The Muhammad Avatāra: Salvation History, Translation, and the Making of Bengali Islam 0190089229, 9780190089221

In The Muhammad Avatara, Ayesha Irani offers an examination of the Nabivamsa, the first epic work on the Prophet Muhamma

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The Muhammad Avatāra: Salvation History, Translation, and the Making of Bengali Islam
 0190089229, 9780190089221

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The Muhammad Avata¯ra

The Muhammad Avata¯ra Salvation History, Translation, and the Making of Bengali Islam

AY E S H A A . I R A N I


1 Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and certain other countries. Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America. © Oxford University Press 2021 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by license, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reproduction rights organization. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above. You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer. Library of Congress Cataloging-​in-​Publication Data Names: Irani, Ayesha A., author. Title: The Muhammad Avatāra : salvation history, translation, and the making of Bengali Islam / by Ayesha A. Irani. Description: New York : Oxford University Press, 2021. | Includes bibliographical references and index. | Identifiers: LCCN 2020016969 (print) | LCCN 2020016970 (ebook) | ISBN 9780190089221 (hardback) | ISBN 9780190089245 (epub) Subjects: LCSH: Islam—Bangladesh. | Bangladesh—Civilization. | Muhammad, Prophet, -632—Biography—History and criticism. Classification: LCC BP63.B3 I78 2020 (print) | LCC BP63.B3 (ebook) | DDC 297.095492—dc23 LC record available at LC ebook record available at DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190089221.001.0001 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Printed by Integrated Books International, United States of America

In humble dedication to the Rohingya of Arakan, whose stories have been forgotten; and to those who are working to alleviate their unspeakable suffering

The past appears to be no longer written in granite but rather in water; new constructions of it are periodically arising and changing the course of politics and history. —​Aleida Assmann


The magnanimity of many remarkable individuals has made this book possible. My journey began at the University of Pennsylvania, where I had arrived to study with the late Aditya Behl. Those years, when he opened up the riches of medieval Indian literature to me, were simply exhilarating. Aditya’s own work on the Sufi literature of Awadh claimed him completely, and, after his untimely demise in 2009, his model remained a beacon for me as I continued on my scholarly path without him. My dissertation could not have been written were it not for the dedicated guidance of my committee members. I am indebted to Jamal Elias for taking me under his wing, even though my research was far along in its conception. His astute supervision and generous support at this critical juncture allowed me to bring my doctoral thesis to completion. Daud Ali was also pivotal to sustaining my momentum after Aditya was gone. Rachel Fell McDermott has been a gracious and giving guide through long years of research and writing, both in graduate school and beyond. My scholarship owes much to her meticulous scrutiny of my work and her cherished friendship. Christian Lee Novetzke has steadfastly counseled me through my graduate studies and career, and guided me through every stage of the publication of this book. I am deeply grateful to both Rachel and Christian for their unflagging support and sage advice over many years. I would also like to extend my heartfelt thanks to all those who taught me at Penn and beyond: the late Ludo Rocher, who ushered me into Penn’s portals, and to Rosane Rocher, Harunaga Isaacson, Barbara Von Schlegell,

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Everett Rowson, Haimanti Banerjee, Pardis Minuchehr, Negin Nabavi, the late Alibha Dakshi, and Debangan Basu. Renata Holod gave me a lasting passion for the art of the Islamic world. Even today I draw strength from the memory of my time with her, and I thank her for her generosity. My thanks also to Rupa Viswanath and Jody Chavez for their friendship and support of my research at Penn. At the University of Toronto, I was delighted to find the camaraderie and intellectual association of Christoph Emmrich, Enrico Raffaelli, Srilata Raman, Ajay Rao, Karen Ruffle, Walid Saleh, Maria Subtelny, Mohamad Tavakoli-​Targhi, and Shafique Virani. Christoph, Srilata, and Karen all provided critical feedback at various stages in the writing of this book. I would also like to thank Usman Hamid and Adil Mawani, then graduate students at the University of Toronto, ​for their questions about and thoughtful suggestions for my research. Likewise, I  have felt blessed by the kindness and unwavering support of my colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Jean-​Philippe Belleau, Christina Bobel, Elora Chowdhury, Dolly Daftary, Alexander Des Forges, Sana Haroon, Kenneth Rothwell, Rajini Srikanth, Lakshmi Srinivas, and Jason Von Ehrenkrook have all cheered me on through the writing process. Terry Kawashima, Chair of the Department of Asian Studies, has been steadfast in her support and encouragement of my work. Sana and Elora have read drafts of various chapters and provided me with thoughtful suggestions. I have also benefited from conversations with Thibaut d’Hubert of the University of Chicago and Manan Ahmed at Columbia University. I am truly grateful for the insights, encouragement, and friendship of all of my stellar colleagues. Over the last year or so of writing this monograph, I  had the great pleasure of working on my draft chapters with four impressive scholars of South Asia, who fed my imagination, while providing encouragement and critique along the way. I extend my warmest thanks to Elora Chowdhury (again), Sarah Pinto, Jyoti Puri, and Banu Subramaniam for their receptivity, maturity and judgment, and sisterly conviviality. It was under the discerning mentorship of Tony K.  Stewart that this monograph achieved its final form. Having carefully read my bloated original manuscript, Tony provided me with a detailed map through

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and out of the labyrinth of my own making. Were it not for his brilliance and generosity, this book would never have come to press in a timely fashion. At various points along the way, moreover, Tony freely shared his understandings of the Nabīvaṃśa with me, challenging my thinking and spurring me in new directions. Chapters  3 and 4 of this book owe much to the discussions I have had with him over the years, particularly to the workshop “Reconsidering the Non-​Muslim Other:  Internal and External Religious Differentiation” he organized at Vanderbilt University in 2013, and to the seminar at Brown University where he presented, in 2018, the central ideas of his latest masterpiece, Witness to Marvels: Sufism and Literary Imagination. I benefited greatly from reading the manuscript of this book. An earlier iteration of Chapter 1 of this book was published in History of Religions. I am grateful for the journal’s permission to adapt the article for this book, to Wendy Doniger for her editorial support, and to John Stratton Hawley and Tony Stewart for their valuable feedback on the article. Chapter 6, likewise, is a revised version of an essay first published in The Prophet’s Ascension: Cross-​Cultural Encounters with the Islamic Miʿrāj Tales in 2010. My thanks to Indiana University Press for permission to reuse and update this article for the book. I  am grateful to the editors, Christiane Gruber and Frederick Colby, who encouraged me to submit my essay for this splendid volume. I extend my special thanks to Cynthia Read, Salma Ismaiel, Brent Matheny, Leslie Johnson, Preetham Raj, and Katherine Eirene Ulrich at Oxford University Press, and the anonymous reviewers of my book manuscript, who each, in their own way, helped shepherd this book into production. I  am grateful to the artist, Anita Chowdry, for permitting me to use her exquisite piece on the cover of my book. To the University of Massachusetts Boston, my thanks for providing me with the subvention necessary to bring this book to publication. I have had the privilege of presenting my research on Islamic Bangla literature to diverse audiences and received much invaluable feedback. My thanks are due to the Department for the Study of Religion, the Iranian Studies Seminar Series, and the Oriental Club at the University

