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According to E.H. Carr, History is an unending dialogue between the past and the present. History understands the present through past and builds the foundation for the future. The control over present and future is also sought through history. Thus, understanding of history becomes imperative for us in order to understand the control it exercises over the minds of the present society. For long Medieval state has been understood to be established on the basis of force and the subsequent social structure and social relationship reflected that nature of medieval state. This kind of understanding, which generated from the writings of James Mill and other imperialist writers, was also lapped up by the communalist historians. Mohammad Habib is one of the first Indian historians who challenged the thesis and gave a new meaning to the understanding of medieval past. This paper attempts to understand the medieval past and the role of the ruler, state and society in it through the writings of Mohammad Habib.

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History plays an important role in the formation of any society. It links past with the present and present forms the basis for the future. History is concerned with handing down the tradition and lessons of the past into the future [E.H.Carr. 1987: 108]. Every age tries to take its lessons from the past in order to build a constructive future. Knowledge adds to in gaining control over the society too. Hence, no age and no country can do away with history. History has evoked interest among different people from different walks of life: from professional historians to administrators, journalists, novelists, playwrights and politicians. The professional historian is concerned with scientific method of history writing whereas for others it has no meaning in the interest of his ideology, motive or theme. Hence, it becomes a tool to capture power by controlling the mindset of the society. When we think of the past, the idea of past constructed in the minds of the present is through the writings of the historians of the past. Recording of history in written or unwritten forms acts as ‘facts’ for the present and in recording as well as deciphering of ‘facts’ historian plays an important role. Therefore, what comes to as ‘history’ is actually what has been given to us as ‘history’ by the historian. Thus, history not only includes the study of facts it also includes the study of the historian, without which the study and value judgment of facts would be incomplete. The present paper is an attempt on those lines and through the writings of Mohammad Habib tries to understand the medieval past.

The colonization of India by the Britishers saw the writing of history with a purpose. The establishment of the empire had much to do in the manner history of the subcontinent was written and presented. The knowledge had to sub serve the master and present the natives in a manner where the theory of ‘white man’s burden’ could be justified. The biggest casualty of such kind of historiography was the medieval past. It was perceived as the "development of two monolithic communities in medieval India whose sole preoccupation seems to have been to fight each other" [Ratnabali, Chatterjee 1996: 35]. This idea was first developed by James Mill1 which gave rise to the periodization of Indian history as that of the Hindu, Muslim and British periods [Gyanendra Pandey 1997: 23; K. N. Panikkar 1998: 111]. "It crystallized the concept of a uniform, monolithic Hindu community dominating early history as did the Muslim equivalent in the subsequent period, with relations between the two becoming conflictual" [RomilaThapar 1996: 4-5]. This kind of understanding of the past led to the description of society as two distinct societies namely 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' society. Similarly, women too were discussed not as Gender but seen in the compartmentalization of community. Their discussion talked about the rights and duties bestowed on them by the religion and in the process differentiated between two groups. But it never took into consideration the actual practices and their sensitivity as members of the same gender group transcending the barriers of caste, community and region.2 Not only this, forms of architecture too was attributed to religious identity than regional, linked to the growth of a particular religion and not seen in totality as a whole.3

The imperialist historians had their own interest in showing how all "governments previous to the British had been despotic, intolerant and monstrously cruel, and the Indian people, forever divided, were fit only to be conquered. This attitude lent itself to a peculiar interpretation of Medieval Indian History. It was assumed that the Muhammadans were the conquerors and rulers of India in the same sense as the British had been" [Irfan Habib 1961: 350]. Colonial writers defended British rule and by implication critiqued Indian Nationalism. As a result, history by British historians was more a history of British involvement in India rather than a history of Indian People.4 In the age of freedom struggle, historians too sought either to find historical support for contemporary opinions or historical explanations of and solutions for immediate dilemmas [Douglas E. Streusand 1999: 2]. Thus, we had Akbar and Aurangzeb, Shivaji and Maharana Pratap, Mahmud Ghazni and Jaichand as nodal points around whom ideas of nationalism, secularism, liberalism, fanaticism and treachery were woven. Hence, if Akbar's tolerance laid the foundation of the empire, it was Aurangzeb's abandonment of that policy which brought the empire down, or treachery of Jaichand led to establishment of Turkish rule in India or opposition to Mughal Empire by a 'Hindu' ruler became the form of an expression of 'Nationalism'.5 As a consequence, Nationalist history was made inevitable by a commitment to counter the move of the British to 'divide and rule' by emphasizing the shared experiences of the two communities, their interactions and assimilations rather than separateness as subject matter of history.6

