One of my favorite movies is the great indie comedy “The Matchmaker”, where Janeane Garofalo is sent to Ireland to find her boss’s Irish roots as he’s running for a Senate seat in Boston, only to discover at the end of the movie that he is in fact Hungarian and when the family emigrated to America several generations back, the family patriarch changed the family name at Ellis Island to “McGlory” - which the hapless would-be Senator never gets to know.
In the search for some McGlory of their own, some Pakistanis and Indian Muslims love to claim Arab ancestry, but whether or not this ancestry is genuine is always the subject of much heated debate. It tends to especially infuriate Indian Hindus, as they regard this as Muslims’ attempt to deny their own Hindu roots. And it can result in some ludicrous arguments on social media, as both groups war with each other about history, religion, and racial superiority with increasingly wild and unsubstantiated claims.
Ties between Arabia and the Indus region of the Subcontinent go back a long way. In the eighth century Muhammed bin Qasim, a 17 year old Arab general, came to Sindh to free Muslims held captive by the Buddhist king Raja Dahir, and stayed around long enough to conquer Raja Dahir’s Hindu-dominated kingdom for the Ummayid Caliphate, a rule which lasted two centuries. At the same time, Arab descendants of the Prophet Mohammed migrated to Sindh in order to escape the persecution of the Ummayid and Abbasid caliphs, and settled all over Sindh and parts of Punjab.
Slightly less glorious than these tales is the fact that a great deal of trade took place between the lands of Arabia and India, Arab traders married amongst local women, and had families that thrived all across the northern region of the Subcontinent.
The people of the Subcontinent have a varied gene pool: Dravidian, Persian, Turkic, Mongolian, and Arab people met at this great crossroads of Asia to wage war, conduct business, and create history. But with the great colonial hangover came the inferiority complex that most South Asians have in which lighter skin is superior to darker skin; that brave foreign invaders are superior to local, conquered inhabitants.
The current thinking in the subcontinent amongst Muslims in both India and Pakistan is that Arabs are racially superior to Dravidian Indians and so having Arab genes or an Arab bloodline makes them higher in status than Hindus of Dravidian origin. But more important is the thought that Arabs are Muslims, and that bestows moral superiority on them over the kafir or unbelieving Indian Hindus, which appeals to Pakistanis on many complicated levels.
Still, it was with some bemusement that I came across people opining on Twitter about the Pakistani need to claim false Arab ancestry when in fact their true ancestry is Hindu Indian. I tweeted that my family had some Arab ancestry on both sides, but that I considered myself Pakistani, not Arab, and was told firmly that all Muslims in the Indian Subcontinent had Hindu Indian mothers who were forcibly converted and raped by Arab invaders. From this, a dozen other Indian Twitter users jumped in and enlightened me on the “fact” that all Muslims in South Asia are, in fact, descended from rapists.
The conversation from here descended into a free-for-all, with the Indians becoming hysterical about all invaders to the sub-continent, adding the Ghauri and Ghaznavi tribes (who were, in fact, Afghan) to the list of “rapist Arabs”, sending me links to genetic studies which proved that Indian Muslims carried no Arab chromosomes to speak of, and emphatically telling me that my “dark skin” and “Indian-sounding name” proved I was no Arab. All the talk of racial purity and corrupted bloodlines made me realize how Hitler’s theories of genetic superiority could be so wildly popular on the Subcontinent (Mein Kampf is a bestseller in India and copies of it are sold openly in Pakistan as well).
It’s certainly true that some Pakistanis make a big deal about any Arab connections (or even European ones, for that matter). Family trees are given a pride of place in Pakistani households, especially in families who claim descendence from the Prophet; some are beautifully decorated with roses where the names of the “holy” ancestors are recorded!
There’s also a great desire amongst Pakistanis to feel connected to their Arab brothers-in-faith; the wish that some of that Arab religiosity, wealth and power will rub off on them, or be reflected on them is a common one, although this sentiment is often not shared by Arabs, as some subject Pakistanis and South Indian to shocking racism when the emigration is reversed.
In the end, we all want to have connections in high places, and for some Muslims of South Asia, Arab descent is the quickest way to feel more important that the average Indian or Pakistani. As for piety, no nation can give you a higher dose than what you already possess in your own heart.
There’s no harm in acknowledging your family origins, but it’s such a pity that Indians and Pakistanis have to use background as one more point of contention in an already fraught relationship. Too much pride is as harmful as too much shame about where you come from, because in the end, it’s where we’re all going that really matters.