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.