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of Toronto, and the Department of Asian Studies and the Junior Faculty Research Seminar at the University of Massachusetts Boston for opportunities to present my research; to the Dissertation to Book Workshop sponsored by the American Institute of Indian Studies; to Projit Mukharji for his invitation to the Liminal Deities Workshop at McMaster University; to Wendy Doniger for including me in the panel “Muslim-​Hindu Literary Encounters in Early Modern South Asia:  Conversations with Aditya Behl” at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion; to Thibaut d’Hubert and Alexandre Papas, who invited me to Paris for the conference “A Worldwide Literature: Jāmī (1414–​1492) in the Dār al-​Islām and Beyond”; to Rebecca Manring for her invitation to the conference “Bengali Maṅgalakāvya and Related Literature,” sponsored by the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies; to Debojyoti Das for inviting me to the workshop “Connected Landscapes: The Alternative Understanding of Asian Societies, History, and Ecology,” and to Supriya Gandhi for her invitation to the workshop “Translation in Early Modern South Asia,” both at Yale; to Teena Purohit and SherAli Tareen for their invitation to the conference “Muslim Thought and Practice in South Asia,” at Boston University; to Frank Korom for including me in the Greater Bengal Roundtable Conference, sponsored by the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies and Boston University; to Yael Rice for inviting me to the symposium on “Books and Print between Cultures, 1500–​1900” at Amherst College; to Benjamin Fleming for including me in “Intertwined Worlds: the 10th Annual Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age,” at the University of Pennsylvania; to Aniket De and Priyanka Basu for their invitation to the symposium “Rethinking Folk Culture in South Asia”; to Usman Hamid for including me in his panel “Devotion to the Prophet Muhammad in Early Modern South Asia” at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion; to Rajarshi Ghose for inviting me to present my research at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta; and to Mohammad Nabeel Jafri and others for their invitation to deliver the keynote address at the Fifth Biennial Graduate Conference on South Asian Religions at the University of Toronto. Each

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one of these presentations helped me to refine my thinking, and for this I am most appreciative. I have benefited from the generosity of the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto, the University of Massachusetts Boston, and several funding organizations who supported my graduate and post-​graduate research. I  am particularly grateful for the University of Pennsylvania’s William Penn scholarship, the Briton Martin fellowship, and for Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships; the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies Dissertation Fellowship; the Newcombe Foundation’s Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship; and the University of Toronto’s Connaught New Researcher Award. The support of all of these institutes and funding organizations enabled me to pursue my research single-​mindedly. The librarians of the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto, the Widener Library of Harvard University, and the British Library have made my research a true delight. The superlative collections on South Asia and the Middle East of the University of Pennsylvania, and the extraordinary facilities they provided for my dissertation research merit special mention. For their indefatigable efforts in tracing and scanning endless numbers of obscure articles and book-​chapters, I especially wish to thank Sheila Ketchum, Coordinator for Books by Mail, and her dedicated team of David “Lapis” Cohen, Ionelia Engel, Susan Gavin-​ Leone, and Maryanna Kraft. I am deeply grateful for their expertise and constant support through my graduate years, without which I could never have written my dissertation. My thanks are also due to the Interlibrary Loan staff at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who have worked closely with me to further my research. In Bangladesh, I  was fortunate to receive the kind favor of many individuals who opened up their homes and libraries to me. Mohammad Abdul Kaium and Rajiya Sultana, my first teachers of Islamic Bangla literature; Nehal and Zahed Karim; Deoan Nurul Anoyar Hosen Caudhuri; and Muhammed Sadique shared their knowledge with me and gifted me with rare articles and books from their personal libraries. The late Saiyad Hasan Imam Hoseni Chishti of Sultanshi, Habiganj, founder of

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the Mahākavi Saiyad Sultān Sāhitya o Gabeṣaṇa Pariṣad, and his nephew, Saiyad Murad Ahmad, the younger brother of the custodian (motaoyāllī) of the Mudarband shrine complex, spent long hours discussing their family histories, their lives, and Sufi practices with me, and graciously opened up their family shrines to me. I am beholden to them for receiving me into their sacred spaces and households. At Dhaka University, Perween Hasan, Kalpana Halder-​ Bhowmik, Dulal Kanti Bhowmik, Monsur Musa, Ahmed Kabir, and Shahjahan Miya shared their insights on Islamic Bengal and its literature with me. Shaheen Sultana at the Dhaka University Library; Muhammad Abdul Awal Miah and Mohoshin Ahmed Chowdhury at the Library of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh; Indra Kumar Simha of Comilla’s Ramamala Library; and Muhammad Ishak Caudhuri of the Chittagong University Rare Books Library made every effort to assist me. The latter also gave me the opportunity to study an exquisite manuscript of the Nabīvaṃśa in his private collection. Additionally, he accompanied me to the villages in the Patiya district where he had conducted ethnographic research on Saiyad Sultān. Jamal Uddin, a journalist and the proprietor of Balaka Prakashana, provided me with important materials on Chittagong’s history. The late Jahangir Alam, Manager of the Ambrosia Guest House, Dhaka, and his dedicated staff made me feel at home in Dhaka. To Nayan Talukdar, Khairulbhai, Jamalbhai, and Quddusbhai, my heartfelt thanks for all of their generous assistance in Dhanmondi and on my travels through Bangladesh. In India, Hena Basu, in Kolkata, and Harisankar Chakraborty, the Deputy Librarian of Tripura University, Agartala, helped source rare materials for my research. To them, my gratitude. I am grateful for the dear friends and accomplished colleagues who have supported me along the way: Debangan and Srabani Basu, Aradhana Behl, Amit Dey, Alberta Ferrario, Benjamin Fleming, Sudha Ganapathi, Rajarshi Ghose, Walter Hakala, Epsita Halder, Brian Hatcher, Prashant Keshavmurthy, Frank Korom, Minakshi Menon, Christopher Ryan Perkins, Ronit Ricci, Yael Rice, Sunil Sharma, Harleen Singh, Pushkar Sohoni, Narendra Subramanian, Eliza Tasbihi, and Fozia and Murtuza Vasowalla. My father, Aspandiar Ardeshir Irani, was and will ever remain a

