Monday, November 12, 2012

Happy Diwali

Happy Diwali one and all!

Court Ladies Playing with Fireworks c. 1740, Freer Sackler F1924.6, Smithsonian Institute

Friday, November 2, 2012

Lecture (9): Muhammad Juki's Shah-namah

 The Escape of Qubad (detail) Royal Asiatic Society, MS. 239, fol. 394a

To say that we, who are engaged in what has been called by its practitioners as--until very recently when it became unfashionable to do so--oriental studies, have a strong inclination for the origins, would not be an understatement. The study of the Persian epic, the Shah-namah, has not escaped this paradigm as evident in the quest to reach Firdawsi's Ur text. Although recently scholars have begun to highlight the lost opportunities of his approach,* art historians interested in the richly illustrated manuscripts of the Shah-namah have long appreciated its material multiplicity.

Today's lecture traces the history of one manuscript of the Shah-namah--one likely commissioned by the Timurid prince Muhammad Juki (d. 1447), which later entered the royal library of the Mughals in India. It is presented by Barbara Brend, the author of, amongst other books, Muhammad Juki's Shahnamah of Firdausi, co-authored with A. H. Morton (2010), and was part of the Asia Society's exhibition from last year, A Prince's Manuscript Unbound: Muhammad Juki's Shahnamah. If you are a Shah-namah fan there is of course Charles Melville's project, which includes an impressive digital archive of illustrations from various Shah-namah manuscripts. Also last year, the Islamic Studies Library, as part of their exhibition series based on their materials, showcased illustrations from the epic, with some digitized record of it here. Firdawsi was right then, when he wrote:

نميرم از اين پس كه من زنده ام  / كه تخم سخن را پراكنده ام
Never hence would I die for I am alive / having sown the seeds of poetry**

* See for instance:

Nasrin Askari, "A Unique Episode from the Kārnāmag ī Ardašīr ī Pābagān in a Nineteenth-Century Illustrated Indian Manuscript of the Shāhnāmeh," Iranian Studies 45 (2012): 203-16.

M. Amin Mahdavi, "'Genetically Modified Text' or 'Critical Edition'?" Persica 19 (2003): 1-31.

** The translation is, I believe, Prashant Keshavmurthy's.

And thus without further ado, Barbara Brend on Muhammad Juki's Shah-namah

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On Historical Truths

Well said: The real is, of course, always apparitional, always a reductionist fantasy [...]. Yet acknowledging the fantasy of reality does not, I think, reduce history to fiction; historians can still seek out a more multivalent and still substantial actual and plausible.

Judith M. Bennet, “‘Lesbian-like’ and the Social History of Lesbianisms,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 9 no. 1-2 (2009): 1-2ff.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Offering Counsel to the Great Mughal

It has been a busy semester so far. I am always surprised how fast this semester goes by; between the good weather lasting late, an early Thanksgiving, and the non-stop administrative tasks associated with the new year, before you know it you're headed into November pondering what will late night television shows do without an American presidential election and the sudden dread of writing papers while trying to figure whether its worth risking going by PIA to the motherland (though I suspect I won't be headed there anytime soon). At least grant writing is over. Few tasks are as brutal. I am sure some people enjoy it, but I suspect those are the people who get a high from folding laundry and going for morning jogs. I am neither. In fact forms are themselves a source of great dread. I wonder if I could have survived working in Mughal administration with their love of record keeping (of which dreadful few survive or rather dreadful few are documented--this being neither the time nor place for me to bemoan how no one is trying to preserve the archive or do editorial/translation work in North America vis-a-vis the Mughal archive; Wheeler M. Thackston, John F. Richards and Sajida S. Alvi, we salute thee). 

Anyway, grants almost done, I feel odd about not having to apply for school. The last four years of undergraduate and masters were one big smorgasbord of anxiety about further grad school applications! On the bright side, coursework is coming through to make sure one doesn't feel too much at leisure. This is a heavy Persian semester for me, which thankfully is whipping me into better shape. We navigated our way through Rudaki and Shahnamah in Classical Persian Literature and today we finished some sections of Nasihat al-Muluk, which, it turns out, was written by al-Ghazali (d. 1111) [the easiest date in the books!]

I think what is becoming clearer for me is what a big part the study of different Mughal advice texts are going to play in my dissertation, from the lovely Mirza-namahs, to the various akhlaq texts, to the more straight to the point ones on governance in both prose and poetry. There is something about advice texts which I have always enjoyed. They are at that intersection of cultural, social, and political history that I find fascinating. The thing about them is, you can never work on just one or two. Piecemeal discourse analysis of the text can leave you with skewed and at times comical interpretations of what Mughal cultural practices actually were (The same can be said about Mughal chronicles and biographies, which for some reason, despite the considerable attention they have received from cultural historians, focus less on literary practices and more on theories of the self. How images, motifs, myths, etc are linked to their constellation of texts, a term to borrow from an old professor of mine, yet remains to be done; which, I suspect, is in part because it requires a large intellectual warehouse that we as modern historians we don't easily have at hand; from hadith, to the tales of the prophets, to popular legends, to anecdotes from much older tarikhs, adab texts, and poetry, to books of maxims, esoterica, and advice. The list goes on).

But back to advice texts. I think one has to pile them up like a stack of cards and start noticing the variations and individual contours. I think one of the more successful studies for South Asian advice literature is that of Sajida Alvi's on Mazhar-i Shah-Jahani, the Persian text of which sadly yet to be published.  The risk of having a myopic perspective on advice texts is compounded by the fact that so few are edited and translated. Needless to say, at some point I will have to put my money where my mouth is and actually edit one of them and translate it or another one. My old supervisor said that doing a critical edition and a translation was considered firstly, part of one's scholastic duty, and secondly, a test of your actual knowledge. I think thirdly it was a very real way of ensuring the preservation of the archive and the expansion of the easily available one for the next generation. Believe me, after sitting through an assignment where we had to translate a section from the Qabus-nama, despite it having a translation already, teaches you humility about doing accurate, scientific translations. I am currently working on a project that looks at the various advice texts under Jahangir, and hopefully it will end up somewhere, somehow. If there is one thing I have learnt so far, is that like transliteration or card catalogues, when it comes engaging in scholarship that won't leave you with an egg on your face, patience is key.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Foiled by the Book of Kings

At the risk of becoming one of those blogs, the following illustration beautifully captures why I am not posting anything of note. I am currently reading Shah-namah for one class and Siyar al-Muluk for another. Needless to say like Rustam, they are kicking my posterior.

