Hinduism – 4: Early Interaction with Muslims

Continued from Hinduism – 3: Interaction with Muslims

This series of posts has a limited objective – to understand the nature and impacts of the historical interactions of Hinduism with Muslims and Britons. In order to make our point we took the incursions of Mahmud of Ghazna around 1000 AD as an adequate starting point. However, this created the impression that the first Muslims in India came as raiders. This is an incorrect impression and in fact there is an extensive prior history of peaceful contact. Although this history is not directly related to the objective of this series, it is important to document it in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Arab, Greek and Jew contact with the Malabar Coast of India had long existed on account of trade in spices and other articles and became predominant in the post-Roman period. Thus Arab contact with India pre-dates Islam. There were settlements of pre-Islamic Arabs in Chaul, Kalyan Supara and Malabar Coast and Arab merchants travelled along the Coromandel Coast on their way to China.

The emergence of Islam did not give rise to the Arab connection with India but it added a new dimension. Trade continued after the Arabs embraced Islam and Arab traders brought it to Malabar almost immediately. Colonies of Arabs became Muslim settlements and existed at major ports such as Cambay, Chaul, and Honawar. In other settlements along the Bay of Bengal the presence of Muslims is traceable back to the eighth century. The largest Arab coastal settlements were in Malabar where Muslims form a substantial part of the population today. These communities came into existence through the marriage of local women to Arab sailors. In Malabar, the Mappilas were the first community attracted to Islam because they were more closely connected with the Arabs than others. Mappilas comprise descendants of pure Arabs, descendants of Arabs through local women (the vast majority), and converts from among non-Arabic locals (mostly from the lower caste Hindus with some exceptions).

Native rulers extended facilities and protection to these communities because trade contributed to economic prosperity. The conversion of a local ruler to Islam further integrated the Muslim community into the social life of the region.

These trading contacts were accompanied by equally extensive intellectual exchanges.     

Indo-Arab intellectual collaboration was at its height during the reigns of Mansur (753-774) and Harun-al-Rashid (780-808). Embassies connecting Sind to Baghdad included scholars who brought important books with them, scholars were sent to India to study medicine and pharmacology, and Hindu scholars came to Baghdad as chief physicians of hospitals and as translators into Arabic of Sanskrit books on such subjects as medicine, pharmacology, toxicology, philosophy, and astrology.

In mathematics the most important contribution of India to Arabic learning was the introduction of what are known in the West as ‘Arabic numerals,’ but which Arabs themselves call ‘Indian numerals’ (al-ruqum-al-Hindiyyah). Indian medicine received even greater attention; the titles of at least fifteen works in Sanskrit which were translated into Arabic have been preserved, including books by Sushruta and Caraka, the foremost authorities in Hindu medicine. Indian doctors enjoyed great prestige at Baghdad and were personal physicians to the Caliphs. Many Indian medicines, some of them in their original names such as atrifal, which is the Hindi tri-phal (a combination of three fruits), found their way into Arab pharmacopoeia.

Literary works gained great popularity. Some of the stories of the Arabian Nights are attributed to India, and Arabic translations of the Panchatantra, popularly known as the story of Kalila and Dimna, have become famous in various Arabic and Persian versions. The games of chess and chausar were also brought from India and transmitted by Arabs to other parts of the world.

It is important to keep this narrative in mind as we cover the journey from the past to the present. Because so few students today are exposed to a study of history it becomes easy to project the present onto versions of the past that have no correlation with real events. The onus of verification rests on us.

To be continued…

Sources consulted:

1. Muslim Civilization in India by SM Ikram

2. Wikipedia on Mapillas 

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