Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lecture (17): A Vernacular South Asia

Last semester I had the pleasure of teaching my first course on Islam in South Asia, which roughly covered the period from the rise of the Delhi Sultanate till the 18th century. We began somewhat theoretically--focusing what it meant to study Islam in a geographically and temporally specific way, the anxieties of calling Muslim devotionalism in the subcontinent South Asian Islam, and the politics of devising chronologic and spatial units--before diving into Sufism, the rise of sultanates, the contestation over authority, and finally concluding with examining the glacial processes of translation, vernacularization, and conversion. The course was a success but what became a recurrent theme over the course of the semester was both the students' great appreciation for, and my dependance on, the writings of Richard M. Eaton. I am sure I am not the first pedagogue who breathed a sigh of relief upon finding an essay by Eaton that miraculously combined not only theoretical sophistication with graceful prose, but also topical breadth. I must have assigned Eaton for at least five weeks of the twelve week course.

Works written in Persian language were frequently translated into vernacular languages like Urdu during the colonial period.

Ṣaulat-i Masʿūdī : tarjumah-yi Mirʼāt-i Masʿūdī

ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Chishtī (c. 1596-1682), translated by Muḥammad ʿAbdulghanī Shāh Qādirī

Published in Lucknow by Mat̤baʿ-i ʿAlavī in 1286/1869-70

It was the first time I read his brief but prescient article on Dakkani folk songs, composed purportedly by Sufis to be sung while grinding on the millstone. I say prescient because one of the most active fields in the study of early modern South Asia is undoubtably the rise of vernacular literary traditions, the subject of a recent conference at Stanford entitled Polyvocal Hindustan. It was fitting then, that the keynote was given by Eaton himself, generously made available here by the kind folks at the Center for South Asia at Stanford University. Without further ado, I present you Richard Eaton's discussion on "Vernacularism from Above and from Below." No doubt, I expect many papers in the near future to paraphrase Eaton's pithy directive that "respecting vernacularization then, we should be wary of any quest for a silver bullet, that is, a single pan-Indian pattern."

Richard M. Eaton. "Sufi Folk Literature and the Expansion of Indian Islam." History of Religions 14, no. 2 (1974): 117-127.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Clifford Edmund Bosworth (1928–2015)

February closed with a bit of bad news as we found out C. E. Bosworth passed away. Bosworth was a historian with an encyclopedic knowledge and of wide scope. Historians of South Asia know him most for his work on the Ghaznavids, but his interests spanned the fairly large world of late antique to pre-Mongol west and central Asia, which he tread with ease of someone who had mastery in both Arabic and Persian. It's not for nothing that when he was recognized with a festschrift in his honour, the idea was so enthusiastically embraced by so many a scholar that it spanned two volumes comprising some one thousand pages in total. In the coming days and weeks paeans memorializing his accomplishments will be coming out but I would like to share an observation that struck me about his career.

Although I had always been aware of Bosworth's name–it would be impossible to not be studying the history of Islam as he oversaw the Herculean task of putting together as co-editor that most indispensable tool, the second edition of Brill's Encyclopaedia of Islam–but I never read his work until I started my PhD and my supervisor suggested I explore the pseudepigraphal Pandnāmah of the Ghaznavid ruler Sebüktegin for a course paper. I began, as one must when dealing with the Perso-Turkic dynasty of the Ghaznavids, with Bosworth's The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran 994–1040. At the time Bosworth had just bestowed a boon on the study of early Persian historiography by translating not one but two chronicles that dealt with Sebüktegin and his successors. The first was Zayn al-akhbār, or at least part of it, by Gardīzī called The Ornament of Histories: A History of the Eastern Islamic Lands, AD 650-1041.The other, a crowning achievement to be sure, was the voluminous history written by Bayhaqī, published as The History of Beyhaqi (The History of Sultan Mas‘ud of Ghazna, 1030-1041) by Abu’l-Fażl Beyhaqi in three very learned volumes.