Mohammad Habib was one of the foremost historians who challenged the traditional interpretation of Medieval Indian history and tried to give a new look to the understanding of medieval past. He established the tradition of secular and scientific historical research and refused to be guided by current shibboleths and popular slogans. Mahmud of Ghazni, who paved the way for Turkish conquest in India, has been condemned and eulogized by the historians from time to time. The idea of Islam was equated with that of activities of Mahmud of Ghazni and consequently the presentation of Mahmud became the form in which the knowledge about Islam was to be etched on the minds of the natives. The destruction of temples and application of force was sufficient enough to prove the conflictual relationship between two communities. Mohammad Habib’s first major work Sultan Mahmud of Ghaznain published in 1927 did not see Mahmud as a propagator of the faith who came to India for the sake of Islam. To him, he was far from a missionary, a clever man with a clear eye to his own profit [Mohammad Habib 1951: 18; Richard M. Eaton 2000a: 99].7 Habib believed that history of no country has any meaning or value except in the context of world history [Mohammad Habib 1951: Preface; V]. "All men are more or less the products of their environment, and a rational criticism of Mahmud's work must begin with an examination of the spirit of his age" [Mohammad Habib 1951: 62].

The way Mahmud had been presented in history did not evoke confidence for the religion. Mahmud and Islam were seen to be inseparable. The justification for Mahmud’s actions was sought in the religion. This kind of historiography served the purpose of Imperialist and communalist historians who believed in the idea of two monolithic communities. It also strengthened the belief that medieval Indian state was a theocratic state and religion primarily governed the activities of human beings. Habib differentiated between the tenets of Islam and deeds of Mahmud Ghazni. He interpreted Mahmud’s actions as the age understood it. To him, Mahmud’s plundering of temples was not because of out of love for Islam. Temples in those days were storehouses of wealth. So it was but natural for Mahmud, an aspirant for wealth, to have demolished the temples. It was also considered a legitimate act of war. "His Indian soldiers were free to blow their sankh and bow before their idols in imperial Ghaznain. He accepted the principles of toleration in the restricted form in which his age understood it, and it would be futile to blame him for not rising to the moral height of the generations that followed and the generations that had gone before" [Mohammad Habib, 1951:83]. However, Habib did not absolve Mahmud of all charges. He held him for misinterpreting the precepts of the Quran [Al Quran, Surah CIX] and ignoring the tolerant policy of the second caliph in order that he and his myrmidons may be able to plunder Hindu temples with a clear and untroubled conscience [Mohammad Habib 1951: 84]. Islam was utilized as a posteriori justification for what had been done. “As a faith Islam had been morally disgraced, not elevated, by the Ghaznavide's achievement" [Mohammad Habib 1951: 44]. Thus, Habib totally transformed the character, personality, motives and nature of Mahmud's Indian expeditions. Later writings that followed have been deeply influenced by the work of Mohammad Habib. The impact is conspicuous either in criticism or justification of his hypothesis.8

Like Karl Marx, he too was of the opinion that there are no chosen people in history and all theories based on the idea of group supremacy should be discarded. History of no country has any significance except in the context of world-ideas.9 He saw revolution as the expansion of human rights and understood the rise of Islam as a world-historic movement. The coming of Islam to India was generally viewed as a supremacy over the inferior race by the superior race or conquest of 'the civilized' by 'the barbarians'.10 To Habib, the Ghorian conquest of India meant: (a) substitution of the Ghorian Turks for the Thakurs as the Governing class and (b) the enfranchisement of the Indian city workers, accompanied by a considerable landslide among them towards the new faith [H.M.Elliot & J.F.Dowson 1952: 37]. At the time of Ghorian invasion, Indian society was divided into a number of castes with impassable barriers between them. The society was dominated by the brahmans who used the doctrines of ‘ahimsa’ and ‘chhut’ in “guiding the affairs of the community as it suited their class-needs or the principles of their religious sects” [Mohammad Habib 1941: 67]. So, with the Ghorian invasion, Islam was bound to bring some change in Indian society and as a consequence, a change in the political set up. Mohammad Habib thought it to be a changeover of Public opinion and termed it as the 'Urban Revolution'.11 "Viewed in a proper scientific and non-communal perspective in the context of world-history and future Indian history, the so called Ghorian conquest of India was really a revolution of Indian city labour led by the Ghorian Turks"12 [H.M.Elliot & J.F.Dowson 1952: 53; Irfan Habib 1982: 27].

