Punjab Conversions: Causes of Conversions to Islam

Punjab conversions

That the Shahis changed their capitals from Kabul to Uddabhanda to Nandan has been shown above. However Trilochanpal is shown ruling briefly from Sarhind in the eastern region—between Sirhind and Lahore lay the Kingdom of Jalandhar whose princess Suryamati was married into the Kashmir royal family (circa 1028), as described in the Rajatarangini. Hence Jalandhar was independent of, or probably the only tributary to, the Shahi monarchs. The independence of Durgar (Jammu), Trigart (Kangra), and Jalandhar is confirmed by the Rajatarangini and contemporary inscriptions found in Chamba. This is one reason why the east remained a Hindu majority land.

Sarhind came into the Shahi hands because of Mahmud Ghaznavi—he had an alliance with Anandpal for about three years as shown above. In this time Mahmud invaded Thanesar, lying to the other side of the River Sutlej, to destroy its main deity and to loot and slaughter its inhabitants. After the successful campaign, the conquered territory would have been garrisoned by his Shahi allies since their kingdom was close to the region. When the alliance between the two was broken and the renewed wars with the Ghaznavids drove the Shahis from Nandan in 1013, they first went to refuge in Kashmir, and later to this eastern region. Mahmud was involved in other campaigns for the next five years—in this time the Shahis established a new kingdom at Sarhind, which was finally extinguished with the death of Trilochanpal in 1021.

So politically the Shahis had direct control over the northwest and central Punjab. The neighboring kingdoms were their allies while the eastern Punjab was the place of their final refuge. From the family chronicles of the Jammu Kings written in the 19th Century[1], the younger brother of one of their ancestors is said to have fought in the army of Anandpal Shahi in 1008. This is confirmed by the Muslim sources, which state that the various kingdoms of the region joined hands with the Shahis to fight the Islamic invaders. It is but certain that the inhabitants of the Salt Range, the Potohar plateau, and Peshawar[2] formed the army of Hindu Shahis and even of the earlier Shahi monarchs.

The fact that the minister Lalliya was able to take over his master’s kingdom without any rebellion breaking out suggests that the majority inhabitants of even the Kabul valley were Indians—had they been of the same race as their foreign monarch they would have fought to preserve his family’s rule against the usurping Indian. Under the Ghaznavids, the inhabitants of this region remained true to their ancestral faith—until Mahmud led a campaign around the hills of Peshawar to slaughter or convert the local warriors.

These conversion campaigns seem to have occurred around the cities and towns and not deep in the countryside since the local chiefs are regarded to be Hindus in the chronicles of the later Ghaznavid monarchs—these Punjabi Hindus were even present in the Turk army where one named Tilak rose to the highest rank. The Gakkahrs and other tribes of Potohar, who had fought gallantly in the army of the Shahis now transferred their allegiance to the Ghaznavids. They had suffered tremendously in the succession of battles for over a decade and presumably did not have the resources to carry on further resistance. The Gakkhars, in particular, seem to have become allies of the later Ghaznavids—they fought on behalf of these Muslims against their fellow Hindu, the Raja of Jammu until the clever Raja pit Muslim against Muslim by allying with the Turks of Ghor.

Addressing the political background again, the Ghaznavids chose Lahore as the capital of the conquered region even though it lay far in the east. The two capitals of the Shahis, Ohind, and Nandan, previously had a large population and adequate resources—but they had been destroyed and looted during the recent wars. The Shahis had conquered the region of Lahore from a local dynasty only a decade ago and never made a stand against the Ghaznavids at this place—preferring to take refuge in Kashmir and later founding a new capital at Sarhind. For the Ghaznavids, Lahore became the ideal base for fighting the kingdoms of the eastern regions and for attempting to repeat Mahmud’s cavalry raids in the south.