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wellspring of inspiration to me in more ways than I can here convey. It was he who planted the first seeds of love of Persian literature in my heart. His sudden passing in 2010 meant that he could not see the fruits of the tree he had so lovingly tended. My beloved mother, Yasmin—​my first teacher—​ and my brother, Khushru, and his wife, Anuradha, have provided me with the comfort of their wisdom and precious love. For them, I am ever grateful. Kathleen, my mother-​in-​law, has been a source of inspiration for me: her exemplary spirit and love of all things new have never failed to energize me. Shaman and Roshan have enlivened this journey, providing everything from happy distraction to thoughtful critique, and all the love and patience they could muster in between. Shaman has indeed played a pivotal role in the careful editing of my manuscript, of which he has indulgently read innumerable drafts. This project would not have been possible without his abiding support. To Shaman and Roshan, my love and gratitude for their companionship on this long and winding road.


This monograph employs three systems of transliteration, all of which are based upon the Library of Congress (LOC) romanization tables: for Bangla and Avadhi, the LOC’s romanization system for “Sanskrit and Prakrit” has been used, while for Persian and Arabic the separate LOC tables provided for each of these languages have been employed.1 To respect Bangla’s dynamic connection to the two cosmopolitan languages of premodern Bengal—​Sanskrit and Persian—​certain conventions have been adopted in transliterating Bangla. First, because of Bangla’s genetic connection with Sanskrit and for purposes of easier identification of Sanskrit loanwords (tatsama) in Bangla, the Sanskrit romanization system has been used for the transliteration of Bangla. Orthographic distinction between va and ba follows the etymology of the Bangla word in question. Being a noun of Sanskritic origin, avatāra, for example, is romanized with a va, while nabī and karibā, being an Arabic noun and a Bangla/​Prakrit verb respectively, are both romanized with a ba. Keeping in mind Bengali sensibilities, exceptions have been made in the case of Baṅga, which is romanized as such, rather than as Vaṅga; and with the modern Bengali proper names Bandyopādhyāya, Banerjee, Basu, and so on, which are commonly spelt with a “b” rather than a “v.” Second, to honor the Bangla 1. See “ALA-​ LC Romanization Tables:  Transliteration Schemes for Non-​ Roman Scripts,” accessed here: http://​​catdir/​cpso/​roman.html


A N ote on T ransliteration and O ther C onventions

vernacular, I  preferentially use Bangla forms of Arabo-​Persian words which occur in Islamic Bangla texts in discussions pertaining to this literature. Thus, I use “Āllā” rather than “Allāh,” “Korān” rather than “Qurʾān.” Where confusion may arise, a Bangla term is provided with its Arabic or Persian equivalent in parentheses in the first occurrence. In discussions of medieval Islamic literature, Arabic and Persian proper nouns and terms are provided in their romanized forms true to the transliteration systems of each of these languages. Some degree of inconsistency is inevitable in discussions of Islamic Bangla texts in the context of medieval Islamic literature and traditions. The following abbreviations have been used throughout to indicate the relevant language, where confusion may arise: Ar. for Arabic; Av. for Avadhi; B. for Bangla; and Pers. for Persian. Third, in the case of Islamic Bangla proper names and terms of Arabo-​ Persian origin, I drop the final inherent (and depending on the pronunciation, occasionally the medial inherent or epenthetic) a. For instance, the title Rasul Vijaya and the name Saiyad Sultān are transliterated thus, instead of Rasula Vijaya and Saiyada Sulatāna. However, all such inherent vowels are retained in the citation of textual passages. Fourth, it is also important to bear in mind that orthography in the middle Bangla period is fluid; one word can be spelt in a number of different ways in the manuscript tradition, with short and long vowels often being interchangeable. For instance, Ālī can also be spelt as Āli; nūra as nura. The name of the Prophet of Islam can be spelt as “Mohāmmada” but also as “Muhammada.” The name of the author of the Nabīvaṃśa may be spelt “Chaiyada Cholatāna,” “Saiyada Sulatāna,” or “Chulatāna.” To avoid confusion, in the latter two cases, I have used “Muhammad” in all discussions pertaining to Islamic Bangla texts, and “Saiyad Sultān” throughout this monograph. In translated passages, I  have retained the orthography of the middle Bangla as it is provided in Ahmad Sharif ’s critical edition of the Nabīvaṃśa. It is noteworthy, however, that such critical editions themselves standardize middle Bangla orthography often to the variant that most closely follows the sound of the Arabo-​Persian word in question, without systematically recording orthographic variants. So, at best, my choice of variant reflects the critical edition rather than the many middle

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Bangla variants of a particular Arabo-​Persian word in the vast manuscript tradition of the Nabīvaṃśa. Transliteration of Bangla vowels follows the regular pattern, but with the addition of three symbols drawn from conventions for Prakrit—​ä, ï, and ü—​to accommodate the orthographic peculiarities of middle Bangla. Verbs such as hao or haila, spelled with diphthongs in modern Bangla, are in middle Bangla often spelled with two vowels, which I transliterate as haä or haïla, respectively. Similarly, the verb form āchaüka, for instance, is spelled with the medial vowels a and u rather than a diphthong, and is transliterated as such. In addition, the characters ṛ and ṛh have been used for retroflex consonants, as in bāṛi (“house”) or gāṛha (“dense”). All proper names are provided in transliteration, except for those of the well-​known figures Muhammad Enamul Haq, Sukumar Sen, Ahmad Sharif, and Rabindranath Tagore. For Bengali authors who also wrote in English, I have used their own favored spellings of their names, rather than transliterate these. Place names are provided in their standard modern forms. The exceptions to this rule are Bangladeshi village names, which I have chosen to provide in transliteration. Wherever relevant, premodern forms of place names are also supplied in transliteration. All titles of articles in Persian and Arabic are standardized to the LOC system. This is particularly applicable to articles from the Encyclopedia of Islam (Second Edition). Concerning dating conventions, the abbreviation A.H. (anno Hegirae) indicates the Islamic Hijrī calendar, which begins in the year 622 of the Common Era. B.S. indicates bāṅgālā śaka, the approximate Common Era date for which is calculated by the addition of 593. Names of individuals are often followed by the years of their birth (b.) or death (d.) in the format A.H./​C.E., those of rulers by their regnal years (r.), and, in rare instances, those of authors with their floruit (fl.).