Abridgment of the Book of Kings (Shahnama), Rustam kills the witch who came to deceive him (the third feat), Walters Art Museum Ms. W.597, fol. 44b detail. A nineteenth-century Indian copy of an abridgment of Firdawsī's Shāhnāmah ("The Book of Kings"), composed in prose by Tavakkul Beg Ḥusaynī (fl. 11th century AH / 17th CE), for Shamshīr Khān of Ghaznīn (Ghaznī or Ghaznah - present-day Afghanistan) and entitled Tārīkh-i dilgushā-yi Shamshīrkhānī. This anonymous codex written in a coarse nastaʿlīq hand in the 13th century AH / 19th CE has 33 somewhat mediocre illustrations. Description courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Days of Turks and Turkeys

It's Thanksgiving weekend in Canada and I wish everyone a Happy Turkey day!

Painting of a North American turkey cock for the Mughal emperor Jahangir by Mansur,
Victoria and Albert Museum, c. 1612.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

I didn't know...

... that Javier Bardem secretly had a career as a Pakistani movie actor.

image courtesy of The Hotspot.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My One Weakness

There are few things that I love more than a well preserved giant lithograph. Though a well-indexed text is not far behind.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Parental Guidance and Universal Truths

Sorry for having fallen under the stupor of negligence, but it has been a busy last month, what with eid, coming back from Pakistan, starting up school, and nervously typing away grant proposals. I was reading the Qabus-namah for my Persian advice literature course and in the very beginning of the introduction Kay-Ka'us b. Iskandar b. Qabus b. Washmgir states a truth as universal as one mentioned by Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy and one which I think transcends any cultural relativism: 

It is the nature of the time that no son desires the advice of his father because of the burning desire inside the young, which, due to their imprudent assumptions, [makes] them see their own knowledge as superior to that of their fathers. 

---  Qabus-namah, ed. Ruben Levy (London: Luzac & Co., 1951), p. 5.

Babur receives a courtier (often thought to be Babur advising his son Humayun) c. 1589
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Glad Tidings: Shah Jahan

Good news for those interested in Shāh Jahān's reign (r. 1628-58), as two new projects from the Institut für Iranistik at the Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, seek to examine at greater depth the historiographic and architectural production during the time period. The first of the two projects will, in addition to producing an analytic study of history writing under Shāh Jahān, undertake a translation of Qazvīnī's Bādshāhnāma (though unclear whether to German or English, I'm naturally rooting for the latter).

For an introductory survey of sources for Shāh Jahān's reign see M. Hidayat Hosain, "Contemporary Historians During the Reign of the Emperor Shāh Jahān," Islamic Culture 15 no. 1 (1941): 64-78.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Lecture (8): Faith and Allegiance in Mughal Rajasthan

I had been meaning to put this up for a while. An excellent talk by Prof. Ramya Sreenivasan given at Harvard University on March 23, 2012, on the topic "Faith and Allegiance in Early Modern Rajasthan: Perspectives from the Mughal Era." Sreenivasan looks at how court elites viewed Rajput conversions to Islam under the Mughal empire, a topic that has become contentious due to retroactive labeling of nationalist identities.

Akbar presiding over discussions in the Ibadat-khana (from a ms. of the Akbar Nama)
by Nar Singh, ca. 1597 (Dublin: Chester Beatty Library)

Prof. Ramya Sreenivasan's well known publications include: 

The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in Indian History c. 1500-1900. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2007.

"Drudges, Dancing-girls, Concubines: Female Slaves in Rajput Polity, 1500-1850". In Slavery and South Asian History, edited by Indrani Chatterjee and Richard Eaton. Indiana University Press, 2006.

The video can be viewed here courtesy of the South Asia Initiative at Harvard University. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Day at the Archives

I have been meaning to write about some of my experiences exploring some of the resources would-be academics might find in Lahore (or at least that was the plan at the beginning of the summer) but haven't gotten around to doing it, partly due to my own laziness about doing such exploration and partly due to the kind of brick wall everyone who has ever come to Lahore knows too well. As a good friend who decided to move back from the states to write her PhD dissertation here once said, "I have completely nativized and therefore have become lethargic." Well said. Lahore: 1, native and earnest would-be academics: 0.

I did however, through the kindness of others, manage to get access to the library of the Lahore fort. Although I could document my misadventures, a friend of mine who accompanied me to it recorded it much more brilliantly than I could attempt to. The day was not a total wash since sights were seen. 

From the pen of the ever-acerbic Fayes T. Kantawala:

Inspired as I am by my recent sojourn to Istanbul (I have repainted my room in ‘Turkish Tile’ – my delusions are my sanity), I was excited when a friend asked me to accompany him to the Lahore Fort Archives. He has been researching Mughal history at a Canadian university as part of his PhD and needed a book found only there. That he had to travel 5,000 miles into the snow and change nationalities to be able to study the Mughals is an irony not lost on him; and I must say I didn’t grasp the whole of it until we went to the archives.

