Sacred Biography & the Making of Bengali Islam

A review of Sacred Biography, Translation and Conversion: The Nabivamsa of Saiyid Sultan and the Making of Bengali Islam, 1600-Present, by Ayesha A. Irani.

Ayesha Irani’s dissertation deepens our understanding of the history of Islam in Bengal. In the larger picture, Irani’s dissertation looks at one instance of the localization of Islamic doctrine, an important aspect of the historical spread of Islam, whether amongst the jahili tribes of early Islamic Arabia, the Turkic tribes across Eurasia in the medieval period or the African-American populations of the Anglophone world. Each instance of Islamisation, a subtype of the sociological process of acculturation that mandates the constant redefinition and renewal of ‘Islam’, is premised upon an interplay between local cultural formations, whether derived from the Islamic tradition or not, and the values current in the universal phenomenon of Islam. Depending on the location, age and the historical formation of each such conjunction, this interplay simultaneously unprecedented and comparable to previous instances of the kind. Irani has written a historical biography of the Nabivamsa (henceforth NV), a hagiography of the Prophet Muhammad written in Bengali by Saiyad Sultan (fl.1615-1645), that could be termed both a Bengali sira and an Islamic purana. Analyzing the content and the subsequent literary and social contexts of what she calls a ‘frontier text’ in great detail, her dissertation affords the reader a window onto the processes of both the introduction of Islam to Bengal and its subsequent evolution down to the present age of Bengali nationalism as manifested in the Bengali literary culture. Irani’s pursuit of a single text makes it possible for her to straddle the pre-colonial and colonial periods of Bengali history, a feature that distinguishes her research from that of Asim Roy, Richard Eaton and Tony Stewart. Her ‘biographical’ approach enables her to explore one of the foundational texts of the Islamic corpus in Bengali without removing it from its relevant sociological and historical contexts. By showing how the Nabivamsa inhabited pre-existing Hindu Vaishnava literary traditions in order to introduce Islam into Bengali literary practice, the dissertation explores the themes treated by Roy (syncretism), Eaton (creative adaptation) and Stewart (translation) in a nuanced and detailed manner.

Beyond laying out the schema of the dissertation, the Introduction explores the place of Muslim Bengali literature in the multiple literary histories of the language written in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Irani laments, and rightly so, that the tradition of writing literary histories initiated by upper-caste Hindu Bengalis was often reluctant to register works that form the bulk of the corpus of Muslim Bengali literature, including the Nabivamsa. Chapter 1 gives the reader an account of various theories, and the evidence marshaled in their support, pertaining to the life and the oeuvre of Saiyad Sultan. It introduces the claims of the spokespersons of the regions of Sylhet and Chittagong upon Saiyad Sultan as a fellow native. Irani posits that controversies over issues such as the birthplace of the poet may never be satisfactorily resolved. The chapter also gives an account of the political and religious circumstances of Bengal during the lifetime of the poet.

Chapter 2 discusses the oeuvre of Saiyad Sultan as it exists in manuscript and print forms, while focusing on the narrative of the Nabivamsa. The NV was firmly embedded in the religious tradition of Bengali literature of the period, but was novel in seeing the Prophet Muhammad as the culmination of all preceding prophetic projects mentioned therein. It is noteworthy that the text names prophets deriving from both the Sanskritic/Bengali and the Abrahamic traditions. The Sanskritic/Bengali prophets such as Siva and Rama precede the Abrahamic prophets such as Musa (Moses), Adam or Nuh (Noah). Interestingly, Hari or Krishna, the Supreme Deity for the Gaudiya Vaishnavas, a predominant Hindu sect in Bengal during the period of the composition of the NV, is the only Sanskritic/Bengali figure that punctuates this list of Abrahamic prophets. The chapter raises important questions pertaining to the changes that accrued to the literary cultures of South Asia after the slow demise of manuscript culture and its replacement by print culture. Irani reports that the composite text of the NV as we know it now did not exist as such in a single manuscript copy, but was collated from texts distributed in multiple manuscripts. In Bengal, the question of whether the NV is a single text or a series of multiple but related texts remains an open one. These serials had a life of their own in the Bengali literary circuit. (Research into the episodic and unified appraisal of what are now considered ‘epics’ in South Asia or beyond may be a worthwhile research project in this connection.) The chapter includes relevant appraisals of the distribution and vintage of the manuscripts of the various sections of the text. The chapter evaluates the issue of authorship of the constitutive sections of the NV and concludes that Saiyad Sultan was indeed the author of all of them. The chapter also discusses some other texts attributed to Saiyad Sultan, like the Jnana Cautisa, Jnana Pradip, Padavali, etc.,that borrow from Sufi, Nath-yogi, Vaishnava and Shi’i traditions of Bengal and beyond.

Chapter 3 provides the reader with the theoretical contours in which the author places the NV. Thus, Irani gauges to what degree the NV fits into the general worlds of South Asian literary studies recently characterized as the Sanskrit cosmopolis; the literary world of Islam in the Indian Ocean characterized as the Arabic cosmopolis; and the more immediate Bengali literary culture. Irani addresses the relationship between the so-called cosmopolitan languages such as Sanskrit and Persian and the vernacular languages of South Asia such as Bengali. She stakes out a position different from the recent and influential work of Sheldon Pollock that sees the rise of vernacular literatures in South Asia as a continuum of the cosmopolis of Sanskrit literary culture. But Pollock does not discuss either Persian literature and practice or the energy associated with the presence of Islam as being germane to the rise of vernacular literary cultures. Irani provides a nuanced appraisal of the rise of Bengali literary culture and tweaks Pollock’s model to see Bengali as a successor to both Sanskrit and Persian in different ways. She also foregrounds the role of Islam in informing the literary cultures of South Asia. However, even if texts like the NV were tangentially related to the qisas genre in Arabic, Irani contends, always with evidence, that the Bengali literary world resisted the Arabicisation process that occurred simultaneously in Malay, Sumatran and Javanese literary cultures. Irani sees the evolution of Bengali literary culture as the confluence of multiple influences coming from Upper India via Sanskrit and Persian, as well as the Islamisation process that took place via both the Indian Ocean and the land connection with Upper India. She rejects the predilection of Bengali literary historians to term texts like the NV as ‘translation literature’, and finds the phrase ‘frontier literature’ much more apropos of the NV and the creative processes that gave birth to it.

Chapters 3-7 chart the details of the contours mentioned in the above paragraph. Thus, Irani first locates the NV in the epic tradition of Bengali literature. She describes how Saiyid Sultan sought to make a ‘prior text’ for his readers and audience that sought to place the career of Muhammad within the pre-existing models of Bengali literature and religiosity, and yet took off on a tangent from such models. The finer print in these sections has discursions on translating Quranic and charismatic authority to Bengali; outlines of concepts such as ‘prior text’, ‘frontier literature’, ‘translation’, ‘conversion’ and ‘Islamisation’; the career of the genre of qisas from Arabic to Persian to Bengali; the mingling of the qisas genre with the carita genre of Bengali; translations and/or rejections of theological concepts from the pre-Islamic (such as avatar) to the Islamic (such as nabi); and discussions of the authorial strategy for presenting Hari, or Krishna, as a lesser prophet than Muhammad.

Chapter 8 analyses the manner in which Saiyad Sultan and the NV have been and are remembered in Bengal since Saiyad Sultan’s time. Irani tells how the NV was a prime source of knowledge pertaining to Islam and the life of Muhammad in Bengal before the print age, and how the NV provided templates to work from for subsequent poets composing on Islamic themes in Bengali, to the extent that it acquired near-canonical status by the eighteenth century. She details how the arrival of print culture and Islamic reform in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to changed conceptions of Islam and to a decline in appreciation of the NV because it was accused of using a language close to Hindu culture. Ironically and simultaneously, upper-caste Hindu Bengali litterateurs derided texts such as the NV for being suffused with Perso-Arabic vocabulary. The NV has seen a limited revival of popularity since then, particularly during the mid-twentieth century as different regions of what is now Bangladesh attempted to appropriate the memory of Saiyad Sultan as their own. Finally, the dissertation has seven useful appendices that list manuscripts of works in Saiyad Sultan’s oeuvre; manuscripts used in compiling the Ahmad Sharif edition of the NV; and other information.

Irani’s dissertation will be of great interest to students of Bengali literature, culture and history, and should also interest students of the processes of acculturation into Islam and the regionalisation of Islam in South and Southeast Asia and beyond. The author is to be commended on the fact that her research is based on both fieldwork and exhaustive archival research conducted in various locations in Bangladesh, and the provinces of Tripura and West Bengal in India.

Vikas Rathee
PhD Candidate
Department of History
The University of Arizona

Primary Sources

Dhaka University Library, Dhaka
Bangla Academy, Dhaka
Asiatic Society of Bengal, Kolkata
Chittagong University Rare Books Library, Chittagong
Tripura University Library, Agartala
Ethnographic fieldwork in multiple parts of eastern Bangladesh

Dissertation Information

University of Pennsylvania. 2011. 616 pp. Primary Advisor: Jamal J. Elias.


Image: Shrine of Saiyad Shah Gadi in Barikhara village, Patiya district, Chittagong, Bangladesh. To the left of the photograph, beyond the trees, is a site that local memory has attached to the homestead of Saiyad Sultan, a pir venerated by local people and a purported ancestor of Saiyad Shah Gadi. Photograph taken by Ayesha A. Irani, 2009.

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