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March 10, 2020

The people’s historian


March 10, 2020

Dr Mubarak Ali tells us that there has not been much worthwhile research on the Arab era in Sindh in any of the languages including English, Sindhi, and even Urdu. The first contribution on the history of Sindh in Urdu was by Abdul Haleem Sharar and the second was from Abu Zafar Nadvi.

Later on, when I read both the books, I realized they had mostly quoted from ‘Chach Nama’ and Baladhuri’s ‘Futuh al-Buldan’; and while reading both the sources too, Dr Mubarak Ali’s points resonated. Analyzing the Mughal period in Sindh, Dr Mubarak Ali reviews 'Tareekh-e-Masoomi', 'Tareekh-e-Taheri', and 'Maasar-e-Raheemi' and also mentions Yousuf Mirak’s book 'Tareekh-e-Mazhar Shahjahani'. The Urdu translation of 'Tareekh-e-Masoomi' that I have was done by Akhtar Rizvi and published by Sindhi Adabi Board.

Dr Mubarak Ali wrote his booklets on the history of Sindh in the mid-1980s that I read in 1988. In the preface to his book on Arab period he promises as follows: “This book has been written under a scheme of the Sindh Research Society that plans to write [the] history of Sindh in 13 volumes so that people can get a better understanding of history.” Thirty-five years have passed and we don’t know if the Sindh Research Society or any other institute has written a 13-volume history of Sindh. But we are aware that he himself has penned dozens of books on various topics and has individually accomplished what even established institutions cannot do. Not that in Urdu nothing has been written on historiography.

Prof Saeed Akhtar’s Urdu book ‘Sarmaya-e-Tareekh’ (The wealth of history) gives an introduction to 18 Muslim historiographers praising them from Muhammad Ali bin Kufi to Ghulam Hussain Tabatabai. Just look at this: “The historical events presented in the Quran and the compilations of Arab Muslim historians have served as a guiding light and instructional material for the Muslim historians of the Indian subcontinent. To them this universe was a manifestation of God’s almighty powers and a solid phenomenon…We can indisputably assert about the Muslim historians of the Subcontinent that all of them believed in justice and always spoke truthfully. Documenting real events was their forte. They unmistakably raised their voice of truth in front of the rulers, and they were all without any prejudice and displayed an open heartedness.” (Page 11, 'Sarmaya-e-Tareekh' by Prof Saeed Akhtar published by Qaumi Kutub Khana Lahore).

His own expertise in historiography can be judged by the fact that no year of publication is mentioned anywhere in his book. Another Urdu book, ‘Fun-e-Tareekh Naveesi – from Homer to Toynbee’ (Art of Historiography – from Homer to Toynbee) written by Dr Sadiq Ali Gil of history department at Punjab University in 1993 was published by Publishers Emporium in Lahore.

This book is slightly better narrating in detail a history of histories. We may judge the historiographic inclination of the writer by the following lines: “After the partition of India when the Radcliff Award Report and the documents by Mountbatten appeared on the scene, it became clear how the English-Hindu collusion had damaged the territorial integrity of Pakistan.” (Page 5). On page 14 he goes on as follows: “One or few great personalities use their strong decision-making power, determination, impeccable memory, their actions and thoughts to change the direction of history.”

On page 15 he writes: “Great personalities, both men and women, thanks to their intelligence, qualifications, and bravery change the direction of social, economic, and political events. They control and influence the flow of events and leave the imprints of their own personality on the annals of history which knows very well all their names – Napoleon, Caesar, Confucius, Elizabeth, Washington, Roosevelt, and Jinnah all have shaped the event of their age in accordance with their own ideas and thoughts and created history in consonance with the surrounding atmosphere and accidents.” (Page 15, 'Fun-e-Tareekh Naveesi' by Dr Sadiq Ali Gil 1993).

By reading Dr Gil’s ideas about the English-Hindu collusion and about great personalities we can gather that he was also infected by the official and traditional narrative that we don’t find in Dr Mubarak Ali’s writings. It seems appropriate that to grasp the unique utility of his books, we discuss briefly a couple of books that other writers have written on historiography in Urdu and gauge their leanings. Another book that I have in my collection is 'Sarguzasht-e-Tareekh' by Imtiaz Ahmed Khan published by Urdu Academy Sindh Karachi in 1969.

About the book, the writer himself says: “In this book the muse of history, Madam Clio, tells us how people turned her into a philosopher; narrating in detail its own philosophy from the beginning to the present evolution (sic)”. The author has called his book 'Sarguzasht-e-tareekh': uski apni zabani (a tale of history in its own words). The title of the second chapter is ‘Who am I?’ and the third chapter asks: why was philosophy imposed on me? That’s how the writer tries to tell the story of history in a literary manner.

On page 23 he writes as history personified: “There are many types of me ie history, but I have had only three responsibilities: One, to condemn or eulogize people; two, teach lessons; and three, to entertain my readers.” While Dr Mubarak Ali gives importance to new explanations of history, Imtiaz Khan write on page 71 of his book that history has nothing to do with interpretations. “The biggest danger of an interpretation is that all explanations are affected by the interpreter. Every historian explains events not with his reasoning but by his emotion.” With this you can judge how different Dr Mubarak Ali’s historiography is from other writers in Urdu.

One last example from 'Tareekhut Tareekh' known as Elan bit Taubeekh written by Abdur Rahman al-Sakhavi nearly 600 years ago and was translated into Urdu by Dr M Yousuf of the Arabic department at Karachi University and published by Markazi Urdu Board Lahore in 1968. Dr Yousuf writes: “Muslims built the majestic building of historiography on very solid grounds. These were the foundations that were absolutely trustworthy to reason, and fulfilled all requirements of honesty and integrity.” When a translation of a history begins with these eulogies, you can hardly expect a critical view from it.

That is the main difference between Dr Mubarak Ali and other writers on these topics in Urdu. Returning to Dr Mubarak Ali’s books, which not only include his own writings but also his translations, that he kept doing without neglecting his own work. His booklet 'Imperialism Kya Hai' (What is imperialism?) published by Nigarishat Lahore in 1987, contains in addition to Dr Mubarak Ali’s essay, articles by Walter Rodney – a Guyanese historian who died at the age of just 38 in 1980 – Robert Cecil, and others. Another is ‘Sindh ki Samaji o Siyasi Tareekh’ (The social and political history of Sindh).

It narrates history as seen by European travelers from the 17th to 19th centuries and contains translations from Manrique and Manucci to Hamilton, Crow, Pottinger, and Alexander Prince. He has also edited books in English such as 'Sindh Analyzed', which contains writings by McMurdos and Delhouste. Dr Mubarak’s book ‘Bartanvi Raj’ (The British Raj) was also a good analysis published in 1999. In hardly a 100 pages he has condensed his analysis. In its preface he writes: “Whenever we analyze the past in the light of the present we see divergent viewpoints emerging. Our present-day perspective of the British Raj is quite different from viewpoint of the people living in that era.”

He says that even those observers would have changed their opinions today. As the present conditions change, our attitudes towards the past alter too. These new interpretation other historians overlook. If you still consider 'Chach Nama' and 'Futuh al-Buldan' as absolutely true, you make mistakes.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]