‘Until African lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify hunters.’ I came across this quotation by the Nigerian novelist and poet, Chinua Achebe, during my postgraduate years at Michigan State University. It is a critique of Eurocentricity in historical scholarship, a traditionally narrow and thinly defined discipline – High History, which ignored the huddled masses as if they never had any voice or initiative. But during the 1970s, when I was working on my doctorate, this approach to history began to be questioned. Scholars, artists, and activists began to question the invisibility of vast swathes of humankind’s history and other areas of humanities, and a new genre called Third World Studies gradually began to evolve. The Third World was also sometimes called the Afro-Asian world; it symbolised progressive and liberationist aspects in what was later called the ‘South’. Worldwide protests on campuses and the rapid decolonisation of Africa in the preceding decades provided the vibrant context where iconic Western figures and dictums, in the words of Achebe, began to ‘fall apart’. It is under these circumstances that I set out to become a historian. By the time I began to plan my retirement after a half-century of teaching and research, ‘decolonisation’ had occupied the centre stage in academic discourses, though its journey stays ambivalent, and often vulnerable to a hasty dismissal.

During my undergraduate days, history was largely written from a European perspective. History was important to Europe, as Ebrahim Moosa points out, ‘in the sense that the story of the European discovery of the new “man” had to be told, shared with others, and on many occasions foisted on others with European expansion. This new dimension created a more self-conscious individual and society which was widely touted in education and contributed to European ascendancy.’ Even anti-colonial/postcolonial history, Abdelaziz El Amrani tells us, ‘relied on the Eurocentric secular nature of historical interpretive devices, and accordingly they failed to address the fact that historical events are driven by a certain particular religious heritage’. Indeed, the vital role played by religious groups in dethroning colonialism, and the consciousness shaped by Muslim nationalists, was totally written out. The ‘European ascendancy’ itself was being challenged by the Soviet Union, leading to the ‘Cold War’. The Soviet Union was in turn reeling from the atrocities of Joseph Stalin. As Anna Gunin notes, Stalin had committed historicide: ‘deliberate erasure of a people’s collective memory’. The Soviet authorities persecuted ‘entire social classes’, and sent dissenters to a ‘concentration-camp network known as the Gulag’ or had them executed by firing squads. Families were deliberately separated, and the names of the children changed to prevent the family members from finding each other. 

Given this background, I defined myself at the beginning of my career, not so much as a chronicler or a historian-in-making. Instead, I saw myself as a transformer, full of ebullience and optimism. History heralded the idea of progress. But two or three terms further down the academic rigmarole, a kind of scepticism began to creep in. The world appeared multi-polar, pluralistic, full of histories, and not unilinear as I had naively assumed. Few years further down the same path, our discourses in graduate seminars began to show the inadequacy of human outreach while confronted with the powerful nations and their multinational corporations ruthlessly seeking a major chunk of flesh of the less powerful and marginalised. 

Several decades later after teaching in Pakistan, Britain, Africa, and the Continent while spending long hours in seminars and libraries, a new realism began to set in. Now, instead of seeing the human career simplistically as black or white, scholars zeroed in on a multi-layered and expansive grey which, like the cosmic black hole, appeared both seductive and unfathomable. The greatest challenge to historical scholarship came with postmodernism in the 1990s and it seemed then as if my discipline would lose its primacy by turning into a hollow narrative. Yet, history resiliently survived this monstrous onslaught which, as Richard Evans put it in his 1997 volume In Defence of History, was itself grounded in modernity and did not prescribe any substantive alternatives. It was also during that very decade when ‘the end of history’ was a major talking point thanks to the neoliberal ideologue, Francis Fukuyama. But even his neoconservative colleagues were not too sure of what lay ahead though they, enthused by a unipolar world, zealously suggested redesigning the Middle East, often echoing their evangelist colleagues who were raising their heads from a host of woodworks. Their simplistic but no less dangerous views on human history were further augmented by Samuel Huntington whose grounding in the prophesying subject of political science led him to interpret otherwise complex human relationships within the limited premise of clashes and schisms. Huntington, as Robert Irwin notes, was influenced by the historian Bernard Lewis, who first used the phrase ‘clash of civilizations’. ‘Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order was published in 1996,’ writes Irwin, ‘and attracted a great deal of controversy. It argued that future grand conflicts would not be between nation states, but between cultures that were shaped partly by religious history. It suggested that the Islamic bloc, which was experiencing a massive population growth and consequent pressure from the demands of young people, would eventually seek an alliance with China and its Sinified allies. Whereas Huntington believed that such clashes were inevitable, Lewis, in line with his belief that it was possible that Muslim territories should adopt Western values, denied the inevitability of any clash. The Clash of Civilizations possibly owed more to Arnold Toynbee’s grandiose and long discredited twelve-volume, A Study of History (1934–1961).’

