In review - Review essay

Gujarati sandals in Baghdad: Decolonising history

Updated Dec 19, 2016 04:19pm

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A lithograph of a Sindhi woman, a priest and a soldier by James Atkinson | *Karachi Under the Raj: 1843 - 1947*
A lithograph of a Sindhi woman, a priest and a soldier by James Atkinson | Karachi Under the Raj: 1843 - 1947

In his monumental Arabic work, Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems, the famous 10th century historian and geographer Abu’l Hasan al-Mas‘udi tells us that the town of Cambay, a busy northern Indian Ocean port of Gujarat, was well known in his native metropolis of Baghdad. But Mas‘udi speaks very specifically here — the busy port town, which he visited, was familiar to people in the Abbasid capital because of the fine sandals it produced and exported. Gujarati sandals in Baghdad? Yes, this little piece of real-life reporting is intriguing, but it is historically significant too. It is significant for opening up many vistas for us, and these vistas bring before our eyes glimpses of medieval India, more than 200 years after the entry of young Muhammad bin Qasim into Sindh.

We note that Cambay is a bustling port of maritime trade, so recognised also by Marco Polo towards the end of the 13th century. We see, moreover, that the Arabian world is linked to India, not only in terms of the Arabian Sea trade, but this linkage also involved the active exchanges of peoples; here we recall the historical accounts that the slain Sufi Ibn Mansur Hallaj, too, was one of the many Arab personages to visit India, Sindh in particular. And Mas‘udi’s report is intriguing because it is hard to imagine, in our own times, a burgeoning export industry of leather goods not so far from and connected to Sindh, introducing two medieval nodes of the Islamic world, Gujarat and Iraq, to each other.

Indeed, this lived geography, this experiential observation, this first-hand perception of real people with their hearts beating in real space and time — it is this that constitutes one of the pillars on which Manan Ahmed Asif builds his painstaking, impassioned, and at times even intimately personal discourse on this fateful and ever-present text: the Chachnama. This rather brief Persian text, written in the early 13th century by one ‘Ali Kufi, is invoked as an authority, following a time lag, in numerous subsequent histories written in India; it is drawn upon in universal histories; it echoes all over in colonial reconstructions of India’s past; its shadows are cast in the neat European periodisation of the subcontinent’s temporal vicissitudes since ancient times; and its chimes ring loud in the familiar Two-Nation Theory that provided the doctrinal grist to the mill of the Pakistan movement.

The perennial career of the Chachnama is a fascinating fact, not only of textual history, but also of political and ideological history. There exists ample testimony that its sustained presence on the intellectual and colonial horizons explains much; its presence has a massive historical valence. And now, some eight hundred years after the life of Kufi’s tract began, during which it was appropriated in diverse directions by all kinds of scholars, ideologues and by imperial servants of the East India Company, Asif takes on in his book the ambitious task of hitting at the very foundations of this appropriation, reception, and understanding of the Chachnama. This is a monumental task and one stands in awe of Asif’s research stamina and his refreshing historical acumen. To scale and, in the process, aim to crack and then pulverise the hardened rock of ages is no mean feat.

From *Views in Affghaunistan*, a series of lithographs based on the drawings of Sir Keith Alexander Jackson | *Karachi Under The Raj: 1843-1947*
From Views in Affghaunistan, a series of lithographs based on the drawings of Sir Keith Alexander Jackson | Karachi Under The Raj: 1843-1947

It is true that in the past we do see scholars in Sindh who have paid attention to the text of the Chachnama. Thus, around the turn of the 20th century, we have Mirza Kalichbeg Fredunbeg, an employee of the British Raj in Hyderabad, who, in a milieu drenched with colonialism, translated the text from Persian into English, dedicating it somewhat ironically to Henry Evan Murchison James, Sindh’s commissioner at the time. Then, there is this rather rigorous work of Nabi Bakhsh Khan Baloch (popularly known as N A Baloch), who made an annotated critical edition of the Chachnama, published from Islamabad in 1983. But despite their trained scholarly eyes, neither Fredunbeg nor Baloch could see what Asif has been able to see in his book to which he gives the title, A Book of Conquest, the title hiding an irony as we shall see. The reason for the handicap of our elders is that they were locked as prisoners in the closed chamber of their methodological stance, their view having been blocked by the petrified tradition of the way the Chachnama had been read since the time when the East India Company official, Alexander Dow, produced his History of Hindostan in London, first in 1768 and then a second edition in 1772.

