In contemporary South Asia, the question of Muslim origins emerges in school textbooks, political dialogues, or at tourist or pilgrimage cites. The repeated narrative...

In contemporary South Asia, the question of Muslim origins emerges in school textbooks, political dialogues, or at tourist or pilgrimage cites. The repeated narrative revolves around the foreign Muslim leader, Muhammad bin Qasim, and his conquest of Sind in the year 712. Manan Ahmed Asif, Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University, provides a critical interrogation of this narrative in A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia (Harvard University Press, 2017).

The crux of this origin narrative stems from the Chachnama, a 13th-century Persian text, which purports to be a translation of an eye-witness account written in Arabic. Asif approaches the Chachnama by initially situating it within the spatial and political context of Medieval Sind. He then places it within the textual universe of the early 13th century, thinking about audience, genre, and themes. Through this process of unreading he concludes that the Chachnama is neither translation nor primarily concerned with conquest but rather provides a coherent political theory for its contemporaneous readers. Thinking about the text in this new light, Asif examines the Chachnama though the lens of advice writing, questions of governing difference, and the calibration of gender and power. Finally, he explores the afterlife of the Chachnama and determines the factors that framed the story of the conquest of Sind as the primary narrative of Muslim origins in South Asia. In our conversation we discussed what origin narratives tell us about the contemporary world, the deployment of notions of conquest and foreignness in South Asian discourse, the maritime orientation of early Sind, literary and social context of the Chachnamas production, genres of advice writing, the political organization of religious difference, the roles women played in articulating just forms of rule, the colonial reframing of Muslim origins, and the social consequences of dominant readings of the Chachnama.


Kristian Petersen is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. He is the author of Interpreting Islam in China: Pilgrimage, Scripture, and Language in the Han Kitab (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is currently working on a monograph entitled The Cinematic Lives of Muslims, and is the editor of the forthcoming volumes Muslims in the Movies: A Global Anthology (ILEX Foundation) and New Approaches to Islam in Film (Routledge). You can find out more about his work on his website, follow him on Twitter @BabaKristian, or email him at [email protected].

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