These ideologised groups needed a new outrageous enemy and political Islam, thanks to a few Muslim hotheads, provided them with an opportunity to zero in on ‘the bloody frontiers of Islam’, as if a state of ‘siege’ fermented a grievous ‘crisis’ among Muslims, whose indifference towards modernity and science had now been internalised to the extent of causing horrendous civilisational fissures. Naturally, 9/11 invigorated a neo-Orientalism in its wake with a vast array of opinion makers – from V. S. Naipaul to Bernard Henri-Levy, Paul Berman to Christopher Hitchens – vehemently advocating invasions of Muslim lands amidst a fanatical sense of higher mission and an indefatigable faith in American weaponry. My historical research took shape amidst all these varying, contested and no less impactful global developments.

Much of the work of a historian takes place in archives and libraries. Historians, as Joshua S. Lupo indicates, use ‘letters, speeches, meeting notes, reports – to reconstruct an account of the past that is compelling to those reading about it in the present. Such an account would be persuasive or unpersuasive based on the quantity and quality of the evidence presented in defence of its thesis’. The history of faiths, however, follows a different model. The history of religions is the history of an idea: religion itself. This in itself is not unusual. But ‘what makes the history of religions distinct is that its primary term and concept, religion, floats above material history without ever really coming down to earth’. Thus, Lupo argues, ‘to write a history of religions then is not to write a human history, ultimately, but the history of something which in essence is outside of history. It is to describe a manifestation of the divine without ever presuming to have captured the divine itself.’ 

El Amrani, however, follows the conventional model. He excavates early twentieth century Salafi magazines, ‘such as al-Fath, al-Manar, Majalla al-Salafiyya, and al-Haq’ to develop a post-secular approach to history and explores the role of Islam in Moroccan anti-colonial resistance. The early Salafis ‘advocated the return to the simple principles of Islam and hence had a profound impact upon the Moroccan nationalists particularly in Fez, Tangier, Rabat, Sale, and Tetouan’. Leela Prasad’s journey begins with the discovery of ‘Old Deccan Days in a secluded aisle of a university library in the American Midwest’: ‘attracted by a thumb-sized image of a golden Ganesha donning a British crown on a maroon cover, I had serendipitously pulled out a yellowed book from the stacks. I leafed through the first pages. A hand-drawn picture captioned “Government House” startled me. At the bottom of the page, it said, “Anna Liberata de Souza died at Government House, Gunish Khind, near Poona, after a short illness, on 14th August, 1887”.’ Thus began the quest for ‘Finding Anna’.  

My own research, which initially focussed on modern South Asia, was conducted in the archives at Columbia University, New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the University of Pennsylvania. Research at the special collections at the University of California in Berkeley enabled me to undertake detailed reconstruction of South Asian political activism on the West Coast where some early Sikh, Hindu and Muslim immigrants had settled. They established the Ghadr Party with its multilingual magazine, Ghadr Ki Awaaz, and steered a first-ever political activism of diasporic nature. It was exactly at this time in 1914 that the tragic incident of ‘Komagata Maru’ happened off the Canadian Pacific Coast. More than four hundred Indian immigrants, who had spent their life savings to board this Japanese ship to reach British Columbia, were refused entry. After months of tense bureaucratic haggling at the behest of the British authorities they were sent back to India. Some of them died on the way; the survivors were arraigned on their arrival in Calcutta on sedition charges. Similarly, Punjabi Ghadrites were tried in San Francisco in 1916-7 with the British sleuths sitting through the trials. The seventy-seven volumes of the Trial kept in San Bruno Archives proved a shocking and tortuous research. I often walked by the Ghadr memorial in San Francisco’s Center Street and thought of those Punjabi farmers and former soldiers who felt so strongly for a sovereign Hindustan, over and above communal and ethnic concerns. The Ghadr Party was, in fact, established in Portland, Oregon, in 1907, exactly half a century after the Rebellion of 1857 which was still remembered as Ghadr in common parlance. Some of these farmers had been soldiers brought to Britain to participate in Queen Victoria’s jubilee celebrations and on the way back wanted to see other regions held by the British Empire. A group of them decided to move into the states of Washington and Oregon as lumberjacks with a few getting politicised. 

