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Article

Thibaut d'Hubert

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, Middle Bengali became a major idiom of literary expression in the kingdom of Arakan. It is within the domain of this coastal kingdom, which then comprised the region of Chittagong in today’s Bangladesh, that Muslim subjects of the Buddhist kings started using the courtly vernacular that was previously cultivated by Hindu dignitaries of the Ḥusayn Shāhī sultans of Bengal. By the mid-17th century, which constituted a moment of economic prosperity and maximum territorial expansion, all genres of Middle Bengali poetry were represented in the corpus of texts written by authors living in the urban and rural areas of the kingdom. The many treatises on Muslim beliefs and meditative practices, the hagiographic literature, and the courtly romances testify to the formation of a local Islamic cultural ethos. After the Mughal conquest of Chittagong in 1666, local literacy was still cultivating standards set by authors of the Arakanese period such as Saiẏad Sultān and Ālāol. In Arakan itself, Bengali Muslim literature continued to be produced and transmitted until at least the first half of the twentieth century. A large number of manuscripts was collected in the first decades of the twentieth century and these are preserved in various institutions in Bangladesh. The Bengali literature of Arakan is characterized by its Indic religious idiom and Sanskritized poetics, but also by its complex intertextuality that reflects the region’s connections with north India and the Persianate trading networks of the Bay of Bengal. Up to the 2000s, the Bengali literature of Arakan has mostly been discussed within the framework of the national literary history of Bangladesh, but subsequently scholars have relocated this corpus within the cultural domain of the Bay of Bengal and the Islamicate literary traditions of South and Southeast Asia.

Article

David Lelyveld

The lifetime of Sayyid Ahmad Khan (“Sir Syed”) (1817–1898) spans profound transformations introduced to India and the wider world by the twin forces industrial capitalism and British imperialism. Sayyid Ahmad’s intellectual responses to a changing world and his leadership in the establishment of educational institutions, voluntary associations, and a broad public sphere all played a significant role in defining what it means to be Muslim, especially in India and what would become Pakistan but also in wider cosmopolitan and global networks. The development, compromises, and contradictions of Sayyid Ahmad’s ideas and projects over time track the challenges he faced. If these efforts pointed the way to some sort of modernity, it was rooted in the Indo-Persian and Islamic formation of his early years and developed by selectively adopting bits and pieces of European ideologies, technologies, practices, and organizational arrangements. He has been claimed or condemned by advocates and opponents of a wide range of ideological and political tendencies under circumstances that he would barely have recognized in his own time: nationalism, democracy, women’s equality, and religious and literary modernism. At different points in his career one may find mysticism, scriptural literalism, and daring rationalism with respect to religious texts; charters for Muslim “separatism” and calls for Hindu-Muslim unity; demands for autonomy and political representation and opposition to it; bold critiques of British rulers; and proclamations of “loyalty” to the colonial state. A major figure in the advancement of the Urdu language, he later argued for the superiority of English, of which he himself had little, for the purposes of education and administration. Most of all, he helped establish an intellectual and institutional framework for contemporaries and future generations to debate and pursue collective goals based on religion, language, social status, or class interest.

Article

Thibaut d'Hubert

The literary history of Bengal is characterized by a multilingual ecology that nurtured the development of Middle Bengali literature. It is around the turn of the second millennium, during the Pāla period (c. 8th–12th century), that eastern South Asia became a major region for the production of literary texts in Sanskrit and Apabhramsha. Early on, Bengal developed a distinct literary identity within the Sanskrit tradition and, despite abrupt political transitions and the fragmentation of the landscape of literary patronage, fundamental aspects of the literary culture of Pāla Bengal were transmitted during later periods. It was during the Sultanate period, from the 14th century onward that courtly milieus began to cultivate Middle Bengali. This patronage was mostly provided by upper-caste Hindu dignitaries and (in the case of lyric poetry at least) by the Sultans themselves. During the period ranging from the 15th to the early 19th centuries, vernacular literature can be divided into two broad categories: short narrative forms called padas or gītas (songs), which were often composed in an idiom derived from songs by the Old Maithili poet Vidyāpati (c. 1370–1460); and long narrative forms in Middle Bengali called pā̃cālīs, which are characterized by the alternation of the prosodic forms called paẏār and tripadī and the occasional insertion of songs. These poetic forms are the principal markers of the literary identity of Bengal and eastern South Asia (including Assam, Orissa, and Arakan). The Ḥusayn Shāhī period (1433–1486) contributed to the consolidation and expansion eastward of vernacular literary practices. Then, the political landscape became fragmented, and the multiplication of centers of literary production occurred. This fragmentation fostered the formation of new, locally grounded literary trends. These could involve the cultivation of specific genres, the propounding of various religious doctrines and ritual practices, the fashioning of new idioms fostered by either dialectal resources, classical idioms such as Sanskrit or Persian, and other vernacular poetic traditions (Maithili, Avadhi, Hindustani). The late Mughal and early colonial periods witnessed the making of new trends, characterized by a radical modification of the lexical component of the Middle Bengali idiom (i.e., Dobhāṣī), or the recourse to scripts other than Bengali (e.g., Sylhet Nagari/Kaithi, Arabic). The making of such new trends often implied changes in the way that authors interacted with Sanskrit, Persian, and other vernacular traditions. For instance, Persian played as crucial a role as Sanskrit in the various trajectories that Middle Bengali poetry took. On the one hand, Persian in Bengal had a history distinct from that of Bengali; on the other hand, it constituted a major traditional model for Bengali authors and, at times, Persianate education replaced the one based on Sanskrit as the default way to access literacy. Even if Middle Bengali poetic forms continued to be used in the context of various traditional performances, the making of a new literary language in the 19th century, the adoption of Western genres, and the development of prose and Western prosodic forms occasioned a radical break with premodern literary practices. From the second half of the 19th century, with the notable exception of some ritual and sectarian texts, access to the ancient literature of Bengal began to be mediated by philological analysis and textual criticism.

Article

Richard Eaton

The Persian cosmopolis refers to the vast territory between the Balkans and Bengal in which, for 1000 years, an integrated sense of moral, social, political, and aesthetic order was informed by the circulation of normative Persian texts. Several centuries after the Arab conquest of the Iranian plateau, a spoken form of a hybridized Middle Persian and Arabic emerged in written form, using a modified Arabic script. What had begun as a regional vernacular swiftly became a transregional, literary medium as regional courts in Khurasan and Central Asia patronized Persian literature and used that language in their bureaucracies, building on a tradition of professional writers that had served Persian empires for centuries. The technology of paper-making, recently introduced from China, facilitated the rapid movement of Persian texts across space, while Firdausi’s epic poem the Shah-nama (1010) celebrated Iranian mythology and pre-Islamic history in ways that connected widely scattered peoples of different ethnicities. Territorial conquests by Persianized Turks, followed by Mongol invasions that drove peoples of Central Asia and Khurasan into new lands, also served to expand the geographical extent of the Persian cosmopolis. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the political, aesthetic, and moral order elaborated in a growing Persian canon—for example, the principle of justice—had become associated with a prestigious, cosmopolitan style that was emulated and absorbed by widely scattered peoples of diverse ethnicities and religions. Persianate architecture, attire, urban design, music, cuisine, and numismatic traditions were also assimilated by such peoples. With the translation of a rich store of romance literature into vernacular tongues, the Persian cosmopolis became as much a subjective phenomenon, inhabiting people’s collective imagination, as it was an objective, mappable zone in which popular, discursive, and normative texts circulated along networks that connected royal courts, provincial notables, Sufi lodges, merchant communities, and schools.