Ed. note: The post refers to Manan Ahmed Asif. A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. Find a review on this title by Andre Wink at https://networks.h-net.org/node/22055/reviews/180166/wink-asif-book-conquest-chachnama-and... (ML)
My remarks pertain to Manan Ahmed Asif’s use of V. S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers. Asif claims that Naipaul’s interpretation of the Chachnama exemplifies the way in which the history of “Muslim origins in South Asia” has been ideologically framed in the modern period. However, his argument relies on a misreading of Naipaul’s Among the Believers. Here are two key moments:
#1 “Naipaul read Chachnama as ‘an account of the Islamic beginning of the state [of Pakistan]’” (Asif, A Book of Conquest 6).
#2 “[Naipaul] narrated the atrocities committed by the Arab army—their destruction of temples or their killing of civilians—and linked them to the atrocities of Pakistan’s teeming Muslims since 1971 War for Bangladesh” (Asif, A Book of Conquest 6-7).
With reference to Statement #1, the original passage in Among the Believers makes clear that Asif misrepresents what Naipaul actually wrote: “The Arab conquest of Sind [in 712 C. E.] is distinct from the Muslim invasions of India proper, which began about three centuries later. But the Sind conquered by Bin Qasim was a big country, roughly the area of present-day southern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan; and the Chachnama might be said to be an account of the Islamic beginnings of the state” (Naipaul, Among the Believers 140-1).
The “state” referred to in this passage is Sind, which for Naipaul denotes the eighth-century territory invaded by the Arabs in 712 C.E. There is no ambiguity here. “State” does not refer to the “state of Pakistan,” as Asif claims in Statement #1. Asif’s decision to alter the meaning of Naipaul’s sentence is troubling. It’s worth pointing out that when Andre Wink cites Asif’s statement #1 in his review (May 15, 2017, H-Asia), he correctly replaces Asif’s “of Pakistan” with “in the subcontinent.”
I now turn to Statement #2: Contrary to Asif’s assertions, at no point in Among the Believers does Naipaul suggest that the “myth of the Arab conqueror” was a development linked to the 1971 war. Naipaul does not argue for a connection between Sind in 712 C. E. and post-1971 Pakistan in Among the Believers. Asif’s claim that Naipaul declares a link between the “atrocities” of 712 C.E. and the “atrocities” of “Pakistan’s teeming Muslims since 1971 War of Bangladesh” is false. Asif seeks to pin on Naipaul an investment in an “origins” narrative for which he provides no evidence. Asif’s book is neither about Naipaul nor is it an attack on his work. But as statements #1 and #2 make clear, a distorted reading of Naipaul’s Among the Believers serves as a foil for Asif’s central claim that the Pakistani state co-opted the Chachnama to serve its nationalist agenda.
[In a post published on H-Asia on June 26, 2017 -- ed.,] Sanjay Krishnan has accused Manan Ahmed Asif of "misreading," "misrepresenting," and even "altering the meaning" of V. S. Naipaul's words in ways that Krishnan describes as "troubling." These are very serious charges. But any readers inclined to believe Krishnan's allegations should know that the facts are actually on Asif's side.
Throughout the Pakistan section of Among the Believers, Naipaul uses the term "state" or "the state" scores of times in ways that refer obviously and unambiguously to Pakistan (not Sind, as Krishnan insists Naipaul is doing in the passage quoted by Asif). In fact, in just the first two of Naipaul's ten chapters on Pakistan ("Displacements" and "Karachi Phantasmagoria") there are over thirty such unambiguous usages.
Meanwhile, there is not a single instance wherein Naipaul refers to Sind as a "state." Instead, Naipaul typically (and correctly) refers to modern Sind as a "province," or, when speaking of earlier times, uses more nebulous terms like the "land," "territory," or "country" of Sind.
On these grounds alone Asif's gloss of the disputed passage as referring to the "Islamic beginnings of the state [of Pakistan]" is thus not only perfectly reasonable, it is arguably the correct one. But the context -- Naipaul's discussion of the Pakistani national imaginary -- makes Asif's reading even more plausible.
Krishnan's second claim -- that Asif has unfairly (indeed dishonestly) characterized Naipaul's views on post-1971 Pakistani society, politics, and the revival of a certain discourse about Pakistan's "Arabian origins" -- is also easily debunked.
