The Curse of Alberuni

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By

Toheed Ahmad[1]

(Sultan Mahmud) utterly ruined the prosperity of the country (of India), and performed those wonderful exploits by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions, and like a tale of old in the mouth of the people.

-Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner. According to their belief, there is no  other country but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no created being besides them have any knowledge of science whatsoever…If they travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation.

– How could we know the history of nations but for the everlasting monuments of the pen?

Alberuni, Kitab ul Hind, circa 1030 AC

In December 2013, I was involved in organizing a Seminar on the theme of ‘Translation and Historiography’ at the University of Gujrat. Although so much history has been written on the lands comprising Pakistan today, mostly in Persian, the linkage between history and translation has not been highlighted at any of our academic forums. As I went around Lahore searching for speakers for the Seminar, I was saddened to find that there was little understanding for what I was saying. While some senior Persian professors expressed interest in the theme, they confessed that they may not be able to speak at the event because they could not clearly see the conflation between a subject (History) and a practice (Translation). I could not reach any noted historian, probably there are not many left; we only have some moaners of history. Friends recommended, Dr. Mubarak Ali but he was abroad at that time for health reasons. So I went back to whatever I had read and understood of the subject and put together a concept paper on the theme and sent it around.

The concept paper began with the following quote from Montreal University’s META Translator’s Journal (No. 49, September 2004) article titled ‘Translation in Historiography’ by Gertrudis Payas:

Historians and anthropologists sometimes need to translate or to use translations in order to have access to resources written in other languages. Translation in their hands differs from translators performed by “professional translators” in one important aspect: at least theoretically, the translation performed by professional translator is the transfer itself. Somebody will use our translation for his or her purpose.  But, when the historian translates, he is both translator and end-user. Indeed, he is even more than that: he “orders” the translation by choosing the text by choosing from a selection of other resources; sometimes he also carries out the paleography and the edition, then he translates and uses the translation to support his findings. Translation is thus a significant part of the historiographical process, involving a number of decisions. The purpose of translation in the hands of the historian is history-making, apparently through the obtention of evidence that is considered dormant in untapped written sources. Translations in the hands of historians therefore, are important because they are expected to deliver some otherwise unavailable understanding of the past.

May be we have spent too much time quarreling over what should go into Pakistani history and ignored the writing of history. Historiography figures only as a minor course in the advanced History programmes at our universities. Had we trained a band of qualified historiographers we may have raised the quality of our history discourse, and may be lessened the acrimony that animates our history community. At least the clerics could thus have been showed the door and some scientifically derived history writing could have been put forward. (Instead of adolescent newspaper articles like “Photo shopping History’ in Dawn’s recent Sunday magazine). A member of History Department faculty told me that their advanced academic programmes contain not more than a week’s teaching of Historiography. And yet we don’t tire of citing Ibne Khaldun being the Father of Historiography. Father of what?

As against a whole host of history writers in India, we have had only a handful, and they too seemed to have been consumed by polemics, of left, right and centre variety. The Centrists were the ones who got persecuted and hounded and even chased all the way out of the country like the venerable K.K.Aziz. I came across the following piece titled ‘Save the Project’ in Dawn’s archives for op-ed articles for 13 August 2003 which narrates the fate of a now forgotten national history writing project:

One deplorable, and certainly undemocratic, trait of our national and provincial governments is that each successive dispensation hastens to undo the favourite plan or project of its predecessor, suspecting in it hidden evils attributed to some selfish political motive of the originators.

Seldom is the yardstick of merit employed. I can imagine the PPP and the PML (N) looking forward to coming into power and folding up the devolution plan just because it was started by General Pervez Musharraf. Since 1988 they have been doing this to each other too.

Without further ado I shall come to the subject of this piece, i.e. the aborted project to get an authoritative history of Pakistan written. Poring over old papers I came across a letter I had written in November 1998 to Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, at that time Culture Minister in Mian Nawaz Sharif’s second coming, which gives the history of this history. Except for minor editing I am reproducing it here. It is a classic example of sacrificing scholarship at the altar of petty politics.

“Sheikh Sahib,” I wrote, “What I want to place before you concerns learning and culture, with the hope that you will rescue the matter from neglect and oblivion and accord it the place it deserves in the activities of the government. I am sure you know that in the National Institute of Historical & Cultural research, a comprehensive history of Pakistan was being compiled under the guidance and leadership of Dr Kaneez Yusuf, former VC of Quaid-i-Azam University. Before work on it was stopped by Acting Culture Minister Mushahid Husain, and you confirmed that action without examining its merits, it was making steady progress.