Kuch Bihar





Sylhet Kangla



ng Kheturi es Ri Murshidabad ver Birbhum


Habiganj Dhaka

Navadvip Jalalpur Satgaon Jessore Hooghly


Bay of Bengal


Irrawaddy River


Feni River Paragalpur Karnafuli River Cakraśālā

Ava Naf River





0 0


Pegu Bassein

170 Kilometers 85

170 Miles

Map of Arakan and Eastern South Asian in the Seventeenth Century


The Prophet of Light and Love Nu¯r Muhammad in Bengal’s Mirror

A well-​known seventeenth-​century Bengali religious text opens with an invocation of God and his creation. The author writes: First I bow to the Lord, who is without beginning, a storehouse of riches, he who created the fourteen realms in the blink of an eye. He has neither beginning nor end, nor a fixed locus. His unbroken form permeates all things. He created the heavens, netherworlds, and the mortal world. Adorning himself, he sports in various forms. All know that he does not become manifest. He takes the guise of the manifest in the hidden; in the manifest, that of the hidden. Whether or not the Word (śabada) takes on many forms, it remains a single, congealed mass, devoid of vacant space. Imperceptible in the perceptible, he rests imperceptibly. Determining his unknown signs is utterly confounding. No syllables can enunciate him; to contemplate him frustrates. The void’s form emerges from the vessel (ghaṭa) of the void (śūnya). Without Nirañjana, the Immaculate One, nothing is created therein. Within form, the formless form ever rests.

The Muhammad Avata¯ra. Ayesha A. Irani, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190089221.003.0001.



Form imbues fire with heat; it perfuses the wind with cooling fragrance. It assumes viscosity in earth’s clay, while it makes its descent (avatari) into water as the turtle (kūrma). Even as the sun’s rays suffuse the moonlight, so too does Nirañjana permeate all things. Even as butter inheres in cows’ milk, so too is the Lord immanent in the world.1 Anyone conversant with the Indic world’s manifold cosmogonies will recognize the Vedic notion of creation through the Word and the division of created beings into the fourteen worlds. They might recognize the Vaiṣṇava formulation of Viṣṇu’s periodic descent to earth in order to restore righteousness, or the Buddhist idea of the primal void (śūnyatā), or even the Sāṃkhya conception of the five elements (bhūta) that form creation’s material basis. Yet this author does not write from the standpoint of a Vedic theologian, nor a Vaiṣṇava, even though many Vaiṣṇava texts refer to their supreme deity, Viṣṇu, as Nirañjana, the Immaculate One, and invoke his ten avatāras, such as the Turtle (kūrma). Neither does he write as a follower of the Buddhist or Dharma cults, nor as a promoter of Sāṃkhya philosophy. The author reveals his perspective in the very next line: Having taken the form of Muhammad—​his own avatāra—​ Nirañjana manifests his own portion (aṃśa) to propagate himself. From time’s beginning to its end, the Creator shall create messengers (paygāmbar) to rightly guide all peoples.2 The author is Saiyad Sultān, and his text, the Nabīvaṃśa (“Lineage of the Prophet”), an epic work of some 17,396 couplets that chronicles the life of Muhammad. Beginning with creation, it records the tales of his prophetic 1. I rely on Ahmad Sharif ’s critical edition of Saiyad Sultān’s Nabīvaṃśa (NV): Nabīvaṃśa of Saiyad Sultān, in two volumes. NV 1:1–​2. Hereafter the Nabīvaṃśa will be referred to as NV. 2. NV 1:2.

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predecessors, Muhammad’s eventual birth and early years in Mecca, his endeavor to come to terms with his prophetic mission and crucial role in religious history, his persecution by the Meccans and emigration to Medina, his numerous campaigns against the Meccans, his ultimate conquest of Mecca and establishment of Islam in his hometown, and, finally, his unexpected demise shortly before his expedition to spread Islam beyond the Arabian peninsula. Saiyad Sultān was the first to write down this story for the people of Bengal in their mother tongue. His efforts to convince his people to turn to the one true God, forsaking all others, in pivotal ways replicated Muhammad’s mission in the multireligious environment of sixth-​and seventh-​century Arabia. Sultān continues his praise of the Lord, employing Sāṃkhya conceptions of the three guṇas, before invoking the various religious groups—​Jaina, Buddhist, and Vaiṣṇava—​that were active in his world: By harnessing the active principle (rajaḥ guṇa), the Lord creates the world; by means of the sentient principle (sattva guṇa), he then maintains this world. Through the principle of inertia (tamaḥ guṇa), he destroys the world. Boundless is his glory through this triadic set. He made some contented by nature, for others he made the life of the sky-​clad Jaina monk (digāmbarī); some he made householders, while others wanderers. He created the scholar to contemplate scripture (śāstra), and fools to engage in vile behavior. He created Buddhist monks, who must beg that they may eat, and patrons to give them alms in charity. He planted much love for one friend in another: within both hearts, he quickened love for the other. To produce, between foes, discord and amity, to rouse between them dissent, disharmony, he created Rāvaṇa to capture Jānakī,



and Rāma to slay the dreaded demons. Nirañjana created Hari in Vr̥ndāvana to delight in the savor (rasa) of the art of love’s pleasures. Once he created man, he brought forth woman, to make both fulfilled by sexual union. Having created good and evil upon earth, he alone performs all deeds, never anyone else. Know that all that is done is his very doing. All that you see is nothing but Nirañjana.3 What we have here, then, is a traditional Indic account of creation, and the unfolding of God’s purpose in human life through the cyclical advent of his avatāras, who unfailingly rid the world of evil, restoring harmony to humankind. But why does the author insert Muhammad into this characteristically purāṇic account? And, if the author is writing an account of Muhammad’s life, what does he hope to accomplish by invoking Rāma and Kr̥ṣṇa? I will argue that Saiyad Sultān’s text was designed to persuade the people of Bengal to convert to Islam. But conversion, in the NV, is not cast as the adoption of a new religion through a break with the old. Rather, it is the recuperation of one’s own lost religious heritage, a re-​cognition of the role of Bengal’s ancient gods and ancestors in Muhammad’s lineage. Conversion, suggests Sultān, is nothing but a return to the fold. The history of Muhammad that Sultān rewrites is, in fact, a translation into Bangla of a wide range of Persian and Arabic texts in the medieval Islamic Tales of the Prophets (qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ) genre. Like all such premodern histories, whether Islamic or purāṇic, it adopts a historiographic approach which I call “salvation history,” wherein all history is represented as unfolding according to a cosmic plan.4 In seeking to make the life of Muhammad and Islam comprehensible to a Bangla-​speaking audience, Sultān adopts a gamut of sophisticated tactics to rewrite Bengali history, aiming to convince his audience—​a decidedly non-​Muslim audience—​that 3. NV  1:2–​3. 4. Hagen 2017, 3.

