Section Icon

An Edifice of Time

Copied to clipboard!

The word tabaqa, Arabic in origin but used in many languages, has a range of meanings pertaining to classification. It can suggest layer, sedimentation, and social class or a floor in a building. As a measure of time pertaining to Islam, it was used extensively as the designation for biographies of people in generations as these were measured with respect to proximity to the Prophet Muhammad. The fist tabaqa in this sense consisted of the Companions (sahaba) who had direct contact with Muhammad. After that came the Followers, then the Followers of Followers, and so forth such that “the layers” (tabaqat) became the name for narrating the past as arranged in a sedimentation of successive generations. Over the centuries, the chronographic principle involved in such an arrangement became more generalized, now being used for all categories of people. We have, then, tabaqat works for not just Muhammad’s followers but also for genealogies of scholars in various traditions, initiatic lineages, courtly secretaries, doctors, poets, noteworthy women, and so on.

As presentations of the past, literary works in the tabaqat genre focus on individual biographies as elements that accumulate as time elapses. Their detailed contents are almost always a braiding of two temporal orders: one, the “type and generation” principle that puts individuals into a narrative sequence, and two, calendar-time measured from a point of orientation, such as Muhammad’s migration that began the Hijri era, that must be cited to peg lives to a universal scale.

Since people put into a single generation can live and die at different times relative to each other, the calendar is necessary as a secondary principle that provides an unmarked temporal understructure. When one reads these works, they understand people put in the same tabaqa are roughly coeval to each other but are differentiated within and across tabaqas based on varying temporal extensions that mark their lifetimes between birth and death.

The tabaqat genre is a highly inflected form of chronography. When life stories are sequenced based on a typological principle (companions of Muhammad, poets, women, etc.), the resulting “history” slices peoples’ lives out of their surrounding spatiotemporal contexts and makes them seem related to each other across generations. People belonging to a category put into a diachronic sequence project the sense of a “community” consisting of individuals who had no possibility of interacting with each other.

For example, a tabaqat work on female scholars spanning many generations might include one person from the ninth century and another from the thirteenth. When encountered textually, through the choice made by an author, we are asked to see the two women as being part of the same community. But such an impression is a literary sleight of hand made possible by the reification of the classificatory principle. This effect makes tabaqat works literary guarantors of traditions that claim to represent authoritative communities accumulating over time from an originator to later proponents.

The prominence of tabaqat in Muslim literary cultures has significant ideational and sociopolitical consequences. The genre makes Islam, or subsidiary sociointellectual formations, appear self-evidently “real” in historical terms. To show how this occurs, I will describe a work entitled Tabaqat-i Mahmud Shahi (The Tabaqat of Mahmud Shah) that was completed in Gujarat, India, circa 1500 CE. Composed by a learned bureaucrat and chronicler named ‘Abd al-Karim Nimdihi, this is a highly political work undertaken under the sponsorship of an ambitious ruler, Mahmud I “Begada” (r. 1459–1511).

The work puts the tabaqat principle into operation in a complex and unusual way, allowing us an especially instructive view into the genre’s effects. Mahmud Begada’s investment in historical representations leading up to his own career as the apogee extended beyond Nimdihi’s work. It included a large-scale capital city at Champaner and a Sanskrit work entitled Rajavinod Mahakavyam composed by a poet named Udayaraja. A discussion of the Sanskrit work after I describe Nimdihi’s Tabaqat will further help us to see how variation between biographical genres leads to radically different temporalities pertaining to a single sociopolitical context.

Step-well with winding stairs leading to the bottom of the well (without any water).

A dry stepwell in Champaner-Pavagadh, the city built by Mahmud Begada in Gujarat, India.


Photo 143697418 © Dipakkumar Parmar |


An Edifice of Time

Steps of Time

Born in southern Iran circa 1450, ʿAbd al-Karim Nimdihi found employment as a man of letters in India. He first worked in the Bahmani kingdom in the Deccan as an associate of the famous secretary and minister Mahmud Gavan (d. 1481) and subsequently became attached to Mahmud Begada’s court in Gujarat.

He writes in the introduction to the Tabaqat-i Mahmud Shahi that the work he wrote was based on a royal request: “Hazrat-i Jahanbani issued the desire that a royal history be produced anew, containing narratives of the circumstances of governors, grandees, kings, sayyids, scholars, shaykhs, and the like. [This would be gleaned] from that which has been written before as well as [by reporting on] the lives and events that are coming to the fore now, from the first year of prophecy to the year 905 hijri, meaning 918 years” (Nimdihi, Tabaqat-i Mahmud Shahi, 4a). The “history” contained in this work was synonymous with the Islamic calendar, a choice that had significant repercussions.