The Urban Revolution was subsequently followed by a Rural Revolution [H.M.Elliot & J.F.Dowson 1952: 71-82]. The Rural Revolution curtailed the position of the Intermediaries and thus there was change in the sharing of the agrarian surplus. It also saw the organization of cities on new lines.13 [Irfan Habib 1982: 27]. More importantly, it challenged the communal identity of peasants and description of measures of Alauddin Khilji by Ziauddin Barani in communal terms.14 To Habib, Alauddin had assured one thing for all time. "In all spheres of life except marriage and personal laws, India would become what the Manusmriti so intensely hated- a confusion of castes". [H.M.Elliot & J.F.Dowson 1952: 82]. At a time when the history of Medieval India was being interpreted in communal terms and rulers were being presented in religious colours, Mohammad Habib gave a new dimension to historical researches by emphasizing that economic and imperialistic considerations rather than religious zeal was the inspiring motives of the lives of medieval sultans and the administration of the sultanate was essentially secular. He also contested the idea that the medieval rule in India was as foreign in character as that of the British Empire and there was no more justification in the establishment of its rule. "Because the English government was a foreign government supported by foreign troops, it has been imagined that the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal empire were administrations of the same type; and it is conveniently forgotten that the Mussalman of India had no home government outside India and none of that superiority in machine-industry and armaments, which led inevitably to the establishment of British rule in India. One must be very ignorant of the original material of Indian history, political and non-political to imagine that the government of Medieval India was either foreign or military. Secondly, because it suited the rulers of the middle age in works and speeches intended entirely or primarily for the Mussalmans to portray themselves as Protagonists in that eternal conflict or Jihad which men of the faith are supposed to wage against all wicked people, it does not in the least follow that their pretensions were correct- or that they even deceived intelligent contemporary muslims, who were independent of the government in their livelihood. The Delhi Sultanate was no more Muslim than the British Empire has been Christian. The official historians and the class of mullahs, who were dependent on the government- and the government provisions in this respect, were extremely liberal- had, of course, their directions from those in power. But the higher Muslim religious consciousness throughout the middle ages repudiated the state to be anything but the organization of the dominant class for its own benefit". [H.M. Elliot 7 J.F.Dowson 1952: 36]. Habib also challenged the idea that the expansion of religion and establishment of state was a natural outcome of each other.15 To him, the secular state preceded the rise of clericalism and the clerics had nothing to do with the territorial expansion of Islam in its early days. The fundamental social and political principle of the middle ages was loyalty to the salt. According to Mohammad Habib, "Loyalty to the salt (namak halali) was synonymous with patriotism; disloyalty to the salt (namak harami) was a crime blacker than treason. Irrational as the principle may seem, it prevented communal friction and worked for peace" [K.A.Nizami 1974: 353]. The outlook of the age was essentially secular and religion was a war cry and nothing more.16

slam, which believes in co-existing with other religions, was a part of syncretic culture that struck its root in India in the medieval age and impressed the thinking pattern of the society.17 No state can function on brute force alone and it needs to have the consent of its people in some form or the other to rule over them and religion fulfils the need in this sense as religion is not open to reason. One must not overlook the fact that court was the focal point of attention of the contemporary writers and the events narrated in their work are directly or indirectly related to it.18 So one has to go out of the court and study the dynamics of society in order to understand the medieval past. It would not be proper to out rightly justify or condemn the actions of the individual without understanding the age, which plays a great role in shaping the course of history.19 There is always a gap between right and wrong and it is the duty of the historian to see what is not visible from naked eyes. This is the underlining fact, which should be borne in mind while understanding the medieval past. Mohammad Habib proved to be the beginning from where many later historians have taken cue and started journey of history writing. And the journey is still going on.


1. To understand this kind of historiography one needs to study the accounts of British historians from James Mill to Elphinstone and Stanley Lanepoole to Vincent Smith and selective translation of contemporary sources by Elliot and Dowson. “It was colonialist writers who established the pattern of the Indian past pretty much as we know it today. And in that pattern, sectarian strife was an important motif”. K. N. Panikkar too points out that the general picture presented is of a society where it is assumed that the separateness was innate to Indian society and it began with the coming of the Muslims to India which resulted in the termination of the earlier ‘glorious’ period of ‘Hindu’ rule.

2. Even Ashraf’s work, which was a Marxist interpretation of Indian society could not totally rid off from the usage of such terminology. Discussion of society in such manner has only helped in establishing the belief that Hindus and Muslims are two antipodal communities.

3. Percy Brown, [1949]. The coming of the Turks saw a change in the architectural pattern in India. It saw the introduction of dome, arch and mortar apart from other things. Consequently, the architectural style drawing from these features was defined as ‘Islamic’. It never took into account the regions which contributed to the development of such features. One wonders what name can be attributed to a ‘Gurudwara’ which draws heavily from the so-called ‘Islamic’ architecture. Is it ‘Islamic’ or ‘Sikh’ architecture?

4. Percy Brown, [1949]. The coming of the Turks saw a change in the architectural pattern in India. It saw the introduction of dome, arch and mortar apart from other things. Consequently, the architectural style drawing from these features was defined as ‘Islamic’. It never took into account the regions which contributed to the development of such features. One wonders what name can be attributed to a ‘Gurudwara’ which draws heavily from the so-called ‘Islamic’ architecture. Is it ‘Islamic’ or ‘Sikh’ architecture?