Not gonna lie: I didn’t even know we had an Archive in the Fort. Turns out no one else did either. Carrying only a reference number (and murmuring a prayer), we set out at 9 a.m. for the old city.

to continue reading click here.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Daily Dose of Mir Taqi Mir

Today one's daily dose of poetry is from Mir Taqi Mir (1, 7:8) and particularly appropriate for the weekend:

شیخ جو ہے مسجد میں ننگا رات کو تھا میخانے میں 
جبہ  خرقہ  کرتا   ٹوپی مستی میں انعام کیا

The shaykh naked in the mosque [last] night was in the tavern
[His] cloak, patched robe, shirt, and hat he gifted in intoxication

An evocative and amusing shi'r of Mir's if there ever was one. Pritchett's translation and commentary may be found here. What I particularly like about it is that Mir gives just enough detail to know what transpired, but leaves enough ambiguity to come up with your own scenario (how did the shaykh find himself in the mosque, who stumbled upon him, was he passed out, who did he gift his apparel to).

Excerpted from Satyanarayana Hedge, who offers a more erudite reading than me:

śaiḵẖ jo hai masjid meñ nañgā rāt ko thā maiḵẖāney meñ
jubbah ḵẖirqah kurtā ṭopī mastī meñ in‘ām kiyā

The śaiḵẖ in the mosque
was last night
naked in the Tavern
Cloak, robe, dress, cap

The ḵẖudā-e suḵẖan’s verbal dexterity “feints” the lector’s eye and the auditor’s ear, so to speak, to miscognize this distich as follows:

śaiḵẖ jo hai masjid meñ nañgā
rāt ko thā maiḵẖāney meñ
jubbah ḵẖirqah kurtā ṭopī
mastī meñ in‘ām kiyā

The śaiḵẖ
naked in the mosque
was last night
in the Tavern
Cloak, robe, dress, cap

I’ll beg to submit that it’s perhaps possible to read a subtle “syntactic knot”, a t‘aqīd-e lafẓī here, if this distich is “split” in this manner:

śaiḵẖ jo hai masjid meñ
nañgā rāt ko thā maiḵẖāney meñ
jubbah ḵẖirqah kurtā ṭopī
mastī meñ in‘ām kiyā

This is an extremely unorthodox, unusal, subtle sautī īhām, a “phonic polysemy”, unattested and unidentified in the Perso-Arabic-Urdu manuals of balāġhat. There are, however, some qarīnah, “lexemic cues” to posit īhām here: śaiḵẖ, ḵẖirqah, mastī rāt and in‘ām. ḵẖirqah is itself bisemic, meaning both “ragged, patched garment” as well as “dress of a devotee or religious mendicant”. mastī is both “intoxication” and especially “ecstasy”: “in a frenzy or stupor, fearful, excited,” from O.Fr. estaise “ecstasy, rapture,” from L.L. extasis, from Gk. ekstasis “entrancement, astonishment; any displacement,” in NT “a trance,” from existanai “displace, put out of place,” also “drive out of one's mind” (existanai phrenon), from ek “out”+ histanai “to place, cause to stand,” from PIE root *sta- “to stand”.mastī here might perhaps be “semantically blown up” to signify the wajd of the Ṣūfī sam‘a, the mystical rapture (Ḥāl) of the anagogic hearing of Music. The Ciśtiyyah Ṣūfīs connect the melismatic entity of sam‘a with the Qur‘ānic topos, the maẓmūn of the Primeval Covenant, the roz-e alast, here signified by rāt. The rent garments of the rapturous mystic are distributed among the attendees, being redolent with the spiritual fragrance of Ecstasy.

The allusion (talmīh) here, is perhaps to the central, sempiternal, (Islamic/ṣūfistic) meta-Historical Mythic (and also Linguistic) moment of the ancient Covenant between Allah and humankind in Pre-Eternity, when Allah asks the yet-uncreated, potential souls/essences of humankind hear and obey (audire and respondere) -“alastu bi-Rabbikum”-“Am I not your Lord?” and receives their unanimous response “balā!”, “Certainly!”: [...] (Sūrā al-‘Arāf, Qur‘ān 7.172)

Reading śaiḵẖ jo hai masjid meñ nañgā/ rāt ko thā maiḵẖāney meñ will entail positing that the śaiḵẖ was naked in the mosque, which reading in my humble opinion, is discordant. This distich’s isotopy, to my mind, is perhaps best read in the anagogical mode of coincidentia oppositorum, the Naqśbandiyyah ṣūfi topos of khalwat dar anjuman, “solitude in the multitude” (). The śaiḵẖ (here, the Ṣūfī śaiḵẖ) who appears seemingly seḥw “sober” in the “mosque” is in reality intoxicated (sukr) in Rapturous Ecstasy in the mode of the malāmatiyyah and the rindiyyah.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Daily Dose of Ghalib

An old professor of mine once told me she starts each day with some poetry to get her in the right frame of mine for research and I thought it was a lovely sentiment and one I would give a shot. I have been attempting to read some Mir Taqi Mir lately, but thanks to the labyrinth of scholarly delights that is the venerable Frances Pritchett's website (an absolute gem and necessity for neophytes to Urdu poetry such as myself), I stumbled upon a ghazal of Ghalib (57: 4) that was so evocative and delightful I had to share: 

خوں ہے دل خاک میں احوالِ بتاں پر یعنی
  ان کے ناخن ہوئے محتاجِ حنا میرے بعد

The heart turns to blood, in the earth, at the condition of the idols--that is
Their nails are in want of henna after me

I've slightly modified Frances Pritchett's translation found here. Those familiar with Perso-Urdu love poetry will immediately identify the idols as the beloved(s). If the love is a blood-sport (who can forget Amir Khusraw's image of the beloved as a callous polo player and the lover as the ball) in which she paints her nails in the poet's blood (metaphorically, but the image would appeal to universe of True Blood), then Ghalib laments that as he lies dead in his grave, his heart turns to blood in both anguish that the beloved must now paint her nails in henna instead and in the hopes of offering his blood to perpetuate her sport.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Room of One's Own

In the obituaries section of an old issue of Islamic Studies (Islamabad) [12 no.1 (1973), p. 70] A. S. Bazmee Ansari related the following about the venerable orientalist Charles A. Storey, who, for serious--or even casual--Persianists, needs no introduction (or if he does, you receive a wary look of judgement while you dart off to Encyclopaedia Iranica and read Yuri Bregel's entry on him): 

"A quiet, deep and thorough-going scholar he had almost become a recluse during the closing years of his life. He practically sealed himself up in his room in the British Museum and stoutly refused to receive visitors. Such devotees to literature are seldom found these days."

