Sunday April 14, 2024

A walk through history

By Mubarak Ali
November 25, 2018

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is remembered as an educationist and religious scholar who took a keen interest in the social and political affairs of his time. He had a deep understanding of history as he had witnessed the downfall of the Mughal Empire.

He belonged to Mughal nobility and had, therefore, observed the crises and problems within his class. He wrote ‘Seerat-e-Faridiya’, a biography of his maternal grandfather who had served as the prime minister at the Mughal court. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s maternal grandfather made attempts to improve the Mughal Empire’s finances.

This was a difficult time for the Mughal Dynasty. It had lost all its financial resources and received a small stipend from the East India Company that wasn’t sufficient to maintain the lifestyles of the royal family and the families of the Mughal princes. Unfortunately, the efforts made by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s maternal grandfather didn’t provide enough resources. ‘Seerat-e-Faridiya’ is an important document that helps us understand the process of decay within the Mughal Empire.

‘Asar-ul-Sanadid’ is another book by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan on the historical monuments of the medieval period. Sir Syed was an inhabitant of Delhi and had a sentimental attachment to its streets, bazaars and festivals. He painstakingly surveyed each monument and collected material on it. The book is admired by scholars and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh.

‘Asar-ul-Sanadid’ is still regarded as an authentic text on the historical monuments of Delhi. In this book, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan revived the glory and grandeur of Delhi’s dilapidated buildings that had lost their historicity. His description of Shah Jahanabad pulled the city out of historical darkness and helped reconstruct the contours of its original shape. Chandni Chowk, which was the centre of cultural activities in Delhi, appeared again and people were seen thronging to its shops and spending their leisure time in the locality.

The importance of historical sources is that they kept the past alive. ‘Asar-ul-Sanadid’ reminded the inhabitants of Delhi of their forefathers who had witnessed the zenith of the Mughal Empire, faced invaders who looted and plundered the empire, and seen internal conflicts that impacted peace and security. By revisiting the final days of the Mughal Empire, when the British practically ruled over the city, Delhi’s inhabitants were able to experience the sadness and sorrow of the Mughal Empire’s decline.

In addition, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s interest in history grew over time and he edited many important books on medieval India. One of these books was Ziauddin Barani’s ‘Tarikh-e-Feroz Shahi’ that provides useful information about the sultans of Delhi. This book is not only a political history, but also contains details about changes within society through which the artisan classes became wealthier and surpassed the upper classes. This is why Barani criticised them and urged rulers not to appoint them on high administrative posts despite their talents.

The possible relevance of this book in Sir Syed’s time was that it showed how the old Mughal nobility had lost its talent and was no longer in a position to adjust to the new circumstances. Those who didn’t belong to the nobility were gaining education and competing for jobs. Sir Syed perhaps wanted to advise the Mughal elite to change their mentality, recognise the changing circumstances, and get an education to hold the prestige and honour of their class. His supposed motive was that the age of dynastic privileges was over, and people now had to compete in order to gain acceptance.

The other book that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan printed was ‘Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri’, the autobiography of Mughal emperor Jahangir. Another book was part of ‘Akbarnama’ known as ‘Ain-i-Akbari’, written by Abdul Fazal. This book contains details about the administrative structure of the Mughal Empire. It includes information about every department of the administration, such as court ceremonies, royal encampments, royal kitchens, royal libraries, the department for artists and calligraphers, stables for horses, Mughal harems, and the income of the state. Akbar, the Mughal emperor, was quite innovative. He fixed the rules and regulations of each department and appointed a competent staff to oversee its activities.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan also prepared illustrations of musical instruments that were used in the Naqar Khana (music gallery) for this version of ‘Ain-i-Akbari’. He asked Mirza Ghalib to write a preface for the book. Although Mirza Ghalib agreed to write the preface, he simultaneously criticised Sir Syed’s efforts to bring out a book on the rules and regulations of the past that had lost all relevance in the present. Therefore, Ghalib advised Sir Syed to focus on British laws and the existing administrative setup that was relevant to the modern period.

Ghalib’s attitude strained ties between both figures. He was a poet, not an historian. He didn’t understand the importance of ‘Ain-i-Akbari’ at a time when the East India Company and its officials were attempting to defame the Mughal Empire. Sir Syed wanted to show that the Mughal state wasn’t backward and had ruled the Subcontinent in an organised and successful manner.

Realising the importance of Mughal historical sources, the East India Company had them translated into English. As a result, ‘Ain-i-Akbari’ was also translated into English by Heinrich Blochmann, a German scholar of Persian language and Headmaster of Madras-i-Aali, Calcutta. The translation is widely used by researchers and scholars. It is an authentic document that helps us understand the workings of the Mughal Empire. Therefore, Sir Syed should be given credit for editing and publishing ‘Ain-i-Akbari’.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.