The Prophet of Light and Love


they have had and will continue to have a major role in the grand teleology of Islam, if they can but recover their ways. If the measure of a successful translation, as the NV itself proposes, is its ability to convert new peoples to Islam, how does this text seek to attain such a seemingly implausible desideratum? At stake here is not whether a single text can indeed accomplish religious conversion, but rather, how a text might harness the power of vernacular translation to inspire such monumental societal change. I  show how the translation of salvation history has the potential to transform a people’s imagination by altering the stories that matter, the cultural memories and myths that mold identity, and ultimately, the dogmas that are foundational to religious doctrine and faith. I explore the multiple ways in which translation infuses new meaning into received traditions, the potential challenges the author faces in doing so, and the interpretive procedures he mastered to create a tour de force of missionary writing. Indeed, his translation is anything but simple, for Sultān was attempting to naturalize an Arab prophet, and his history and doctrines, into a Bengali universe. Though the author’s translational strategies will begin by demonstrating how Muhammad and Islam fit into the cultural and ideological landscape of Bengal, they will end by displacing traditional understanding with a new reading of Bengal and Bengalis into an all-​encompassing Islamic world history. But who was Saiyad Sultān, what world did he inhabit, and what spurred him to take up his pen as a tool for social transformation?


Dating from around the time of the first Mughal conquest of Bengal (Gauṛa) in 1574, European accounts present the earliest external evidence of the conversion of east Bengal’s rural populations to Islam, a phenomenon that these observers considered to be relatively recent.5 Writing in 1599, Francis Fernandez, surveying the field for Jesuit missionary work, 5. Eaton 1993, 132–​133.



found the population of Katrābo to be entirely Muslim. This town, situated in today’s Rupganj subdistrict of Narayanganj, Bangladesh, was then the fortified capital established by ʿĪsá Khān, leader of the so-​called Twelve Chieftains (bārabhūñā), militant landlords of the southeast delta, who could not be easily subdued by the Mughals.6 Three decades before Fernandez, Césare Federici, a Venetian traveler, observed that the people of Sandvipa Island, in the Bay of Bengal just off the coast of Caṭṭagrāma (Chittagong), were Muslim, and that “they and the people of Chatigan [Chittagong] were both subjects to one King.”7 This ruler was most likely the Afghan, Sulaymān Karrānī (r. 1565–​1572); his son, Dāʾūd Karrānī, last of the independent sultans of Gauṛa, would be routed by the forces of the Mughal ruler, Akbar, in 1576, at the battle of Ṭaṇḍā.8 For the next forty years the Mughals fought to subjugate the rebellious Afghan military chieftains, who attracted to their dissident cause local landlords, Portuguese rebels, and tribal leaders.9 From 1583 onward, the Mughals shifted the focus of their military attentions from what they called Bangālah, essentially northwest Bengal, the site of Islamic rule since 1204, to the Bhāṭi, the vast low-​lying deltaic territories that constituted east Bengal.10 Then a hotbed of local resistance struggles against Mughal imperial authority, this was a region approximating the land mass of today’s Bangladesh.11 The indefinite number of powerful landlords, who came 6. Hosten 1925, 59, and n.  29. ʿĪsá Khān died in September 1599, and his son, Mūsá Khān, inherited the masnad of Sonargaon and took over the leadership of the Twelve Chieftains. For more on ʿĪsá Khān and Katrābo, see A. B. M. Shamsuddin Ahmed 2014 and Husne Jahan 2014 respectively. While Eaton (1993, n. 34, 147) suggests that when Fernandez visited Katrābo ʿĪsá Khān was still alive, Zami and Lorrea (2016, 245) suggest that Mūsá Khān, his son, had, by then, taken over the reins of power. 7. Federici [1625] 1905, 138. 8. Karim 1992b, 28. 9. Eaton 1993, 142. 10. Throughout this monograph, I use the term “east Bengal,” in the manner of Eaton. “The frontier between Mughal ‘Bhati’ and ‘Bangala’, ” as Eaton (1993, 146) specifies, “approximated the present frontier between Bangladesh and West Bengal.” Cf. ibid. Map 4, 139. For the geography of the Mughal subah of Bengal, see Sarkar (ed.), [1948] 2006, 235. 11. Eaton, 145–​146.

The Prophet of Light and Love


to be referred to as the Twelve Chieftains,12 rallied around the intrepid Bengali Muslim leader, ʿĪsá Khān, the most powerful of them; he himself controlled vast lands that included half of modern Comilla, half of Dhaka, the whole of Mymensingh, except for Susang, and probably portions of Rangpur, Bogra, and Pabna.13 Adopting a strategy of alternate conciliation with and resistance to the Mughals, ʿĪsá Khān asserted his power over the region through his naval prowess. Only after his death in 1599 was Rājā Mān Siṅgh, Akbar’s distinguished Rājput general, able to significantly dissipate local resistance via his defeat of the Afghans now regathered under the leadership of Dāʾūd, one of ʿĪsá’s sons. It was eventually during the Mughal emperor Jahāngīr’s reign (r. 1605–​1627) that the Bhāṭi under the rigorous governorship of Islām Khān Chishtī (r. 1608–​1613), came to be consolidated under Mughal rule. Mainly on account of Islām Khān’s remarkable powers of negotiation with local chieftains, by the time of Ibrāhīm Khān’s governorship (r. 1617–​1624), Mūsá Khān, another of ʿĪsá Khān’s sons, and other chieftains had all been effectively integrated into the Mughal imperial service, being placated with leadership roles in major Mughal expeditions, such as that against the Tripurā king.14 As Richard Eaton has shown, the time when the Mughals were making inroads into southeast Bengal coincided with the eastward movement of the Ganges-​Padma river system, which created new fertile lands in Noakhali, directly northwest of Chittagong.15 In addition to subduing the Twelve Chieftains, the Mughals, as Mirzā Nathan’s Bahāristān-​i ghaybī and recent scholarship have shown, were competing with the Arakanese to gain access over the revenues of the fertile plains of Noakhali.16

12. Concerning the term bārabhūñā, and its Assamese antecedents, as well as the possible identity of these chieftains and the areas they controlled, see Bhattasali 1928, 30–​36. 13. Ibid., 33–​34. 14. Eaton 1993, 155–​156. 15. Ibid., 194–​198. 16. Van Galen 2002, 156.