It's easy sometimes to relate to his desire to be left alone. However, Storey did die a bachelor so buyer beware.

Lecture (7): Sufi Spaces in Mughal India in honour of Annemarie Schimmel

Recently I have been thinking a great deal about Annemarie Schimmel. In part because I recently bought a local print of The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture, which is not only exceedingly accessible but a true delight to read for, I suspect, academics and the laity alike. And in part because it's quite hard to not think of her when you are taking German classes at a center named after her.

The gardens inside Annemarie-Schimmel-Haus are particularly verdant. Source: the author.

It is therefore quite appropriate then to have a lecture by James L. Wescoat Jr. today entitled "Landscapes of Sufi Space in Mughal Delhi and Lahore." Perhaps even more appropriate given that Lahore has a street named after her.

Lahore: Dr. Schimmel standing next to a road dedicated to her. Source: unknown

The presentation is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Annemarie Schimmel Memorial Lecture series. From their website:

James Wescoat, the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture in the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discusses how Mughal tomb-gardens often sought physical proximity to Sufi shrines in ways that reshaped them in their era, and ours. This presentation explores the evolving spatial relationships between Mughal and Sufi landscapes of Delhi and Lahore—from Humayun's tomb-garden in the Nizamuddin area of Delhi to the Mian Mir tomb-complex of Lahore.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lahore is Lahore

This picture really reminds me of the Lahore of my childhood; sleepy, verdant, calm. It's a bit hard to spot nowadays, but it's still there, hidden away in back streets of residential areas, with tall trees attending quiet roads, and the air with the promise of monsoon rain as the late afternoon bleeds into early evening.

Lahore, 10th July 2012

"Despite its turbulent career, Lahore has somehow managed to be a cultural centre with a distinctive resonance and charm. I, myself, admit to having fallen under its spell long ago. Of course, scholars are supposed to claim objectivity so that they can occupy a position of lofty impartiality. In theory, such abstraction and distance is necessary to avoid charges of partisanship. Nevertheless, like many other visitors to the city, I have found that Lahore has an extraordinary charm that few other places can claim."

Carl Ernst, "Foreword," in Anna Suvorova, Lahore: Topophilia of Space and Place, xi.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Summer Plans I

Over the next two months I shall be summering in Lahore. Now, while it is true that summering has a touch of obnoxious elitism that is associated with phrases like "summering-in-Hamptons," or "summering-in-the-riviera," rest assured summering-in-Lahore is not the same thing. Indeed, it is hardly the same species of the genus. Summering in Lahore involves looming threats of heat-waves of the 45 degree plus variety, rolling blackouts every other hour (known locally as load-shedding, a wonderfully delightful term that implies austerity and something of a healthy diet), and a general dearth of activities (read: its too damn hot to go out and when its not the fundos run amok--no one is putting fun in fundos clearly). Thus, terms like vacations or holidays are very misleading for a visit to Pakistan during the months of June, July, and August. Summering, used with the kind of self-conscious deployment that post-colonial scholars of modern Middle East and South Asia relish when employing terms like nationalism, community, and secular, is the only thing that fits the bill.

I shall be chronicling parts of my summer in Lahore, things which I think the reader(s) of this blog might find interesting, any possible sights or archives visited.

A word to the wise, flying to Pakistan has now become less a major journey and more of extended session of bumper carts in the sky. Things may have changed since Ibn Battuta's time but traveling to Pakistan is still filled with hardships that gives one enough material to complain about when called upon to make polite chit-chat over tea, but not enough to write a safar-nama. None of this applies to first class passengers who are given pajamas to change into, and are escorted to their seats as opposed to being gently nudged into a row of compressed, antagonized people trying to find a seat, stow their luggage, and convince some aunty that the seat is not hers and no, you do not wish to give up your aisle seat for hers which is joyously squished between four other people who do not understand the concept of personal space. If you fly PIA, expect a limited arsenal of television options so sleeping pills are a must. Do not pack a book on Islamicization in Central Asia. I did that once and though it was an interesting read while in the comfort of my home, I was jealously looking over at the person reading Archie comics over in the next row the entire flight. However, PIA has the advantage of reaching Pakistan directly, which, given the bizarre-depressed-disney-land airports of most Gulf country hubs, is no small mercy. However, this time I flew Etihad, an airline with an enviable array of television channels but no concept of serving dinner rolls warm. No one told them that ice cold bread and butter does not go with the credit card maxing plane ticket prices. To add insult to injury, the dinner options  were between chicken and fish, which, on a flight headed to Lahore, might as well be a choice between two vegetarian dishes.

till next time!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Documentary: The Great Moghuls

A Maghribist friend of mine alerted me to this fabulous documentary on the Mughals, from a few years ago called 'The Great Moghuls'. I am an hour and thirty minutes in and I find it an excellent watch and wanted to share it with everyone. So far my only quibble would be with the so called 'Hindu' army that Akbar faced soon after his accession to the the throne, which I would say more accurately may be called Afghan Surid with naturally a large number of Hindu soldiery. Then again, it was under the command of Hemu, a general in the service of the Surs who, as contemporary witnesses assure us, had begun to assert his own sovereignty, which the late great John F. Richards felt, if successful, would have signaled a reassertion of Hindu rule in North India not seen since the rise of Delhi Sultanate. Regardless, happy watching dear readers:

The Great Moghuls (1990) is a Channel Four Television documentary series covering the dramatic story of the rise of the Moghul Empire (1526-1857) of India. Over six generations, from father to son, the Great Moghuls captured, consolidated and profoundly influenced control of the vast sub-continent of India. The six-part series was written and presented by Bamber Gascoigne based upon his 1971 book of the same name. It was produced and directed by Douglas Rae and filmed in India.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On the Importance of Being Offended