David Morgan recalled a particular truth about historians in his recollection of the late great Ann Lambton. He wrote:

I remember once hearing a memorial lecture at the [Royal Asiatic] Society, in which the lecturer remarked that the late honorand had been able, in his eighties, to republish a volume of articles he had written in his twenties, without finding it necessary to change a single word. This was held up for our admiration. I whispered to my neighbour in the audience that if that happened in my own field of study, I would regard it as evidence that the field was dead. All good historians, at least, should hope and wish, ultimately, to be superseded: there is no ”last word”.

The thing about Bosworth was that his contribution to the field was never really superseded. Not because the field did not thrive--it did to a respectable level--but rather because he remained a vital and driving force behind it till the very end, publishing his work until quite recently. Indeed, if someone did supersede his old work, it was Bosworth himself.

Ms Or 20 f.122r(a) Battle between Abu'l Qasim and the Samanid Muntasir for the recovery of his dominion, in one of many clashes in 1003-4, miniature from the 'Jami' al-Tawarikh' of Rashid al-Din, c.1307, Edinburgh University Library, Scotland. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Crash Course: Akbar, Aurangzeb, and the Historian's Perspective

The good folks at at Crash Course have a delightful present for those interested in Mughal history! That's right, Akbar and Aurangzeb get the full Crash Course World History treatment. The video came out in time for the last lecture on Memory and History for my Islam in South Asia course and kicked off a great discussion on the historian's craft, history courses in the academy, and of course, the Mughals. I hope you guys enjoy!

The video is available here and is embedded below

(Errata: Aurangzeb was Akbar's great-grandson, not grandson)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Lecture (16): On the Importance of Storytelling and Narrative for Historians and the Discipline of History

The practice of history writing is at once very old and very recent. On the one hand, people have for quite some time created representations of the past in song, pictorial depictions, and in written word. On the other hand, the academic practice of history is relatively new and in that short time it has slowly developed its own language, rituals, and logic, carving out a discipline that differentiates itself from the kind of representations of the past commemorated in memorials, brought to life in the movies, and works of what has been dubbed "popular" history. It is perhaps this monopolization of practicing history by academia that new PhDs with history degrees find themselves at a loss in an increasingly unfavourable job market. I can offer a personal anecdote that illustrates this.

This year I was a Teaching Assistant for two courses, the first an introduction to Theories in Women and Gender Studies, the tutorial for which took place at the beginning of the week, and History of Iran, the tutorial for which took place at the end. As we winded down at the end of the semester I was asked in the last week by a student in my WGS tutorial what I intended to do after I finished my PhD. "Teach of course!" I replied, as if there could be any other answer. I chalked up the question to the fact that my class comprised primarily of students pursuing professional degrees, everything from majors in Human Relations to those studying journalism. The same question was repeated in my History of Iran tutorial, a class that consisted mostly of majors in various humanities disciplines and the occasional engineering student. I was somewhat more surprised by their asking the question--a surprise that when I reflect on revealed more about my own worldview than the students'. It occurred to me that I was amongst those who assumed that students of the humanities eventually become academic scholars. It is this "of course" and the hierarchies it suggests that have been tackled in a not too recent article by Anthony Grafton and Jim Grossman in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "No More Plan B".

In a recent conversation with a friend about her impending comprehensive exams, I remarked that she was ready to take her exams and reminded her that the rite of passage that is the PhD has a way of making us doubt ourselves and forget we are for the most part intelligent, articulate, and often critical thinkers that having spent the better part of half a decade on their area of specialization know a thing or two. Why then do we forget that we have skills to bring to the table even if that table is not in the hallowed halls of academia? To be sure many of us love to research and teach and in fact those were the very reasons why I went into the PhD program. But the nagging question that still lingers is why do we think we cannot broach a much broader audience, a broader set of concerns, and potentially a broader set of career opportunities.