Our author, Saiyad Sultān, however, lived farther to the east and south of Noakhali, in Caṭṭagrāma (Chittagong). Nearly three centuries before the Mughals established control over the Bhāṭi, Chittagong had been under the control of the Delhi sultanate, and later under the independent sultans of Bengal. First captured during the reign of Fakhr al-​Dīn Mubārak Shāh (r. 1338–​1349), it was held continuously, first by the Firūzshāhī sultans of Delhi, and later by the sultans of Bengal up to the time of Rukn al-​Dīn Bārbak Shāh (r. 1459–​1474).17 From the rise to power of Rājā Gaṇeśa in circa 1418 until 1588, around the time of Saiyad Sultān’s postulated birth, Chittagong was bitterly contested by the Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist rulers of Gauṛa, Tripura, and Arakan respectively. This was so undoubtedly because of its coveted harbor, which opened access to the Bay of Bengal’s bustling intercontinental trade. The Buddhist rulers of Arakan owed their very existence to the Bengalis, for it was the sultan of Gauṛa, Rājā Gaṇeśa, alias Jalāl al-​Dīn (r. circa 1418–​ 1433), who sheltered the fleeing Nara Mit Lha, the aspiring ruler of the newly emerging kingdom of Arakan. With the military support of his Arakanese Muslim or Rohingya troops, Rājā Gaṇeśa’s successor Nāṣir al-​ Dīn Māḥmūd (r. 1433–​1459) re-​established Nara Mit Lha, on a firmer footing at Mrauk U, the Arakanese capital on the banks of the Kaladan River. From the time of the rule of Nara Mit Lha’s brother, the kings of Arakan adopted Muslim names in addition to their Pali titles.18 Though this dual titulature, as Jacques Leider asserts, did not indicate Arakan’s political dependency on Bengal,19 it suggests that the Arakanese had cultural aspirations to become a part of the Persian ecumene. After 1439, Man Khari alias ʿAlī Khān founded Rāmu, extending Arakanese control into the Chittagong region;20 he also conducted wars with the Rājās of Tripurā.21 While the Arakanese held most of southern Chittagong during the restored Ilyās Shāhī dynasty 17. Karim 1992a, 174. 18. Leider 2002, 128–​129; also see Qanungo 1988, 286. 19. Leider 2002, 129. 20 . Ibid. 21. Subrahmanyam 2002, 111.

The Prophet of Light and Love


(r. 1437–​1487), numismatic evidence suggests that sultān Nāṣir al-​Dīn controlled the Chittagong port.22 It was the remarkable Arakanese ruler Man Pa (r. 1531–​1553) who set about consolidating his kingdom by warding off a major Burmese invasion and subduing the Portuguese armada at Mrauk U in 1534. While east Bengal was still being newly consolidated under the Delhi sultanate by Sher Shāh Sūr, Man Pa established control in 1539–​1540 over the Chittagong port, probably until its capture in 1556 by the Tripurā king, Vijayamāṇikya (r. circa 1536–​1563), who then controlled the thriving port for the next ten years.23 Arakanese sources boast of Man Pa’s establishment of a military outpost in Dhaka, and his appointment of one of his sons as the governor of Sylhet.24 He also built some of the most famous temples and pagodas of Mrauk U and fortified the city with an impressive system of defenses.25 The reign of the warrior king, Man Phalaung (r. 1571–​1593), finally brought an end to Tripurā’s contestation of the Chittagong region; in 1586, they fought off an attack by Amaramāṇikya, the Tripurā king, who had earlier consorted with Chittagonian Muslims and the Portuguese, who had sought his help. The Tripurā ruler was punished by the Arakanese, who beat him back and pillaged his capital city, Udayapur; the king fled and ultimately committed suicide. As the powers of the Tripurā rulers ebbed, Bengal was captured by the Mughals, who consolidated their sovereignty over Bengal over the course of four decades. During these years, while ʿĪsá Khān and his allies resisted the Mughals, it was the Arakanese who gained gradual control over Chittagong. Man Phalaung appointed one of his sons as the first Arakanese governor of Chittagong.26 As Leider points out, upto 1610, the governors of Chittagong bore the title of “king of the West” (anauk-​bhuran), underscoring an expansionist vision that 22. Qanungo 1988, 149–​150. 23. Leider 2002, 131. 24. Ibid., 132. 25. Ibid., 131. 26. This paragraph is summarized from ibid., 133–​134.



clearly went beyond Chittagong. The Arakanese governors had the remarkable privilege of minting their own coins. While their power seemed slightly diminished after 1612, they kept on adopting Indian titles (alongside their Arakanese titles), long after the Arakanese kings abandoned this custom.27 In the early sixteenth century, Arakanese rulers courted the Portuguese for their trade;28 and by the early seventeenth, Portuguese missionaries, who had by 1567 established a firm presence at Bengal’s trading centers of Satgaon, Chittagong, and Pipli (now in India), began to erect churches in Arakan.29 Fray Sebastien Manrique, who visited Chittagong in 1630, reports that the Arakanese were “granted Bilatas or rent lands in the Saccasalā [Cakraśālā] district,” the area of central Chittagong associated with Saiyad Sultān’s life.30 From missionary accounts we also learn how, during the rule of Sirisudhamma/​Salim Shah II (r. 1622–​1639), Portuguese mercenaries fought alongside the Arakanese “Maghs” in raids against the Mughals.31 However, Portuguese meddling in the politics of the region was to the detriment not only of Arakanese expansionism,32 but also to their own interests; they were punished first by the Arakanese, resulting in a loss of their settlements at Arakan, Chittagong, the island of Sandvīpa, and Jessore (Cāndikāna), and later, at Hughli, in 1632, by Qāsim Khān’s decimation of their settlement under Shāh Jahān’s orders.33 During the reign of the controversial king Candasudhamma (r. 1652–​ 1684), Mrauk U reached the height of its expansionist ambitions and 27. Ibid., 134. 28. Ibid., 131. 29. Luard 1927, 1: xxiv–​xxv. 30. Ibid., 1: 271. 31. See, for instance, the accounts of Fray Sebastien Manrique, the Portuguese missionary deputed to Arakan between 1629–​1637. Ibid., 1: 89. 32. Leider 2002, 131. 33. Luard 1927, 1: xxv–​xxvii.

