly opposed to the very idea of Pakistan, though of course, they have easily re-written that episode in the nation’s text books and positioned themselves as great champions of the Pakistan movement and energetic collaborators with the secular leaders of the movement. Ironically, the Jamaat in India continues to celebrate its ‘all India’ credentials.

Under the Jamaat’s influence India’s Muslim past has been idealized, with the people of the land not acting as humans, but as proxies to prophets. As Professor Hoodbhoy, who has been doing extensive work on the impact of religious ideologues on the teaching of history in Pakistan, points out, that in their version of the past:

Young and old, small and great, everyone had become regular at prayers. Apart from the five prayers, people enthusiastically said supplementary prayers of ishraq, chasht, zawal, and awabin. People used to ask each other of the verses to be read, or how many times to recite drud-sharif after prayers they kept supplementary fasts even after the month of Ramazan.

And while the Muslims indulged in lives perfect and prophetic, the Hindus are described as one-dimensionally evil, untrustworthy, seething with hate and a desire for revenge.

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A missile named Ghauri to counter the Indian missile named Prithvi (Earth). As Eqbal Ahmed points out, ignorance takes center stage: the Pakistanis thought that Prithvi was in fact named after Prithvi Raj Chauhan, the rule who had repeatedly defeated Ghauri several times before a final defeat.

Shahabuddin Gauri and Prithvi Raj Chauhan pitted against each other like characters in a video game albeit one with holocaust like consequences. Muslim vs. Hindu – The main event. Ghauri’s defeat of dozens of Muslim rulers who stood in his way is ignored since it muddies the waters. That Ghauri and Chauhan were medieval rulers fighting for power, territory and influence is veiled under layers of sectarian presumptions, nationalist pride and an ignorant determination to avoid complexity and embrace inanity.

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Jun 14, 2009 | History, Opinions

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