There are moments when A Book of Conquest feels practically like a fictive reconstruction, a work of creative writing that reminds us, for example, of stories by Sa‘adat Hasan Manto, especially Toba Tek Singh.

But what is Asif able to see? And how did he gain this eyesight? Before turning to this central question, here are a few observations to construct the backdrop. To begin with, one notices the multiple identities of his book – its many stylistic and substantive faces that come before us and go – and we are left wondering in the moments that intervene. Is it a book of history, plain and simple, since it sometimes reads like one? But, then, at other times, it seems to deliver sounds of the author’s intimate whispers in a biographical mode, speaking about his long walks in and around Uch where the Chachnama was written, recalling his Cholistan desert contemplations, sharing with us his reimaginings of the pulsating lived space of bygone days, gathering for us the yields of his solitude in all its creative richness, telling us about his conversations with friends and strangers — so is it a biography of sorts?

The answer is not easy because there are moments when A Book of Conquest feels practically like a fictive reconstruction, a work of creative writing that reminds us, for example, of stories by Sa‘adat Hasan Manto, especially Toba Tek Singh. Recall that Manto’s story is set in a lunatic asylum, where people considered insane wonder whether Toba Tek Singh is in Pakistan or in India. It makes no sense to these madmen that barbed wires were erected overnight, dividing up a land across which they and their forefathers could move freely — now new borders are brought into being, and those on this side become outsiders on that side, overnight. Some inmates go into a state of denial, others protest. Speaking empirically, this cutting up of traditionally continuous lived space is a man-made phenomenon of a political and colonial kind; such divisions have no historical or ontological stability.

A lithograph of a Sindhi man and his attendants by James Atkinson | *Karachi Under the Raj: 1843 - 1947*
A lithograph of a Sindhi man and his attendants by James Atkinson | Karachi Under the Raj: 1843 - 1947

To be sure, the pressures of creating new identities in manufactured geographies, and forging new relationships in imposed social rearrangements — these have been excruciating and devastating episodes of world history. Now when, inspired by an ordinary resident of Uch who stands on the periphery of the mainstream “liberal” society, Asif distinguishes between “outside histories” and “an inner truth”, what is he doing? Is he not, like Manto, creating an alternative universe in which colonial discontinuities and coercive social disruptions are obliterated?

Such obliterations, together with the multiple faces of the book, are in fact the ingredients that, along with others, constitute its novel methodological framework. Asif swings between three poles: that of constructed history, and this means embodiments of colonial ideological narratives; that of relatively reliable and often authenticated history culled from primary sources and extant material culture; and that of what he calls “inner truth”, which lives either in the hearts of real people or is reconstructed in the historian’s imagination. In other words, our author moves between both manifest and hidden sources, between both the factual and the fictive.

The perennial career of the Chachnama is a fascinating fact, not only of textual history, but also of political and ideological history.

As is predictable, Asif dismisses colonial narratives — and he does so on compelling and cogent grounds. Then, when he writes about history qua historian, he attempts to rehabilitate primary sources in their lived milieu, and here one might find the very core of his methodological stance. It is for this reason, it seems, that, while moving around this core, he harks back to, for example, Mas‘udi whose Gujarati sandals report is cited in the book. Mas‘udi brings back to Asif the moist winds of the Arabian Sea — winds blowing in lived space, not manufactured space. In fact, our author goes even further back to 9th century figures, such as the historian Baladhuri and the geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih. Finally, the hidden is unveiled through conversations with the residents of Uch, in its many shrines, and through the informed vision of historical contemplation.

But again: what is Asif able to see that had remained in obscurity from the sight of his predecessors? To answer this question, we need to return to the Chachnama, written around 1226 by an author who worked under the patronage of the Qabacha royal court in Uch. Asif explains the career of the text lucidly:

“[T]his thirteenth-century Persian text became, in colonial understanding, a history of Muslim origins. … My examination of a specific medieval past shows how the origins narrative came to determine the limits of historical inquiry and the paths it has foreclosed. …For hundreds of years, [the Chachnama] has been understood to be a work of translation into Persian from an earlier eighth-century history written in Arabic.”

