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Medieval Arabic writing on India

Friday December 23, 2011 09:21:40 PM, Vinod Mubayi

In contemporary understanding in India, derived mostly from what is taught as history in schools, the interaction of India with Arab-Muslim countries after the advent of Islam is depicted purely in a one-sided way, as one of conquest, loot, and plunder. No one denies the presence of conquest and loot in history but it is hardly unique to India or the Arab countries. By focusing on this alone, young minds are taught, consciously in some cases and unconsciously in others, to develop a mindset that is largely responsible for the foundations of a communalist approach to our multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic society. By stressing only what bad things THEY did to US, it brings about a kind or dichotomous thinking that labels US and THEM, forgetting it is WE who need to live together harmoniously in order to prosper. 


However, there is another side to the story that is not simply one of conquest and loot and sycophant court writers justifying the loot in the name of Islam.  In this series of articles we bring together writings of very distinguished Arab men of letters in the post-Islamic period of how they regarded India and Indians.


Al-Jahiz (c. 776-868), who was born in Basra in present-day Iraq and later lived most of his life in Baghdad, is universally regarded as one of the greatest early Arab writers. His Kitab al-Hayawan, Kitab al-Bayan, and many other works running to thousands of pages made him the pre-eminent Arab man of letters of his time. Below we present an extract from his writings that specifically relates to India, taken from the book “The Life and Works of Jahiz: Translations of selected texts.”


Jahiz on India

As regards the Indians, they are among the leaders in astronomy, mathematics – in particular, they have Indian numerals – and medicine; they alone possess the secrets of the latter, and use them to practice some remarkable forms of treatment. They have the art of carving statues and painted figures. They possess the game of chess, which is the noblest of games and requires more judgment and intelligence than any other. They make Kedah swords, and excel in their use. They have splendid music, including that of the kankala, an instrument with a single string mounted on a gourd, which takes the place of the many-stringed lute and cymbals.  Theyknow a number of sprightly dances…, and are versed in magic and fumigation…They possess a script capable of expressing the sounds of all languages, as well as many numerals. They have a great deal of poetry, many long treatises, and a deep understanding of philosophy and letters; the book KalilawaDimna originated with them. They are intelligent and courageous, and have more good qualities than the Chinese. Their sound judgment and sensible habits led them to invent pins, cork, toothpicks, the drape of clothes and the dyeing of hair. They are handsome, attractive, and forbearing, their women are proverbial, and their country produces the matchless Indian shoes which are supplied to kings. They were the originators of the science of Fikr, by which a poison can be counteracted after it has been used, and of astronomical reckoning, subsequently adopted by the rest of the world. When Adam descended from paradise, it was to their land that he made his way.




Charles Pellat, “The Life and Works of Jahiz: Translations of selected texts,” University of California Press, 1969.

The kankala is likely the instrument now known as the ektarathat is oftencarried by mendicants.

KalilawaDimna is a book of animal fables that is based mainly on stories translated from the Panchatantra and the Mahabharata, first into Persian from Sanskrit and then into Arabic.  The next piece in this series will describe this famous work.







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