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A forgotten leaf of medieval history

By Tahir Kamran

Scantily researched and rarely mentioned these days is a significant figure of the medieval history, Allami Abul Fazal, the author of Akbarnama and Ain-i-Akbari. Our academia’s general indifference to such personalities as Abul Fazal may be attributed to a receding interest in Persian language and literature. Our utilitarian approach to knowledge, and in the process ignoring our history and heritage, has cost us dearly.

Recently, the head of the Translation Bureau of Iran, Dr Nasiri, a historian by training, visited the GC University Lahore’s Persian department on the invitation of Professor Iqbal Shahid. We talked about Ain-i-Akbari and the second part of Akbarnama, which deals with history as a form of knowledge, and about how rarely medieval historical narrative transcends the general practice of chronicling events of certain time period in sequential order. We agreed that Abul Fazal formulated a theory of history, which is yet to be analysed and deliberated on by historians, particularly those interested in the philosophical undercurrents of the subject.

I found the conversation to be illuminating. It motivated me to write this week’s column on Abul Fazal, which I dedicate to Prof. Iqbal Shahid, a scholar in Persian literature of extraordinary stature. It was because of him that I could meet Dr Nasiri.

Born in January 1551 to Shiekh Mubarak in Agra, Abul Fazal inherited from his father and grandfather the tradition of ‘mysticism and toleration, of universal learning and cosmopolitanism’. His was a Hejazi family that had migrated to India from Iran and had settled in Nagaur near Ajmer. He was privileged to be a son of such a celebrated scholar as Sheikh Mubarak. Also, he was the younger brother of Abul Faizi, a renowned Persian poet of his age.

At a young age of 20, Abul Fazal had earned the reputation of an erudite scholar, with a wide range of scholarly pursuits, coupled with profound thinking. His brother Faizi presented him to Akbar in the 19th year of the emperor’s reign in 1574, and very soon he became the Akbar’s alter ego, even more powerful than the prime minister. He obtained a high rank of 4000 horses and distinguished himself as a soldier and a civilian.

Besides being a writer and a scholar, Abul Fazal was ‘a man of affairs’ with a profound understanding of the behaviour of states and the course of history.

He acquired unusual dexterity as a prose writer, which was matched by none of his contemporaries. Thus his works are important, for they are a great source of medieval history and are literary masterpieces. Apart from Akbarnama and Ain-i-Akbari, Abul Fazal wrote a collection of letters, called ‘Makatib-i-Allami’, ‘Insha-i-Abul Fazal’ or ‘Makatib-i-Abul Fazal’. The collection of letters is divided into four Daftars. These letters were written to kings and amirs on behalf of Akbar. A collection of his private letters has also been compiled; title Rukiat-i-Abul Fazal, which too is of great importance as a primary source of history.

As a prose writer, Abul Fazal was a laureate of great merit. Shah Nawaz Khan, the author of Ma’asir ul-Umara, praised his work and wrote, “As a writer Abul Fazal stands unrivalled. His style is grand and is free from the technicalities and flimsy pettiness of other munshis (scribes) and the force of his words, the structure of his sentences and the suitableness of his compounds and the elegance of his periods are such that it would be difficult for anyone to imitate him.”

Abdullah Khan Uzbek used to say that he was more afraid of the pen of Fazal Khan (Abul Fazal) than the sword of Akbar.

Abul Fazal began writing Akbarnama and Ain-i-Akbari in 1595 after Mughal Emperor Akbar directed him to “write with the pen of sincerity the account of the glorious events and of our dominion increasing victories”. E. Sreedharan is of the view that “Few histories could have been written from a wider background of education and experience, few prepared more diligently, elaborately and conscientiously than the Akbarnama and Ain-i-Akbari”. He finished writing it in seven years and presented it to the king in 1602.

A detailed analysis of these works requires another column. This week however I will focus on a few minor aspects of his personality: He is known in history as a glutton who could consume 30 pounds of food everyday. He had four wives; one of them was a Hindu. The power and pelf that he enjoyed earned him several enemies; Prince Saleem, the crown prince, one of them.

Saleem ordered Bir Singh to murder Abul Fazal in 1602, the year he completed his magnum opus. His death came as a big shock to Akbar.

Obviously Abul Fazal produced some of the greatest works of history sponsored by kings and financed by the state.

In Abul Fazal’s Akbar Nama and Ain-i-Akbari, Indian historiography saw a visible departure from the previous methods employed during the Sultanate period. In this regard, three aspects of Abul Fazal’s works of history are worth our appreciation.

