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Sad state of medieval history?

And a few new voices

Sad state of medieval history?
Dr Azfar Moin and Dr Manan Ahmed Asif

Medieval history has somehow fallen out of the equation in the overall educational discourse of Pakistan. A steep decline is evident in the quest for classical knowledge and languages among the literati as well as among history students.

A couple of generations ago, one could find a few luminaries in the universities sufficiently equipped with the knowledge of Persian and Arabic and proficient in English as well. Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, Aziz Ahmed, S.M. Ikram, Sheikh Rashid, K.K. Aziz and Prof. Aslam were only a few of those in whom classical and modern epistemic and cognitive trends converged. History teachers of succeeding generations rarely, if ever, opted to teach medieval history, and when they did they did so from sources put together by colonial historians. Thus Stanley Lanepoole, Percival Spear, James Mill, Elliot & Dowson and Elphinstone and some others of their ilk provided us with the prism with which to make sense of our own pre-modern history.

The dawn of Jadunath Sarkar’s era (1870-1958), a prominent Indian Bengali aristocrat and historian, brought a communal angle into Indian historiography which atomised the discourse of history. Jadunath’s analysis of the Mughal downfall reeked of a one-dimensional and facile understanding of the medieval period of Indian history, which was to have a pervasive impact. This impact of course was palpable on the history books written by Ishwari Parshad, Tiripathi, Tara Chand and V.D. Mahajan.

Interestingly their books have, until quite recently, been prescribed for undergraduate and graduate students as mandatory texts. The umpteen pirated editions of these books were printed and circulated in Pakistan without impunity. As a parenthesis, it is pertinent here to mention that in India, with the emergence of such historians as Romilla Thapar and Irfan Habib, the influence of Jadunath Sarkar has been dispelled to a certain extent.

However the trend of reading these historians continued even after the Pakistani government commissioned a book, A History of Pakistan edited by Ishtiaq Hussain Qurashi in 1960s. That book also went on to atomise the history of India by looking at Hindus as the ‘Other’ and the Two Nation Theory as the underpinning principle for historical analysis.

Overall, the locally churned-out history was mostly sub-standard in the extreme, with only very few exceptions. Thus the view of medieval history which had ubiquity in the Pakistani milieu was formed either by the British or Indian historians. Indian Muslims, on the other hand, produced hagiographies and tazkiras. No one has ever bothered to deconstruct the imperialist mode of history which has been fed to us constantly for almost 150 years. A communal trajectory coupled with theological literalism is what punctuates our historical sensibility.

Ruminating over these deep-seated misgivings about the state of medieval history in Pakistan, I travelled to United States early this month. My misgivings were allayed when I met Dr Manan Ahmed Asif whom I have mentioned in one of my previous columns. Manan started off as a science student at F.C. College but subsequently switched to history, and obtained his PhD from University of Chicago. He now teaches at Columbia University. Thoroughly well-versed in classical Persian, he seems to have set himself the task of affording a fresh reading to medieval history. He is currently working on two manuscripts, and one hopes that when published they will usher in a volte-face in our collective (mis)perception of medieval history.

Meeting and conversing with Dr Azfar Moin, in Austin Texas (University of Texas) was particularly re-assuring. A medievalist of phenomenal promise, Dr Azfar earned his PhD from the University of Michigan and now works at the University of Austin, Texas. His book The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam, was published by Columbia University Press in 2012 and not only did it immediately gain scholarly attention, but also won an award. This book sets at rest many stereotypes that we have nurtured and adhered to very closely, particularly when the author interrogates the conceptions of “Islamic” and “sacred” in the pre-modern age.

According to his assertion, “Islamic” was not confined exclusively to notions of Sharia and Jihad. Similarly the author underlines ‘the origins of Timur’s messianic image so as to situate the ruler in a historical and religious framework, even though the origins of his claims were not entirely or solely Islamic’. His assumption of the title ‘Lord of Conjuction’ which had no necessary basis in Islamic tradition but which had significant meaning in astrology, ‘served as a deeply sacred category of sovereignty for Muslims and non-Muslims alike’. Other ‘Lords of Conjunctions’ the author reveals, were Hazrat Hamza (Uncle of the Holy Prophet), Hazrat Ali and such historical personalities as Alexander and also Chinggis.

All said, astrology was of seminal importance, and through astrological calculations the King’s messianic and saintly sovereignty was determined and fostered. One must not get the impression, however, that Timur’s sovereignty and Islam had no nexus at all. The book presents a much broader representation of Islam in the era contemporaneous to Timur, and such discursive pattern remained widely pervasive until the onset of the modern age. Similar claim was also made by the Mughal king Akbar.

The foremost inference that can be drawn from the book is the composite and all-powerful nature of the sovereign in whose person the sacred/spiritual and the secular converged. Thus the autonomous existence of the spiritual/sacred domain from the political was the impression that gained currency after the onset of modernity. Then the notion of ‘Islamic’ was not necessarily punctuated by Sharia. Instead it encompassed the spatial and temporal exigencies and astrological calculations played a vital role as a determinant of what constituted as ‘Islamic’.

To conclude, one may argue that The Millennial Sovereign has not only exploded the entrenched stereotype by calling into question the seminality of Sharia  as the defining feature of the ‘Islamic’, it has given a fresh inflection to the existing perception shaped by the usual texts of the medieval history. One hopes that a low-priced edition of this book is also printed in Pakistan soon where it is needed the most.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • I feel that placing Tara Chand in the same group with Ishwari Prasad is highly erroneous.

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