A Conquest of Past(s) – Faridah Zaman

A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia

by Manan Ahmed Asif

Harvard University Press, 272 pp., 2016.



‘The stories we tell have consequences.’ The last line of Manan Ahmed Asif’s A Book of Conquest gestures in multiple ways to the work of reimagining history contained within its pages. In his bold re-reading of a thirteenth-century Persian text, Chachnama (‘book of Chach’), Asif demonstrates over and again how the narratives we choose to tell, and those which we choose to forget, not only shape historical memory but also hold the power to open and foreclose spaces of political thought in the present.

Chachnama has long been an important text for the study of Islam in South Asia. Written in 1226 by ‘Ali Kufi, Chachnama purports to be a faithful translation of a much earlier account of two notable rulers of Sind. The first is the eponymous Chach bin Sila’ij, a young Brahmin in the service of the king of Sind in the seventh century who, through a series of manoeuvres orchestrated by the queen, captures the throne himself in c. 632. From there, Chach embarked on a campaign to conquer the four quarters of Sind. After the death of Chach, his sons Dahar and Daharsia vied for power, with Dahar eventually coming to the throne. Chachnama in this portion of the text demonstrates three overarching and profound concerns according to Asif: ‘the basis of legitimacy for the ruler, the good counsel of the advisor, and the need to create a justly governed polity’, much like a Renaissance mirror for princes.

Chachnama then pivots from the exploits of the virtuous Brahman king to the period of the Umayyad Caliphate’s repeated attempts to exert political control over Sind in the eighth century. The account focuses particularly on the young commander, Muhammad bin Qasim, sent to Sind in 711 to diminish the threat of Dahar’s polity, now a haven for Arab rebels, pirates and roaming warlords. After a string of military successes, Qasim proceeds as far as Multan and captures political power. His rule is cut short, however, when he is accused by Dahar’s daughters of sexual violence; the caliph orders Qasim to return himself to Baghdad in a wooden container. The honourable Qasim dutifully obliges the whims of a corrupt caliph; by the time he arrives, he has perished. The story of Qasim closely mirrors that of Chach – or perhaps the latter foreshadows the former – and, as Asif tells us, the main themes here remain ‘good counsel, good governance, and the need for a coherent political theory for a polity’.

Kufi’s claim that his account was based on the translation of an earlier Arabic manuscript is one that historians have hitherto largely accepted; though it might have contained some accretions derived from local traditions, there is general consensus that the account is veracious and requires only the paring away of the thirteenth century to behold an authentic, early history of pre-Islamic Sind and Islam’s venture therein. Asif contends, however, that we should dispense with Kufi’s own claims and instead understand Chachnama to be a decidedly thirteenth-century text with no prior original. The Persian text is neither a ‘translation’ nor a ‘carrier’ for a now lost Arabic text. Asif compellingly argues that Kufi was part of a ‘prestige economy’ and likely constructed the artifice of translation in order to assert his ‘right to produce texts, to interpret them, and to present them to an elite ruling class’. The evidence that Chachnama was in fact a creation of the thirteenth century rests largely upon how dissimilar this text is from extant early Arabic conquest narratives, as detailed in chapter 2.

The implications of revising the genesis of Chachnama are profound, both for historians of Islam in South Asia and historians of political thought more widely. Qasim’s arrival in Sind has constituted, at least since the writing of histories of India by British Orientalists from the eighteenth century onward, a ‘book of conquest’. After excising parts of the text that related to the pre-Islamic period, ‘Chachnama became the social, philological, and historical foundation for [their] unitary understanding of Islam’s origins’ – that is to say, the key source for the origin myth of Islam in South Asia. For the British, Islam was always foreign to India, appearing and conquering by force of arms and ruling through tyranny; generations of colonial officials imbibed these histories and prejudices. Some version of these histories now survive in the historiographies of both postcolonial Pakistan and India, as Asif recounts in the Introduction.

Unsettling the carrier thesis uproots not only one specific origin myth but, by virtue of Chachnama’s foundational significance, the very notion that there can be a unitary understanding of Islam’s origins in South Asia. For Asif, the search for origins is a fool’s errand, since the task fundamentally misunderstands how flows of people, goods and ideas moved in the Indian Ocean region before and after the advent of Islam. A concern with origins, moreover, produces a narrow view of the past that rejects all that is curious and ambiguous. Asif’s A Book of Conquest is, at its heart, ‘an argument against origins’, a work committed to the ‘anti-foundational’.

As such, and despite the title of the book, Asif shifts his analytical gaze away from questions of conquest and origins to questions of ethics and governance. Chachnama emerges in Asif’s reading as a text purposefully created in the thirteenth century, reflecting the ideas, ideals, and concerns of that period. By bringing the oft-overlooked portion on the Brahmin Chach back into view, Asif demonstrates that for Kufi, Chach and Qasim were archetypes of kingship that exemplified certain ethical qualities and political strategies. We might therefore learn from Chachnama not only something about the political thought and praxis of two specific historic rulers but what begins to look much more like a complex and ‘fully Indic’ theory of politics.