The Prophet of Light and Love


imperial splendor. At the apogee of territorial expansionism, the kingdom of Arakan, before 1666, extended nearly up to Dhaka in the west.34 Well into the second half of the seventeenth century, by fighting off the Portuguese and the Mughals, they managed to retain their hold over the region up to the Feni River in the north to Cap Negrais in the south.35 European travelers to Mrauk U before 1666 liken it in prosperity and beauty to contemporaneous Lisbon and Amsterdam.36 Architectural historians of Arakan from the mid-​sixteenth to the mid-​seventeenth centuries comment upon Mrauk U’s remarkable fortification and the grand scale of its building projects, making it a world city.37 Living in the shadow of the sultans of Gauṛa, the Buddhist rulers of Arakan had become would-​be sultans, who aspired to cultivate a cosmopolitan yet Islamicizing court, which drew upon the intellectual, administrative, and martial talents of numerous Bengali Muslims to enhance their kingly authority and the prestige of their court.38 “In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” as Sanjay Subrahmanyam points out, the polity [of Arakan] is the locus of highly complex cultural flows and eddies, where the diplomatic correspondence was often conducted in Persian or Portuguese, where the normal language of the court and countryside was Arakanese (Magh), where a highly sophisticated literature was also produced in Bengali, and where titulature and some chronicles reflected a late efflorescence of Pali.39

34. Raymond 2002, 177. 35. Leider 2002, 134. 36. Raymond 2002, 177. 37. Gutman 2002, 167. 38. The Arakanese court is comparable, for instance, with that of Vijayanagar. Its rulers took the title of hindu-​rāya-​suratrāṇa, “Sultan among Hindu Kings,” in adopting this and other processes of what Wagoner calls “Islamicization.” Wagoner 1996, 853 and 854. 39. Subrahmanyam 2002, 111.



The glittering court of Satuidhamma (r. 1645–1652) was the epitome of such cosmopolitanism. It was here that Saiyad Ālāol, Saiyad Sultān’s junior contemporary, a Bengali migrant from Faridpur,40 composed, among other works, his Bengali renditions of Malik Muḥammad Jāyasī’s Padumāvat, and Niẓāmī’s Iskandarnāma and Haft Paykar. In his description, Rosāṅga (the Bengali version of Mrohaung, the later name for Mrauk U)41 drew peoples from near and far: Having heard of Rosāṅga’s pleasures, diverse peoples of various lands flocked beneath the king’s [protective] shade: Arabs, Egyptians, Syrians, Turks, Abyssinians, Byzantines (Rūmīs), Khorāsānīs, and Uzbekīs all; people of Lāhore, Multān, northern India (Hindis), Kashmir, the Deccan, Sindh, Kāmarūpa, and Baṅga; the people of Khotan, Karṇāla, Malabar,42 Āceh, Koci, and residents of Karṇāṭaka; numerous descendants of Śekhs and Saiyads, Mughal and Paṭhān fighters, Hindu Rājputs and various [other] races; peoples of Ava,43 Burma, and Siam (Śāma), the Kukis of Tripurā: how many races should I list? Armenians, the Dutch, the Danes, the English, Catalonians, and the French; the Spanish, Germans, coladāra Christians, the Portuguese and various races. The armies of the Magas (i.e., the Arakanese) are in the forefront of all battles; 40. Ālāol racanāvalī, “satera.” d’Hubert 2018, 30. 41. Ibid., “panera.” Concerning the various names of Mrauk U, cf. Gutman 2002, n. 2, 163. 42. Here I  have favored Qanungo’s textual reading of the line over that provided in Ālāol racanāvalī, 7. Qanungo 1988, n. 6, 290–​291. 43. Ābdul Hak Caudhurī 1994, 15.

The Prophet of Light and Love


innumerable, army-​camps [stretch] endlessly. Temple priests (mahanta) and ministers, each one bearing royal umbrellas, serve the king in an honorable manner.44 In 1666, the kingdom of Arakan, which had until then presented a challenge to its two larger neighboring states, Bengal and Burma, saw a sudden turn of fortunes. With the Mughal governor’s recapture in that year of the entrepôt of Chittagong, which for centuries had been alternately held by the Arakanese and the Bengalis, Arakan, heavily dependent on Portuguese slave-​hunters for its maritime trade in slaves, fell into decline.45 By 1784, the kingdom was captured by the Burmese, never to recover its sovereignty again. In sum, from 1588 until its Mughal conquest in 1666, a period roughly coinciding with Saiyad Sultān’s postulated lifespan (1580–​1650), the region of Chittagong, south of the River Feni, was controlled by the Theravāda Buddhist kings of Arakan.46 Before Shāistā Khān, the Mughal governor, finally brought this area under Mughal rule in 1666, it continued to be governed by the Arakanese. This region included Parāgalpura on the river’s southern banks (today’s Mirsarai district), a place that some scholars have associated with Saiyad Sultān. Considering Chittagong’s tumultuous past, these eight decades under Arakanese rule constituted a brief moment of relative stability in Chittagong’s history. Various economic and trade indicators show that during the first fifty years of this period, Chittagong, over and above its existing economic importance as an entrepôt, so flourished as an important center of rice and textile production that it became the single most important source of revenue for the Arakanese state.47 By Sultān’s time, Rosāṅga, the multicultural capital of Arakan, was

44. Translation mine. Padmāvatī in Ālāol Racanāvalī, 7. 45. Eaton 2002, 226–​228. 46. For dates of the Arakanese control over this area, Leider 2002, 134 and Qanungo 1988, 175. 47. Van Galen 2002, 156–​157.



inhabited by Afghan adventurers fleeing the Mughals, Portuguese pirates whom the Arakanese depended upon for the slave trade that fueled their agriculture and economy, and Bengali Muslims of varying socio-economic backgrounds.