So I spent this afternoon reading a recent book on Mughal history that I had been putting off reading because I had read earlier articles by the same scholar and found them underwhelming and lacking in substance. Having handed in my papers, and finding a comfy spot in the library, I sat down and read the first three chapters. Sadly, with each page I read I got increasingly livid--feeling disturbed and horrified by the deplorable level of scholarship. In short, I was deeply offended; not by the author's arguments, which, when one coyly appeared, mildly sidestepped any actual debate, conceding to contradictory positions in a circular logic. No, it was by the abysmal level of scholarship; assertions without evidence, incorrect citations and names, and observations that were, for a lack of a better word, unabashedly unoriginal. This was not a general survey or introductory work on Mughal history that aimed to present a summary of existing literature. No, it was the product of the scholar's PhD dissertation, which shocked me, and gave me no small pause, given how the author's supervisor was an esteemed scholar. Rarely have I been more offended by a piece of scholarship for its wanton sloppiness and intellectual anemia. I think the problem with our particular field of Islamic history is that we are no longer deeply offended by poor scholarship, happily welcoming lazy students who are more interested in making claims than doing the necessary grunt work. Instead we reserve our blinding fury for when we encounter a political or ideological position we disagree with in a work. Rather than toss meaningless labels, and here I mean the big O, perhaps we should find it a personal affront when authors attempt to insult our intelligence by not even being able to correctly cite a work, transliterate consistently in a logical manner, or maintain some coherent argument. Scholars need to stop being polite, forgiving a lack of rigor for what is rather kindly deemed as creative or innovative scholarship. Where, I ask, are our academic muḥtasibs, commanding right and forbidding wrong?

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Learning Persian, Sabk-i Lambton

I'm in the midst of paper writing, for which I am terribly behind, but I wanted to share this from David Morgan's obituary for Ann K. S. Lambton. For readers of this blog, introductions are surely not necessary. I post this, I suppose, as part of a recurring theme of linguistic concerns. Also, I find it both hilarious and telling. Anyways, without further ado:

Her Persian language course was deservedly famous. By modern standards it was not pedagogically advanced – I have commented elsewhere that it is unlikely that the phrase “language laboratory” ever passed her lips. But for any student who could survive the course – not everyone did – it worked. It would, I suspect, be impossible to remove a basic knowledge of Persian from the brain of any graduate of the Lambton Persian course. In my 90th birthday lecture, I mentioned Michael Burrell's suggestion that there ought to be a Lambton Persian Course Survivors’ Club: it would have a club tie, the motif being Lambton's Persian Grammar, with blood dripping from it. She was visibly delighted with this idea. Many of the students who took the course were from the Foreign Office: usually young diplomats who were about to be posted to Tehran. The Independent's obituarist quoted a passage in James Bill's The Eagle and the Lion – a study of US-Iranian relations – in which the author contrasted the low level of Persian language competence among American diplomats in Iran in the 1970s with the much higher standard to be found among their British counterparts, and ascribed this to their rigorous training under Ann Lambton's tutelage, and to the exacting nature of the examinations they were required by her to pass. When I took the course, in 1970/1, I was one of five students. There was one undergraduate, a British Council official who was to go as its representative to Afghanistan, and two diplomats. The British Council man is notable as the only known Lambton Persian course survivor to have treated it as a rest cure (this was possible because of his superb command of Arabic, on which he was able to fall back whenever necessary). Of the diplomats, one eventually became British Ambassador to Iran, while the other ended his career as High Commissioner to Jamaica, where presumably he did not much use his Persian – though as it happens, he was not the only Lambton alumnus to serve in that capacity. At the end of the course, the four other students went off to their respective exams. “What about you?” she asked me. “Shall we set one for you?” I replied that I thought I had taken enough exams for one lifetime. “Quite right,” she said; and the subject was not referred to again. I have always supposed that the subtext to this was that Professor Lambton thought that she might make a reasonable historian of me, but was under no illusions about my abilities as a Persian linguist. The results of an examination would probably have been inconveniently embarrassing for all concerned. The language student she rated the best she had ever taught was a diplomat at the beginning of his career who took the course three years after I did. So far as I know, he is unaware that he holds this distinction (he is currently the British Ambassador in Paris).

The basic text, of course, was Lambton's Persian Grammar, first published in 1953: a standard teaching tool for several decades. It is still in print, though not as widely used as it once was; there are now some practical alternatives available. It was joined, in 1954, by her Persian Vocabulary, an immensely useful selective dictionary. The art teacher, biographer and art historian Wilfrid Blunt, who had a strong interest in Persia, took a term's sabbatical from Eton in 1956 to travel in the country, and in parts of Afghanistan. He was more or less, though not avowedly, retracing the steps of the journeys that Robert Byron had made two decades earlier, which resulted in that justly celebrated book The Road to Oxiana. Blunt's own extremely enjoyable travelogue, A Persian Spring, was published in 1957. He recounts how, on arrival in Isfahan, he was crippled by an attack of lumbago, and struggled to explain what was the matter. He sought the help of Lambton's Persian Vocabulary. “Miss Lambton,” he wrote, “must suffer from rude health: she gives no word for ‘lumbago,’ ‘rheumatism,’ ‘sciatica,’ or any of the complaints from which ordinary mortals suffer. Even ‘plague’ she refers to ‘pestilence,’ and many a victim may well have died before he could bring himself to make that extra effort. . . How gladly would one exchange ‘pigeon-fancier,’ ‘parasitologist’ or even ‘milch-cow’ for information of a more practical kind!” After reading Blunt's book, I asked her why she had not included the Persian word for lumbago. “Because there isn't one,” she replied. I might have known.

David Morgan, "Ann K. S. Lambton (1912-2008) and Persian Studies," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series 21 (2011): pp. 103-4. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Memories of McGill

While watching a piece by Al-Jazeera on Robert Wisnovsky and the Rational Sciences in Islam project at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, I suddenly recognized my old library carrel from the Islamic Studies Library in the background.