I came across contemporary Indian intellectuals such as Maulvi Barkatullah, Har Dayal, Sohan Singh Bhakna and Lajpat Rai who undertook some political work across the United States. I followed their careers from the files on the Pacific Coast but mostly at Columbia’s Butler and the New York Public Library. Lajpat Rai brought out a New York-based monthly, Young India, whereas Har Dayal briefly taught at Stanford before moving to Philadelphia. Bhakna remained one of the major brains behind the Ghadr and is one of the very few intellectuals that some well-informed South Asians may still remember. Within California, the descendants of the early Sikh agriculturalists view people like Bhakna and other Ghadrites as expatriate revolutionary Indians who suffered for South Asian causes. The Muslim activist, Maulvi Barkatullah Bhopali, was a roving soul who for a while taught in Japan and visited Russia, possibly Afghanistan as well, during the War years and then moved to California. Often, he would be leading prayers but there are several unanswered questions about his activities including his associations with the Khilafat movement or the Azad Hind Provisional Government in Kabul which for a time included some leading Deobandi ulama. Some of them were handed over to the British Government that exiled them to distant places like Malta and Andaman whereas others disappeared altogether though a few younger Muslim students from Lahore and other institutions ended up in Turkey fighting the Allies and the Greeks and saved fellow Turks from total marginalisation. Some served with the Turkish troops when Mustafa Kemal declared his republic and were deeply respected for their services to fellow Turks. 

At the University of Pennsylvania, I went through the correspondence between Mrs Ruttie Jinnah (1900–1929) and Kanji Dwarkadas (b.1892), since they shared a close friendship during the time when Jinnah’s wife was ill. Ruttie was the daughter of Jinnah’s close friend and an affluent Bombay-based Parsi and it was during Jinnah’s vacationing at their resort in north-eastern India that Ruttie and the senior lawyer fell in love, though there was some notable age difference between Bombay’s most eligible bachelor-barrister and the talented daughter of a Bombay industrialist. In 1929, Jinnah nursed an ailing Ruttie in Paris; was deeply aggrieved over her early death; never remarried and devoted his life single-mindedly for the welfare of the Indian Muslims, eventually gaining Pakistan in Muslim majority areas. Yet he never felt alienated from Bombay, Aligarh or Delhi. Some of these lonely men and women were deciding on the fate of millions around them and that is where I felt Mahatma Gandhi, Pundit Nehru, Jinnah, Subhas Bose, B. R. Ambedkar and the rest marking their place in history. Still, I wouldn’t reduce historical events to a few individuals, as for example, A. J. P. Taylor, who once claimed to simplify entire recent history to Napoleon, Bismarck and Lenin. (No wonder, Sir Syed’s contemporary and a fellow reader in the British Museum’s reading room, Thomas Carlyle too felt the same way and chose to confine historical developments to a few heroes and villains.) My teaching and research at Oxford would frequently usher me into the labyrinthine rows of the Bodleian system along with a few other collegiate libraries. On occasion, I found myself lodged at the Oriental Institute, History Faculty, and the long-gone Indian Institute with occasional visits to India Office Records and Library that was located in an old building south of the river Thames. Simultaneously, given a growing accent on political Islam amidst furore over the Rushdie affair and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, I began wrestling with two parallel strands—South Asian studies and Muslims in Europe with the result that I was able to publish three volumes in St Antony’s-Palgrave Series and one with Pluto, followed by another on Balkan Muslims. 

Another very significant development that took many by surprise was the growing number of voices representing female Muslim academics, journalists, commentators, artists and fiction writers. Certainly, Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi and amina wadud were the pioneers of what now was being defined as Muslim feminism. However, by now feminism itself had gone through three waves. And as Sunera Thobani argues, the concepts and politics of each wave ‘developed from the experience and perspectives of middle-class white women and universalised their fears, anxieties, and interests as the general condition of gendered humanity. The power relations of race, colonialism, and imperialism (historical and contemporary) were thus jettisoned from these feminist conceptual frameworks’. Thobani suggests that western feministpractices ‘extended the Islamophobic ideology and imperialist ambitions of western nation-states through the war on terror’, ‘set up Muslim women, men, and sexual/gender minorities for particular kinds of violence and disciplinary projects’, and projected Islam as ‘irrational and fanatical’. However, the Islamophobic trajectory of western feminism has not stopped a whole new generation of highly articulate and confident women, born or brought up in the diaspora, coming to the fore – a historical phenomenon that is daily flourishing.

Academically, I am sceptical about single-factor focus on the state and its high politics in disciplinary areas such as political science and international relations exactly the way we historians, for a long time, reduced history to the narratives of rulers and conquerors, until we woke up to our deficiencies. Enlightened past historians such as Ibn Khaldun, or more recently Arnold Toynbee and Edward Thompson, have broadened our remit to civilisations and masses yet more rigour and grassroots work were required all along and only happened belatedly. Edward Said’s Orientalism might have caused one of the greatest stirs in scholarly pursuits besides the evolution of critical theory but I was always worried that it might deter many western scholars from researching Muslims besides dangerously providing Muslims an easy alibi to transfer their own culpability to an ill-defined West – categorised monolithically as a frigid and persistently hostile trajectory. I began to brood over the idea of civil society, which could include both modern and traditional clusters limiting the vetoing forces of state and society. India, for a time, appeared to feature a vocal civil society but then the quick rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindutva forces only exposed the inner dissensions and even fragility within the civic ethos. My own travels to Muslim states such as Turkey, Iran, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Uzbekistan, and the UAE exposed me to varying degrees of imbalances with the state often holding unilateral powers even if otherwise slow and adrift on delivery. In several cases, clerical groups operate as power brokers, sometimes in cahoots with the official authorities, or through some other props mainly to claim their larger share of flesh. Both the state and clergy, quite routinely and more so behind the scenes, engineer mutual collaboration to contain civic forces and political opposition by decrying them as ‘liberals’ and ‘maghrib zadda’ – western stooges – denying them their authenticity, space, and agency. This hand-in-glove interdependence between the statist and religious authorities acutely persists at the expense of civil societies of Muslim nations. No wonder we end up with groups like Boko Haram, ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban whose weaponisation of religion is starkly at odds with the vocal and reformative groups including women. This strangulating plight certainly allows critics to see Muslim problems as a problematique of Islam, needing urgent reformation and renaissance. Looking at India may reveal that such a nutcracker situation is not just Muslim-specific per se but might be bedevilling a wide variety of states including those where democratic political systems have worked longer and economic growth has been steady. 

Perhaps, it is equally fair to take our societies to task instead of only incriminating the state and clergy, since people at large, as observed in Muslim societies, are generally irreverent to public space and other civic obligations that a citizenry must perform before it starts demanding its rights. This task was taken up by the Indonesian alim and philosopher, Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, known popularly as Hamka (1908-1981). As Khairudin Aljunied explains, Hamka accused Muslims of two varieties of ignorances: ‘thin ignorance (jahil tipis)’ or ‘simple ignorance’ and ‘thick and layered ignorance (jahil tebal dan berlapis)’. The first, common amongst the masses, could be overcome: ‘those with thin ignorance usually have pure souls and sincere hearts. They were open to reminders when they erred. They showed an acute willingness to listen, to learn, and to engage in reasoned discussions because they were aware of their weaknesses.’ The second type was more dangerous. Those suffering from this compound ignorance suffer from hubris, are ‘totally averse to any forms of knowledge, advice, and reminders’, ‘unwilling to change’, and ‘predisposed to becoming fasik (one who violates religious laws and norms)’. 

