Section Icon

The Modern (Historical) Condition

Copied to clipboard!

Seeking an inversion of Leitner’s life, one would be hard pressed to do better than the case of Sayyid Ilahi Bakhsh Angrezabadi (1824–1892). Born into the third generation of a family residing in the small Bengali town of Angrezabad (also known as English Bazar), Angrezabadi is not known to have traveled farther than the immediate vicinity of his home. We do not have a photograph of him nor any detailed self-narrative or description regarding his life and ambitions. As a professional, he taught at the local district school, garnering respect as a man of knowledge within a small circle.

His life’s great work was a lengthy Persian work, largely forgotten, titled Khurshid-i Jahan-numa (The Sun that Displays the World). This work has only ever existed in a single manuscript copy, in the author’s own handwriting. The work’s sole assessment, made by a famous British administrator-scholar, was a brief review of certain parts that was published in 1895, shortly after the author’s death. It surmised that the author was a diligent scholar, but the work was largely valueless repetition. Only a small part that provided details on the area where the author had lived was deemed worthy to be published, a recommendation that was never implemented (Beveridge, “The Khurshid Jahan Numa of Sayyad Ilahi Bakhsh al-Husaini Angrezabadi,” 227).

A later work by one of Angrezabadi’s former students mentions the author had had a library of more than a thousand volumes and that his rooms were decorated with his own copies of Arabic script epigraphy found on buildings in the local region, a former capital of Muslim rulers in Bengal. After his death, his heirs sold the sole copy of the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa, which eventually ended up in the National Library of India in Kolkata. Angrezabadi’s remaining scholarly possessions were destroyed during the great Assam earthquake of 1897 (Khan, Memoirs of Gaur and Pandua, 185).

Untraveled and unheralded, Angrezabadi is nevertheless a worthy competitor for European orientalists who were treated as celebrities in the nineteenth century. This judgment follows from the extraordinary richness of the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa, a work concerned to provide the history and geography of the known world. The work’s form follows a pattern available in Persian for centuries, a characteristic responsible for the negative orientalist judgment that it was nothing but repetition of older sources. However, Angrezabadi successfully uses the flexible, accordion-like structure of the old form to absorb knowledge made available to him from his ability to read English.

Leitner claimed that Islamic history was world history, properly understood as that of a single civilization. His execution of this claim in Sinin-i-Islam required him to place Muslims into this frame to objectify Islam for historical narration. Angrezabadi did the opposite. He deployed a “traditional” narrative form to combine the contents of both European and Islamic works available to him. The sheer volume of information and opinion provided in Angrezabadi’s work dwarfs the work of Leitner and other orientalists.

Calligraphic inlay in Arabic on a wall.

Tughra epigraphy from the region of Bengal where Angrezabadi resided.


Wikimedia, Sahabuddin Momin, 2016 (CC BY 4.0)

A Schoolteacher’s Knowledge

Today straddling the border between India and Bangladesh, Angrezabadi’s native region had both an old and a recent significance during his lifetime. For the old, it contained the cities of Pandua and Gaur (both cities have other names as well), capitals of the independent polities of Bengal headed by Muslim rulers circa 1350–1550 CE. These thriving kingdoms generated monumental architecture—including a shrine containing the footprint of Prophet Muhammad—that fell into ruins when political power shifted away from the region. In the second half of the seventeenth century, the region became a focal point for silk trade, with the presence of local merchants as well as the English East India Company, Dutch East India Company, and French East India Company. Angrezabad was born of this activity and today forms a municipality within the city of Malda in West Bengal, India.

Angrezabadi’s work is useful to see the complex interplay between form and content in modern historical narratives about Islam. The structure of the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa represents the operationalizing of a master trope in a manner we can observe in Persian chronicles from prior centuries. However, the work’s taxonomy of the known world would have been inconceivable before the period of European worldwide expansion. Sections that provide information on different parts of the world mix materials from European sources and works in Persian and Arabic. This creative combination of metaphor, citation, and empiricism reflects an epistemological situation particular to the world of a non-orientalist modern scholar in the nineteenth century.