Re-designating Chachnama as a work of political and ethical theory means reading it as a prescriptive text composed to influence the world around it, akin to the ethical advice (adab) literature of South Asia. Chachnama should be regarded, according to Asif, as deliberately inculcating the values of dialogue and diversity above all else. These values are highlighted in two key chapters at the heart of the book which demonstrate most vividly how Kufi’s history can be reconstructed as a ‘political theory for the present’. In chapter 4, Chachnama is explored as advice to rulers on how to negotiate difference, govern diversity, and dispense justice through accommodation and alliances rather than compulsion. The parables of Chach and Qasim’s treatment of newly conquered subjects, at their most radical, gesture towards belief in the equivalence between sacral traditions. Chapter 5, meanwhile, explores Kufi’s treatment of women: a diverse array of women appear as sources of wise counsel in the world of Chachnama, with elite women in particular exhibiting a notable degree of political agency. Asif infers that Kufi regarded women as ‘ethical subjects par excellence’ and that Chachnama therefore contains a normative claim about the importance of assimilating women in political and ethical decision-making. Together these chapters demonstrate how, starting from new premises and with new questions, even familiar texts can be made to bear new fruits.

Asif reappraisal of Chachnama, then, combines two distinct interventions: that the Persian text is in no part a translation but a wholly original text and, secondly, that is not a conquest narrative but should be read as a work of Indic political theory. The latter is in many ways the more interesting claim and one that highlights the fact that some of the most stimulating examples of South Asian intellectual history produced in recent years have focused on re-evaluating ancient and medieval texts. It is the former claim, however, that has proven most provocative amongst medievalists, distracting from the book’s potential contributions to the field. This might lead us to ask to what extent the latter claim requires the former to be true. It is worth considering whether a work of deliberate translation or the transposition of earlier fragments into a new composition can in itself be tantamount to producing political theory.

Few texts, after all, demand to be translated and decision-making infuses every part of the process. Translating can be a deeply political act and any such undertaking is necessarily conscious of its own times. That Kufi may have been trying to draw lessons from the past for the rulers of his own day was already mooted as a possibility by Peter Hardy in 1981, as Asif readily acknowledges. In discussing Muzaffar Alam’s influential Persianization thesis, moreover, Asif expresses his own preference, following A. C. S. Peacock, to see early Persian ‘translations’ as in fact ‘transcreations or commentarial interpretations’; this, too, allows that translating produces something fundamentally other. To what extent, then, can the claim of Chachnama’s utter originality be delinked from the claim of its significance as a window onto thirteenth-century political thought? The latter, following Asif’s intervention, should no longer be in any doubt.

A further aspect of A Book of Conquest that should prove stimulating for the field irrespective of the translation thesis is its intriguing approach towards accessing the world of a text through immersion in the material site of its creation. Asif has evidently spent significant time in Uch, where Kufi penned Chachnama, walking among its topography and ruins. The book is interspersed with photographs taken by the author during his extensive walks, the narrative weaving together close-text analysis with accounts of encounters with locals. We might reasonably point out how much the physical landscape of Uch has no doubt changed since 1226, but to his credit Asif stops short of romanticising ruins, gesturing towards timelessness, or invoking spectres and ghosts. Indeed, his point is rather that pasts are alive and ‘active’ in Uch and we ought to acknowledge the presence of these other modes of being, these other temporalities. In the book’s closing pages, Asif suggests that local historians of Uch who imagine the past in ways that are at odds with facts and evidence may actually have a truer sense of the spirit of Uch’s history – a sense that accounts for the particularities of Chachnama’s composition far better than histories written by outsiders.

What, then, is the value of the outsider? One way in which we might think of the role of ‘professional’ historians on a subject such as Chachnama is through their capacity to speak directly to present concerns. Much recent scholarship on ancient, medieval, and early modern South Asia, for example, has strived to demonstrate that religion did not matter in affairs of the state as much as was once assumed (or, indeed, as is still assumed in popular memory and school textbooks). Even the most apparently zealous of Muslim rulers frequently employed Hindus and others in their governments, and vice versa, we are now routinely told. Religion may have been important to them, but the exigencies of politics, power, and maintaining social harmony and order were often more so. Such scholarship suggests we ought to think of syncretic, adaptive, and often pragmatic traditions of political thought and governance in South Asia, wherein ‘Muslim’ and ‘Indic’ were well-integrated.

The search for syncretism is of course itself a politically- and morally-minded task, conducted in the shadow of South Asia’s recent history. A decade ago, Neeladri Bhattacharya framed this predicament in the following terms:

‘We secular historians are haunted by a deep anxiety, a paralyzing fear of reaffirming somehow the founding assumptions of communal perceptions. We see violence on the street, the endless cycles of communal riots, the spectacles of blood and gore. We return to the past in search of humanity, tolerance, openness; we discover histories of syncretism, assimilation, and accommodation; we reassure ourselves with histories of intercultural dialogue… We hesitate to dwell on the histories of intolerance or sectarian conflicts. We are reluctant to recognize the role religion plays in the politics of everyday life. How can we transcend the limits that the politics of the present seems to impose on us? Do we need to delink our lives as citizens from our work as historians? Should we stop returning to the past in order to rethink the present?’

A Book of Conquest avoids relegating religion to the sphere of rhetoric, but it does choose to foreground intercultural dialogue and accommodation above all else. Relatedly, the question of violence is not absent but – having moved deliberately away from narratives of compulsion and conquest – nor is it fully resolved. What is apparent is that the anxieties that haunt scholars of South Asia are underscored here to a degree that is unusual in academic histories and therefore all the more welcome; colonial and postcolonial interpretations and appropriations of Chachnama bookend this analysis, literally and figuratively. Asif is a scholar who is clear-eyed about the role of history and memory in shaping the possibilities of the present and his work is suffused with this awareness. One might even suggest that, like Kufi, he is offering us tools for the present in the guise of history. As such, this book does not provide an answer to the question of how historians might transcend the limits of the present; instead, it responds to the more fundamental question of why we would attempt to do so at all.


Faridah Zaman is Associate Professor in the History of Britain and the World at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Somerville College. She works on questions of empire, religion, and historical scholarship.