Nimdihi begins by acknowledging that time can be arranged in a variety of ways. Muslims, Christians, and Jews start it with the creation of Adam and the world, but they disagree on how far back the creation must be placed. Scholars of India, in contrast, consider the world to be preeternal as well as endless, within which the cosmos is created and destroyed innumerable times. Another convention is to anchor time at the date of a king’s accession. Amid all these options well known to Nimdihi, his choice was to construct “the edifice of the narrative of this book in the form of an introduction, nine levels (tabaqat), and a conclusion” (5b).

Each level/tabaqa/chapter in Nimdihi’s work covers a century in the Hijri calendar. This is a kind of inversion of the regular tabaqat pattern as the calendar is made the primary organizational principle, its centuries, and not generations, being called the tabaqat. Human generational time that usually structures tabaqat works is subordinated to the calendar. Nimdihi stresses the number nine, noting it encompasses both the material cosmos and the human being because the cosmos is made of nine celestial spheres and the value of the name Adam, the progenitor of humanity, in the abjad system that correlates Arabic letters to numbers is forty-five (four plus five being nine). These references make nine a number that denotes Islam’s “fullness of manifestation” (kamal-i zuhur). Tabaqat-i Mahmud Shahi thus becomes a kind of biography of Islam from birth to maturity.

Each level in Nimdihi’s narrative is separated by a hundred steps, representing a century. His narrative proceeds year by year, with each year divided further into nine sections. The first eight sections represent ranks of persons in society, from kings and nobles to poets. The ninth section is a kind of appendix that contains “events that sometimes occur in a year that have hidden causes, or if a partial or full interpretation of an event needs to be provided after the steps” (5b).

If the work is a biography of Islam, its internal parts (the 918 years/steps from Muhammad’s declaration of prophecy to the author’s present) convey development via aspects of Muslims’ lives divided into classes. As with the tabaqat genre in general, this is a highly manufactured picture of both synchronic and diachronic time. It makes Muslims alive at a given moment coeval, no matter where they may be living. For example, a king in Iberia in the year 1200 CE occurs next to one in India ruling at the same time even though neither would have any knowledge of the other. Moreover, both such persons become detached from their surroundings such that, for example, they do not share narrativized time and space with a Christian or a Hindu king who might control territories neighboring their own.

Diagram showing the layout of the book being discussed.

The plan of Nimdihi’s Tabaqat.


An Edifice of Time

Nimdihi’s scheme has an effect quite different from what one might encounter in a chronicle arranged year by year. Usually, such works describe the history of a person, a group (such as a dynasty), or a region, allowing the reader to see how events occur through causes as time proceeds. But the protagonist of Nimdihi’s work is Islam, a long-standing phenomenon spread through vast territories. This results in a narrative that has a jarring quality since, first, for every year, the reader moves around the world within each section to see coverage of rulers, viziers, and so on, from Iberia to Southeast Asia. Moreover, the scheme of nine sections restarts for each year and reiterates more than nine hundred times.

The arrangement of Tabaqat makes it exceedingly difficult for the reader to get the sense of a single person’s biography. The details of human lives that are referenced are scattered in fragments spread across years and ranks. In effect, the work breaks up the lives of individual human beings and reconstitutes the pieces into a biography of Islam, a quasi-embodied being we encounter progressing over many centuries until the time and place where Nimdihi was writing.

This observation is crucial to understand the work’s sociopolitical purpose. As telegraphed in its name (Tabaqat of Mahmud Shah), the work’s ultimate purpose was to bring matters to the purportedly glorious times of Mahmud Begada. The work suggests a strong overlap in identity between Mahmud, its patron, and Islam, its narrative protagonist. Mahmud is the perfection of Islam’s manifestation, and his worldly career fulfills a destiny begun with Muhammad’s declaration of prophecy, the narrative’s foundational event.

Nimdihi’s edifice of time is largely a theoretical proposition. The work’s execution is such that its vast matrix, consisting of 918 years, with nine sections within each year, is not filled out uniformly across the whole narrative. Some years are passed over without comment, and in most years he provides information pertaining to only a select few of the nine sections. For instance, in the coverage of the period between 889 through 895, four years (889, 890, 891, and 892) include reports on the first rank only, 893 has only the second rank, there is no report for 894, and 895 has reports on four ranks.

The narrative is set to a predictable template that is filled in, or left empty, as needed in the chronological passage of each year. The work conveys the sense of a permanent order to the world, like the one to be found in buildings made of brick and mortar. Society is divided into classes that occur arranged contiguously in the narrative year by year and are also continuous throughout the span of time covered by the work. The exception of having a section for noteworthy events as an appendix seems to work to prove the rule. It also provides space for the author to interject based on his own experiences.

While the structure itself precludes the idea of interaction between classes, the actual narratives placed in the different ranks do contain events in which the kings interact with nobles, the nobles with viziers, and so on throughout the hierarchy. The stepped structure of time is thus a metaphysical ideal rather than a representation of material reality.

Nimdihi’s use of the building motif for representing the past privileges regular construction over all other aspects, allowing him to cover events occurring in many different regions over more than nine centuries. This arrangement makes the relative authority of the classes pertain to distinctive spheres, all encapsulated within a rigidly set hierarchy. Kings sit at the top, enjoying inviolable privilege but bearing the responsibility of maintaining an efficiently organized state.