For the video see after the break.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Further Transliteration Deliberations

The Mughals, avid inheritors of Turko-Mongol traditions, reveled in maintaining Turko-Mongol terminology for offices, pledges, and terms signifying the nature of relationships. All this makes intelligible and consistent transliteration mindbogglingly difficult.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Remembering Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (November 3, 1929 – March 16, 2012)

The world of South Asian studies lost a valued member and veritable giant of a scholar on March 16, 2012 with the passing away of Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman (born Phillip) Barker, in Minneapolis. Better, more informed obituaries and memorials will be written for Prof. Barker no doubt, but I thought I would share a few words. My own knowledge of Prof. Barker was entirely second hand as I never met the scholar. A Maghribist friend of mine, who took Urdu at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, where Prof. Barker taught the language from 1958 to 1972, at which point he went to the University of Minnesota to chair the Department of South Asian Studies, told me that the instruction books Barker Sahib penned for Urdu were amongst the best language coursebooks she had ever used (this coming from someone who studied French, Spanish, Russian, German, Arabic, Persian and Turkish amongst others). These included A Course in Urdu (1967), An Urdu Newspaper Reader (1968), and A Reader in Modern Urdu Poetry (1968), all published under the auspicious of the Institute of Islamic Studies. Another scholar, who developed her own series of Urdu coursebooks, remarked that he was a pioneer and astute linguist. Being a student of the Institute, odd bits always pop up about its past luminaries in unexpected corners. When the Islamic Studies Library did an exhibition about the history of the department, I was surprised to learn that he also published A Course in Baluchi (1969). I was suddenly reminded of Annemarie Schimmel (April 7, 1922 – January 26, 2003) who even proficient in Sindhi.

What I never knew about Barker Sahib was that he was not initially trained in Urdu, but rather the Native American language Klamath, for which he published, through University of Berkley Press, Klamath Texts (1963), Klamath Dictionary (1963) and eventually Klamath Grammar (1964). But no doubt, outside Urdu classrooms, Barker Sahib was most known for being the Lost Tolkien, a prolific author of fantasy novels and a creator the fantasy role playing game based on the world of Tékumel. Those more familiar with the game, which appears to have a considerable cult following, know better than I on this. He is also reputed to have, on the authority of Barbara Metcalf, created a Mughal Monopoly (mentioned in the comments by reader in the previous post). What I wouldn't give to play that game once!

The thing about scholars is this; like showbiz celebrities, their lives enter some form of public domain, where those who never meet them develop opinions about them, be they laudatory or critical, and the passing away of one gives a moment of pause to even to those who never met them, but simply knew them first through shelving away coursebooks written by them in the library of the department they taught for over a decade. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Foul Language

This may be utterly juvenile, especially for those who contemplate the rhetoric of language and the politics of discourse, but whilst reading a Mughal historical source I came across this awesome sentence:
حضرت  بزبان هندستانی فرمودند که ای گاندو، چرا اتکهٔ مارا کشتی؟
Silly I know, but I did not expect it to pop up. I guess whats good for the bazaars is good for the emperors.

Okay, enough lollygagging, back to writing a paper that has been due for quite a while, after which I have four papers to write on; (i) a late Mughal prosopography (ii) late Timurid court culture (iii) something on the Ottomans (most likely eunuchs at the court), and finally (iv) Zoroastrians in Mughal India.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lecture (6): Revisiting Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh

Perhaps the most compelling call for historians to re-examine our understanding of the last great Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb [Awrangzīb 'Ālamgīr (d. 1118/1707)], who is often accused of being a religious bigot and invariably the reason for Mughal decline (ultimately an intellectually lazy, if not sloppy argument), was Katherine Butler Brown's superb article in Modern Asian Studies [41/1 (2007), pp. 77–120] "Did Aurangzeb ban music? Questions for the historiography of his reign." In challenging the historical veracity of Aurangzeb's ban on music, Katherine Butler Schofield (née Brown), noted that historians of early modern South Asia need to seriously reconsider the received knowledge of the content and tenor of Aurangzeb's reign. Sajida S. Alvi, in her article "The Historians of Awangzeb: A Comparative Study of Three Primary Sources," [in Essays on Islamic Civilization Presented to Niyazi Berkes, Donald P. Little, ed., (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976), pp. 57-73] has previously pointed out the function of rhetoric in Mughal chronicles written under Aurangzeb--a fact overlooked when historians have blithely read the sources to mine data. On the subject, the Indian historian Jnan Chandra has brought to light several documentary evidence that suggests that Aurangzeb was, if not tolerant, certainly a great deal more pragmatic.

The story of Aurangzeb is always contrasted with that of his brother, Dārā Shikoh who, as the narrative goes, was tolerant, syncretic and heir to the composite intellectual and religious tradition of his great-grandfather Akbar (whatever that was). Since, as Hayden White has said, all narrative needs to be emplotted, the one chosen for this particularly is tragedy: Had, in the battle of succession, Aurangzeb not won, Mughal India would have remained a tolerant empire where "Hindus" would not have revolted and Shi'is not felt ostracized (mind you, Shah Kalim Allah did not consider Aurangzeb's Sunni credentials and convictions to be particularly strong), and Mughal India would have continued on. Clearly they never met one Bhimsen.

Today's lecture is by Munis D. Faruqui, who looks more carefully at Dara Shikoh's "syncretic"and "tolerant" thought, given at Habib University in Karachi. Prof. Faruqui's work on Mirza Hakim and the first Nizam al-Mulk Asaf Jah have been some of the most insightful contributions on Mughal political history in quite some time. His eagerly awaited book is The Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504-1719 (Cambridge 2012).

[I just realized that the youtube preview picture for the video is of audience members with comically blasé expressions, *sigh*, a constant reminder that no matter what historians do, people would rather watch a double bill of Game of Thrones and Spartacus.]