Angrezabadi’s work is an early example of the indigenization and domestication of modern knowledge for non-European purposes [His] own marginality as a person is instructive as well since it provides a view into sociopolitical moorings of the way modern knowledge of Islamic history has been produced and valued.

While modern knowledge is a necessary precondition for Angrezabadi’s work, the general impact of the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa is utterly different from what one gets from scholarship issuing from the orientalist paradigm. Missing in Angrezabadi’s work, and absolutely determinative in the work of orientalists, is the effort to squeeze sources into molds palatable to contemporary academic as well as public audiences in European contexts. European forms compel specific types of reduction, exclusion, and objectification tied to understandings of temporal development and causality.

Angrezabadi’s work is an early example of the indigenization and domestication of modern knowledge for non-European purposes. Its obscurity signifies a path not taken, the exceptionality helping us to understand the paradigm that eventually became dominant. Angrezabadi’s own marginality is instructive as well since it provides a view into sociopolitical moorings of the way modern knowledge of Islamic history has been produced and valued.

I do not wish to romanticize Khurshid-i Jahan-numa nor to suggest that the form of the Islamic past we see in it should be emulated. Rather, contrasting the work’s specifics with forms that predominate today shows there is nothing inevitable about the connection between modern knowledge and the pattern of Islamic history established by orientalist scholarship. Moreover, observing something of Angrezabadi’s labors may help us to imagine new ways to explore the web of Islamic history.

The Enlightening Sun

Angrezabadi states that, in the year 1269 AH (1852–1853), it came to his mind that “if a ray from the sun of historical knowledge were made to shine on some pages’ surfaces, it could lead to a memento reflecting past times” (2). He then extends the metaphor into the work’s name, calling it Khurshid-i Jahan-numa or “the sun that causes the world to become visible.” He divides the work into twelve chapters, the choice in part likely reflecting his personal identity as a Twelver Shi’i Muslim. Each chapter is called a burj, a word with an extensive semantic range that Ilahi Bakhsh deploys deftly to encompass the work’s contents.

Although the work’s impetus is said to be history (tarikh), its structure is topical rather than chronological. Time, space, and other matters are folded creatively into the narrative in a variety of ways. The word burj has three meanings. First, it means a tower, by which token the narrative is a spacialization. Reading the work equates to traversing a territory marked by twelve towers with distinctive coverages. Second, burj also means a star or planet or the “houses” that astral bodies are said to reside in at different times. This meaning forefronts time as an abstraction measured by the cyclical movement of celestial bodies. And third, burj is the generic term for constellations tied to astrology and thereby prognostication of the future. While burj as tower connects to earthly mapping, burj as planet or constellation ties individual human beings to grand movements through horoscopes.

The twelve burj of the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa contain the following:

  1. General cosmography, providing various Islamic and European perspectives on the world’s age and how earthly space is laid out (3–5).
  2. The Americas, both north and south, explained from the point of view of European discovery and the formation of various states (5–12).
  3. Africa, explained from a European viewpoint (12–20).
  4. Europe, including the geography and history of the major powers as well as smaller countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, and so on (20–51).
  5. Asia, including the history of the birth of Islam, Middle East and Central Asia, India, and East Asia (51–815).
  6. Australasia and Polynesia, from the point of view of European discovery (815–828).
  7. Lives of prophets, consisting of biblical figures in their Islamic understandings (828–866).
  8. Lives of ancient (pre-Islamic) Greek and Iranian philosophers (866–868).
  9. Notices on hundreds of important persons, including biblical figures, ancient Indian sages, Sufis, Muslim luminaries across time, contemporary Hindus, and British officials. The individuals are divided into thirteen groups arranged by approximate contemporaneity (868–1054).
  10. Genealogies of Sufi groups (1054–1073).
  11. Varia, including architecture in India, arithmetic, comments on various parts of the inhabited world, royal genealogies, and varieties of lunar and solar calendars (1073–1099).
  12. The author’s personal history, consisting of names and dates of people in his family, extending over multiple generations (1099–1107).

