A Deep-Dive into the Mindset of Medieval Muslim Chroniclers: Preface
The first of a series of essays delving into the mindset and psyche of medieval Muslim chroniclers of Indian history
This memorable line couches the substance and the entire history of all alien invasions into Bharatavarsha although Kulapati Munshi uses it in the context of Muslim invasions. And for much of the eight hundred years of Muslim rule and two hundred of British, it is the uncultured who wrote the history of the most cultured and spiritual people on the earth. Neither did they stop at that. They claimed and repeatedly proclaimed that they brought culture to a “dark” and “uncivilised” people. The poison of imperial oppression justified and served as fruit juice in the tinted glass of benevolence.
The first imperialism—Islamic—did this in a brutal fashion until the brief interlude of the mixed curse of Akbar’s soft porn bigotry of marrying Hindu women whose children obviously were raised as Muslims, tutored by the hardcore Islamic clergy. There is a parallel dictionary for terms like syncretism, composite culture, and tolerance.
The second imperialism—British—did it in a much more sophisticated fashion and succeeded in carving out a new beast right from among the Hindus whose contemporary avatars are the Incurables.
But it is the first religious imperialism that forms the subject of this series.
A cursory glance at all the non-Arab Muslim countries in the world reveals a well-known truth: their pre-Islamic history has been completely erased. That leaves us with a fundamental question: what precise elements of their past do they celebrate? The equally precise answer: a series of invasions and plunders and court intrigues and mass conversions and slavery of non-Muslims and wasteful royal extravagances, all underscored by the same event: the victory of Islam. Neither is this their own history. It is the regurgitation of the histories written by their Muslim conquerors. We don’t need to go really far back into history. A living example is available right next door. The seventy year-long—and continuing—attempt by Pakistan to rewrite its history from the scratch reveals the same phenomenon. The accurate word is “mindset” or “psyche.” What is true at the individual level is true at the national level. A new convert to Islam has to compulsorily disavow, disown, and detest his past. By summoning within himself a gushing fountain of unparalleled psychological violence. In the case of nations like Pakistan, it calls for not just a rejection but a conscious destruction of every vestige of its non-Islamic past.ory. A living example is available right next door. The seventy year-long—and continuing—attempt by Pakistan to rewrite its history from the scratch reveals the same phenomenon. The accurate word is “mindset” or “psyche.” What is true at the individual level is true at the national level. A new convert to Islam has to compulsorily disavow, disown, and detest his past. By summoning within himself a gushing fountain of unparalleled psychological violence. In the case of nations like Pakistan, it calls for not just a rejection but a conscious destruction of every vestige of its non-Islamic past.
Which evokes a related question: what history does Pakistan have if it rejects its Hindu past? None. And therefore it needs to invent a past filled with Islamic heroes, something it has already done. Invariably, all its heroes are foreign barbarians.
The same psyche operates in the realm of history as well.
Till date, the largest volume of primary sources of the history of the medieval Muslim rule are chronicles, inscriptions, and official records written by Muslim historians, record-keepers, and chroniclers.
The repeated defeats of Hindu kings and the inevitable horrors that followed owes to two pre-eminent failings on the part of Hindus. Actually, these are two faces of the same coin. A failure on the part of the Hindu scholarly class to study the core doctrines of Islam and to study Muslim records of their own time—specifically, how a Muslim victory was described, why Hindu subjects were treated as Zimmis in peacetime and why Jizya and pilgrimage tax was levied. Perhaps the earliest, but a rather hazy attempt in this direction was made by Maharshi Vidyaranya though not at the level of studying Islamic scripture. As a result, when we get to Sri Krishnadevaraya’s period, we see him place the Quran on a high pedestal in his court. Thirty-five years after his death, the magnificent Vijayanagara Empire is annihilated in the terminal battle of Talikota which was won by the Bahamani confederacy in which the treachery of the Muslim contingent of the Vijayanagara army played a significant role.
Such a study of primary Muslim chronicles is highly revealing, extremely disturbing, and profoundly sickening. We get a firsthand and detailed look at the kind of mindset that operates behind these records. The scale and extent of the diabolism and depravity that characterises all such accounts lies in a realm lower than barbarism.
Which brings us to the charge often levelled against Hindus which until recently was accepted almost as a settled truth: that Hindus lacked a sense of history. Anybody acquainted with even the basic facts of the history of Sanatana culture and civilisation will immediately recognise this as an ignorant, sweeping generalisation or an agenda-driven drivel.
Hindus are a people who wrote prodigious epics and puranas running into lakhs of pages in a highly sophisticated language like Sanskrit using ornate verses. Most of these fall in the category of Itihasa (loosely, history). Should we seriously believe that they were incapable of writing a straightforward, linear narrative as we understand the term history today? This point becomes even more pronounced when we observe the mountainous corpus of caritras (literally: history or biography) authored in various Indian languages. Are we to believe that no chronicles and official records were maintained by mighty empires in the prolonged and rich history spanning hundreds of years? The fact that even in the face of extant inscriptions, epigraphic, and literary evidence, which narrate lineages, battle descriptions, grants, etc the claim that Hindus have no sense of history is made should count as a spectacular con job.
The widely cited example of Kalhana, the 12th century Kashmir historian (roughly, in the modern mould) reveals—or conceals—another important fact. Kalhana’s history writing didn’t materialize in thin air. He inherited, fostered, and enriched an ancient, existing parampara or tradition of such history writing similar to what Panini, Abhinavagupta, Kalidasa, Sudraka et al did in their respective realms.
By ancestry, tradition, and basic cultural nature, Hindus have history-writing in their very DNA. When the inhabitants of a famous village or town take pride in their sthalapuranas, they’re actually narrating history. It is easy and lazy and arrogant to dismiss these sthalapuranas as “local legend,” “folklore” and “fable,” something that has been done with enormous success. But there are two parts to this. The dismissal is done because it doesn’t fit into “accepted” notions of what is regarded as “real” history. When this is done over a long period, we lose both the sthalapurana and real history. Second, the Sanatana method of narrating histories both in conception and practice is to regard it as a value, and not merely as fact, to borrow from Acharya M. Hiriyanna’s words. In DVG’s luminous verbiage
If the history of the Hoysalas should be immortalised, its greatest celebutantes must become personal to us, materialise before our eyes in full splendour of opulence and dignity of character and touch our active consciousness and conscience including their flaws. We have lost the emotional content in our sthalapuranas and caritras and the “history” that has survived is inert, arid, and distant…and a mountain of lies and hatred if you read the Marxist mythology of calumny.
It is equally true that Hindus largely did not write their side of the medieval Muslim period. For a straightforward reason, which Jadunath Sarkar provides in his typical unapologetic candour.
The other related reason is the fact that every Muslim conquest was a war of total liquidation. We’re only aware of the notable instances of library burning and destruction of splendid centres of learning like Nalanda, Odantapuri, Vikramashila etc. The number of such centres easily run into thousands, large and small. Should we seriously argue that these centres didn’t contain a wealth of valuable historical documents? The tragic and cruel fact is that innumerable books of “history” have been built precisely based on such arguments.
Because most questions of history are also questions of comparison, this backdrop is quite essential to fully understand the basic nature and psyche of the medieval Muslim chroniclers of India.
To be continued
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