Distinctive features of Muslim history — III

Distinctive features of Muslim history — III


a’asir” is a multifaceted term in Islamic and Arabic literature. It encompasses a variety of significant aspects. Central to this concept are the hadiths, which are the sayings, actions and approvals of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

These hadiths serve as a vital source of guidance for Muslims, supplementing the Quran, and are meticulously documented to ensure their authenticity, playing a crucial role in Islamic jurisprudence and daily life. Additionally, ma’asir include detailed histories, chronicling past events related to the Islamic world, such as early Islamic conquests, the development of Muslim societies, biographies of significant figures and the evolution of Islamic thought and institutions.

Furthermore, ma’asir highlight memorable deeds of individuals or families, celebrating acts of bravery, scholarship, leadership or philanthropy that have left lasting impacts on communities or the broader society. These also encompass glorious traditions, reflecting the rich cultural, religious and social customs passed down through generations that form the collective identity and heritage of communities.

Worthy actions, including charitable acts, community service and the pursuit of knowledge, are also emphasised as commendable behaviours encouraged in Islamic teachings. Additionally, ma’asir cover the concept of creation, which refers to the natural world and the marvels of the universe as signs of God’s existence and power, as well as human creative expressions in literature, art and architecture inspired by faith.

Great creations, such as monumental architectural works, literary masterpieces and scientific advancements, stand as testaments to human ingenuity and divine inspiration. Lastly, signs and symptoms in ma’asir can indicate spiritual and moral health within individuals or society, referencing eschatological signs in Islamic theology or societal issues that need addressing.

In essence, ma’asir encapsulate a comprehensive view of human endeavour and divine influence, documenting and celebrating the rich tapestry of Islamic heritage and its contributions to the world.

Here are a few notable illustrations of ma’asir:

Ma’asir al-Umara: Written by Shah Nawaz Khan and Abdul Hayy, this historical work provides biographical sketches of notable nobles and courtiers of the Mughal empire. It offers detailed accounts of their lives, careers and contributions to the empire.

Ma’asir al-Salatin: Authored by Nur-ul Haq, this historical text focuses on the rulers and important figures of the Deccan sultanates, providing a comprehensive account of their reigns and significant events during their periods.

Ma’asir al-Mulk: This work, attributed to Amir Khusrau, chronicles the lives and deeds of the rulers of the Delhi sultanate. It serves as an important source for understanding the political and cultural history of the time.

Ma’asir-i-Rahimi: Written by Abdul Baqi Nihavandi, this biographical work documents the life and achievements of Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, a prominent noble and poet in the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar. It highlights his military campaigns, literary contributions and patronage of the arts.

Ma’asir-i-Jahangiri: This is an autobiographical work by Mughal Emperor Jahangir, detailing his own reign and significant events. It provides insights into the administration, culture and personal experiences of the emperor, making it a valuable source for historians.

Ma’asir-i-Alamgiri: Compiled by Muhammad Saqi Musta’id Khan, this historical text documents the reign of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. It covers various aspects of his rule, including his military campaigns, administrative measures, and religious policies.

Works like Ma’asir al-Umara serve as important historical sources, providing detailed biographical and historical accounts that contribute to our understanding of the respective periods and figures they describe. The next (sub) genre through which Indian Muslim history has expressed itself is Maktub.

Maktub is an Arabic word that translates to “it is written” in English. This term is often used to convey the idea that something is destined or predetermined. It is commonly used in the context of fate or the belief that certain events are meant to happen as part of a larger plan.

In the Levant, it also means “letter” or just plain “written down.” In the vast tapestry of Indian history, the art of letter writing, or maktub, emerges as a profound and often overlooked source of insight into the lives, beliefs and aspirations of Indian Muslims. Through the lens of maktub, we traverse the corridors of time, encountering tales of love, politics, spirituality and cultural exchange that have shaped the rich heritage of Indian Muslims.

So far as the medieval India is concerned, at the heart of maktub lies the deeply ingrained tradition of correspondence, a practice that transcends geographical boundaries and temporal constraints. From the illuminated manuscripts of medieval scribes to the humble ink-stained pages of colonial-era letters, each missive carries with it a fragment of history waiting to be unraveled.

Medieval Correspondence: In the medieval era, the art of maktub nigari flourished in the courts of sultans and emperors, where royal decrees, diplomatic missives and poetic exchanges were exchanged with meticulous care. The illustrated letters of Mughal emperors, such as Akbar and Shah Jahan serve as exquisite examples of this tradition, blending intricate calligraphy with vibrant miniature paintings to convey both reverence and authority.

Colonial Encounter: With the advent of colonialism, the landscape of maktub underwent a profound transformation, as Indian Muslims grappled with the challenges of modernity and foreign rule. Letters exchanged between reformist thinkers such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his contemporaries offer invaluable insights into this tumultuous period.

Sir Syed’s correspondence with British officials and fellow intellectuals reflects his dual commitment to Islamic revivalism and Western education, as he sought to navigate the complex currents of colonial discourse. Through his letters, we witness the emergence of new ideas and institutions that would shape the trajectory of Indian Muslim society in the decades to come, from the founding of Aligarh Muslim University to the promotion of Urdu as a lingua franca.

Partition and Independence: The partition of India in 1947 stands as a watershed moment in the history of Indian Muslims, marking the culmination of decades of political struggle and communal tension. Against this backdrop of upheaval and displacement, maktub emerges as a poignant testament to the resilience of the human spirit amidst adversity.

Letters exchanged between divided families, displaced refugees and visionary leaders such as Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad bear witness to the profound personal and political upheavals unleashed by partition. These missives, filled with longing, sorrow and hope, speak to the enduring bonds of kinship and solidarity that transcend the artificial boundaries of nation-states.

Contemporary Reflections: In the digital age, the tradition of maktub has undergone yet another transformation, as email, social media and other forms of electronic communication have come to dominate our daily lives. Yet, even in this fast-paced world, the spirit of maktub endures, as individuals continue to reach out across distance, forging connections and sharing stories in the timeless tradition of letter writing.

Through maktub, we glimpse the kaleidoscopic diversity of Indian Muslim history, from the heights of empire to the depths of partition, weaving together the threads of past and present into a vibrant tapestry of human experience. As we reflect on the legacy of maktub, let us remember the words of the Persian poet Hafez, who wrote, “The world is a letter from God, do not jump out of it.”

Maktub serves as a window into the soul of Indian Muslim history, revealing the hopes, dreams and struggles of generations past. As we unravel the secrets of these ancient letters, let us heed their timeless wisdom and embrace the enduring spirit of human connection that binds us all.

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

Distinctive features of Muslim history — III