Between the work’s length and the spread of topics, Angrezabadi had an impressive awareness of the world. Further parsing reveals more about the work’s scope and perspective. First of all, the work’s conceptual scheme is a case of joining the Persian practice of using a master trope as a narrative organizational principle to a picture of the world that is fundamentally modern European. The trope here is the sun shining on a topical landscape. Geographical designations that give many of the twelve chapters their names would, however, have been alien to Indians before the arrival of Europeans. For places such as the Americas, Australia, and Polynesia, everything Angrezabadi provides comes from his access to European works. The material here includes not just the basic descriptions but also the derogatory, racist judgments on these regions’ indigenous inhabitants that were part and parcel of European mapping of the world in the nineteenth century.

Pie chart of the size of chapters in the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa. The largest slice is labelled

Relative size of chapters in Khurshid-i Jahan-numa.

The European framing extends to some areas where Angrezabadi could have incorporated materials from earlier Islamic sources. This stands out for the Iberian peninsula (pp. 34–35, 45–46), which he describes as Spain and Portugal without commenting on a connection to Muslims. For North Africa, he recognizes that most people present there today are Muslims, but he describes them as seen by Europeans, as in the comment “most Egyptians are indolent, ignorant, filthily dressed, liars, and ill mannered” (p. 15).

While expansive, Angrezabadi’s coverage of the world is exceedingly lopsided. Nearly seventy percent of the narrative is devoted to the chapter on Asia, a geographical term that is itself a European artifact for grouping together the vast region stretching between Arabia and Japan. Angrezabadi’s description of Asia begins with oceans and mountain ranges, goes quickly over Sri Lanka and some other islands, and then launches into the geography and history of Arabia, which is presented prominently as Islam’s cradle. What follows is a generalized narrative of what is usually regarded as the history of Islam, entwined with the regions today called the Middle East and Central Asia (pp. 57–193). East and Southeast Asia are covered in eight pages, while the treatment of India extends to over six hundred (more than fifty percent of the whole work).

Angrezabadi’s description of India presents the most complex case of amalgamation between information coming from different sources. At a highly generalized level, the geography of India is conveyed through the British divisions of the country, whereas much of the pre-British history is based on Persian chronicles and other sources, used mostly without explicit citation. The British takeover of India is related from the viewpoint of British self-understanding and is said to start with the coming of British ambassadors to the Mughal court in 1600 CE. He describes direct political control over territory as beginning with the seizure of Bengal in 1757 and completing with the defeat of the Sikhs in the Punjab in 1849 (pp. 410–411). Within the extensive description of Bengal, Ilahi Bakhsh provides a detailed account of the vicinity of Angrezabad.

The work’s last chapter is devoted to a description of the author’s own history (pp. 1099–1107). Counterintuitively, this is a list of names and dates, without much in the form of a confession as one might expect in self-writing being penned after the author had completed a work more than a thousand pages long. He states that his family came to Bengal from another part of North India to serve local rulers at an indeterminate date. In the late eighteenth century, an ancestor moved to the region of Malda, where Angrezabad is located, and succeeding generations were connected to Englishmen in the employ of the East India Company. Members of the family seem to have belonged to the middle level of Indian bureaucrats whose literacy skills were in demand for purposes of administration. Angrezabadi remarks that up until 1838, Persian was the language of administration in Malda. Its replacement by Bangla likely diminished the professional prospects of people such as Angrezabadi and his family (p. 539).

