About the Book
Mohammad Habib (1895-1971) was one of the foremost historians of medieval India. This volume presents a representative collection of this works, which in their time brought many innovative ideas to the study of the Delhi sultanate. He examines not just the emperors-their campaigns, strategies, and political ideas-but also the conditions of peasants, artisans, weavers, and the mass of people of the Indian subcontinent during the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries.
The essays span the political history of the sultanate period, including an evaluation of Mahmud Ghaznin’s campaigns, Ziya Barani’s description of the politico -economic and social contexts, study of Sufi records, and other contemporary sources. While presenting insights about every aspect of medieval Indian life, the historian and his thought themselves emerge as a subject for the study of national historiography and, later, the beginnings of Marxist historians to reject the ‘bourgeois’ approach and focus instead on the history of the oppressed.
Irfan Habib’s insightful introduction situates Mohammad Habib’s writings in the context not only of the development of Indian historiography, but also of the influences of the environment of his own time.
Mohammad Habib (1895-1971) was Professor Emeritus, Aligarh Muslim University, India. Iran Habib is professor Emeritus of History, Aligarh Muslim University, India.
When the oxford University Press very kindly asked me to select some pieces from the writings of Professor Mohammad Habib relating to medieval Indian history and edit them, I agreed readily enough, though not without inner perturbation. The author was my father. Can a son apply the kind of clinical neutrality that is expected of a conscientious editor? Perhaps not, though I have tried my best not to allow mu agreements, or differences, with my father’s views to colour my work as editor. In the introduction I have given a sketch of my father’s life, dwelling on his environment, his evolving views, and successive works as they came off his pen. Hence I shall mainly touch on what my editorial work has consisted in.
Once the texts of the works to be included in this volume were selected, the first task was to render uniform, to the extent possible, the variant spellings and transcriptions of various non-European names and words. In the texts as originally published they varied over time, and did not also follow any standard system of transliteration. Diacritical marks were rarely, and often indifferently, applied. In the present volume, in trying to make the spellings uniform, I have followed a modified version of the system of transliteration employed in Steingass’s Persian-English Dictionary. The index gives the transliterated forms, with proper diacritical marks, along with the spellings in the text, wherever they still differ. Arabic and Persian words admitted into English, like ‘dervish’ , ‘sufic’, ‘sultan’ ,’ sultanate ‘, ‘vizier’, etc. Retain their usual English garb.
As for the texts, these were subjected once again to proofreading, and some misprints have been silently corrected. In other instance, the editor’s suggestions, usually made in foothnotes, have been placed within square brackets. These relate mainly to (a)furnishing references to standard editions of works published later, (b)indicating apparent slips in reference ,(c)nothing some cases when references cannot be traced, and (d) touching on the very rare cases of other possible readings of the evidence.
While writing the introduction I have constantly drawn on the memory and advice of Professor Sayera I. Habib, who has also vetted its text. After my father’s death , the Aligarh university authorities let me consult his ‘personal file’ in their archives; and I have also checked some of my facts with those furnished in professor K.A. Nizami’s introduction to volume I of professor Habib’s collected works edited by him.
The original texts authored by Professor Mohammad Habib were transcribed in electronic form under the aegis of oxford university press, while the texts of the introduction and index have been word –processed at the Aligarh Historians society by Ms Nazma khan.
Grateful thanks are owed to Mr Prasun Chatter Ji and ms shiny das of oxford university press for the trouble they have taken in bringing out this volume.
Mohammad Habib, whose two monographs and six articles this volume contains, was born on 6 June 1895 at Luck now, the capital of the united provinces (Uttar Pradesh). His father, Mohammad Nasim, was a successful advocate of moderately liberal views. The family had old taluqdari (landlord) roots, and Mohammed Nasim, through the fees that the litigious taluqdars of Oudh brought him, had been able to establish himself as a large landholder. Habib recalled later that the extensive, disorganized domestic establishment in which he grew up and the early loss of his mother, owing to indifferent medical treatment, developed in him a deep repugnance for the taluqdars ‘ways of life. This , perhaps explains the very first story he was to write for his three – tale volume, the desecrated bones (1925), in which the central figure is a religiously punctilious landed magnate ,merciless in the exercise of his power over his peasants, but finally caught inescapably in a web of supernatural vengeance.