The work also seems like a bureaucrat’s ideal of temporal and spatial organization that assimilates the past to the perspective of a traditional manual of good governance. Its vision of regularizing all interactions between individuals and classes answers to the needs of those given the task of regulating social affairs. Within the work’s multiple interlaced hierarchies, Mahmud Begada is the culminating point, both of the synchronous social order and the diachronic progression of Islam from the time of Muhammad to the year 906 in the Hijri calendar.

Stone carved with a number of intricate patterns including floral motifs, checkerboard pattern, etc.

Carving details on the outer wall of Nagina Masjid, Champaner-Pavagadh, Gujarat, India.


Photo 110933373 © EPhotocorp |


An Edifice of Time

A Muslim King amid Indian Divinities

Under the sociopolitical logic on display in Nimdihi’s work, Mahmud Begada is the very embodiment of Islam. His success and glory, including considerable warfare, become synonymous with that of Islam. While we would be justified to see this as a case of a king rooted in a profoundly Islamic temporality, Begada’s story is richer because of the Sanskrit work I mentioned above that was also commissioned by his court.

In Udayaraja’s Rajavinod Mahakavyam, Mahmud is described in Indian royal terms. This includes identifying him with prominent gods and goddesses and invoking a courtly atmosphere reminiscent of descriptions in Sanskrit epics and romances. The Sanskrit work’s claims regarding Mahmud are as extravagant as those that evince his metonymy with Islam in the Tabaqat-i Mahmud Shahi. Putting the two works together leads to a more complicated picture of Mahmud than what we see in the tabaqat work created for him.

Udayaraja’s work consists of seven sections with a total of 240 stanzas (shloka) in a form used for epic poetry. The contents are as follows:

Although utterly different in language and form, both works assert Mahmud as an unassailable ruler. Nimdihi’s edifice of time serves the same function as Udayaraja’s references to Brahmanical gods and goddesses.

  1. Mahmud’s court introduced through a dialogue between the goddess Saraswati and the god Indra. Saraswati’s father Brahma becomes anxious when she goes missing and appoints Indra to go find her. After searching far and wide, the thousand-eyed Indra finds her in Mahmud’s court. She explains that as she is the goddess of knowledge, her place is at this court, where all knowledge has come to reside at the time.
  2. Mahmud’s genealogy, which makes him the fount of generosity and bravery in the world.
  3. Mahmud arrives in his court every morning like the sun starts the world anew every day as it rises. His body is anointed to become the ultimate attraction for Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune.
  4. Mahmud presides over all the kings of India, assembled at his court to pay homage.
  5. Mahmud’s court hosts gatherings with music and dance..
  6. Mahmud’s peerless victories are commemorated in a festival that highlights his bravery that led to the defeat of his enemies.
  7. Mahmud dominates the world through his physical and mental powers. The work ends with invocations wishing Mahmud to remain ascendant and be the subject of praise as long as the world’s seven climes exist, the seven sages are truthful, the sun keeps shining, the seven seas keep pure, and the world’s seven great cities keep flourishing (Udayaraja, Rajavinod Mahakavyam, 3–10).

The work’s extensive description of Mahmud includes copious references to a range of Indian divinities identified with superlative qualities. These include Indra, Hanuman, Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, Kama, Saraswati. Lakhsmi, and Varuna (14–20). Mahmud’s grandiosity celebrated in Rajavinod Mahakavyam reflects the idiom for describing and legitimizing kings in Sanskrit. The titles and divine comparisons used for him are not unusual in themselves. But they are being deployed for the same person who, in Nimdihi’s work, is the fullness of the manifestation of Islam.

Comparing the Tabaqat-i Mahmud Shahi to the Rajavinod Mahakavyam provides an invaluable opportunity for us to appreciate the political and sociointellectual significance of the tabaqat genre. Although utterly different in language and form, both works assert Mahmud as an unassailable ruler. Nimdihi’s edifice of time serves the same function as Udayaraja’s references to Brahmanical gods and goddesses. Nimdihi’s temporal structure is therefore turning a highly selective and exclusive rendering of the past into an instrument for asserting Mahmud’s authority.

If we are reluctant to take the Sanskrit work filled with gods and goddesses as a straightforward description of a Muslim king, we should do the same for a work inscribed in the predictably “Islamic” genre of tabaqat. Whenever and wherever it is used, the tabaqat genre consists of works that legitimize the categories and classes that come to be understood as communities in or over time. The genre has worked as a foremost guarantor for arguments that claim authority for Islamic traditions and subtraditions formed from linking people’s biographies. When we excavate such sources to get information about specific individuals, it is critically important to account for ideological framing within which life stories are placed by authors. Seeing tabaqat works as straightforward collections of Muslims’ biographies misses the historiographical agent’s creative input.

Related Sections in Other Chapters