The encyclopedic pretensions of the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa can convey the impression that the work is a hodgepodge of materials copied from earlier sources. Such a judgment misses the mark because it means overlooking the distinctive framing invented by the author and the immense labor of excerpting materials from hundreds of works, in multiples languages and genres, to create a compendium. Also noteworthy is that Angrezabadi manages the task of incorporating knowledge from the widely divergent streams.

More than the sheer legwork of understanding and using sources, the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa exemplifies an attitude toward reports on the past that is the inverse of orientalist works such as the Sinin-i-Islam. For Leitner, counting something as history required proof, meaning it had to have a trustworthy source and could stand up to principles of material causality. The first of these applies to Angrezabadi as well, but his method is to let sources speak based on their own cognizance rather than subjecting them to a causality test based on his personal authorial judgment. From this perspective, materials from earlier Islamic, Indian, and European sources all become a part of the same narrative despite issuing from very different places.

The author then becomes a kind of discerning curator rather than someone presiding over the evidence as judge and jury. As I discuss in the section on Mongols in this chapter, this attitude toward evidence for the past originated in particular circumstances and had a long history in Persian works by the time Angrezabadi composed his work. This perspective makes the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa a polyvocal and perspectival account of past time that contrasts sharply with the narrowing and reductive impulse exemplified by nineteenth-century orientalists.

With respect to narrative patterns, Angrezabadi stands apart strongly from earlier Persian works with respect to authors’ self-representation. This is an area where, in the tradition, authors feel licensed to expand on their circumstances as well as emotional states when describing the time when the work was written. But Angrezabadi treats even this topic with a curatorial detachment, providing a list of names and relationships with dates given in both Hijri and Gregorian calendars. The distancing may partly be an expression of genuine humility. However, I think it may also reflect a new subjectivity as a historian.

I am inclined to interpret the presentation of self in dates alone, rather than through the more usual recourse to sentiment, as a case of absorbing a new paradigm for thinking about what kind of a past is valuable and worth sharing. This seems especially so because of Angrezabadi’s punctility about giving Gregorian era dates for his family, perhaps adopting a pattern that he would have observed in practices of his European associates.

The only account of someone mentioning meeting Angrezabadi is in Henry Beveridge’s short article on the Khurshid-i Jahan-numa published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1895. Beveridge writes that in 1889, a Mr. Pargiter informed the Asiatic Society that a Muslim schoolmaster had written a work in Persian that may be worth publishing. The Society invited the author to send the work for inspection, “but the old man was so attached to his book, that he refused to let it out of his sight, and as he could not afford to come with it to Calcutta, nothing further was done at that time” (194).

Beveridge was then able to visit Malda. He met the author and when he suggested copying a part, “he accepted this proposal, and after some difficulty in finding an amanuensis, for Ilahi Bakhsh was too old and feeble to make the extract himself, the portion of it which related to Bengal was copied out and sent to me in England, 1891.” Angrezabadi died in 1892, two years before Beveridge’s report on the text was read out at the Society (Beveridge, “The Khurshid Jahan Numa of Sayyad Ilahi Bakhsh al-Husaini Angrezabadi,” 194–195).

It is moving to think of Angrezabadi as an old man, attached to his Khurshid-i Jahan-numa, a book whose name is a chronogram that indicates it was finished in 1863, more than a quarter century before Beveridge saw it. Written in a language fading fast from the Indian scene, the work was largely meaningless to Angrezabadi’s contemporaries. For Beveridge and others, Europeans as well as Indians, the work’s coverage of places distant from India were valueless. The language and literary form Angrezabadi deployed made the work a relic, a curiosity far more than a source of knowledge. This was an account of the past out of sync with the way the past was meant to be understood and told in the late nineteenth century. This asynchronicity is principally responsible for the work not receiving attention as a unique artifact that speaks to the time in which it was produced. Even more than self-consciously modernist productions, this atypical source illuminates for us particularities of Islam as a historiographical object in modern times.

Related Sections in Other Chapters