However, there is no denying the fact that ordinary people, ignorant or otherwise, have been on the receiving end or were made totally invisible from history altogether, and it is only in recent times that their accounts and achievements have attained centre stage. Perhaps Las Casas, the Spanish writer, priest and former clerk to Columbus, is the pioneer who documented the miseries and disappearances of the natives following the arrival of Conquistadores by leaving us the earliest primary source on how millions were reduced into thousands thanks to the brutality of new arrivals and the epidemics they brought with them. In more recent times, Primo Levi cautioned us against an insidious normative when ‘we tend to simplify history’, through his account of the obscene corruption that happened in concentration camps. Levi’s The Grey Zone is undoubtedly a good example of how history would read when told by the victims in their own words. The narratives by former slaves persistently remind us of what the life of a slave was in the Northern Hemisphere. Narratives of Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and Gretchen Gerzina’s Black England based on accounts by the slaves are landmarks in such an impactful genre. Similar accounts by women, workers, peasants, and indigenous communities formed the mainstay of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, itself a trendsetter in historiography. Historians like Zinn, Eric Hobsbawm and Victor Kiernan belonged to the leftist tradition and, like the Indian Subaltern historians, redirected historical pursuits towards largely ignored ‘majorities’ at a time when staying silent rather than critiquing colonialism was the norm. Similarly, African Studies and Peasant Studies owe much to the laudable efforts by historians such as Barrington Moore and Taj Hashmi, whereas a parallel tradition focuses on gender which has certainly brought forth an impressive cadre of Muslim women sociologists and historians.

Sometimes, historians have to venture out of archives and libraries into the world outside. My travels across Central Asia have enriched my thoughts, both personally and academically. The memories of well-meaning souls whose struggles vacillated between basic survival to macro challenges such as the preservation of sublime heritage have taught me much as a historian. Worried about the gnawing threats from unbridged urbanisation, a superficial scientism and often unplanned infrastructures, such voices are toiling to make officials and the laity concerned about the vulnerability of heritage sites at a time when authorities prioritise only selective monuments for tourist injections. Certainly, Tamerlane’s tomb, Registan, and Shah-e-Zinda are places of exceptional architectural munificence. As is the city of Granada, where, as Medina Tenour Whiteman writes, Nasrid rulers developed ‘the Alhambra palaces, adding poetry to the walls, patios with pools, gates and towers, and fostering a court full of scholars’. The ‘gardens throughout the emirate meant that even the poor ate well, and provided silk, sugar, and dried fruit for export’. But so do the inner, twisting lanes of old Fez and old Lahore or longstanding madrasas in Bukhara, or Takht-i-Baburi in the Salt Range. 

In my journey on the Silk Road, I was inspired by the now deserted site where Al-Biruni learnt Sanskrit and wrote his masterpiece—Kitabul Hind. I felt reconnected with Rumi at Shams Tabrizi’s modest tomb though it reminded me of a similar tomb in Multan with the same name. I hobnobbed with younger Iranians in cafes that overlooked the splendid Maidan, Masjid-i-Shah, Shah Abbas’s royal abode, Lutfullah Mosque and the nearby gardens where some of the rarest Safavid miniatures reveal parleys between the Persian rulers and their neighbouring kings. Teaching in Bath—the world heritage city—had not prepared me for another world heritage city, Khiva, where traditional norms, architectural edifices and septuagenarian craftsmen took me back by centuries to the glorious past of Khwarazm. While delivering a lecture at the University of Urgench, the City of Zoroaster, my brain was trying to assimilate the features of my younger audience who belonged to Turkmen, Tajik, Kirghiz, Uzbek, Persian, Afghan and Tatar ethnicities and were equally proud of their Transoxiana heritage that once was the heartland of the Aryans and Jews before other multiple layers of history engulfed them, including a recent configuration under Stalin. But now as I could see across this civilisational artery, it was not Stalin or Lenin whose statues held their ground in the main square. They were replaced by those of Jalalud Din Khwarazm Shah, the only Central Asian monarch who had defeated the Mongols. But he had to run towards India while being chased by Chengiz Khan. It was at Attock that Jalalud Din made his stead cross the Indus, leaving a vengeful but laudatory Chengiz Khan behind. He was one of thirty-five kings and princes who had sought asylum with Sultan Altutmish in Delhi – himself a former slave and now a king who kept the Mongols away from Hindustan. 

I guess as a historian, these encounters with archives and heritage sites replenished my instinct and nourished my keen desire to introduce younger Muslims everywhere to the bounties and frailties of their prodigious inheritance. We need, as Moosa says, ‘not only a sensibility of history from below, but also an experiential philosophy of life of which history is only a reflection’. By dealing with ‘the past immutable fact’, Muslims have created ‘a sense of history that leaves the future open, for humans will not achieve except that for which they strive (this is according to a piece of Qur’anic wisdom). It is that striving that is critical to making history.’ 

I like to think that my life as a historian has been an attempt at ‘striving’. In the process, I found myself ensconced in a vast realm of heritage that appeared both limitless and precarious and I rushed to record its manifestations in a personal way before it was too late for all of us.

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