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A forgotten leaf of Medieval history — II

Three strengths of Abul Fazal

A forgotten leaf of Medieval history — II

History embodies the knowledge of mankind, other singularities of human existence, and consoles the unfortunate and the grieved — Abul Fazal

In Abul Fazal’s Akbar Nama and Ain-i-Akbari, Indian historiography saw a visible departure from the previous methods employed during the Sultanate period. In this regard, three aspects of Abul Fazal’s works of history are worth our appreciation.

First, he used a rationalist approach to history, which was unique in that day and age. One can say that he pioneered rationalism in the local-medieval epistemology. For him, reason has central importance to realise the Truth: “Realisation of Truth, which is the goal of human life, can be achieved only by the light of reason, and reason is nourished by a study of the past.” Thus, he seems to have necessitated rationality as a perennial attribute of history. He considered history, “a unique pearl of science which quiets perturbations, physical and spiritual, and gives light to the darkness external and internal.”

Abul Fazal’s emphasis on rationality as a guiding principle for human life goes on to contradict the long-held view of ‘reason’ having its origin in the West. According to that assertion, it was by way of Colonialism only that India came to adopt rationality, and there were no traces of rationality in the socio-cultural tradition of the subcontinent. That is one big reason why Colonialism is considered benevolence in disguise for Indian people, who otherwise could not have ventured out of medievality.

It is unfortunate that many among our literati consider medieval age essentially irrational, implying that those were the dark ages. One may argue here that it is through Abul Fazal’s works that we can lay claim to rationality stemming from local epistemic tradition. That can help us know alternative traditions of knowledge which have indigenous moorings. One historian contends that “among medieval historians Abul Fazal alone can lay claim to a rational, secular and liberal approach to history”.

The second aspect that is of considerable significance is Abul Fazal’s attention to details. He took incredible pain to ascertain the veracity of the fact before including it into the narrative. Therefore, we can consider him a precursor of Leopold Von Ranke — a Prussian historian of 18th century who enjoys an elevated status of ‘the father of modern history-writing’ — in some sense. Abul Fazal made extensive use of the collection of original sources; their critical scrutiny was the most advanced and novel attempt so far made in Indian history-writing. The well-organised Imperial record office established in 1574-75 was at his disposal, including the considerable material already collected for the Tarikh-i-Alfi.

Besides, Abul Fazal’s extreme fastidiousness can be gauged by the fact that he revised the original draft of Akbar-Nama five times before submitting it to Akbar. He procured copies of the orders earlier issued to provincial governors and other eminent officers. Dignitaries of state and other well-informed persons were called upon to write down their reminiscences and dispatch them to the Court. He made persistent enquiries from old servants and attendants of the Court and discussed events with officers involved. He indeed had all those privileges of access to the original sources and the ears of everybody of some consequence in the Imperial Court, which must have made things quite convenient for him.

Having said that, one cannot deny the talent and diligence Abul Fazal was endowed with. It will not at all be easy to refute Sreedharan’s conclusion about him, which goes on to state, “No historian in India so far had been so insistent on the need for historical methodology and none brought it to such perfection as Abul Fazal”.

The third characteristic of Abul Fazal’s history writing is his broadening of Indian history’s scope. I have no qualms in stating that after Abu Rehan Al Beruini, Abul Fazal was the only historian who made close and meticulous study of Indian social classes his subject of study. He left an account not only of the political institutions and administrative arrangements of north India in the sixteenth century, but a description of the country and the manners, customs and popular beliefs of the local masses.

He did not confine himself to Muslim Kings and nobility (Ashraf) as his focus of historical enquiry. Hindus and Jains were the pre-eminent part of his study, a fact that accords Abul Fazal a unique status among the historians of Medieval India. Through his historical narrative, he tried his best to bridge the gap and the religio-cultural differences between the Hindus and Muslims. He categorically refuted the claims of the ulema that Hindus were kafirs or mushrik. He went on to establish Hindus as believers in One God.

Also read: A forgotten leaf of Medieval history

All said and done, it was for the first time that the governed classes found a representation of sorts through the works of Abul Fazal. N.A. Siddiqi writes, “He refused to agree with the view held by his predecessors that Indian history essentially constituted a record of the struggles between the forces of Islam and Hinduism. For Abul Fazal the conflict was between the Mughal Empire and the Indian princes, Hindu and the Muslim alike.” Athar Abbas Rizvi considers both of Abul Fazal’s works of history as extraordinary pieces of Persian prose. Undoubtedly, his inimitable grand style is much admired by the orientalist scholars for the force of words, the structure of sentences and stylistic elegance.

It is obvious that Abul Fazal wrote these monumental works at the behest of the Emperor. So expecting objectivity the way it is perceived in the era of modernity amounts to asking a bit too much from a medieval historian. In eulogising his master, he at times bade farewell to reason and tended to associate miraculous powers and attributes to Akbar. He is also being said to be the main architect of Din-Illahi along with his father Sheikh Mubarak and brother Abul Faizi, but that is a subject of study that needs a separate series of columns. (Concluded)

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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