5. See R.I. Crane, [1963] in Rajeev Bhargava, [2000].

6. See Jadunath Sarkar, [1912-24]; A.L. Srivastava, [1972 & 1977]; S.R. Sharma, [1962]; R. C. Majumdar,[1951-74]; Visheshwar Sarup Bhargava, [1966]; Gopinath Sharma, [1954]; I.H.Qureshi, [ 1971].

7. Mohammad Habib’s Sultan Mahmud of Ghaznain and Tarachand’s Influence of Islam on Indian Culture can be said to be representative works representing the nationalist tradition of historiography. See Irfan Habib, [1989].

8.While writing on Islam and Indian history, Eaton too endorses the view of Mohammad Habib.

9. See, Ishwari Prasad, [1945]; C.V.Vaidya, [1986]; Muhammad Nazim, [1971]; S.M.Jaffar, [1972]; A.L.Srivastava, [1969]; R.C.Majumdar, [1957]; C.E.Bosworth, 1977]; K.S.Lal, [1984]; “Muhammad Habib regards his hero not as a saint but merely as a foreign imperialist of the old Persian type and not a mujahid, distinguishes between religion as a ‘social’ force and religion as a personal matter, emphasizes that private differences in religion are to be subordinated to the larger unity of India”. Jagdish Narayan Sarkar, [1963-64: 58-59]. “The book was important both as a critical historical study of Mahmud, and as an important early salvo in the nationalist historiography of medieval India”. Foreword by Irfan Habib in Sanjay Subodh, [2003a].

10. Here he seems to be influenced by the Hegelian method of interpreting history. Hegel too saw history as a universal history.See R.G.Collingwood, [1994].

11. For this kind of historiography one only needs to scan through the British historiography which took place in the 19th and early 20th century. See J.S. Grewal, [1970].

12. Irfan Habib opines that “it would, perhaps, have been better not to apply the language suitable for modern revolutions to the Ghorian conquests”.Foreword by Irfan Habib in Sanjay Subodh, [2003a].

13. However, Irfan Habib differs on the extent of liberation of artisans that the process implied. Nevertheless, he agrees on the issue of centralization and urban growth that followed.

14. A medieval city was dependent on its countryside for its daily needs. The new economic level of the country could only be maintained by ensuring the safety of travel routes. The rural revolution relieved the low caste cultivator from the oppression of the high caste rural intermediary and assured the safety of trade routes and the regular exchange of commodities between town and country. Irfan Habib does agree with the changes that were brought about by the revolution in the sharing of the agrarian surplus, he has reservations on the extent of decimation of the intermediaries.

15. See Ziauddin Barani, Tarikh-i Firuz Shahi in Elliot & Dowson, [1952].

16. Had this been the case, Islamization must have been at its zenith in the heartland of ‘Muslim’ rule in the upper Gangetic plain- the domain of the Delhi fort and the Tajmahal, where ‘Muslims’ had ruled the most intensively and for the longest period of time. Whereas, census reports point out that Muslim population in this area ranged from only 10 to 15 percent and in area such as eastern Bengal or western Punjab, which lay on the fringes of ‘Indo-Muslim’ rule, where the ‘sword’ was the weakest, and where brute force could have exerted the least influence, the Muslim population ranged between 70 and 90 percent of its total population. In other words, in the subcontinent as a whole there is an inverse relationship between the degree of Muslim political penetration and the degree of Islamization. Contesting of this idea is important from the sense that communalism even in the twenty first century draws its blood from the similar type of understanding of the medieval past.Richard M.Eaton, [2000: 115].

17. Religious slogans were advanced practically post-facto, in order to justify the measures, the realities behind which had nothing to do with religion. We frequently find the usage of the term ‘Ghazi’ in contemporary texts which is interpreted as ‘Holy Warrior’ and thus religious colour is given to the whole episode. Whereas ‘Ghazi’ is also a title of distinction conferred by Muslim rulers upon generals and warriors of the renown. In the Turkish Empire the title of ‘Ghazi’ implies something similar to ‘Field Marshal’.K.A. Nizami, [1974: 354]. Also see Mohammad Habib, [1947]; Tarachand, [1963]; M.Athar Ali, [n.d.]; T.P.Hughes, [1993: 139].

18. See M.Athar Ali, [1989].

19. See Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia & Bipan Chandra, [1987].

20. “Society and the individual are inseparable; they are necessary and complementary to each other, not opposites”. E.H.Carr, 1987: 31]. The process of ‘colligation’ is a peculiarity of historical thinking, and is consequently of great importance when we are studying the nature of historical explanation. W.H.Walsh, 1960: 23].


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