Asif never accuses Naipaul himself of inventing the discourse on Pakistan's supposed eighth-century "Arabian origins," versions of which, as Book of Conquest makes abundantly clear, already had a long prehistory in British colonial and Indian nationalist historiography. Asif is simply trying to point out to his own readers that the 1971 war was an important turning point in the postcolonial history of this discourse because Bangladesh's secession, besides being bitter and bloody in its own right, had also thrown the entire identity and raison d'etre of Pakistan -- ostensibly a homeland for all South Asian Muslims -- into question.
Naipaul is useful for illustrating this dynamic precisely because of the timing of his travels in the region (1979-1981), and the fact that he and his interlocutors reference this post-1971 Pakistani identity crisis repeatedly in Among the Believers, in ways both subtle and direct. To take just one particularly vivid example, while driving around Karachi Naipaul sees posters that read "We Sacrificed for Pakistan Not Bangladesh," and describes the reaction of his guide Ahmed: "the posters -- with their hint of further divisions and animosities in his country -- made him irritable." A few lines later, Ahmed laments: "I was told that my country was Pakistan. Then I found that that country had shrunk [i.e. in 1971]. Now I can feel it shrinking again'" (p. 125 of my edition).
The Pakistani state, for its part, had responded to this hint of "further divisions and animosities" through a well-known campaign of Islamization and growing authoritarianism, first under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (d. 1979) and then with increasing intensity under Zia ul-Haq (d. 1988). It was in this context that the state began vigorously promulgating -- through school textbooks, official historiography, etc. -- the idea that Pakistan's true origins lay not in 1947 but (in embryonic form, of course) in the eighth-century Arab conquest of Sind, which was said to have brought Islam to the subcontinent.
Naipaul clearly noticed this "Arab tilt" (as he described it) and the new "logic of the faith" that seemed to have overtaken Pakistani politics and society in the 1970s. "People were turning to Islam," he explains at one point, "because everything else had failed" (p. 123). Moreover he comments repeatedly on the secession of Bangladesh itself, the ugly eventual fate of Mr. Bhutto, public whippings, crackdowns on press freedoms, and, as one of his informants puts it, the way that "these maulanas... are using Islam as a tool" (p. 199). But he also devotes two whole chapters ("The Little Arab" and "Killing History") to an extended meditation on the eighth-century Arab conquest and the explicit ways that its memory was being revived in present-day Pakistan, at one point observing: "Pakistan had changed since 1947. Seeking more than Iqbal's Muslim polity now, seeking in failure an impossibly pure faith, it called up its Arabian origins, mystical but at the same time real" (p. 131).
In short, there is ample evidence in Among the Believers to support Asif's reading of Naipaul and characterization of the latter's views. I have only given a tiny fraction of that evidence here due to space constraints. But I invite any readers who remain skeptical, including Krishnan himself, to peruse my own copy of the text, where I have marked many additional relevant passages to corroborate this conclusion.
Ed. note: This will be the final post on this thread about the correct reading of Naipaul's Among the Believers as it pertains to Manan Asif's 2016 book, Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia (Harvard University Press). Readers wishing to assess the merits of the positions taken by Drs. Krishnan and Kinra can refer to Naipaul's book, which is readily accessible, and to Dr. Asif's book itself. RD
Rajeev Kinra presents us with a great deal of information in his post. But he fails to address, let alone “debunk,” the problems I identified. Kinra’s central claim, that “there is not a single instance [in Among the Believers] where Naipaul refers to Sind as a state” is false. He is aware of the following passage: "The Arab conquest of Sind [in 712 C. E.] is distinct from the Muslim invasions of India proper, which began about three centuries later. But the Sind conquered by Bin Qasim was a big country … and the Chachnama might be said to be an account of the Islamic beginnings of the state" (V. S. Naipaul, Among the Believers, 140-1). Syntax dictates that the “state” referred to is Sind, not, as Kinra claims, Pakistan.
Kinra’s assertion that there is “not a single instance” in which Naipaul refers to Sind as a state is as easily disproved by other means. In Among the Believers, Naipaul refers to “the great Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Sind” as one of several states including, “in the west, Visigothic Spain” and, “in the east, Persia,” which fell to the Arabs after 710 C. E. (Among the Believers, 131).
In my post I also stated that that Naipaul never "linked" the “atrocities committed by the Arab army [and] the atrocities of Pakistan’s teeming Muslims since 1971 War for Bangladesh” (Asif, A Book of Conquest 7). Despite his lengthy post, Kinra is unable to point to a single passage in Among the Believers where Naipaul makes a connection between the two events.