“However, since Dr. Kaneez Yusuf bears the label of the PPP, the momentous project was shelved just to get rid of her. (Cutting the nose to spite the face?) The desired ouster of Dr Kaneez Yusuf was understandable because our politics cares only to glorify or degrade names and faces, irrespective of the bad or good work they are doing. The Doctor had to be relieved of her assignment, and that was done. But what was the sense in dropping the project when so much valuable work had already been completed? In any civilized country this corpus of laborious effort and painstaking research would have been valued as a treasure because writing the history of a country is no joke.

“Many scholars have written the history of Pakistan, but no government in Pakistan has sponsored a complete and comprehensive history which should reflect both the objective truth and the ideals and aspirations of the people of a country founded for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Every state in the world that has remained subjugated to a colonial power has had its history written by its own scholars, except Pakistan. So, it’s a kind of record, but, you will agree, Sheikh Sahib, it’s nothing to be proud of.

“Some time ago Mr Bhabani Sen Gupta was in Islamabad in connection with the informal talks between the intellectuals of India and Pakistan to improve mutual relations. Mr Gupta is an eminent historian. He told some of our history professors that India had its history written, in ten huge volumes, 25 years ago, and asked if Pakistan had done the same or not. You can imagine how shamefaced our men must have looked at the question. However, one of them volunteered the information that work on it was proceeding, which was of course a white lie.

“Before I say anything of the work already done, let me clarify a very important point. I have heard it said, and I’m sure that you and Mushahid Husain believe this implicitly, that the project which was originally conceived by Dr Kaneez Yusuf in late ZAB’s time, had been undertaken to glorify him and his People’s Party. Well, both of you will be disappointed to know that there is no such thing in the project. The history ends on the fall of Dhaka in December 1971, and the period of ZAB’s rule is not, repeat not, included in its scope. So what did you two stalwarts of the PML have against it? You can’t even say that ideological supporters of the PPP among historians were commissioned to write on the various phases and periods. Except for a few who declined to contribute chapters, only well-known and highly respected scholars were engaged in the task.

“When the project was arbitrarily shelved, Dr Ahmed Hasan Dani, the most revered among our historians and archaeologists, and Cultural Adviser to your regime, could have been put in charge in place of Dr Kaneez Yusuf, not only to carry on and complete the grand task but also to take a critical look at whatever had been produced so far. That could have been done to remove your doubts, if you had any.

“Historians from all over the country had been assigned various parts of the history. There were to be ten volumes, of which the first was devoted to pre-history, an aspect that is given little importance in this country. And the total work was not to be merely the story of kinds and rulers and their wars and conquests. There were to be other important details too, portraying the life of the people. For instance, stress was laid on the social and economic conditions in the times of the different kings and dynasties, so as to present a full picture of the development of trade and industry, art and culture, architecture and customs, and social, religious and educational institutions. The writers were encouraged to go to original sources instead of relying on published material.

“Two of the ten volumes had been duly completed and were about to go to press when the blow fell. Six others had also been compiled and were being edited, while the last two, up to 1971, were still to be taken up. It was a magnificent effort, whatever had been done, and the work would have been a landmark in the history of scholastics in Pakistan. What a waste of labour, and what impression the various historians must have formed of the government’s treatment of the scholarly project!”

Thereabouts my letter of November 1998 ends. But my appeal doesn’t. Sheikh Rashid is again minister (of Information this time) and very influential. If he is touched by my words it will be no problem for him to have the project retrieved, even if it has been partially eaten by white ants. The whole project can be put in the capable hands of Dr Mubarak Ali, the eminent historian, because it certainly does not deserve to become the victim of neglect.

One way of invigorating history writing in Pakistan is to produce some historians trained in Translation Studies.

It is said that there are some 100,000 Persian language manuscripts lying largely unread in our libraries; the Punjab University Library contains some 20,000 of them. All of them should be of interest to our historians, whether these relate to astronomy or astrology, faith and inter-faith issues, court chronicles, inter-state relations, literature, arts and crafts, music, medicine, travel, biography, geography or accounts registers of wealthy people. Phew! The mansion of history has so many doors. Do our History Departments cover all these dimensions of this rich and hugely influential subject? History teaching in Pakistan needs to pay special attention to mainstream this gold mine of sources. So perhaps our postgraduate history courses need to offer specializations in languages, especially Persian. Trained historians need orientation in Translation Studies so that they can train students in salvaging this heritage and thus revitalize history as an academic discipline

