How colonial historians divided time to create false ‘Muslim kings vs Hindu kings’ story

      Comments Off on How colonial historians divided time to create false ‘Muslim kings vs Hindu kings’ story
Spread the love

In ‘The Loss of Hindustan’, Manan Ahmed Asif writes about how colonial history combined hundreds of years into one single era — linking Arab kings of Sindh to sultans of Delhi.

This article was first Published on 2020 February, 202 at – :


Representational image | Wikimedia commons

How to write the history of Hindustan? This book is intended as a simultaneous history of Hindustan as a concept and its erasure, a genealogy of political thought that persisted and that seems to have vanished without a trace. It does require a lexical shift—from secondary sources to archives—and an analytical shift—from origins to belonging. In forming an intellectual geography of Hindustan, historians created a corpus of thought intricately involved with the production of history. This historiography was a distinct tradition in itself. In these histories, written from the ninth century to the seventeenth century, we find rich accounts featuring protagonists and antagonists, violence, and descriptions of power and grandeur. A remarkable feature of these histories is that they are self-consciously written for future historians. We also find a carefully crafted philosophy of history and get a sense of the role of the ethical historian in telling the past. It is this gesture that concerns us the most here. For if the idea of Hindustan has a history, it is nurtured in the belief that Hindustan has a future—a future that is nourished in these particular works of historical imagination.

On the other hand, colonial historiography organized this expanse of time solely through the question of political power—reduced, simply, to the Muslim period. This illogical division of time according to political power made natural the division of Muslim kings versus Hindu kings. It posited an unanimity to hundreds of years of history linking the Arab kings of Sindh and Gujarat to the Ghazni and Ghuri warlords, to the sultans of Delhi and Bijapur, to the Shahanshah of Agra. Hostages in this “Muslim” geography, then, were the “Hindu kings,” the rajas and rajarajas of Chitor, Jaipur, Bengal, or Vijayanagar.

Colonial histories overdetermine a specific understanding of why history was written during this period, for whom, about which people. Colonial material practices of collection, archiving, cataloging, excerption, and analysis introduced Muslim historiography into the domain of the European science of history along a narrow, predefined analytical frame. Such processes of knowledge-making mean that there cannot be a simple act of accessing a precolonial history of Hindustan without going through the intellectual edifice created by British India and its histories of the subcontinent.

The early nineteenth-century renderings of Muslim texts into European languages occurred alongside a robust acquisition project. The collection of manuscripts from British India, as well as central and western Asia, meant the development of new toponomies and taxonomies for sorting “Muhammadan” knowledge. We already saw how William Jones instituted a scribal distinction that linked “native” India to texts in the Devanagari script. The next step was initiated by Henry M. Elliot, who began the project for collecting an archive for the history of “Muhammadan India” through the assemblage, extraction, and translation of historical writings in Persian, for which he provided his own interpretative gloss. Elliot’s particular practice of creating an archive and annotation of Muslim historical writings had a profound impact on how the history of Hindustan came to be written.

In this chapter, I am concerned with the articulation of the work of history expressed by historians in Firishta’s archive. What were the reasons they gave for their works? What ethics and principles governed their work of history writing? As these histories were cited by Firishta, they constituted his literal archive for thinking not only about Hindustan but about the act of history writing itself. I take examples from Firishta’s comprehensive history of Hindustan to see how his predecessors influenced his history writing and how, conversely, Firishta distinguished himself from the historians who came before. The writing of history and the writing of the history of Hindustan, this chapter will demonstrate, were one and the same act.

But before we get to Firishta’s Hindustan, let us first work through what was “Muhammadan India” in the works of historians of colonial British India. Next, we turn to the historians that are cited by Firishta as his archive. Firishta read, utilized, and expanded the histories of these authors; he cites them throughout his work as evidence or when he agrees or disagrees with them. Why did those earlier historians choose to write their histories, and what guided their methods, what purpose did they imagine their histories would serve? These questions have a bearing on how Firishta imagined his task, and, subsequently, on how we are to think and interpret Firishta’s history as a history of Hindustan. Some of the most prominent, and repeated, historians cited by Firishta are Baihaqi (d. 1040), Juzjani (d. 1260), Barani (d. 1367), Mir Khwand (d. 1498), Nizamuddin (d. 1594), and Abuʾl Fazl (d. 1602), alongside epics and his- tories in Sanskrit such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Ratnakara’s Haravijaya, and Kalhana’s Rajatarangani. There is a specific logic of the craft of history writing that unites these texts and the ways in which they lend their materials to be used, and reused, by successive generations. These historians deliberately create a sense of their belonging to an intellectual geography.

Ibrahim ʿAdil Shah II, Firishta’s patron, asked him to write the first total, comprehensive history of Hindustan. He told Firishta that no such comprehensive account existed, “Since the histories of the kings of Hindustan do not exist in one single volume . . . you should grab the pen and you grid yourself to write a book with such qualities; a book in plain language without artifice and lies.” It was with this mandate that Firishta set out to compile an archive of all of the histories that had come before him, all of the accounts of the different parts that would constitute the whole of Hindustan. In the archive available to him was a vast expanse of materials dating from the ninth to the seventeenth centuries that contained a remarkable array of histories about polity and space. Firishta inherited this archive, consisting of the work of historians of Hindustan who shared ethical and philosophical concerns. It is with this same archive that we can write a history of Hindustan.

Spread the love