Part 2 & 3 after the break

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lecture (5): On How to Read Ghalib

Today's video lecture is by the indomitable Frances Pritchett courtesy of the excellent Hindi-Urdu Flagship program at University of Texas at Austin on "How to Read Ghalib". Despite my high school education being in Pakistan, my abilities in Urdu literature remain remedial at best--just the other day I noticed while reading a Persian translation into Urdu I was looking up every word in the introduction, which baffled me until I realized that the translator had pretty much replaced Persian verbs with Urdu and left all the nouns in, but still--and so having the pleasure of viewing (much preferable to reading!) an expert in Urdu literature actually explain how to develop appreciation skills was a delight.

As a side note, I have only recently discovered the Hindi-Urdu flagship program and they have excellent lectures that they have recorded, which I might post in the coming weeks. There is a wonderful one by Mehr Afshan Farooqi about the development of Urdu and the role of prose works such as Quran commentaries, and an excellent one by Rupert Snell (with his delightfully scholastic and enviable British accent when he speaks English) on Hindi autobiography. For those interested in Hindi, do check out the podcasts on Hindi Thesaurus available on iTunes.

But back to Frances Pritchett. Urdu-philes will be familiar with her enormous contribution to making Urdu literature accessible (not just physically through her website but more uniquely by her commentaries on the diwans of Ghalib and Mir Taqi Mir). She has generously posted her materials here.

Frances Pritchett: How to Read Ghalib from Hindi Urdu Flagship on Vimeo.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Speaking of Ideal goals and bitter realism...

Spring break *ahem* reading week came and went without any of the expected productivity. I was hoping to begin research on my Ottoman history paper and perhaps even begin working on my Persian Historiography one but both are simply out of the question. I am dashing to re-work parts of my paper I am submitting for a possible publication; its quite nerve wracking when you actually critique someone not in the form of a thesis or term paper that only a professor will read. I envy people who good prose writers, mine tends to be obtuse, labored, and repetitive. If anyone has painted with watercolors I feel my writing ends up being a painting with one too many touch-ups. I suppose an analogy to runaway plastic surgery would also work. I wonder if it's because I have not read fiction in a while. I shall put that on my to do list for the summer. 

In other news, turns out there is a Association for Asian Studies Conference in Toronto in two and a half weeks time, which is exciting news. I had no clue, not surprising being in a department of Near and Middle East Civilizations (AAS does not include the Middle East as part of its geographic scope, understandably given MESA). The really exciting part is the numerous panels on Mughals! Two in particular I am very excited for:

Session 39: Indo-Persian Power: Practice and Dynamics in the Mughal Empire
Indo-Persian Kingship in Practice: A Heretical Mode of Legitimacy, Ahmed Azfar Moin
The Power of Patronage: Mughal Relations with Sanskrit Intellectuals, Audrey A. Truschke
Mughal Power Suspended: Mahabat Khan’s Capture of the Court of Jahangir, Munis D. Faruqui
Who were the Mughal ulama? Power and religious authority in seventeenth century India, Supriya Gandhi

Session 96: Poets, Princes, and Holy Men in 16th-17th c. Lahore: Perspectives on a Mughal Ecumene
Lahore between Imperial Playground and Sacred Space in Mughal Court Poetry, Sunil Sharma
Urban Life in the Mughals' Frontier Metropolis: Revisiting Chandar Bhan Brahman's Lahore , Rajeev K. Kinra
Drums and Diadems: Princely Investiture and Patronage in Mughal Lahore, Colin Mitchell
Mughal Lahore: A Welcoming Capital for Jains?, Basile Leclere, co-author w/leclere, Christine Chojnacki

Also presenting are Catherine Asher and Richard Eaton! I wonder if it would be odd to go up and ask him to autograph my Sufis of Bijapur. I suspect I may not be the only person to be star struck when I see esteemed scholars, and registration is definitely cheaper than a Madonna ticket.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Idealistic Aspirations and Realistic Goals

One of the problems of having a supervisor whose mastery of a great many different languages is that one often begins to think it is possible to come close to those language skills. A three and a half hours session of closely reading Bayhaqi reminds the would be aspirant to just focus on bringing their Persian up to scratch. In an ideal world a scholar working on Mughal history would have:

1) Persian
2) Urdu
3) Brajbhasha and/or Arabic depending on their interests.

If one was feeling particularly ambitious they could add
1) Russian
2) Chaghatay Turkish

It would also not hurt to have a combination of the following:
1) Portugese
2) French
3) German

Those working on a particular region would do best to equip themselves with one of the following:
1) Bengali
2) Punjabi
3) Marathi 
4) Telugu

While day dreaming I am often torn between learning Brajbhasha or Chaghatay Turkish, or resuscitating my long dead Arabic (I had sadly moved on before it was cold in the grave), but realistically, I know for the next couple of years its going to be Persian, Persian, Persian. It is in such moments I understand how Mughal history as a field has lost out to scholars working on the colonial/post-colonial period.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Lecture (4): The Last Mughal, his Court, and some Firangis

Admittedly I have never actually sat down and read Dalrymple's books, despite The Last Mughal having spent a good three months on my bedside table looking at me rather sternly--I am told however that it is excellent in terms of conveying historical detail while enrapturing the reader. I came across this lecture and thought I would share it. Although fields of connected histories and Europeans in Mughal India are outside of my domain (the extent of my knowledge of connected history being very land-locked and limited to Timurid and Safavid emigres to Northern India), I find these subjects fascinating. I hope you enjoy.

Also, I recently came across a series of conference recordings on early Muslim modernity under the Safavids Mughals and Ottomans and will be posting those shortly.

I have placed the video after the jump as seemed to slow down the page when loading quite a lot.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Academic Myopia or whats the point of African studies?

In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a cluster hire in African Studies in Lehigh University (to read, click here), the commentariat opined the uselessness of the hires since there are so few jobs with a major in African Studies. The commentariat had a point, but I'd like to address two sets of concerns: the first, why choose to offer courses in or study something that is not geared towards a profession right out of school (mind you, I graduated undergrad with a degree in business), and the second what are the best ways to go about it.

