Distinctive features of Muslim history — II

Distinctive features of Muslim history — II


aqay nawisi, or the art of chronicling events, holds a significant place in the historiography of Indian Muslim history. Derived from the Persian term waqa’i, meaning events or occurrences, waqay nawisi refers to the meticulous documentation of daily happenings, administrative orders, court proceedings and notable incidents in the realms of Indian Muslim rulers.

These records serve as a crucial source for understanding the socio-political and cultural landscapes of the times. Akbarnama written by Abu’l Fazl, is an exemplary work of waqay nawisi. This three-volume text narrates the history of Akbar’s reign, offering a detailed account of his conquests, administrative reforms and interactions with various cultures and religions.

A part of this mega piece of history is Ain-i-Akbari which serves as a primary source for understanding the Mughal Empire’s consolidation and expansion under Akbar.

Shah Jahan Nama, cmpiled by Inayat Khan, documents the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan. It provides a detailed narrative of his military campaigns, administrative measures and architectural achievements, including the construction of the Taj Mahal. The Shah Jahan Nama is an essential source for studying the Mughal Empire’s zenith and the cultural richness of Shah Jahan’s court.

Padshahnama, , written by Abdul Hamid Lahori, chronicles the reign of Emperor Shah Jahan with particular emphasis on his architectural projects and court life. This work is significant for its detailed descriptions of the construction of major monuments, including the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, offering a glimpse into the opulence and grandeur of Mughal architecture.

Alamgirnama: This chronicle, penned by Mirza Muhammad Kazim, covers the early years of Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign. It details his ascension to the throne, military campaigns and administrative policies, providing insights into his rule marked by extensive territorial expansion and strict adherence to Islamic orthodoxy.

Waqay nawisi, with its detailed records and firsthand accounts, serves as an indispensable source for historians studying Indian Muslim history. These chronicles offer a rich repository of information about the political, social and cultural dimensions of various periods. They provide detailed narratives of court life, governance, economic policies and interactions with other cultures and religions, thus painting a comprehensive picture of the times.

Moreover, waqay nawisi documents serve as primary sources that help historians verify and corroborate events mentioned in other historical texts. The meticulous nature of these records ensures that even minor details are preserved, offering valuable data for researchers studying the evolution of administrative practices, societal norms and cultural developments.

Waqay nawisi embodies the tradition of recording history with a keen eye for detail and accuracy. It stands as a testament to the rich historiographical heritage of Indian Muslims, preserving the legacy of their contributions to the subcontinent’s history and culture. Through these chronicles, contemporary readers and researchers can gain a deeper understanding of the complexities and achievements of Indian Muslim rulers and their times.

After waqay nawisi, tazkira appeared to me as an important source of historical expression in the medieval/ pre-modern era. Tazkira, a biographical anthology that illuminate the lives and legacies of prominent figures, plays a crucial role in uncovering the history of Muslim India. Etymologically, ta kirah is derived from an Arabic root meaning “to mention, to remember.”

Historically, the literary tazkirah grew out of the ubiquitous little “notebook” (bay z ) that lovers of poetry carried around with them for recording verses that caught their fancy. A typical notebook would include some verses by its owner, and others by poets living and dead, both Persian and Urdu.

Abul Kalam Azad kept just such a private notebook; it was published some years after his death. The concise two-line length of shi‘rs and the speed with which Urdu script can be written, make it possible to record such verses very conveniently and to memorise and recite them with ease. Lovers of Urdu poetry still frequently keep notebooks, and favourite verses still commonly circulate in conversation.

More serious, or more organised students might compile notebooks devoted only to certain kinds of poetry: to the work of living poets, for example, or the finest poets, or poets from a particular city, or women poets, or poets in a certain genre.

In a pre-print culture such compilations were of the greatest interest and value, for they were often the only means of preserving and disseminating poetry over time and space. There were, as we have seen, a great many occasional poets, but only a few of them were “possessors of a volume” (s hib-e d v n)—poets who had had a substantial body of their own poetry systematically collected and arranged for dissemination in manuscript form.

Compilers of notebooks were, thus, often moved to perform a public service by sharing their work with a wider circle. With the addition of a certain amount—sometimes a very small amount—of introductory or identifying information about the poets, a notebook could become a tazkirah. Tazkirahs circulated in manuscript form. When printing developed in North India they began to be printed as well.

The roots of tazkirah in the notebook tradition explain one of their most conspicuous traits: their individuality, their insouciance, the insistence of each one on defining its own approach to its own group of poets. As we might expect from their origins, the earlier ones tend to be more like anthologies, with only brief critical commentary and minimal information about the poets; later ones tend to include more extensive biographical data, anecdotal asides, and/ or critical comment. Even then, they are by no means consistent: if the compiler didn’t have certain information, or wasn’t interested in it, he simply didn’t provide it, and that was the end of the matter.

After all, if a poet had composed one or two good verses, it was a valuable and enjoyable task to preserve them, even if little or nothing was known about the poet. Sometimes, in an oral culture, even the poet’s pen name was lost—yet the worth of the verses themselves remained, along with the pleasure of reciting them and sharing them with others.

The idiosyncrasies of tazkirah can be clearly seen in their various styles of organisation. Although the majority had their contents arranged in alphabetical order by the first letter of each poet’s pen name, this scheme was by no means universal; no fewer than twenty out of the sixty-eight extant tazkirahs adopt other arrangements. The earliest three surviving tazkirahs (including a famous one by M r Taqi Mir) were all completed around 1752, present the poets in a largely random order.

Among the notable compilations are: Tazkira-i-Auliya (Tazkira of Sufis), authored by Amir Khusrau, which delves into the lives of Sufi adepts, particularly those affiliated with the Chishti order, offering profound insights into the spiritual and cultural impact of Sufism. Tazkira-i-Rekhta (Gulshan-i-Bekhaar) by Mirza Asad Ullah Khan Ghalib, renowned Urdu and Persian poet, provides intricate biographical sketches of poets and writers, accentuating their profound contributions to India’s literary heritage.

Tazkirat-ul-Abrar wa al-Ashrar, penned by Abdul Haq Dehlavi, documents the lives of virtuous and nefarious individuals, offering a nuanced moral perspective on historical events and personalities. Tazkira-i-Shuara-i-Urdu by Mohammad Hussain Azad, dedicated to Urdu poets, meticulously critiques their works, mirroring the evolution of Urdu poetry in the Indian context.

Tazkira-i-Hindustan by Syed Ghulam Ali Azad Bilgrami presents biographies of notable Indian figures, highlighting their intellectual and cultural contributions to the subcontinent. Tazkira-i-Khush Ma’ash authored by Anand Ram Mukhlis, focuses on poets and literary luminaries associated with the Mughal court, emphasising their enduring literary and cultural influence.

Tazkirat-ul-Khawaqeen by Muhammad Bakhtawar Khan provides invaluable insights into the rulers and nobles of the Mughal Empire, shedding light on the political landscape of the era. Tazkira-i-Azizi by Muhammad Baqir chronicles the lives of scholars, poets, and Sufis, underscoring their profound intellectual and spiritual contributions to Indian society.

Tazkira-i-Rahmani by Abdul Rahman Chishti offers detailed accounts of Sufi saints, elucidating their teachings and impact on India’s spiritual milieu. Tazkira-i-Sadiq by Shah Waliullah Dehlavi provides biographies of eminent scholars, emphasising their pivotal role in shaping the intellectual and spiritual landscape of Muslim India.

These tazkiras serve as invaluable resources for historians, offering rich biographical narratives, cultural contexts, and firsthand perspectives that enrich our understanding of Muslim India’s history. They stand as essential primary sources for reconstructing the lives, achievements and enduring contributions of notable individuals across diverse domains, including literature, politics, religion and culture.

(To be continued)

The writer is a professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Distinctive features of Muslim history — II