The military face of the Ghaznavid-Shahi struggle reveals the usual triumph of cavalry maneuvers and archery of the Turks over the elephants, infantry, and cavalry of the Punjabis. In a head-on clash the Hindus would prevail until the maneuvering cavalry and archery of the Turks broke the links of the different military units—the broken units would then be cut down piecemeal or would simply escape from the battlefield. The failure of these warriors to continue the resistance from the numerous forts of the region is attributed to the repeated defeats they suffered and to their forcible conversion to Islam. But added to this are causes that were beyond their control—the lack of a single dominant clan (as in Ajmer) whose cadets had a common goal to continue the resistance, and the lack of an imperial tradition (as in Kannauj) which could motivate different clans to fight the alien interloper to the death.

Cause of conversion

Mahmud Ghaznavi’s secretary Al-Utbi states frankly, “ Islam or death was the alternative that Mahmud placed before the people .” The Muslim chroniclers repeat this story when describing the deeds of later Sultans…even the African traveler Ibn Batuta states, “ Other nations embraced Islam only when the Arabs used their swords against them .” In the case of Punjab, some other reasons are also claimed by its inhabitants for embracing Islam.

The sword of Islam – beginning with Mahmud Ghaznavi’s campaign around Peshawar where the inhabitants of the nearby hills and valleys were slaughtered and forced to convert to Islam (in the year 1021). At the end of the bloody fight with the Gakkhars (1205) Mohammad Ghori is said to have forced their chieftain to recite the kalima, in revenge of which the Gakkhars murdered him. Other Sultans carried out bloody campaigns among these tribes, killing the men and enslaving the women and children. In the early 13th Century, the region came under the shadow of the mighty Mongols—the Khwarazim Turks who fled into India are said to have fought against and forcibly converted many warrior Hindus in Punjab (see the Mongols in India).

As the Mongols of the Chagatai Khanate sent recurring raids against the Delhi Turks throughout the 13th and early 14th Centuries, the warriors of Punjab would have repeatedly embraced their ancestral faith or converted to Islam in line with whichever power gained dominance in their lands. By the time of the invasion of Timur (1398), the inhabitants of the western regions were considered to have converted to Islam. In his autobiography Timur uses the word Rajput only for the Hindu warriors that opposed his invasion—at Jammu, he describes several battles during which the “ Raja of Jammu with fifty Rais and Rajputs was captured ”. Timur then forced him to convert to Islam, declared victory and marched away, having failed to capture the fort.

Since it is very unlikely that a Raja would have only fifty soldiers with him, and since Timur did not name this important convert to his faith, it is assumed that this man was a Rajput officer who portrayed himself as the Raja and went through the conversion to induce Timur into retiring from Jammu. The chronicles of the Jammu Rajas mention the invasion but state that Timur failed to capture the fort and only plundered the villages before retreating.

It appears that wherever Islam gained an outright victory the rulers and warriors were forced to embrace that faith—subsequently, their people belonging to the agricultural classes would follow suit. But wherever Hindus were politically dominant and militarily strong, they retained their ancestral faith in spite of all the invasions and massacres. The people living in the regions close to these strong kingdoms took inspiration from them and also retained their ancestral faith—in the case of eastern Punjab the plainsmen had the option of retreating into the hills whenever threatened by invasions (see the parallel case of the later Sikhs in the same region). Babur in his memoirs speaks of the Jats and Gujjars taking shelter in the hills of these Rajput Kingdoms and coming down to plunder whenever they saw a chance. Such raiding elicited a brutal response of slaughter and enslavement and the inevitable conversion to Islam.

The Sufis – In the wake of the Ghaznavid conquest of Punjab, several Sufis from the other parts of the empire traveled to the new capital Lahore and founded their religious orders. The first few were Shaikh Ismail, Shaikh Ali (popular name Data Ganj Baksh), and Sayyid Ahmad Sultan (popular name Lakhi Data)—in a later period came Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti[3] and Baha-ud-din Zakariya (propagator of the Suhrawardi order).

