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Urdu Historiography: Trends, Challenges and Prospects

By Ikramul Haque

The practice of history writing in the Urdu language began quite late, as Urdu prose itself was of a recent growth, which had acquired a refined literary complex in the Fort William College at the turn of the eighteen century. The newly developed Urdu prose inherited the tradition of history writing in Persian. It borrowed heavily from them inasmuch as its form, expression, and approach were also fashioned by the medieval Persian chronicles. Initial Urdu works of Indian history, therefore, are marked largely by adaptations and translations of previous histories in Persian. The earliest examples of this kind are Araish-e mahfil [‘The Ornament of the Assembly’] of Mir Sher Ali Afsos of Fort William College (Calcutta, 1805) and a summary of Ghulam Husain Khan’s Siyarul Mutaakhkerin by Bakshish Ali Faizabadi (Delhi, 1840). Persian historical tradition dominated original works of history in Urdu too. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Asar-us sanadid [‘The Remnant Signs of Ancient Heroes’], a seminal work detailing the antiquities of Delhi, was written in the form of what Rosenthal calls as “local history”. Following Persian chroniclers’ descriptive, dynastic, and biographical approach to history, the book also gives in the end an account of Delhi’s poets, sufis, artists, musicians, etc., along with extracts from their writings.

It is interesting to know that the works in Urdu on Indian history by Muslims predate those in English. First works in English on medieval Indian history by Muslims appeared, according to Peter Hardy, in the 1920s, while there had already developed a flourishing scholarship in Urdu from the middle of nineteenth century and continued to progress since then.

From the second half of the nineteenth century, an awareness of the western methods of history writing developed among Urdu writers, which was also evident in Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s works produced after the 1857 rebellion. His most important post-rebellion writing Asbab-i baghawat-i Hind [‘Causes of the Indian Revolt’], is believed to be the earliest example of historical treatment of a subject in Urdu language. Syed Ahmad Khan’s Khutabat-i Ahmadiya, a polemical biography of the Prophet Muhammad, written in 1870 in response to William Muir’s The Life of Mahomet, exemplifies adoption of a set of modern western practices of history writing such as ‘Reason and Nature’ as the criteria in assessing the literary sources.

The last three decades of the nineteenth century were crucial as far as the development of Urdu historiography is concerned. This period was marked by the emergence of a number of socio-religious reform movements as well as the nationalist struggle to free India from the colonial power. The predominant concern of Muslims during this period was to establish Islam as a scientific religion compatible with progress, western notions of liberty and modernity as well as to uplift socio-economic conditions of Muslims. Besides, the assault of Orientalist scholarship on Islam and its intellectual and cultural heritage had increased tremendously during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. These anxieties shaped the nature of Muslim Urdu writers’ engagement with the historical past.

The impact of this political and intellectual context on historical writings in Urdu was profound. Ideologically, it urged Urdu writers to establish the glory of Islamic culture and to regain pride in them. An “imperialistic attitude” came to dominate Urdu historians who, though acquainted with European methods of historical research, delved into the cultural achievements of Muslims in the past in order to highlight them. Early history of Islam in Arabia, political expansion under the Umayyad, and cultural achievements of the Abbasids figured as favorite themes of discussion in much of the books written in Urdu. The inevitable consequence of this sort of historical scholarship was a sense of alienation that grew amongst Muslims with regard to their historical root in India. Pride for extra-territorial affiliation with the land of origin of Islam swayed their imagination. History of India remained relevant to Muslims so long as it was seen as an extension of Arab Muslim state. Maulvi Zakaullah’s voluminous history of India in Urdu, called Tarikh-i Hindustan [The History of Hindoostan] (1890s), testify this fact. Zakaullah intended to write India’s history but he ended up writing a history of political Islam in India. The book begins with Muslims’ occupation of Sindh and describes the subsequent period of Muslim rulers following the dynastic pattern of Persian chroniclers.

Most notable exponent of such historical treatment was Allama Shibli, a colleague of Syed Ahmad Khan, who was trained in theology and Islamic sciences. He wrote, as part of a “Series of Great Personalities”, a number of historical biographies of the characters drawn from the history of Islam in the Middle East. Shibli’s Al-faruq, Al-mamun, Al-ghazali are accounts of the second caliph Umar, Abbasid caliph Mamun Rashid and the eleventh century Iranian mystic-philosopher Ghazali respectively. These historical tracts were written for highlighting the intellectual and cultural achievements of Islam at different points in history. Again, Shibli’s Aurangzeb Alamgir Par Ek Nazar [An Account of Aurangzeb’s Life] was a crucial intervention in historiography, which tried to rediscover the emperor by foregrounding the principle of objectivity. He also wrote a number of articles, collectively published in eight volumes as Maqalaat-i Shibli [Shibli’s Treatises], in which he essentially refuted the points made by Orientalists against Islam and presented Islamic civilization as the representative of the most scientific stage of human evolution. It should be noted that Shibli was the first Urdu historian of India’s Muslim past, who employed with tremendous accuracy western methods of historical enquiry in his research. Although he believed the hadith an important source of information for the history of early Islam, his concept of dirayat (investigation of sources on the basis of reason and cross-verification of testimony) allowed him to reject corpus of miraculous events and uncorroborated legends embedded within the Islamic literature. His unfinished work, Sirat-al Nabi, historical biography of the Prophet, best exemplifies this approach.

This intellectual context produced a plethora of historical literature in Urdu, dealing largely with the period of Indian history, called “Medieval India”, along with a general focus on the history of early Islam in Arabia and its subsequent arrival to India. The team of scholars influenced by Shibli’s historical methodology and trained at Darul Musannefin, also called Shibli Academy, in Azamgarh, under the guidance of Shibli’s able disciple and notable Islamic scholar, Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, continued this legacy and produced a number of books on the history of early Islam, the Muslim states of medieval period, the role of ulama and sufis in the making of India’s cultural heritage.

Of several accomplished scholars of Darul Musannefin, called rafiq [friend] was Syed Sabahuddin Abdur Rahman. He published over two dozen books and hundreds of articles on various themes, particularly cultural and literary achievements of Muslims in the past. Two of his monumental works are Bazm-i Taimuriya, history of cultural achievements of the Mughals, and Bazm-i Sufiya, an account of sufis of the Delhi Sultanate. Unlike Shibli and Nadvi’s focus on early Islamic history, Sabahuddin paid more attention to the history of Islam in India. The characteristic feature of his work was to highlight Indian Muslims’ contribution to Islamic culture in general and Indian culture in particular. It was partly an attempt to rediscover the “collective self” during the post-partition era when the Muslims were faced with political insecurity. While dispelling the allegation that Muslim kings were unjust, anti-Hindu or religious fundamentalists, he reflected the approach of the nationalist historians and sometimes defended the religio-political policies and administrative measures of Muslim rulers, to the point of being apologetic. It is, however, unfortunate that his works are yet to be recognized by the university-based scholarly community.

With the national freedom struggle gaining strength and mass support from the 1920s against the Raj, Urdu historiography also took a new turn. Hindu-Muslim unity was the most popular phrase during this period. It was suggested that history should be written in such a fashion that it might strengthen friendly relations between the two communities. Although Urdu writings approaching Indian history with this nationalist framework are few, Urdu writers were also convinced that, as Syed Sulaiman Nadvi asserted, “the present communal conflict is largely the result of wrong teaching of history, and so a great responsibility now rested on the historians.” Of this group, Sulaiman Nadvi was the leading historian who published in 1931 his Arab O Hind Ke Ta’alluqat [Indo-Arab Relations], a collection of his papers on the long history of close contact and cooperation between Arabia and India. Hindustani Qaumiyyat aur Qaumi Tahzib [Indian Nationalism and National Culture], an account of India’s syncretistic tradition, by Abid Hussain also reflects the nationalist spirit.

A number of writings in Urdu on “Modern India”, one of the periods of Indian history, highlighting the vagaries of the British Empire in the late eighteen and nineteen centuries as well as eulogizing natives’ resistance to colonial oppression also appeared during this period. One could also mention Muhammad Banglori’s Tarikh-i Sultanat-i Khudada. It is the history of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan which depicts them as heroes who fought against the foreign power. Pandit Sundarlal’s Hindustan me Angrezi Hukumat [The English Government in Hindoostan] is an anti-British account. It is the only historical work in Urdu by a non-Muslim scholar. Tarikh-i Hind (Ahd-i Halia) and Tarikh-i Dakan (Ahd-i Halia) are two important books by Yusuf Hussain. The former, published in 1939, is a history of India from the consolidation of East Indian Company up to 1939, while the latter a history of modern Deccan.

There is hardly any original work of history on India’s pre-Islamic period in the Urdu language. The only historical work in Urdu that gives a narrative of what is called “Ancient India” is the multi-volume Tarikh-i Hind [The History of Hind] by Syed Hashmi Faridabadi. Initiated at the behest of Osmania University, the work had started appearing in 1921 and came to an end in 1929.

In India, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) had come up with the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) in 1996 in order ‘to promote, develop and propagate Urdu language’. One of the prime objectives of the NCPUL is to make available in Urdu “the knowledge of scientific and technological development as well as knowledge of ideas evolved in the modern context.” To this end, the agency started publishing translations of the original works pertaining to all aspects of Indian history. Medieval Persian accounts of great significance were also translated into Urdu. There are two remarkable achievements of the NCPUL. First, dissemination of the modern knowledge of Indian history to a large section of Urdu speaking Indians. Second, it enriched the Urdu historiography in immeasurable ways as the Urdu articles and books of history afterwards were influenced and informed by newly translated knowledge. That the Urdu historiography concerned with and focused more on medieval Muslim past is reflected in the selection of books translated; maximum being on medieval India and fewer on ancient India. However, the success of this initiative is immense as several of these works have been published twice, thrice or even four times so far.

There are certain problems central to the development of Urdu historiography in recent times. First, not enough good and original works of history are being produced, though they are in demand. It is true that unlike other vernaculars, particularly Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Malayalam, Urdu readership has declined which has perhaps led to the minimal production of history books in Urdu. Part of the problem, however, lies in Urdu writers’ unfamiliarity with recent findings, thus making their works outdated and redundant for an aspiring Urdu speaking generation. Second, the attitude of scientific enquiry of the past based on modern methodology has yet to develop among Urdu historians, who are considered to be biased, rightly so, in favour of Islam and Muslims. Although early scholars of the Darul Musannefin showed an awareness of modern methods of historical research by publishing articles on various aspects of history of Islam in India in the Academy’s monthly journal Ma’arif, which has been in circulation since 1916. However, recent research activities of the Academy have failed to keep up with that tradition. Third, a skewed focus of Urdu historiography on Islamic or medieval Muslim “glorious past” must give way to a more general narrative of Indian history including history of pre-Islamic India. It will provide Urdu-speaking people an access to a body of knowledge for which they generally rely on books in English and Hindi. Fourthly, Urdu language requires reformation so as to bear and express modern clusters of thought emerging in different field of social sciences. First round of reform in Urdu language was carried out by the intellectuals of Osmania University in the early 1920s to make it suitable for scientific knowledge. Given the enormous growth in the social sciences in the last thirty years, it is necessary to arm Urdu with suitable vocabulary that could express the complexities involved in concepts and philosophical systems.

Ikramul Haque
is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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