The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, 700 CE - 1800 CE
Author: Andre Wink

Johnson's 1866 Map of Indian Subcontinent Johnson’s 1866 map of the Indian Subcontinent

Al-hind, named as such in Arabic geographical and navigational works, corresponds to the regions encompassing present-day Indian subcontinent and parts of South East Asia, all the way to the Malay-Indonesian archipelago. These are regions that share a common history where earlier Indic religions and forms of kingship flourished, followed by Islamization that took a very different form here compared to the Mediterranean world and Persia, in turn followed by complete colonization by the European empires. Andre Wink’s thesis is that history of this region can be examined as result of the interaction between the nomadic frontier and settled society and this has determined to a large extent the parameters of the Indo-Islamic world. Consequently, geography plays a big role in this thesis. The frontier society includes both the arid steppe/saharan regions and the Indian ocean world. The books covers many different aspects of the region and its history, all viewed exclusively via this framework. Below is only a little of the many - sometimes contrarian - views that I found interesting and educational:

  • The assertion that there was no continuous urban tradition in India, in contrast to Cairo, Alexandria, Cordoba and the Medterrean world. This meant while the Arab Caliphate could take over the heart of the ancient world and its urban life, it couldn’t in India.
  • The Shakas, Kushans, Hepthalites, and Turks being part of the nomadic continuum, with innovations by the Turks that make the Turks last longer than the other post-nomadic empires. All the nomadic empires had one superior military technology: horses. The Turks combined that with compound bow and iron armor, and importantly made an innovation in tribal political organization: the idea of absolute kingship. This military and organizational innovation made the Turko-mongols near-invincible across the Eurasian continent for several centuries.
  • Even the rise of Vijayanagar Empire on the back of Telugu warriors is ascribed to the deeply entrenched pastoralism of the semi-arid Deccan lands, and is also used to explain the eventual rise of the Marathas.
  • The Indus borderlands turned to Islam for reasons different from the Bengal frontier, with the historical trajectories of both these regions being very different from rest of the subcontinent. Here he disagrees with Richard M Eaton on how this Islamization came about. Wink says that while Bengal may have been very loosely Hindu and hence spread of Islam could be linked to the process of agricultural sedentarization, the same cannot be said for Punjab and Sindh (or for that matter, Kashmir). Here the population turned to Islam after getting battered repeatedly via multiple invasions and top-down pressure, and not because it was less Hindu in the first place (in fact, it was deeply integrated into the religious and social framework of medieval Hinduism). The tirthas and holy places that constitute the sacred geography of Hinduism gave way to Islamic shrines and “holy man” Islam. There was a good deal of iconoclastic destruction of Hindu temples. The historical trajectories of both these regions are very different from rest of the subcontinent, but for different reasons. Wink dismisses Eaton’s theory saying, “..it is largely designed to fit the evidence from East Bengal.”
  • Wink also disagrees with Eaton regarding the extent of Islamic iconoclasm. He holds that it was far more widespread than Eaton allows, and it was not just a phenomenon of the political frontier.
  • The Indo-Islamic world is largely the making of the Turks, not Arabs. Arabs, via trade, did influence Malabar and the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, but the Islam in the North was shaped entirely by Turko-Mongols.
  • Wink rejects the notion that Mughals were a a gunpowder empire. He convincingly argues that in India, even up to the times of the Marathas, cavalry played a significant role in deciding fortunes at war, not infantry and artillery.
  • There was no written law in Mughal India anywhere, so forget Sharia, or any Hindu code of laws. In courts of justice, payment of bribes decided the outcome of disputes. As is the case in the modern successor states, Pakistan and India, the arbitration of justice and law was usually politics by other means.
  • He also shows, decisively in my mind, why the Mughal empire couldn’t have transitioned to a modern state - the Mughal politics was the politics of sedition. It encouraged sons to rebel and make alliances against their fathers and brothers and remained so till the end.
  • He also asserts that it is only with the collapse of the Mughals and the rise of the successor states - Hyderabad, Awad, Bengal, Marathas, Mysore and Travancore in the 18th century that “.. the Indo-Islamic civilization most truly developed its hybrid potential”.
  • “Fastidious about rights and shares of revenue and taxes, the Marathas left a detailed administrative record, the largest single mass of extant indigenous material of the whole of eighteenth-century India.”
  • To paraphrase Wu Tang Clan, C.R.E.A.M - Commerce Rules Everything Around Me. Some rulers are good at keeping a cash cow, eg Hyder Ali. Others destroy what is a good thing by needless wars in pursuit of a monopoly, eg: Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Calicut.

The scope of the book is truly monumental. Andre Wink talks about everything from the rise of the Jats and Rajputs to the spread of the Brahmins, the Indizication and Islamization of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, chivalry in the Indo-Islamic North , the explosion of ports in India in the 16th and 17th century and along side it, the rise in trade, the origin of the mopillas, Marakkars, the fall of Surat, Calicut and Masulipatnam and the rise of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta, and a lot more.

I have highlights on almost every page, and this is probably a work I will revisit often. I do have more than a few disagreements. One day I will have to tackle the 5 volume predecessor, which Wink references often in his footnotes.

Very much recommended.

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