Some Persian language history books were translated (and thus interpreted) during the colonial era. These texts need revisiting and retranslation (and reinterpretation) in a post-colonial perspective. And again who will read and translate these Persian manuscripts into English, and Urdu. This was the question I had wished to pose for the Gujrat University Seminar. Although we had some hazy references to the theme made at the event, nothing flowed from it, except the following schema of studies for an eventual full course (degree or diploma) in Translation and Historiography proposed by Dr. Tanvir Anjum of Quaid-e-Azam University who presented at the event:

1.      The Importance of Translation Studies for History-writing with special reference to Persian language Sources of Premodern / Medieval South Asian History

2.      The Problems of Translating Persian Historical Texts of Medieval Times

3.      A Critical Analysis of Translators’ Objectives and Preferences (with special reference to Colonial era translations of Persian-language historical texts)

4.      Politics of Translation & South Asian Historiography (Example: The Case of Elliot & Dowson’s History of India as told by its Own Historians)

5.      A Critical Study of Select Translated Historical Texts (Barani’s Tarikh-i-Firuzshahi, Isami’s Futuh al-Salatin, Abul Fazl’s Akbarnamah, etc.)

6.      Impact of Translated Historical Works and their Impact on history-writing in Contemporary Times.

Perhaps such a course cannot be offered by a traditionally organized History Department. If universities have to be creators of new knowledge, and promoters of research, especially in social sciences, they have to seriously think about enabling interdisciplinary teaching and research. Fire walls between departments will need perforation so that academics can be fertilized and new knowledge germinated. Ideally Translation Studies Departments, like the one at the University of Gujrat, can offer such a ‘revolving’ platform.

Instead of permitting and encouraging transdisciplinarity, our Universities are watering down social sciences. For example at Punjab University, History Department has been ‘re-invented’ as Department of History and Pak Studies. Study of History has thus been devalued, without adding any value to the flat, under-imagined subject of Pak Studies. The faculty has thus been protected from Alberuni’s ‘curse’. Similarly, I feel strongly about the dwindling quality of our Economics teaching and research. Some years I recall a conversation some years back with Dr. Ishrat Hussain, who was then the Governor State Bank of Pakistan, when he told me that the state Bank had endowed six chairs of Economics at our universities. The posts were advertized, and he said it was shocking that they could not find even a single qualified person. A lot of Economics is now being done under Management and Entrepreneurship Studies, which for obvious job reasons, students find attractive to follow. Why then should they plod through the demanding subject of Economics, much of which now is glazed with mathematics.

Another benefit of Historiography programmes will be the revival of Persian language which now languishes at our universities. Apparently students sign up for Persian courses mostly because of lack of other opportunities. Here we are still following the East India Company government’s policy of ‘abolishing’ Persian. Though it must be admitted that of late some of our Arab friends too have hand in this banishment of a language. In present circumstances interest in Persian can be recreated by laying out its academic importance, for example, by making it compulsory for students of History/Historiography. History curriculums should include another language so that advanced study of the subject takes students first hand to world sources. Similarly our literature students should be taught Persian to deepen their understanding of our own literary ethos.

When a curse is pronounced against any person, we are not to understand this as a mere wish, however violent, that disaster should overtake the person in question, any more than we are to understand that a corresponding “blessing” conveys simply a wish that prosperity should be the lot of the person on whom the blessing is invoked. A curse was considered to possess an inherent power of carrying itself into effect. Prayer has been defined as a wish referred to God. Curses (or blessings) were imprecations referred to supernatural beings in whose existence and power to do good or inflict harm primitive man believed.

–      Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary

So Alberuni (973-1050 AC)’s ‘curse’ is the heavy burden he places on our historiographers and students of history. A thousand years ago he wrote in the Preface to his Kitab ul Hind that “Everything which exists on this subject (religious doctrines of the Hindus) in our literature is second hand information, which one has copied from the other, a farrago of materials never sifted by the sieve of critical examination”. This could also apply to our knowledge and study of people of other civilizations and religions today.

Here I would mention some examples of the mental inwardness fostered by our faulty history teaching and near total absence of Historiography. I served a term as Member, Punjab Public Service Commission where we interviewed candidates for various jobs. At times I would ask Muslim candidates, who held Master’s degrees in various subjects, about what they knew about Hinduism. Their invariable answer was that “While the Hindus worshipped the cow, we eat beef”. I asked them if they knew anything else about Hinduism; the answer was a blank. To some others I put the question about the basic teachings of Christianity. The answer I always got was “They believe that Christ was the son of God while we don’t”. Anything else, I would ask, and they all replied with a no. The answers belie a combative mindset, a dangerous inwardness, and lack of empathy that only a hangman can afford. Alas, these children have not seen anything being “sifted by the sieve of critical examination” in their student careers. Nobody has read Alberuni to them.