It is in the context of these growing set of interrelated concerns that William Cronon delivered his Presidential Address entitled "Storytelling" at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in 2013 made available here and published by the American Historical Review here. Part sermon, part manifesto, Cronon's address is an electrifying call to action for the future of historians, history as a discipline, and the practice of representing the past. It does not offer all the solutions but it reminds us of the core of our discipline and its potential going forward.

William Cronon served as president of the American Historical Association in 2012. He earned his baccalaureate from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a double major in history and English in 1976, and holds doctorates in history from Oxford and Yale. He is the author of Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang, 1983) and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (W. W. Norton, 1991). Cronon is currently the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Visit his website at

As a conclusion I turn to the words of Jane Austen, first brought to my attention by the epigraph in Nancy F. Partner's Serious Entertainments: The Writing of History in Twelfth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977). It consists of a conversation on history between Catherine Morland and Eleanor Tilney from Northanger Abbey
Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best. It is a most interesting work. You are fond of that kind of reading?"

"To say the truth, I do not much like any other."


"That is, I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?"

"Yes, I am fond of history."

"I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all--it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes' mouths, their thoughts and designs--the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books."

"Historians, you think," said Miss Tilney, "are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history--and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one's own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made--and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great."

"You are fond of history! And so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable! At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person's courage that could sit down on purpose to do it."

Further Reading

Cronon, William. "Presidential Address: Storytelling." American Historical Review 118, no. 1 (2013):  1-19.

Partner, Nancy. "Narrative Persistence: The Post-Postmodern Life of Narrative Theory." In Re-Figuring Hayden White, edited by Frank Ankersmit, Ewa Domańska, and Hans Kellner, 81-104. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Southern, Richard William. The Shape and Substance of Academic History; An Inaugural Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 2 November 1961. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1961.

White, Hayden. "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality." Critical Inquiry 7, no. 1 (1980): 5-27.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lecture (15): Anglo-Persian Taxonomy of Indian Religions

Carl Ernst, who really needs no introduction for scholars of Islam or South Asia, is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a long time investigator of Muslim encounters with Indic learned traditions, particularly yoga. His publications on the subject include seminal articles such as "Situating Sufism and Yoga" (JRAS, ser. 3 15, no. 1 [2005]) and "Muslim Studies of Hinduism" (Iranian Studies 36, no. 2 [2003]), made available on Dr. Ernst's website.

Today's talk "An Illustrated Anglo-Persian Taxonomy of Indian Religions: The Silsila-i Jogiyan (Chain of Yogis) of Sital Singh Bikhwud" was an Annemarie Schimmel Memorial Lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a series featured before on this blog. Luckily for us, the MET has kindly made the lecture available here and embedded below. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

An Orientalist Bon Mot

Many apologies are due for having all but disappeared but with the end of coursework, the beginning of comprehensive exams, and the unenviable task of writing a thesis proposal I have not had the chance to update much. I return (for now) with a little find from Charles Rieu's Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 1, p. 246. While describing the manuscript for Taẕkirat al-vāqi'āt of Jawhar Aftabchi Rieu notes that:

The Museum possesses an interleaved copy of the English version, Add. 26,608, [that is, Major Charles Stewart's translation] with extensive corrections in the manuscript, amounting almost to a re-translation of the work, by Mr. Wm. Erskine, to whom Major Yule had lent the present MS. The rough draught of the same corrections is preserved in Add. 26,620.

In a short notice prefixed to the former volume, Mr. Erskine passes on Major Stewart's version the following judgement, which, coming from so eminent an authority, carries great weight: "The translation of Major Stewart is no translation at all. It is full of errors. It adds, takes away, alters. It is not trust-worthy, and one does him no injustice in pronouncing him ignorant of the history and manners of the times, ignorant of the geography of the country, ignorant of the language, ignorant of the duty of a translator."

(Makes one doubly grateful for Wheeler M. Thackston's translation of the work!)

Friday, June 28, 2013

CFP: South Asian Religions Grad Conference, University of Toronto

For the call for papers you may also click here.

The keynote speaker, Vasudha Dalmia, is currently editing two volumes, one of which is on religious interaction in Mughal India, with Munis D. Faruqui.