Anyone who studies the humanities, especially at the graduate level, has encountered the following conversation:

Person 1: I'm an investment banker/junior partner in a legal firm/resident in oncology/make $100,000, sailboat and have a time-share in Maine. So what do you do?
Person 2: I study some-obscure-to-general-public history. (I thankfully study the Mughals; the massive marketing campaign launched by India's tourism industry has meant that I can just tell people I study the folks you brought to you the Taj Mahal... jai ho!) 
Person 1: That's sooo interesting. So what will you do with it?
Person 2: Teach.
Person 1: At a university right? (I am always conflicted about putting an "an" there)
Person 2: Yes.
Person 1 expresses concern facially and a knowing look all at once (a feat!) that says, humanities is a scam, they teach this stuff so they can study it so they can teach it. For the most part, they are right, but it's partly historians fault for that.

So what is the point of it all? First let's address the point of offering courses on area studies or histories of regions like Africa (political and economic exigencies has meant that the question is no longer asked about the modern Middle East, less so with India, East Asia and early Islamic history---people interested in Central Asian studies or Medieval Islamic history [especially social] need to come up with good reasons it seems--I suspect Chinese Universities will at some point begin African Studies programs given their Geo-political/economic interests in the region like American Universities in Middle East Studies programs after WWII, not that I'm complaining).

It seems too pedantic to say this but it is worth saying it, because we, as members of a global community need to know about the world beyond our everyday environs (survivalists who shall not leave the prairies, Upper Canada, or similar are exempt; I say if you are never to come across samosas, falafel, or dim sum then you have earned the right to not know about other cultures). Having been both a student academic adviser and an undergraduate many a moons ago I have noticed two things amongst undergrads: a huge curiosity for the unknown and a corresponding lack of knowledge about it which they could do little about without running afoul with degree guidelines. Students in professional programs often have to extend their stay in university by a semester or year if they simply want to take more than 2 courses or a minor respectively not in their own field of study. The whole point of university is to educate future generations who are knowledgeable, cultured members of society. It's not enough that we churn out a few majors in history of the Middle East or South Asia, I think the point of the history courses is to educate the wider set of people, those studying only ever-so-more-promising-in-terms-of-job-prospects social sciences or much-more-so professional degrees.

It is hard. Most of us who get trained for area studies get trained in elite universities in area studies departments; by the time we get to the Ph.D level we begin to be unable to talk about what we study to people not familiar with our field. (As an aside, try this at your next conference: go up to a person not in your field and ask them what they study, they will probably give you an answer in such non-specific terms, which, if used within field insiders, would be practically meaningless. For instance, I study 16th century social history of Mughal India). (Second aside: I do think partly we handicap ourselves because we underestimate others but having had many an experiences with people who think humanities are a scam I vacillate a great deal on the matter. I feel we may divide people up into those who watch PBS documentaries and those who don't).

No doubt there is a debate going on about how best to spend money, but the one caution I would give to those advocating universities only offering professorships and in turn courses in areas which are marked out as important or job-friendly, I would say this: I understand strategic knowledge acquisition and dissemination, but there is something to be said about people doing pioneering work or keeping certain fields alive. It is a hard balance, but the dictates of cash flow should not be the only factor in our decisions when it comes to knowing about our collective pasts.

Update: This podcast was recently passed along to me by a colleague of mine; a discussion by Martha Nussbaum on the value of humanities in North American academe via philosophy bites. Also worth checking out is a forthcoming article by Carl Ernst, "It's Not Just Academic: Writing Public Scholarship in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies,"  courtesy his website.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Scholarship (2)

Happy new year to one and all! I thought I'd begin 2012 with a positive note, this time from a rather touching preface to a book: Muhammad Saleem Akhtar's Sind Under the Mughals: An Introduction to, Translation of and Commentary on the Maẓhar-i Shāhjahānī. I refer to it as a book and not simply a translation because there is an impressive 133 page introduction. The translation is of the second part of Maẓhar-i Shāhjahānī which is history of Sind.* I pulled out my copy to glance though it after I saw one of the panels in AHA next month will cover partly this work. The part I felt was particularly touching was at the end of preface--touching because it differs so much from the self-aggrandizing tone of many introductions now. I'll just quote the portion in extenso to let it speak for itself:
"In the execution of this enterprise, the writer has not infrequently disagreed with his precursors. In criticizing their works, to which he owes so much, he was inspired by the same lofty ideals which prompted Hodivala to undertake the writing of the Studies in Indo-Muslim History, and the idea of discrediting or disparaging them never crossed his mind because he was more than anybody else conscious of the fact that hamah chīz hamagān dānad wa hamagān hanūz az mādar nazādah and ('It is the whole of mankind that knows everything, and the whole of mankind has not yet been born'). Nevertheless, the pursuit of truth has transcended all other considerations, and every effort has been made to uncover the facts."
M. Saleem Akhtar
Islamabad, 30 October 1989
Scholars of Indo-Islamic history owe much to Muhammad Saleem Akhtar for his critical editions and translation work. Perhaps there is something about doing the intensive labour of editing and translating that humbles people and makes them appreciate other's work. I am aware that not too long ago I myself complained about a certain lack of quality of scholarship, therefore the present post is more about self-reflection than preaching. Perhaps there shall be a new year's resolution to that effect.           
*The first portion was a tract on political ethics, a good old fashioned mirror for princes. It has not been translated. It has been examined in Sajida S. Alvi, "Maẓhar-i Shāhjahānī and the Mughal Province of Sind: A Discourse on Political Ethics," in Islam and Indian Regions, Texts, [Beitrage zur Sudasienforschung Sudasien-Institut Universitat Heidelberg, band. 145] eds. Anna L. Dallapiccola and Stephanie Z. Lallemant (Franz Steiner Verlag Stuttgart, 1993), vol. 1: pp. 239-258.