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A Conquest of Past(s)

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A Conquest of Past(s)
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  Lekh A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in SouthAsiaby Manan Ahmed Asif Harvard University Press, 272 pp., 2016.  A CONQUEST OFPAST(S) – FARIDAHZAMAN  ‘The stories we tell have consequences.’ The last line of Manan AhmedAsif’s  A Book of Conquest gestures in multiple ways to the work of reimagining history contained within its pages. In his bold re-reading of a thirteenth-century Persian text, Chachnama (‘book of Chach’), Asif demonstrates over and again how the narratives we choose to tell, andthose which we choose to forget, not only shape historical memory butalso hold the power to open and foreclose spaces of political thought inthe present. Chachnama  has long been an important text for the study of Islam inSouth Asia. Written in 1226 by ‘Ali Kufi, Chachnama  purports to be afaithful translation of a much earlier account of two notable rulers of Sind. The first is the eponymous Chach bin Sila’ij, a young Brahmin inthe service of the king of Sind in the seventh century who, through aseries of manoeuvres orchestrated by the queen, captures the thronehimself in c. 632. From there, Chach embarked on a campaign toconquer the four quarters of Sind. After the death of Chach, his sonsDahar and Daharsia vied for power, with Dahar eventually coming tothe throne. Chachnama  in this portion of the text demonstrates threeoverarching and profound concerns according to Asif: ‘the basis of legitimacy for the ruler, the good counsel of the advisor, and the need tocreate a justly governed polity’, much like a Renaissance mirror forprinces. Chachnama then pivots from the exploits of the virtuous Brahman kingto the period of the Umayyad Caliphate’s repeated attempts to exertpolitical control over Sind in the eighth century. The account focusesparticularly on the young commander, Muhammad bin Qasim, sent toSind in 711 to diminish the threat of Dahar’s polity, now a haven forArab rebels, pirates and roaming warlords. After a string of militarysuccesses, Qasim proceeds as far as Multan and captures politicalpower. His rule is cut short, however, when he is accused by Dahar’sdaughters of sexual violence; the caliph orders Qasim to return himself to Baghdad in a wooden container. The honourable Qasim dutifullyobliges the whims of a corrupt caliph; by the time he arrives, he hasperished. The story of Qasim closely mirrors that of Chach – or perhapsthe latter foreshadows the former – and, as Asif tells us, the mainthemes here remain ‘good counsel, good governance, and the need for acoherent political theory for a polity’.Kufi’s claim that his account was based on the translation of an earlierArabic manuscript is one that historians have hitherto largely accepted;though it might have contained some accretions derived from localtraditions, there is general consensus that the account is veracious andrequires only the paring away of the thirteenth century to behold anauthentic, early history of pre-Islamic Sind and Islam’s venture therein.Asif contends, however, that we should dispense with Kufi’s ownclaims and instead understand Chachnama to be a decidedly thirteenth-century text with no prior srcinal. The Persian text is neither a‘translation’ nor a ‘carrier’ for a now lost Arabic text. Asif compellingly argues that Kufi was part of a ‘prestige economy’ andlikely constructed the artifice of translation in order to assert his ‘rightto produce texts, to interpret them, and to present them to an elite rulingclass’. The evidence that Chachnama was in fact a creation of thethirteenth century rests largely upon how dissimilar this text is fromextant early Arabic conquest narratives, as detailed in chapter 2.  The implications of revising the genesis of Chachnama are profound,both for historians of Islam in South Asia and historians of politicalthought more widely. Qasim’s arrival in Sind has constituted, at leastsince the writing of histories of India by British Orientalists from theeighteenth century onward, a ‘book of conquest’. After excising partsof the text that related to the pre-Islamic period, ‘ Chachnama becamethe social, philological, and historical foundation for [their] unitaryunderstanding of Islam’s srcins’ – that is to say, the key source for thesrcin myth of Islam in South Asia. For the British, Islam was alwaysforeign to India, appearing and conquering by force of arms and rulingthrough tyranny; generations of colonial officials imbibed thesehistories and prejudices. Some version of these histories now survive inthe historiographies