First, he used a rationalist approach to history, which was unique in that day and age. One can say that he pioneered rationalism in the local-medieval epistemology. For him, reason has central importance to realise the Truth: “Realisation of Truth, which is the goal of human life, can be achieved only by the light of reason, and reason is nourished by a study of the past.” Thus, he seems to have necessitated rationality as a perennial attribute of history. He considered history, “a unique pearl of science which quiets perturbations, physical and spiritual, and gives light to the darkness external and internal.”

Abul Fazal’s emphasis on rationality as a guiding principle for human life goes on to contradict the long-held view of ‘reason’ having its origin in the West. According to that assertion, it was by way of Colonialism only that India came to adopt rationality, and there were no traces of rationality in the socio-cultural tradition of the subcontinent. That is one big reason why Colonialism is considered benevolence in disguise for Indian people, who otherwise could not have ventured out of medievality.

It is unfortunate that many among our literati consider medieval age essentially irrational, implying that those were the dark ages. One may argue here that it is through Abul Fazal’s works that we can lay claim to rationality stemming from local epistemic tradition. That can help us know alternative traditions of knowledge which have indigenous moorings. One historian contends that “among medieval historians Abul Fazal alone can lay claim to a rational, secular and liberal approach to history”.

The second aspect that is of considerable significance is Abul Fazal’s attention to details. He took incredible pain to ascertain the veracity of the fact before including it into the narrative. Therefore, we can consider him a precursor of Leopold Von Ranke — a Prussian historian of 18th century who enjoys an elevated status of ‘the father of modern history-writing’ — in some sense. Abul Fazal made extensive use of the collection of original sources; their critical scrutiny was the most advanced and novel attempt so far made in Indian history-writing. The well-organised Imperial record office established in 1574-75 was at his disposal, including the considerable material already collected for the Tarikh-i-Alfi.

Besides, Abul Fazal’s extreme fastidiousness can be gauged by the fact that he revised the original draft of Akbar-Nama five times before submitting it to Akbar. He procured copies of the orders earlier issued to provincial governors and other eminent officers. Dignitaries of state and other well-informed persons were called upon to write down their reminiscences and dispatch them to the Court. He made persistent enquiries from old servants and attendants of the Court and discussed events with officers involved. He indeed had all those privileges of access to the original sources and the ears of everybody of some consequence in the Imperial Court, which must have made things quite convenient for him.

Having said that, one cannot deny the talent and diligence Abul Fazal was endowed with. It will not at all be easy to refute Sreedharan’s conclusion about him, which goes on to state, “No historian in India so far had been so insistent on the need for historical methodology and none brought it to such perfection as Abul Fazal”.

The third characteristic of Abul Fazal’s history writing is his broadening of Indian history’s scope. I have no qualms in stating that after Abu Rehan Al Beruini, Abul Fazal was the only historian who made close and meticulous study of Indian social classes his subject of study. He left an account not only of the political institutions and administrative arrangements of north India in the sixteenth century, but a description of the country and the manners, customs and popular beliefs of the local masses.

He did not confine himself to Muslim Kings and nobility (Ashraf) as his focus of historical enquiry. Hindus and Jains were the pre-eminent part of his study, a fact that accords Abul Fazal a unique status among the historians of Medieval India. Through his historical narrative, he tried his best to bridge the gap and the religio-cultural differences between the Hindus and Muslims. He categorically refuted the claims of the ulema that Hindus were kafirs or mushrik. He went on to establish Hindus as believers in One God.

All said and done, it was for the first time that the governed classes found a representation of sorts through the works of Abul Fazal. N.A. Siddiqi writes, “He refused to agree with the view held by his predecessors that Indian history essentially constituted a record of the struggles between the forces of Islam and Hinduism.

For Abul Fazal the conflict was between the Mughal Empire and the Indian princes, Hindu and the Muslim alike.” Athar Abbas Rizvi considers both of Abul Fazal’s works of history as extraordinary pieces of Persian prose. Undoubtedly, his inimitable grand style is much admired by the orientalist scholars for the force of words, the structure of sentences and stylistic elegance.

It is obvious that Abul Fazal wrote these monumental works at the behest of the Emperor. So expecting objectivity the way it is perceived in the era of modernity amounts to asking a bit too much from a medieval historian. In eulogising his master, he at times bade farewell to reason and tended to associate miraculous powers and attributes to Akbar. He is also being said to be the main architect of Din-Illahi along with his father Sheikh Mubarak and brother Abul Faizi, but that is a subject of study that needs a separate series of columns.