These Sufis were in fact mystics who aimed to instill moral and spiritual values into the masses. They lived a simple life, performed exercises similar to Yoga (like the holding of breath), chanted sacred words, were ordained by an existing Sufi (Guru) and ordained others in their turn. These Sufis[4] were so similar to the Hindu Yogis and Sadhus, with whom they freely interacted, that they usually aroused the suspicions and hostility of an orthodox ruler or Qazi. Even their spiritual message that love and devotion to the supreme soul would lead to salvation was similar to the Indian concept of nirvana and moksha.

Although they lived within the bounds of the Sharia, these Sufis were always nudging away its rigidity by including music and dancing in their spiritual lessons[5]. They were also reputed to perform miracles and possessed the power to heal the sick. Such ideas were contrary to the message of Islam but the worst sin of the Sufis in orthodox eyes was the excessive devotion shown to them by the people, which led to the dangerous path of man-worship. Some Sufis were oppressed but mostly they were suffered to exist since they never challenged the basic tenets of Islam.

It is suggested by some that the tolerant Sufis did more to spread Islam than the fanatic invaders. But the whole point of tolerance is to respect one another’s religion without converting! This is further proved by the presence of large numbers of Hindus at the Sufi shrines of modern India—they respect the saints but will not abandon their ancestral faith.

Even in that earlier period, and in that very region, a Muslim saint named Roshan Wali settled down in the Hindu city of Jammu. The people respected his message but they did so without abandoning their own faith since there was no one to force them into embracing Islam. So even if the Sufis sought to convert people, they could only do so in regions where Hindus had lost political and military power.

The Sufis came to Punjab in the 11th Century but from the Tarikh-i-Jahan-Kusha and other texts it is clear that Hindu clans and communities inhabited large parts of that province till late in the 14th Century. So the Sufis could not have converted large numbers to Islam, especially since it was not their agenda to do so. In this same period and region there lived a Hindu saint of similar greatness named Gugga Chauhan[6] (Gogaji Chauhan in Rajasthani), a Rajput prince who fought against the Ghaznavids but became a saint to both Hindus and Muslims. Again his teachings were not for any religion but for all human beings, as in the case of Sufis.

The Sufis mostly lived and preached in the cities and towns. The Sultans brought prisoners from their battles against the Punjabis to these towns and converted them to Islam—to these unfortunate people, torn from their family and religion, the uplifting music and dancing of the Sufis would have been a great change from the dreary militarism and formal rituals that had been brutally imposed on them.

Power and position – ambitious rulers and warriors were always engaged in improving their station in life and increasing their power. For this purpose, claim many Punjabis, their forefathers embraced Islam to gain power from the victorious Muslim invaders. They also believe that their ancestors were impressed by the fighting abilities of the Turks and for this reason embraced their religion.

Contemporary literature does show the Punjabis fighting in the Ghaznavid army—but they did so as Hindus, as seen above. When Muhammad Ghori later invaded their lands these same Hindus fought ferociously against him—weren’t they impressed by his fighting abilities?

The reason the Hindu clans of the Salt Range and nearby regions joined the Ghaznavid army was a clear lack of resources. They had suffered losses[7] while fighting on behalf of the Shahis for a decade, and when that dynasty passed they did not have any unity of command, or the determination, or the resources in men and money to continue the resistance. After submitting to Mahmud these clans gradually rebuilt their strength over the decades and were thus able to challenge Muhammad Ghori and later Sultans in several battles. They were eventually converted after suffering repeated defeats at the hand of these Sultans.

The position of converts

The Turk invaders of Punjab sought to convert the inhabitants to Islam and were confident of accomplishing this task. Around the world, great civilizations and large countries had fallen to the advance of Islamic armies and their inhabitants had embraced the new faith until, in a few generations, no trace of the earlier religion remained. The Ghaznavids occupied Punjab for several generations but they could not complete the conquest or convert all the inhabitants in this time. Their administration and army were filled with Muslims of foreign origin—these people thus developed a system of racism against the local converts who were usually prisoners of war.

In other countries there was competition between the various Muslim quams (ethnic groups): Arab vs. Turk, Turk vs. Iranian, Kurd vs. Arab, etc. but in India the foreign quams practiced racism by refusing to inter-marry with the Punjabi converts, by not showing them equality in employment opportunities, and by not praying alongside them. The foreign classes were the Ashraf (nobility) while the local converts were called Ajlaf .

The only way for local converts to gain the respect of the foreign quams was by claiming foreign origin for their own clans. In the later Mughal Empire, the Rajput generals attained a higher position than any of the Punjabi converts, even though the latter had been practicing Islam for centuries. The bigoted Mughal ruler Aurangzeb was married to Nawab Bai, the daughter of the Muslim ruler of Rajouri (in modern J&K;). When Nawab Bai’s son Bahadur Shah became the next emperor a false pedigree was invented for her to show that she was actually a Sayyid[7]—the fact that her family were locally converted Muslim was not good enough.

It thus became a fashion for every Indian convert to claim foreign origin and several conflicting stories of descent from saints, or from Persian monarchs, or from the Prophet himself, were told. Until the late 18th Century, even though the Mughal Empire had ceased to exist, there was still a Mughal royal family in whose name the Maratha general Scindia ruled Delhi and Agra. So until this time the Punjabis continued to claim foreign origins—but when the British finally extinguished the Mughal dynasty and later conquered Punjab from the Sikhs, the Punjabi Muslims began claiming descent from Rajputs.

The reasons are not far to seek. In the British Raj, the Maharajas and Nawabs (rulers of the protected princely states) represented pomp, grandeur, and wealth—in proportion the Rajputs outnumbered any other community in this galaxy of princes. Some of that pomp and grandeur rubbed off on the common Rajputs and all those who could claim descent from them.

The Rajput Kings had preserved their genealogies going back several millennia and had made a mark on Indian History with their ferocious resistance to the converting zeal of Islam—more importantly even their bitterest enemies acknowledged the valor and nobility of the Rajputs. For these reasons, many Indian communities claimed descent from Rajputs.

With the events leading to the formation of the Muslim League and its demand for Pakistan, the Punjabis once again renewed their foreign origin claims…claims that had been boosted by the speculations of the colonial historians. With the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, and later the employment of many Pakistanis in the oil-rich economies of the Middle East, the Punjabis laid stress on the descent from Arabs.

The official Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s position is that its citizens are mostly descended from foreign Turks and Afghans.

With such conflicting views of their past, the lack of adequate historical evidence, and their government’s preference for all things foreign, it appears that the Punjabis in Pakistan have a clear and pervading identity crisis. This is made worse by the racism that also infects their thinking as shown in this post.

Credits: Original Post by Airavat Singh on his blog, "Horses and Swords"

  1. The Gulabnama of Dewan Kirpa Ram, edited by Professor Sukhdev Singh Charak. ↩︎

  2. Then called by its original name Purshapur. ↩︎

  3. Came to Lahore in 1161, is said to have traveled to Multan and Lahore before settling in Ajmer. This must-have happened after the Tarain battles but the descendants of the Chishtis claim that the Khwaja came to Ajmer in the reign of Prithviraj. They claim that he had religious debates with a Yogi at that place who became his disciple. Prithviraj had previously honored the Yogi but even after Yogi’s acceptance of the Khwaja’s message of divine love, the Chauhan King remained hostile to all Muslims. ↩︎

  4. Another class of mystics were the Qalandars; these did not establish any orders or shrines and aimed purely for individual salvation. ↩︎

  5. The spirited song and dance induced the Sufis to go into a trance, which they claimed was a kind of union with God. They were, however, careful to sing only devotional songs. ↩︎

  6. His shrines are found throughout Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh. ↩︎

  7. The following story was told: a venerable Sayyid saint visited Rajouri and married the Muslim Raja’s daughter. Afterwards he went away on pilgrimage to Mecca—the Rajouri chief passed on his throne to these maternal grandchildren but did not reveal their Sayyid ancestry to anyone. ↩︎