of both postcolonial Pakistan and India, as Asif recounts in the Introduction.Unsettling the carrier thesis uproots not only one specific srcin mythbut, by virtue of Chachnama ’s foundational significance, the verynotion that there can be a unitary understanding of Islam’s srcins inSouth Asia. For Asif, the search for srcins is a fool’s errand, since thetask fundamentally misunderstands how flows of people, goods andideas moved in the Indian Ocean region before and after the advent of Islam. A concern with srcins, moreover, produces a narrow view of thepast that rejects all that is curious and ambiguous. Asif’s  A Book of Conquest is, at its heart, ‘an argument against srcins’, a workcommitted to the ‘anti-foundational’.As such, and despite the title of the book, Asif shifts his analytical gazeaway from questions of conquest and srcins to questions of ethics andgovernance. Chachnama emerges in Asif’s reading as a textpurposefully created in the thirteenth century, reflecting the ideas,ideals, and concerns of that period. By bringing the oft-overlookedportion on the Brahmin Chach back into view, Asif demonstrates thatfor Kufi, Chach and Qasim were archetypes of kingship thatexemplified certain ethical qualities and political strategies. We mighttherefore learn from Chachnama  not only something about the politicalthought and praxis of two specific historic rulers but what begins tolook much more like a complex and ‘fully Indic’ theory of politics.Re-designating Chachnama  as a work of political and ethical theorymeans reading it as a prescriptive text composed to influence the worldaround it, akin to the ethical advice ( adab ) literature of SouthAsia. Chachnama  should be regarded, according to Asif, as deliberatelyinculcating the values of dialogue and diversity above all else. Thesevalues are highlighted in two key chapters at the heart of the bookwhich demonstrate most vividly how Kufi’s history can bereconstructed as a ‘political theory for the present’. In chapter4, Chachnama is explored as advice to rulers on how to negotiatedifference, govern diversity, and dispense justice throughaccommodation and alliances rather than compulsion. The parables of Chach and Qasim’s treatment of newly conquered subjects, at theirmost radical, gesture towards belief in the equivalence between sacraltraditions. Chapter 5, meanwhile, explores Kufi’s treatment of women:a diverse array of women appear as sources of wise counsel in theworld of Chachnama , with elite women in particular exhibiting anotable degree of political agency. Asif infers that Kufi regardedwomen as ‘ethical subjects  par excellence ’ andthat Chachnama  therefore contains a normative claim about the  importance of assimilating women in political and ethical decision-making. Together these chapters demonstrate how, starting from newpremises and with new questions, even familiar texts can be made tobear new fruits.Asif reappraisal of Chachnama , then, combines two distinctinterventions: that the Persian text is in no part a translation but awholly srcinal text and, secondly, that is not a conquest narrative butshould be read as a work of Indic political theory. The latter is in manyways the more interesting claim and one that highlights the fact thatsome of the most stimulating examples of South Asian intellectualhistory produced in recent years have focused on re-evaluating ancientand medieval texts. It is the former claim, however, that has provenmost provocative amongst medievalists, distracting from the book’spotential contributions to the field. This might lead us to ask to whatextent the latter claim requires the former to be true. It is worthconsidering whether a work of deliberate translation or thetransposition of earlier fragments into a new composition can in itself be tantamount to producing political theory.Few texts, after all, demand to be translated and decision-makinginfuses every part of the process. Translating can be a deeply politicalact and any such undertaking is necessarily conscious of its own times.That Kufi may have been trying to draw lessons from the past for therulers of his own day was already mooted as a possibility by PeterHardy in 1981, as Asif readily acknowledges. In discussing MuzaffarAlam’s influential Persianization thesis, moreover, Asif expresses hisown preference, following A. C. S. Peacock, to see early Persian‘translations’ as in fact ‘transcreations or commentarial interpretations’;this, too, allows that translating produces something fundamentallyother. To what extent, then, can the claim of Chachnama ’s uttersrcinality be delinked from the claim of its significance as a windowonto thirteenth-century political thought? The