Mohammed Nasim gave his sons (and also nephews) modern education; and so habib was sent to school at the mohammedan Ango-Oriental (MAO) College, Aligarh. He lived like other students in the boarding house, passing his matriculation examination in 1911. He passed his intermediate examination in 1913; and in 1916 he topped in the B.A examination of the Allahabad University, to which the MAO college was affiliated. The same year he used his father’s previously purchased tickets, lying with the firm of Thomas cook to travel to England (despite the threat from German U-Boats, for which reason his father had earlier forbidden the journey). He joined new college, oxford, and passed his honours in history in 1919.
In England, Habib was not only good at his studies, as might be expected from his record in India, but also developed a definite inclination towards the nationalist cause. The teaching of liberal political thinkers at Oxford, like Ernest Barker, might have helped. As president of the Indian student’s organization at Oxford the oxford Majlis, Habib invited Mrs Sarojini Naidu and the Irish national poet W.B. Yeats to address the majlis. Significantly, his father, Mohammed Nasim was one of the hosts of the Congress leaders who assembled in Luck now in December 1916 to draw up a programme for Home Rule jointly with the Muslim League.
In the academic sphere the three years at Oxford made firm Habib’s aspirations to be a historian. His degree of Bar-at-Law (Lincoln’s Inn) remained but a title; and he abandoned the Indian civil Service (ICS) examination in London mid-way. The knowledge he imbibed at Oxford of British history, the French Revolution, and classical as well as modern European history gave him an enviably strong grounding in comparative history, which he often invoked to explain how historical processes have taken place. It was therefore natural that after his Honours he should seek to pursue research in Indian history. Professor D.S. Margoliouth, the famous Islamicist, took him under his supervision and, taking note of his knowledge of Persian, set him the task of translating Firishta’s Gulshan – i Ibrahimi the famous history of India two of whose earlier English versions had been manifestly unsatisfactory.
Habib had barely translated a portion of Firishta’ s work (still preserved amongst his papers) when India called him back: world war I had ended in 1918, the Jallianwala Bagh incident had occurred thereafter in April 1919; and the Khilafat and Non –cooperation Movement was launched in 1920. Habib abandoned his doctoral research to return to India, in response to Gandhiji’s call for Non-cooperation. At Aligarh, the Jamia Millia Islamia had been established as a breakaway from the Government –aided MAO College, and Habib taught in it for some time, thought this connection was never apparently formalized.
Once the Non-cooperation Movement was withdrawn in February 1922, habib’s first interlude of political activity came to an end. During the period of Non-cooperation the MAO College had been converted into the Aligarh Muslim University, following the AMU Act of 1920, and faculty position were vacant. Despite the University Treasurer’s protest on file that habib was ‘an avowed Non-cooperator and a follower of Mr Mohammad Ali’ he received an appointment. First as Reader from 6 December 1922 and the as Professor from 1 October 1923. He was to serve the University for the next thirty-six years.
From the beginning of his teaching career, Habib spent much time in teaching and meeting student after class-hours. His first major writing enterprise was not, however, academic but an attempt at what was partly historical fiction. This was the Desecrated Bones and Other Stories, already mentioned, which was published in 1925 by Oxford University Press (Indian branch.) Apart from the dead and the supernatural, along with the living, with whom these stories dealt, there is also a social massage throughout. The volume was dedicated to Raihana Tyabji, the daughter of Gandhiji’s close associate Abbas Tyabji, herself an active nationalist, who later became a member of Gandhiji’s ashram. Habib was then courting her younger sister Sohaila, whom he married in 1927. In 1926 just before his marriage, Habib stood for election to the U.P. Legislative Council from a Muslim constituency (Sultanpur) in Oudh on behalf of the Congress-Swaraj Party and, winning it, served in the Council as a loyal member of the Party, and then led by Pt Moti Lal Nehru.
