Looking at Silk Road as a source of connecting various Muslim locales
The Silk Road and Beyond: Narratives of a Muslim Historian is an addictive read. Iftikhar Haider Malik was trained as a historian at Michigan State University but in this book, he appears to have re-invented himself as a laureate. His prose is captivating and carries the reader with it until the concluding page of the book. The lucid manner of telling a tale is an aspect of the book that stands out.
When I sat down reading it, I expected it to be like The Silk Roads: A New History of the World and The New Silk Roads: The Present and the Future of the World, a two-volume book by Peter Frankopan; a dense, rich in facts plethora of historical and geographical details and a prodigiously long list of citations. But Prof Malik plans it differently. It is not academically dense but is far more readable. Written in an autobiographical mode, The Silk Road and Beyond projects the way a Muslim historian views Silk Road as a source of connecting various Muslim locales.
As author explicates, “the volume aims at initiating readers of diverse interests into encountering vibrant lives across the four continents where cultures share commonalities beyond the narrowly defined premise of conflicts.” Since the author has experimented by synthesising his lived experiences through visiting the cities around the Silk Road and furnished a detailed historical context and geographical significance which makes the narrative a pleasure to read and relish. But before casting an analytical gaze to the principal theme of the book, I will turn to the structure of the book, which to my reckoning is a bit atypical.
After the introduction, which is brief but pithy and comprehensive by way of summing up the main argument of the book, the main text of the book is divided into three disparate parts. Surprisingly, the first part comprises of three obituaries and his sojourn to his alma mater, Michigan State University, followed by an essay on the classical Persian poet Hafiz Shirazi, and a session devoted to him at Nehru Centre, London. Now, this part is visibly out of conjunction with the title and the principal theme of the book.
Within the first part of the book, consisting of 54 pages, there is hardly any commonality. However, all these obituaries and essays have their individual worth. Particularly the one written on Air Marshall Nur Khan which is highly informative, and the description of Potohar region, from where both the author and Nur Khan hail, is splendidly written. It was not known to me before reading this book that Nur Khan was a nephew to Nawab Amir Muhammad Khan of Kalabagh. Some of the personal details furnished about him by the author are noteworthy.
Importantly, the author tells us at length about the crusade that his elder sister had to wage to start a school for girls’ education. He also highlights the impediments and opposition from a feudal lord of the area, Muhammad Hayat Khan Tamman. The other two obituaries follow the same pattern. Being a prolific historian, the author very lucidly describes every aspect of the main protagonist of the narrative, Hakim Malik Muhammad Nawaz Khan and his teacher at Michigan, Harold Marcus.
It is a study of ten cities from Bokhara in Uzbekistan to Pisa and Sicily in Italy. The author claims that all these cities have been either directly connected to the Silk Road or were influenced by it.
The second part of the book Traversing the Silk Road is the central theme therefore the author devotes 234 pages to it. It is a study of ten cities from Bokhara in Uzbekistan to Pisa and Sicily in Italy. The author claims that all these cities have been either directly connected to the Silk Road or were influenced by it one way or the other. The influences that he traces are both economic, through trade and commerce, and civilizational, through scholars and sufis. He rightly emphasises the importance of Samarkand and Bokhara in spawning the cultural as well as the civilizational influence of the Muslims in South Asia, Persia, other regions of Central Asia and in certain parts of China. I think it is high time to tell the Muslim youth of those spectacles that these cities once had been.
Similarly, the importance of Jerusalem for the believers of the Semitic religions, particularly for Muslims, makes it remarkably interesting yet a contested site of study. I found the essay on Jerusalem extremely illuminating. Fez, Isfahan, Konya, and Cordoba also find space in this book. After reading all these essays the potency in the Perso-Turkic Muslim ethos was re-enforced in me. When we talk about Muslim civilisation then the fountainhead appears to be the regions around Silk Road. Muslims remained ascendant until these areas remained under their political suzerainty. Once they lost their grip, the decline set in.
I compliment the author for calling attention to the lost heritage of Muslims by drawing attention to Sicily and Pisa. I think it is commendable to bring such regions together under the ambit of Muslim civilisation which to a great extent had been predicated on the Silk Road.
The last part consists of various write-ups with a long-drawn connection with the rest of the themes covered in this book. I would have been better for Prof Malik to have dispensed with the last part which hardly fits in with the larger theme of the book.
The Silk Road and Beyond: Narratives of a Muslim
Author: Iftikhar H Malik
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2020
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore