I was at the tomb of King Altamash and I found my mind drifting towards the tomb of Cyrus the Great. I compared Altamash’s tomb to that of the world conqueror Alexander’s tomb and there truly seemed to be no difference. I had wandered into the mausoleum of Alauddin Khalji, hoping to find a board that read to me, “Here lies the man and the myth”. But I walked in only to find a kid jumping on the tomb of a man whose mention once would have made every man’s blood curdle, and her parent, helplessly asking his daughter to step down, as if he was half-expecting a hand to emerge from the grave and envelope his child into the cloak of darkness. Alauddin’s tomb is only a ringing reminder of how cruel the touch of death can be and that time streams the way people trickle in and out of mausoleums without giving much thought to anything.
Lately, I have been caused immense worry: I find myself attracted to things that tell stories of dead religions and bygone eras but this is not unrelated to a larger existential crisis. Have I lately been turning into the stereotyped version of the history student; am I slowly becoming the third man’s view of me; do I only deal in the dead and the decaying and If not what do I bring to the table in the present as a student of history?
I have caught myself meddling with inconsequential questions, inconsequential only until they remain unresolved after which I hope they shall reveal a more firm resolution. One of the voluble questions taking up space is about the ever-changing definition of History. What is History and can we equate it to the past? If we can, then going forward with Hobsbawm’s definition of the past would mean referring to the past as “any period before the events directly recorded in an individual’s memory.”
But then, would that mean that family heirlooms do not constitute history? Are family histories not history? Is the bitter memory of partition, that is etched in a manner which keeps it fresh, not history to them? Is the memory of a home, they cannot return to, not qualify as history? Isn’t the past, only a fragment of memory which now seems so distant, so inaccessible to us, so far-fetched from present day that we cannot return to it?
Is a memoir not history? When Babur was recording his experiences or when Jahangir was writing the tuzk-i-Jahangiri or when Gulbadan Banu Begum wrote from her memory and that of those around her who told her anecdotes, were they not creating History? Or, does history have to be recorded especially by someone we call a Historian, who has interdisciplinary skill and has been commissioned to write a historical account? But how do we draw this distinction? Do we leave out biographies, autobiographies and the malfuz? How would we distinguish between a biography and a historical account? Can we draw a line at all? Aren’t biographies just people’s histories? If we let shackles of terminology bind us, we’d have to exclude travelogues of European travellers as well as Amir Khusrau’s Nuh Sipihr, which are invaluable sources to us as they allow us to construct an image of how life was in the subcontinent.
Within the Delhi Sultanate, we find medieval historians recording the histories of kings. However, with the coming of the Mughals, the lines get blurred as we find an abundance of memoirs, biographies and travelogues.
If we decide to only make the use of historical accounts as historical sources, and not hagiographies and even political texts like Chanakaya neeti, Mirrors for Princes, The Prince and Republic we are consciously making the choice to turn a lazy eye towards a huge chunk of recorded history, which may not be a historical account but is well qualified to be a historical source.
In his foreward to “Historians of Medieval India” Muhammad Mujeeb, the then Vice Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia informs us that lectures from a three-day seminar organised by the History Department were collected and published under this collection.
And in an introduction to this collection, Mohibbul Hasan claims that Muslims have always had a great sense of history, and had unlocked secrets to the “science of history writing”: a view also shared by another one of the greats, Khaliq Ahmed Nizami, who believes that the tradition of recording history has always existed within the Islamic tradition, as the ilm-i-hadith were painstakingly collected and verified through the technique of isnad.
It is never a stretch to say that the Islamic tradition or for that matter all Semitic cultures attach excessive importance to the superiority of the written word. These cultures often have a more fundamental approach due to their intrinsic nature of trusting the written word and literally interpreting it: for them, nothing exists outside the text. This view also gained more momentum due to the contributions of Richard M. Eaton, who was quick to concede that illiterate populations will always give way or will be quick to adapt to cultures that have a written tradition, and will always see it as superior. We cannot argue how much credibility this view holds but it might not be wholly untrue because even Christian missionaries used education for proselytization.
Nevertheless, the tradition of oral storytelling is unarguably as old as the modern man. In the east, chapters of epic narratives like the Ramayana and Mahabharata have been unveiled through the Kathavachak tradition, through which the vedas as well as the puranas have also been handed down, which has naturally caused some of these stories to get inflated over time. But, talking about the superiority of the written word is like discounting the contribution of Rajaz poetry that reshaped itself to become the Qasidah over time. In most of our attempts to civilize, we end up dehumanizing. The stories and the poems parents tell their children are as much history as the ain-i-akbari, and more often than not when a people are brought into the fold of civilisation, these stories are lost in translation. Literature of the Abrahamic tradition, though now written down and rigid might have also been carried forward through the tradition of oral story telling. To argue over the superiority of the written word over the spoken word is to talk of two extremes. Aristotle as well as Gautam Buddha talked about taking the middle path. However, the very fact that we are talking about a middle path is us acknowledging that there exists a binary opposition, that there are two poles, for which a median can be found. But, in the case of a spectrum, the concept of a middle path becomes obscured. This is not to say, as has been the trend in the post-truth world, that there shouldn’t be any concept of right or wrong, or that there are no facts in History but History is entirely based on hypothesis and falsifiability. Facts exist, Mān Singh I beat Maharana Pratap’s ass in the Battle of Haldighati is a fact, however how we arrive at that conclusion is talk for another day.
Islamic tradition’s obsession with the written word comes highly in contrast with the tradition of oral story telling that has existed in the subcontinent, but they have both come to coexist beautifully by creating a cultural mosaic. It can never be said that history writing and oral story telling are two parallels: can we actually tell the story of Islam by skipping over Ghazali’s Kitab al-sabr wa’l-shukr? Can we actually understand what is it that induced changes in Alexander if we don’t tell the story of the erratic Diogenes, who could even scare off the scholar for scholars, Plato? Can we tell these stories if we do not tell other stories? Can we tell the stories of Darius, Asoka, Samudragupta and Napoleon if we don’t tell the stories of their subjects? Are anecdotes that have been passed down to us not important, and if we say so can we justify how is it that we’re deciding to write the histories of kings without the histories of their subjects, without whom history would be a dry narration of names, successions, ascensions, coronation ceremonies and dates that all collapse into a haze? When we choose to not tell these stories, we are discounting the histories of people, the histories of subjects, without whom dynastic histories that we painstakingly pick apart and examine would cease to exist?
A deeper understanding of the historical process, an understanding of why instead of who, of examining how technological innovations had far fetching social consequences and how the discovery of iron lead to the displacement of the social order and upward mobility for a select few, is what we should strive towards.
B.D Chattopadhyay, in his “The Making of Early Medieval India”, quotes D.D Kosambi echoing this very view: “Dynastic changes of importance, vast religious upheavals. Are generally indicative of powerful changes in the productive basis, hence must be studied as such, not dismissing as senseless flickers on the surface of an unchanging stratum.”
Maria Uzma Ansari is a student of history and culture at Jamia Millia Islamia