Mind the gap

Not just wrath. The Lodi period wasn't merely about war, it left us these iconic Delhi monuments as well   -  VV Krishnan

The Age of Wrath: A History of the Delhi Sultanate, Abraham Eraly, Penguin-Viking

A history of the Sultanate period, which doesn’t take on board crucial current research

Divided into nine sections and comprising some 30 chapters, both chronologically arranged political narratives and thematically organised discussions, Abraham Eraly’s The Age of Wrath offers an occasion to reflect on the wide gap between the state of historical research led by professional historians and what the general public wants to read.

The scholars of the history of Sultanate period (1206-1526) have been deeply involved in rigorous analysis of historical literature, evaluating the historicity of evidence, combating historiographical positions and interpretations, and establishing the accuracy of terms and categories relevant to the period. Little of this gets disseminated in the popular domain, and is not even deployed in otherwise fine narratives produced by widely acclaimed authors like Eraly.

The last few decades have thrown up some fascinating research on the political and cultural history of medieval India. For instance, the crucial theme of religion and political culture is being analysed by focusing on critical connections between religion and politics, the significance of the intermeshing of religious and political ideas in statecraft, religious justifications of not only political conquests, but also of governance, and roles of holy men (ulama, Sufis, yogis, gurus, Brahmins) as power-brokers or legitimisers of political authority. Even a cursory glance at the religious and courtly literature in medieval Indo-Persian and a variety of Indic vernaculars as well as numismatic, epigraphic, and archaeological evidence reveal interesting possibilities of refining our understanding of some of the key issues. Recent works of scholars like Simon Digby, Richard Eaton, Carl Ernst, Bruce Lawrence, Cynthia Talbot, et al, have polished our understanding of some of the above issues. This body of current research has not been used by Eraly. Similarly, the state-of-the-art research on literary and historical traditions in medieval India has focused on significant interconnections between literature and history. Pre-modern India witnessed a strong tradition of writing history in several languages across the subcontinent. Often these histories were embedded in literature in a variety of genre. Earlier, they were not considered reliable enough by modern historians, but some recent researches have modified older assumptions. The huge corpus of medieval literature in Indo-Persian and Indic languages is now being studied not only for their literary value, but also for writing a more nuanced history. Besides the eternal Romila Thapar (with a new synthesis on historical traditions in early medieval north India), recent decades have witnessed valuable contributions from scholars such as Allison Busch, Kumkum Chatterjee, David Curley, Ramya Sreenivasan and Chitralekha Zutshi.

Even if Eraly’s readers may not be interested in complex historiographical arguments, it would be worthwhile for the author to take on board current research to offer a more informed narrative. This would also help him to work with a fine-tuned set of assumptions on available historical evidence and processes. For instance, the over-dependence on Persian chronicles, mainly through early 19th-century mediations of HM Elliot and John Dowson, with their agenda of depicting pre-colonial India as a dark age with widespread violence by Muslim conquerors, could have been avoided for a better appreciation of the period than its characterisation as an age of wrath, governed by alien invaders.

No serious scholar of the history of the Sultanate period would now lament: ‘It is on the whole a sordid tale of treachery, rebellions, usurpations, murders, fiendish punishments, and barbaric mass slaughter (p 259)’.

Even on the question of political instability, the fact remains that the period witnessed a 58-year-long rule under two ‘radical’ and ‘wise’ Sultans: Ala-ud-din Khilji (1296-1316) and Firuzshah Tughluq (1351-1388). The formidable father-son duo of Bahlul (1451-1489) and Sikandar Lodi (1489-1517) saw off another 67 years between them. The noticeable political and cultural achievements of Vijayanagar and Deccani Sultanates have also been the subject of some interesting new research. However, a good historical biography of the much-misunderstood Muhammad Tughluq (1325-51) is still awaited. The Tughluq Sultan presided over, for quarter of a century, a large subcontinental empire matching in extent that of the ancient Mauryas. His image was tarnished by three highly motivated contemporary writers — Ziya-ud-din Barani, Izz-ud-din Isami, and Ibn Battuta. Certainly, the philosophers, Hindu yogis, Jain sages and Indian converts to Islam, including the powerful minister Khan-i-Jahan, would not subscribe to the view that Muhammad Tughluq was mad or of devilish nature. Firuzshah certainly cherished the memory of good deeds and kindness of his cousin, friend and predecessor.

In conclusion, such generalisations could also have been avoided: “The entire medieval history of India, stretching over a period of about thousand years, from the eighth to the eighteenth century, was dominated by Muslim invaders and rulers”, and “… though Hindu and Muslim civilisations coexisted in India for many centuries, there was hardly any creative interaction between them, no significant change in either, in response to the challenge by the other. The two coexisted, but did not interact.” It is important to note, however, that Eraly has not offered a controversial narrative that will provoke a fatwa to ban the book, a barbarous practice in the cultural politics of our popular domain.

( Raziuddin Aquil is a historian and author of In the Name of Allah: Understanding IslamIndian History)

Published on June 06, 2014

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