It is reiterated emphatically and repeatedly in the book that the Chachnama has been used over the centuries, over and over again, to construct and to promote and to authenticate the chronic narrative of the foreignness of Islam in India. Asif writes:

“At its barest this narrative asserts that Islam is fundamentally Arabian and hence, geographically foreign to India. The outsider origin of the faith makes its adherents outsiders too. … [According to this narrative,] there are a number of points of origins [of Islam in the Subcontinent] — one is in the eighth-century campaigns from Arabia to Sind under Muhammad bin Qasim; another is in the eleventh-century campaigns from Ghazni to Gujarat under Mahmud of Ghazni; another is the sixteenth-century Campaign from Kabul to Delhi by Zahiruddin Babar. These multiple points of origins act as constant renewals of foreignness in this story, and, paradoxically, these diverse renewals feed a monolithic, ahistorical, atemporal Islam in India.”

A lithograph from the *Sketches in Scinde* series, based on the drawings of Lietenant William Edwards | *Karachi Under The Raj: 1843-1947*
A lithograph from the Sketches in Scinde series, based on the drawings of Lietenant William Edwards | Karachi Under The Raj: 1843-1947

For all of this, the Chachnama served as the primary testimonial. Now after burning down the colonial “originary” and conquest narratives that are built upon the authority of the text, and after throwing into sharp perspective the epistemological dislocations engineered by the imperial project of the East India Company, Asif repositions the text into its own living context. So begins what he calls an “unreading” of the text and the reckoning of the “ill-effects of unmooring the Chachnama from the Uch of the thirteenth century”.

In the process, the author brings into focus the connectedness of the Islamic world at the time of Kufi — the connectedness of India to the Arabic world on the one hand, as we noticed in Mas‘udi’s account, and to Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran, on the other. There were, we are made to recall, linked nodes of urban centres — namely, Samarqand, Bukhara, Ghazni, Ghur, Kabul, Multan, and Lahore; Uch, Mansura, Makran, Diu, and Cambay were then, too, connected to Aden and Muscat on the one end and to Lahore and Kabul on the other. This was the lived space of the time; and there, indeed, existed a vibrant intellectual and textual context of the Chachnama. For example, Asif reminds us that the historians Muhammad ‘Awfi and Minhaj Juzjani were also employed by the Qabacha court. Then there was a legacy of Sanskrit and Indic material that cannot be overlooked in rehabilitating the Chachnama into its own living world.

The author brings into focus the connectedness of the Islamic world at the time of Kufi — the connectedness of India to the Arabic world on the one hand, as we noticed in Mas‘udi’s account, and to Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iran, on the other.

Finally, we have the grand declaration of A Book of Conquest that the Chachnama is not a work of translation from Arabic, despite its own author’s claim to the contrary — this claim was only a trope to seek prestige for the tract. The Chachnama is not a conquest narrative about Islam’s origins in the subcontinent. On the constructive side, the Chachnama is a text of political theory: “[it] is a prescriptive text for a dialogical present for its thirteenth-century world and a political system that encompasses diversity in that present.” The implications of Asif’s pronouncements are earthshaking — they threaten to blow up the hard rock of the narrative that has been ruling over us for the past many centuries. Into its shattering aim, fall the colonial epistemologies that were cast in 18th century and espoused continuously onwards — constructed epistemologies that reverberated through the Pakistan movement down to Pakistani historians, such as Sheikh Mohammed Ikram and Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi. Asif found the vindication of his conclusions ultimately in the hearts of the people of Uch — this was the “inner truth”.

Let me now turn to some pedantic issues. The book could do with some heavy-handed copy-editing. While it announces that in its transliterations the text will retain the hamza (apostrophe) and the ‘ayn (reverse apostrophe) — this has turned into a mess. Sometimes these characters are transliterated, at times they are not, and this can happen in the same section; then, there are cases when they are embarrassingly confused in the typescript; and there exist other instances when they are misplaced (ta’rikh is a case in point where the hamza keeps changing its place). The famous name Miskawayh appears as “Miskawa”, both in the text and in the index. The Persian/Urdu/Arabic word Rufaqa’ is transliterated as Rufka. Irfan Habib and Muhammad Habib seem to have been confused in the index. It also seems that, due to incorrect vocalisation, malik is read as mulk (the two words being orthographically identical). Finally, one wonders if it is appropriate for a scholarly work to refer to Muhammad bin Qasim as “Qasim” and not “Bin/Ibn Qasim”.


This article was originally published in the Herald's November 2016 issue, under the headline "Decolonising history". To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi.