While Harsha was reigning over a powerful kingdom in north India and Hsuan-Tsang, the Chinese scholar-pilgrim,was studying at Nalanda University, Islam was taking shape in Arabia. Islam was to come to India both as a religious and apolitical force and create many new problems, but it is well to remember that it took a long time before it made much difference to the Indian scene. It was nearly 600 years before it reached the heart of India and when it came to the accompaniment of political conquest, it had already changed much and its standard bearers were different. The Arabs who, in a fine frenzy of enthusiasm and with a dynamic energy, had spread out and conquered from Spain to the borders of Mongolia carrying with them a brilliant culture, did not come to India proper. They stopped at its north-western fringe and remained there. Arab civilization gradually decayed and various Turkish tribes came into prominence in central and western Asia. It was these Turkish and Afghans from the Indian borderland who brought Islam as a political force to India.
Some dates might help to bring these facts home to us. Islam may be said to begin with the Hijrat, the departure of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca “to Medina, in 622 A.C. Mohammed died ten years later. Some time was spent in consolidating the position in Arabia, and then those astounding series of events took place which carried the Arabs, with the banner of Islam, right across central Asia in the east and across the whole north African continent to Spain and France in the west. In the seventh century and by the beginning of the eighth, they had spread over Iraq,Iran, and central Asia. In 712 A.C. they reached and occupied Sind in the north-west of India and stopped there. A great desert separated this area from the more fertile parts of India. In the west the Arabs crossed the narrow straits between Africa and Europe(since called the Straits of Gibraltar) and entered Spain in 711 A.C. They occupied the whole of Spain and crossed the Pyrenees into France. In 732 they were defeated and checked by Charles Martel at Tours in France.
This triumphant career of a people, whose homelands were the deserts of Arabia and who had thus far played no notable part in history, is most remarkable. They must have derived their vast energy from the dynamic and revolutionary character of their Prophet and his message of human brotherhood. And yet it is wrong to imagine that Arab civilization suddenly rose out of oblivion and took shape after the advent of Islam. There has been a tendency on the part of Islamic scholars to decry the pre-Islamic past of the Arab people and to refer to it as the period of jahiliyat, a kind of dark age of ignorance and superstition. Arab civilization, like others, had a long past, intimately connected with the development of the Semitic race, the Phoenicians, Cretans, Chaldeans, Hebrews. The Israelites became more exclusive and separated themselves from the more catholic Chaldeans and others. Between them and other Semitic races there were conflicts.Nevertheless all over the Semitic area there were contacts and interchanges and to some extent a common background. Pre-Islamic Arab civilization grew up especially in Yemen.Arabic was a highly developed language at the time of the Prophet,with a mixture of Persian and even some Indian words.Like the Phoenicians, the Arabs went far across the seas in search of trade. There was an Arab colony in south China, near Canton,in pre-Islamic days.
Nevertheless it is true that the Prophet of Islam vitalized his people and filled them with faith and enthusiasm. Considering themselves the standard-bearers of a new cause, they developed the zeal and self-confidence which sometimes fills a whole people and changes history. Their success was also undoubtedly due to the decay of the states in western and central Asia and in north Africa. North Africa was torn by internecine conflicts between rival Christian factions, leading often to bloody struggles for mastery. The Christianity that was practised there at the time was narrow and intolerant and the contrast between this and the general toleration of the Muslim Arabs, with their message of human brotherhood, was marked. It was this that brought whole people, weary of Christian strife, to their side.
The culture that the Arabs carried with them to distant countries was itself continuously changing and developing. It bore the strong impress of the new ideas of Islam, and yet to call it Islamic civilization is confusing and probably incorrect. With their capital at Damascus, they soon left their simple ways of living and developed a more sophisticated culture. That period might be called one of Arab-Syrian civilization. Byzantine influences came to them, but most of all, when they moved to Baghdad, the traditions of old Iran affected them and they developed the Arab-Persian civilization which became dominant over all the vast areas they controlled.
Widespread and apparently easy as the Arab conquests were, they did not go far beyond Sind in India, then or later. Was this due to the fact that India was still strong enough to resist effectively the invader? Probably so, for it is difficult to explain otherwise the lapse of several centuries before a real invasion took place. Partly it may have been due to the internal troubles of the Arabs. Sind fell away from the central authority at Baghdad and became a small independent Muslim state. But though there was no invasion, contacts between India and the Arab world grew, travellers came to and from, embassies were exchanged, Indian books, especially on mathematics and astronomy, were taken to Baghdad and were translated into Arabic. Many Indian physicians went to Baghdad. These trade and cultural relations were not confined to north India. The southern states of India also participated in them, especially the Rashtrakutas, on the west coast of India, for purposes of trade.
This frequent intercourse inevitably led to Indians getting to know the new religion, Islam. Missionaries also came to spread this new faith and they were welcomed. Mosques were built. There was no objection raised either by the state or the people, nor were there any religious conflicts. It was the old tradition of India to be tolerant to all faiths and forms of worship. Thus Islam came as a religion to India several centuries before it came as a political force.
The new Arab Empire under the Ommeya Khalifas (Omme-yade Caliphs) had its seat and capital at Damascus where a splendid city grew up. But soon, about 750 A.C. the Abbasiya (Abbaside) Khalifas took the capital to Baghdad. Internal conflicts followed and Spain fell away from the central empire, but continued for long as an independent Arab state. Gradually the Baghdad Empire also weakened and split up into several states, and the Seljuk Turks came from central Asia and became politically all-powerful at Baghdad, though the Khalifa still functioned at their pleasure. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, a Turk, arose in Afghanistan, a great warrior and a brilliant captain, and he ignored and even taunted the Khalifa. But still Baghdad continued as the cultural centre of the Islamic world and even far-way Spain looked to it for inspiration. Europe was backward then in learning and science and art and the amenities of life. It was Arab Spain, and especially the university of Cordoba, that kept the lamp of learning and intellectual curiosity burning throughout those dark ages of Europe and some of its light pierced the European gloom.
The Crusades beginning in 1095 A.C. went on for over a century and a half. These did not merely represent a struggle between two aggressive religions, a conflict between the Cross and the Crescent. ‘The Crusades,’ says Professor G. M. Trevelyan, the eminent historian, ‘were the military and religious aspect of a general urge towards the east on the part of the reviving energies of Europe. The prize that Europe brought back from the Crusades was not the permanent liberation of the holy Sepulchre or the potential unity of Christendom, of which the story of the Crusades was one long negation. She brought back instead the finer arts and crafts, luxury, science, and intellectual curiosity—everything that Peter the Hermit would most have despised.
Before the last of the Crusades had ingloriously petered out, something cyclonic and cataclysmic had taken place in the heart of Asia. Chengiz (or Jenghiz) Khan had begun his devastating march westward. Born in Mongolia in 1155 A.c., he started on this great march, which was to convert central Asia into a heap of smoking ruins, in 1219. He was no youngster then. Bokhara, Samarkand, Herat, and Balkh, all great cities, each having more than a million inhabitants, were reduced to ashes. Chengiz went on to Kiev in Russia and then returned; Baghdad somehow escaped as it did not lie on his route. He died in 1227 at the age of seventy-two. His successors went further into Europe and, in 1258, Hulagu captured Baghdad and put an end to that famous centre of art and learning, where for over 500 years treasures from all parts of the world had come and accumulated. That gave a great shock to the distinctive Arab-Persian civilization in Asia, though this survived even under the Mongols; it continued especially in parts of North Africa and especially in Spain. Crowds of scholars with their books fled from Baghdad to Cairo and Spain and a renaissance of art and learning took place there. But Spain itself was slipping from the Arab grasp and Corodoba had fallen in 1236 A.C. For another two centuries and a half the kingdom of Granada continued as a bright centre of Arab culture. In 1492 A.C. Granada also fell to Ferdinand and Isabella, and Arab dominion in Spain ended. Thenceforward Cairo became the chief Arab centre, though it came under Turkish domination. The Ottoman Turks had captured Constantinople in 1453, thereby releasing those forces which gave birth to the European Renaissance.
The Mongol conquests in Asia and Europe represented something new in the art of warfare. ‘In scale and in quality,’ says Liddell Hart, ‘in surprise and in mobility, in the strategic and in the .tactical indirect approach their (the Mongols’) campaigns surpass any in history.’ Chengiz Khan was undoubtedly one of the greatest, if not the greatest, military leaders that the world has produced. The chivalry of Asia and Europe was matchwood before him and his brilliant successors, and it was pure chance that central and western Europe escaped conquest. From these Mongols Europe learnt new lessons in strategy and the art of warfare. The use of gunpowder also came to Europe, through these Mongols, from China.
The Mongols did not come to India. They stopped at the Indus river and pursued their conquests elsewhere. When their great empires faded away a number of smaller states rose in Asia, and then in 1369 Timur, a Turk, claiming to be a descendant of Chengiz Khan through his mother, tried to repeat the exploits of Chengiz. Samarkand, his capital, again became a seat of empire, brief-lived though this was. After Timur’s death his successors were more interested in a quiet life and in cultivating the arts than in military exploits. A Timurid renaissance, as it is called,took place in central Asia and it was in this environment that Babar, a descendant of Timur, was born and grew up. Babar was the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India; he was the first of the Grand Mughals. He captured Delhi in 1526.
Chengiz Khan was not a Muslim, as some people seem to imagine because of his name which is now associated with Islam.He is said to have believed in Shamaism, a religion of the sky.What this was I do not know but the word inevitably makes one think of the Arab word for Buddhists—Samani, which was derived from the Sanskrit Shravana. Debased forms of Buddhism flourished then in various parts of Asia, including Mongolia and it is probable that Chengiz grew up under their influence.
It is odd to think that the greatest military conqueror in history was probably some kind of a Buddhist.*
In Central Asia, even today four legendary figures of great conquerors are remembered—Sikander (Alexander), Sultan Mahmud, Chengiz Khan and Timur. To these four must be added now a fifth, another type of person, not a warrior, but a conqueror in a different realm, round whose name legend has already gathered— Lenin.
* A kind of Shamanism or Shamaism still lingers in Arctic Siberia, Mongolia, and in Tanna Tuva in Soviet Central Asia. This appears to be based entirely on a belief in spirits and has apparently no connection whatever with Buddhism. Tet it may have been influenced long ago by some degraded forms of Buddhism which were gradually submerged in local-primitive superstitions. Tibet, which is patently a Buddhist country, has developed its own variety of Buddhism called Lamaism. Mongolia with its Shamanism has also the Living Buddha tradition. Thus there seem to be various gradations in northern and central Asia of Buddhism fading off into primitive beliefs.