latter, following Asif’sintervention, should no longer be in any doubt.A further aspect of  A Book of Conquest   that should prove stimulatingfor the field irrespective of the translation thesis is its intriguingapproach towards accessing the world of a text through immersion inthe material site of its creation. Asif has evidently spent significant timein Uch, where Kufi penned Chachnama , walking among its topographyand ruins. The book is interspersed with photographs taken by theauthor during his extensive walks, the narrative weaving together close-text analysis with accounts of encounters with locals. We mightreasonably point out how much the physical landscape of Uch has nodoubt changed since 1226, but to his credit Asif stops short of romanticising ruins, gesturing towards timelessness, or invokingspectres and ghosts. Indeed, his point is rather that pasts are alive and‘active’ in Uch and we ought to acknowledge the presence of theseother modes of being, these other temporalities. In the book’s closingpages, Asif suggests that local historians of Uch who imagine the pastin ways that are at odds with facts and evidence may actually have atruer sense of the spirit of Uch’s history – a sense that accounts for theparticularities of Chachnama ’s composition far better than historieswritten by outsiders.What, then, is the value of the outsider? One way in which we mightthink of the role of ‘professional’ historians on a subject such  as Chachnama is through their capacity to speak directly to presentconcerns. Much recent scholarship on ancient, medieval, and earlymodern South Asia, for example, has strived to demonstrate thatreligion did not matter in affairs of the state as much as was onceassumed (or, indeed, as is still assumed in popular memory and schooltextbooks). Even the most apparently zealous of Muslim rulersfrequently employed Hindus and others in their governments, and viceversa, we are now routinely told. Religion may have been important tothem, but the exigencies of politics, power, and maintaining socialharmony and order were often more so. Such scholarship suggests weought to think of syncretic , adaptive, and often pragmatic traditions of political thought and governance in South Asia, wherein ‘Muslim’ and‘Indic’ were well-integrated.The search for syncretism is of course itself a politically- and morally-minded task, conducted in the shadow of South Asia’s recent history. Adecade ago, Neeladri Bhattacharya framed this predicament in thefollowing terms:‘We secular historians are haunted by a deep anxiety, a paralyzing fearof reaffirming somehow the founding assumptions of communalperceptions. We see violence on the street, the endless cycles of communal riots, the spectacles of blood and gore. We return to the pastin search of humanity, tolerance, openness; we discover histories of syncretism, assimilation, and accommodation; we reassure ourselveswith histories of intercultural dialogue… We hesitate to dwell on thehistories of intolerance or sectarian conflicts. We are reluctant torecognize the role religion plays in the politics of everyday life. Howcan we transcend the limits that the politics of the present seems toimpose on us? Do we need to delink our lives as citizens from our workas historians? Should we stop returning to the past in order to rethinkthe present?’  A Book of Conquest avoids relegating religion to the sphere of rhetoric,but it does choose to foreground intercultural dialogue andaccommodation above all else. Relatedly, the question of violence isnot absent but – having moved deliberately away from narratives of compulsion and conquest – nor is it fully resolved. What is apparent isthat the anxieties that haunt scholars of South Asia are underscoredhere to a degree that is unusual in academic histories and therefore allthe more welcome; colonial and postcolonial interpretations andappropriations of Chachnama bookend this analysis, literally andfiguratively. Asif is a scholar who is clear-eyed about the role of historyand memory in shaping the possibilities of the present and his work issuffused with this awareness. One might even suggest that, like Kufi, heis offering us tools for the present in the guise of history. As such, thisbook does not provide an answer to the question of how historiansmight transcend the limits of the present; instead, it responds to themore fundamental question of why we would attempt to do so at all. Faridah Zaman is Associate Professor in the History of Britain and theWorld at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of Somerville College.She works on questions of empire, religion, and historical scholarship.
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