The courage and grit of the people of two Afghan provinces kept invading Arab forces at bay
The rise of Islam in 7th century AD and the subsequent military conquests by Arabs, extending from Persia to Spain, leads most historians to refer the Caliphate as the greatest military power of that time.
North Africa was conquered between 640 AD and 709 AD, Persia in 637 AD and Spain in 713 AD. This means that within a century, several great empires of Asia, Africa and Europe were decisively defeated by Arabs.
The Arab armies also set their sights on India, but we don’t get to read much about them. The three initial expeditions against India by the Caliphate were not through land but by the sea. The first of them happened in 637 AD at Thane (Maharashtra) and two subsequent ones at Bharuch (Gujarat) and Debal (Sindh, in present day Pakistan). According to S N Sen in his book Ancient Indian History and Civilization, all of these resulted in a failure.
A certain problem with Indian history writing has been to limit its study to the current geographical reach of the Indian nation. This is highly problematic because this approach excludes the study of several kingdoms, which were Indian in every sense of the term, but lay beyond the current geography of our country. S W Helms in ‘Kandahar of the Arab conquest’, says their kings bore Indian names, and called themselves kshatriyas, or in some cases Brahmins too.
Two such important kingdoms were those of Kabul and Zabul, the geography of both of which now belongs to the present-day Afghanistan. The first land expeditions of caliphate were against these two kingdoms along with Sindh. In fact, the Muslim armies had great difficulties in conquering Sistan, which is a province in present day Iran, say T Daryaee and Rezakhani in Sasanian Empire. The region was then known as Shakistan (Land of Shak), as it originally formed part of Kushan Empire of India before that. The Muslim armies in 650 AD, were defeated in Sistan itself, but subsequently conquered it, according to B I Marshak and Negmatov in their book, History of Civilizations of Central Asia.
One of the initial battles between Kabul and the Caliphate was fought at Junzah in 683 AD. The Muslim army led by the Caliphate’s governor at Sistan, was annihilated and the governor himself was killed, says A Rehman in his book, The Last Two Dynasties of the Sahis: An Analysis of their History, Archaeology, Coinage and Palaeography.
The king of Zabul lost a battle to the Muslim army in 685 AD and was killed, but his son, an able commander, tempted the Muslim army deep inside his territory and then blocked the mountain passes. The whole army was captured and was released after a payment of sum of money, according to Rehman.
In 695 AD, the caliphate initiated yet another offensive against Kabul. The governor of Iraq, Al-Hajjaj, sent his one of the ablest generals, Ubaidullah to subdue Kabul. This time the kingdoms of Zabul and Kabul combined their armies and inflicted a crushing defeat on the army of the Caliphate, says A Wink in his book Al-Hind, The Making of the Indo-Islamic World. In fact, the retreating Muslim army was blocked, some of the soldiers managed to escape, but most of them died of hunger and thirst. Finally, a humiliating ransom was again extracted from the Muslim forces, before releasing them. To avenge this defeat, Al-Hajjaj sent a huge army against Zabul, led by Abd-ar-Rahman who actually defeated Zabul, G R Hawting writes in his book, The First Dynasty of Islam: The Umayyad Caliphate AD 661-750.
Here, a masterstroke of diplomacy befell and somehow Rahman turned against his own ilk and declared war against Al-Hajjaj and the Caliph. He left Zabul and marched to Iraq, capturing Basra before fleeing from the battle and ironically taking refuge in Zabul again. The king of Zabul sent his head to Al Hajjaj and the Arabs thereafter left these two kingdoms for good. For the next century and a half, both these kingdoms remained independent. These two kingdoms held two important passes to India – the Khyber Pass and Gomal Pass, for more than two centuries, from 653 AD to 870 AD, says J Wellhausen in his book, The Arab Kingdom and its Fall. As a result of which, the caliphate could never directly reach the mainland of India.
Almost a century of substantial attacks by the Caliphate did not also result in any material gain in Kabul and Zabul as well. They could only be defeated by the Ghaznavids in the 11th Century AD. Therefore, the mightiest military power of that time couldn’t conquer even the borders of Al-Hind, as is the name of India ascribed to it by Arabs, all thanks to the courage and grit of the people of Kabul and Zabul.
The present-day Afghans have therefore been historical brothers to the people of India, fighting the battles, which protected India for centuries.
The complete absence of such history impacts negatively on the present health of our international relations. For instance, these historical accounts can bolster India’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan. The relations of both the countries are already on the rise. The mainstreaming of these narratives can mould the ties to a whole new strategic level.
Raghav Pandey is Research Fellow with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay, Mumbai. He can be reached at email@example.com, Twitter: @raghavwrong