During these years, the communal amity that had marked the Non-cooperation Movement seemed on the brink of collapse. Mutual religious bickering and riots made their rounds anew. It was an increasing awareness of this threat to national unity that led Habib to his first major work in history. This was his monograph on Mahmud of Ghaznin, Chapter 2 in our volume, composed in 1924 and originally published in 1927 by D.B. Taraporevala sons& Co. The well –known Bombay publishers and booksellers. The object in this essay was not to present result from detailed research in primary sources, but to offer an interpretation based on established facts, for which the translations of extracts from historical texts in H.M. Elliot, History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, Vol. II, and E.C. Sachau’s translation of Alberuni’s India (written c. AD 1035) provided information adequate for his purpose. Habib contested the common view that Mahmud was a great soldier of Islam who spread the faith buy fire and sword. On the other hand, he showed that Mahmud committed atrocities mainly to acquire wealth and power. In a phrase that irritated many, Habib wrote: ‘To later generations Mahmud became the arch-fanatic he never was, and in that “incarnation “ he is still worshipped by such Musalmans as have cast off the teachings of Lord Krishna in their devotion to minor gods. Islam’s worst enemies have ever been its own fanatical followers’ (closing lines of Chapter III in Mahmud of Ghaznin).
But Habib was not simply aiming to challenge the prevalent popular view: he wished also to explain Mahmud as a phenomenon. He saw him as a commander of genius, seizing upon the possibilities that had been created by the decline of the Arabian Caliphate and the urge for a united Iran generated by the Persian Renaissance. Mahmud, however, was too intent on instant gain to found a lasting empire, leaving the task to be accomplished by his major Turkish foes, the Seljuqs. This is an argument that has not yet received the attention it deserves, despite the detailed works on the Ghaznavides by M.Nazim and C.E. Bosworth. Almost simultaneously with the preparation of Mahmud of Ghaznin, Habib had been writing another biography, this time not of a sultan but of a poet, Amit Khusrau; it was published by the same publishers, the same year (1927)(Chapter 5 in this volume). When Habib joined Aligarh University a vigorous project to publish a number of Amir Khusrau’s works in clearly lithographed scholarly editions had already been undertaken there: the Majnun Laila and Dawal Rani Khizr Khan were published in 1917 and Aina-i Sikandari, Hasht Bihisht, and Qiranu’s Sa’dain in 1918. To Habib this material opened another window on the history of medieval India. Until now attention had been focused entirely on political history and its conventional sources; beyond these only some traditional biographies of poets and hagiologies had been used. He now found material in these texts from Khusrau’s pen that could help to reconstruct the cultural milieu and political environment of the time this work illustrated well what henceforth became Habib’s main method in detailed studies. He explored contemporary texts of various kinds to establish what he regarded as a genuinely historical narrative and then applied to it what he deemed to be a rational interpretation. Pursuing this method, he deviated from the established convention, that had been followed even by Shibli (whom Habib much admired) in his great Urdu history of Persian poetry (Shi’ru’l Ajam), namely one of unstinted praise for Khusrau’s genius and versatility. Habib concedes Khusrau’s great qualities, but argues that he wrote too much, and too fast in too many fields, and let his role as a courtier prevail over his potentiality as a poet- philosopher. It is possible that, while compiling Khusrau’s biography, the tracing of his Sufic contacts drew him (for the first time?)to the figure of Nizamuddin of Delhi, whose biographical sketch within his monograph on Khusrau he reconstructed from Amir Khwurd’s Siyaru ‘I Auliya ,a near contemporary work. One feature of Habib’s assessment of Khusrau is, however, rather surprising. Given his own nationalist sentiments, one would have expected him to have given more than a passing notice to Khusrau’s praise of India, its inhabitants and languages in Dawal Rani Khizr Khan (Aligarh ed., 1917,pp. 41-4) an Nuh Sipihr (ed. Wahid Mirza, London, 1950,pp. 147-95.Cf. Elliot & Dowson, III pp. 562-4). The reason for such indifference towards Amir Khusrau’s patriotism may well be that Habib thought such sentiments to be natural, and so not worth detailed treatment. Wahid Mirza was to publish later a more detailed, but not necessarily as critical, biography of the same poet (Calcutta, 1935).
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