In the same Preface, Alberuni extends this ‘curse’ by stating that “This book is not a polemical one. I shall not produce arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple record of facts”. How many tracts of history that we have produced can stand this scientific test – that of being nothing but simple record of facts.This is Alberuni’s challenge (or curse) to our evangelist historiographers and guardians of Pakistan Ideology. Facts are sacred for any narrative to be credible. My gut feeling is that here ‘lies’ are easy to popularize but truth needs validation by the methods it is arrived at. Rigorous scholarship “sifted by the sieve of critical examination” will yield the “monuments of the pen” that Alberuni prescribes.

Alberuni’s ‘curse’ on Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi that he atomized the Hindus has been interpreted by Dr. Edward Sachau as Alberuni’s antagonism towards the Sultan. Dr. Sachau also portrayed Alberuni as a prisoner of war banished to the Salt Range. Dr. N. A. Baloch has challenged this reading. In a chapter titled “Beruni and His experiment at Nandana, District Jhelum”, (Lands of Pakistan – Perspectives, historical and cultural, El-Mashriqi Foundation, 1995, Islamabad), Dr. Baloch holds that this is “the least scholarly part of (Sachau’s) scholarly edition of Alberuni’s India. It would appear as if to disparage Sultan Mahmud, (Sachau) uses Beruni against him. He gives his readers to understand that Beruni was taken prisoner and held hostage by the Sultan to the very end of his reign; restrictions were imposed on him so that he could not carry out his researches freely; ill-treatment was meted out to him both by the Sultan and his Prime Minister; and that up to the time that Beruni wrote his Kitab ul Hind (the very last days of the Sultan), he was “still suffering from the oppression of King Mahmud”. A close examination of all the relevant references shows that such assertions are contrary to the facts on record.

As for the ‘atomization’ charge, Dr. Baloch states, “Dr. Sachau failed to appreciate the great virtue of Beruni who would always speak the truth; if he had done so in the presence of Sultan Mahmud it was not because he did not respect the Sultan but because the truth had to be told. It was Beruni’s courage of conviction and not his animosity or antagonism towards the Sultan, that he criticized him for ‘utterly ruining the prosperity’ of India”.

Kitab ul Hind was written in Arabic and later translated into other languages. Its English translation was made by Dr. Edward C. Sachau (1845-1930), Professor at the Royal University of Berlin and the Principal of the University’s Seminary of Oriental Languages, who also supervised the edition of the original Arabic manuscript. “It was in the summer of 1883 that I began to work at the edition and translation of (Kitab ul Hind)”, Dr. Sachau reports in his Preface to the book. Dr. Sachau was a rigorous scholar and recreated Alberuni’s celebrated book for the world by establishing an authentic Arabic manuscript of the original book. His translation is a beacon house for today’s translators and historiographers. He carries on to say, “In order to test my comprehension of the book, I translated it into German from beginning to end between February 1883 and February 1884. In 1885-86 the edition of the Arabic original was printed. At the same time I translated the whole book a second time, into English, finishing the translation of every single sheet as the original was carried through the press”.

Dr. Sachau adds, “Translating an Arabic book, written in the style of Alberuni, into English, is, for a person to whom English is not his mother tongue, an act of temerity, which when I was called upon to commit it, gravely affected my conscience to such a degree that I began to falter, and seriously thought of giving up the whole thing altogether….As regards my own translation, I can only say I have tried to find common sense in the author’s language, and to render it as clearly as I could….Perhaps it will not be superfluous to point out to the reader who does not know Arabic that this language sometimes exhibits sentences perfectly clear as to the meaning of every single word and the syntactic construction, and nevertheless admitting of entirely different interpretations….Under these circumstances, I do not flatter myself that I have caught the sense of the author everywhere, and I warn the reader not to take a translation, in particular a first translation, from Arabic for more than it is. It is nothing absolute, but only relative in many respects”.

One of my favourite quotes on history is a line from that great German genius Goethe which is inscribed at the beginning of that best seller novel about the History of Philosophy, Sophie’s World written by the Norwegian school teacher Jostein Gaarder. It reads, “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth”. We have not three but ten thousand years to draw on, only if we had competent historiographers and translators of history.


[1] The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.