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Religion and Society in Arab Sind.

This important book takes a look at a period many might call the Dark Ages of medieval South Asia and sheds much light on society, religion, and history. The geographic focus is on Arab Sind, an area much larger than the present province of that name in Pakistan; in fact, it is nearly equivalent to the whole of contemporary Pakistan. Maclean's time frame is the period of Arab rule in this region, from 711 A.D. tO 1026 A.D. By a very close reading of the Chachnamah and other contemporary texts, including Arabic and Indic works and the translations of the Chinese Buddhist travelers' accounts, he has sorted out and corrected much confusion in earlier histories, especially on the topics of collaboration and conversion (of non-Muslims, with the conquerors and to Islam), the Islamic topics of concern to Sindi Muslims, and the rise of the Isma'ili state at Multan. His analysis, sometimes brilliant and always convincing, adds considerably to our understanding.

Maclean's first task is to identify the players in the history. He demonstrates that the Arab writers indeed distinguished Buddhists and Hindus, and provided enough information to identify particular sects of both. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors have introduced confusion here by failing to understand the different uses of words, and especially of the word budd, which they take as always signifying "Buddha." Maclean shows that it is used to mean "an image" or "a temple," and he demonstrates that it is used (with different modifiers) to refer to the Buddhist monasteries and temples, to the Saivite temple at Daybul, to the temple of Surya at Multan, and others. By such careful looking at the specific context and references, Maclean can show that on the Buddhist side the most numerous and influential group of Sindis were members of the Sammitiya sect, a Hinayana populist and textualist sect. On the Hindu side, the predominant sect was Pasupata Saivism, but in the city of Multan the votaries of the famous sun-temple had significance.

In his fascinating chapter two, "Conquest and Conversion," Maclean makes his most important points. First, he shows that most previous scholars have failed to distinguish these two processes or events, and have argued from reified versions of the three religions instead of from actual evidence available in historical sources. He shows that the conquest proceeded from rational economic and political causes and that it affected different groups in the Sindi population in different ways and so drew different responses. To grossly oversimplify his fascinating account, many of the Buddhists were urban and mercantile and collaborated with the Arabs in a perception of their own self-interest, while many of the Brahmanic Hindus were rural and agricultural and resisted for the same reason. The Arabs faithfully honored their commitments made in treaties of surrender, covenants, and promises of protection; as Maclean notes, they wished to take over an economically viable region with a minimum of casualties. They relied on the old landed aristocracy, rural Brahmans, and urban merchant groups for local administration - and thus continued the Hindu disabilities on low and untouchable castes. He notes the revealing statistic that, of towns and tribes specifically mentioned in accounts of the Arab conquest, 63 or 65 per cent surrendered by treaty (not by force of arms), compared with 8 per cent in Egypt and 36 per cent in Syria.

Buddhism, as we know, disappeared from Sind while Hinduism survived. Why? He cites evidence that the Buddhist population converted earlier and more numerously to Islam, in part due to the shared values both religions put on inter-regional commerce and mercantile class interests. The Brahman ruler Dahir commented on the fall of the port city Daybul to the Arabs that it was merely the residence of merchants and artisans." The China trade was restored by the conquest, but in a maritime, not overland, form that put it into Muslim rather than Buddhist merchants' hands. Here one of Maclean's most original points is that the Islamization of the Buddhists was not sudden and dramatic but gradual, the work of institutions like the mosque, school, and pilgrimage, and joined the textualism and populism of the Sammitiya sect of Buddhists with a textualist form of literate Islam which became popular with Sindi Muslims. The credit and transport facilities of the Buddhist monasteries were supplanted by Muslim institutions such as the caravan-serai. On the other hand, Hindu society was less directly affected by the Arab conquest, being rooted in rural, village, and local exchange economies. Since the Arabs administered rural Sind indirectly through the locally dominant caste, there was less change and less pressure for change outside the urban centers. Most interesting in this case is the medieval Sindi text, Devala-smrti, datable between 800 and 1000 A.D., which prescribes among other things a repurification of converts to Islam who wish to be accepted back into Hinduism-exactly the same penance as Devala requires for a person who has inadvertantly eaten garlic, leeks, or mushrooms! Medieval Sindis apparently did not see this conversion question as so fundamentally important as we do.

Maclean's analysis of Isma ilism in Sind is equally interesting and cogently argued. He sees the Isma'ilis as direct and ardent proselytizers whose greatest success was in Upper Sind, among such groups as earlier Alids who had intermarried with indigenous Sindis and even lost their Arabic language, but especially the Hindu community and particularly its agrarian elite. It provided Hindu and Muslim agrarian elites with a shared ideology affording unity in opposition to a dominant Arab urban class.

Maclean has provided the scholars of medieval India with a lot to think about, in demonstrating that close attention to specific evidence can be marshalled to make better, more satisfying and probably more correct historical interpretations. In particular, he argues that Sindis acted for reasons which can be explained by Sindi contexts, tensions, opportunities, and perceptions of self-interest. Maclean has moved us a long way from the sterile arguments of modem nationalist historians - British, Muslim, Hindu - about what happened in Arab Sind.
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Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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