This was also the period when this vibrant, and now more stable, Arakan witnessed the emergence and efflorescence of Islamic Bangla literature.48 Two nodal literary production centers emerged therein:  the Chittagong port-​town and its environs, and the Arakanese court. The vast majority of these early-​modern east Bengali Muslim authors, among whom Saiyad Sultān was a pioneer, wrote independently. They were usually affiliated with local Sufi orders and were interested in transmitting Islamic teachings to the local peoples, unlettered in Persian and Arabic. As a result, they were keenly involved in the translation of Perso-​Arabic works on Islamic and Sufi doctrine and ethics into Bangla.49 A select few, such as Daulat Kāji and Saiyad Ālāol, gained patronage at Mrauk U’s court.50 The literature produced for courtly patrons largely drew upon the Persian and Avadhi Sufi storytelling traditions. Whether in courtly circles or in rural Chittagong, Islamic Bangla texts participated in an “oral-​literate culture”:51 these texts were transmitted to 48. Determining the dating and historical chronology of Islamic Bangla texts remains an incomplete task. In their efforts to affirm the cultural significance of this literature that had hitherto been neglected by Bengali literary historiographers, early Bangladeshi literary historians had established dates for certain texts much earlier than the linguistic and historical evidence warrants. This is the case, for instance, with Śāh Muhammad Sagīr’s Iusuph-​Jalikhā, which up until recently was considered to be the earliest Islamic Bangla text, dating from as early as the late fifteenth century. More recent studies of the text shows that it should probably be dated closer to the late sixteenth century. Irani 2018b. 49. For a survey of the literature produced by Bengali Muslim authors in the early modern period, see Roy 1983. 50. On Ālāol’s poetry, see d’Hubert 2018. 51. This term was coined by V. Narayana Rao, cited in Orsini 2013, xiv.

The Prophet of Light and Love


literate and unlettered audiences alike via oral recitation and song; and in tandem with oral transmission, these texts variously harnessed the Bangla and Arabic scripts and the technologies of the early modern book (pustaka/​pustikā; puñthi/​puthi; ketāb) for their circulation and preservation. Most significantly for my account, the texts that emerged from Arakanese Chittagong were constituted by and constitutive of the very historical moment witnessed independently by Federici and Fernandez during their travels through east Bengal:  the most intense Islamization of Chittagong’s rural populace, along with neighboring Noakhali, and Rangpur and Pabna to its northwest. By 1872, when the British conducted the first census, over 70% of eastern Bengal’s population was determined to be Muslim.52 Much remains to be known concerning the Islamization of Bengal. The pioneering scholars Asim Roy (1983) and Richard Eaton (1993) offer distinct historical reconstructions of how and why conversion to Islam took place in sixteenth-​and seventeenth-​century Bengal. In Roy’s model, Islam came to be established among the Bengali masses by “Muslim cultural mediators,” via their production of a “syncretistic” literary tradition that combined elements of Islam with local, non-​Islamic religious doctrine.53 Though the social background of these mediators remained obscure to Roy, he put forward the thesis that they bridged, through their writings, the gap between the “great” and “little” traditions of Islamic Bengal, between the Muslim elites (ashrāf), whom he characterized as “exogenous,” “orthodox sunni” Muslims, and the indigenous local peoples (ajlāk) who were newly adopting Islam.54 Though Asim Roy’s survey of Islamic Bangla literature remains the most comprehensive available in English, his mediatory, syncretistic model has been superseded by other literary and historical perspectives. Approaching the subject as a historian rather than scholar of literature, Richard Eaton’s reconstruction of Bengal’s Islamization continues

52. Eaton 1993, Map 3, 121. 53. Roy 1983, 72. 54. Ibid., 70–​71.



to hold salience. His “frontier” model proposes a coincidence between the riverine, agrarian, and Islamic frontiers within the political context of Mughal Bengal. While the river systems of the Bengal delta drifted eastward, the Mughals, in order to increase their tax-​base, provided land grants to local pioneers prepared to clear the forested hinterland of the eastern delta. Many of these men were Muslims, who participated in the transformation of the frontier landscape by professing an Islam that came to be identified as “a religion of the axe and plough, as well as a religion of ‘the Book’. ”55 If they offered the bounties of agrarian cultivation to local peoples, they also built village mosques and local Korān (Ar. Qurʾān) schools, which became the nodal points of Islamic identity and its articulation in the east.56 As a result of such pragmatic interventions that improved the lives of frontier peoples, many such pioneers came to be established in local memory as charismatic guides, pīrs. For these reasons, Eaton explains, pīr-​worship was a pervasive feature of eastern Bengal’s religious landscape.57 In my study, I strive to refine our understanding of Bengal’s Islamization by foregrounding the first major work of Islamic doctrine to be written for Bengalis in their mother tongue. Rather than writing a history of how conversion to Islam “happened” in Bengal—​a “factual” history pieced together from epigraphic, documentary, art-​historical, geographical, archaeological, and other evidence—​I focus on Saiyad Sultān’s NV to uncover how conversion was remembered and represented to have happened.58 In other words, a central premise of this book is that the study of Saiyad Sultān’s “mnemohistory” of conversion to Islam in the medieval period, and examination of his salvation history in mnemohistorical terms in the broader context of Islamic historiographical traditions, shed new light on

55. Eaton 2003, 20. 56. For a description of one such traditional village mosque and Korān school in a modern-​day Sylheti village, see the Conclusion of this monograph. 57. Eaton 1993. 58. On “factuality” and “actuality” in historicizing the past, see Jan Assmann 1998, 9–​10.

The Prophet of Light and Love


the Islamization of Bengal itself.59 A term coined by Jan Assmann to define a relatively new sub-​field of history that he pioneered, “mnemohistory” enables us to examine Sultān’s “recourse to a past” to identify what is of “significance and relevance” to his present.60 We see in this recourse Sultān’s aspirations for his and subsequent generations. For Sultān’s present does not merely ‘receive’ the past, as Assmann emphasizes, but is ‘haunted’ by it, while the past, in turn, “is modeled, invented, reinvented, and reconstructed by the present.”61 Sultān’s mnemohistory of Islam’s spread, as detailed in Chapter  3, is characterized by the effective translation of the Qurʾān. Herein we find the foundational inspiration for Sultān’s own enterprise of translation. He embarks upon his composition because of belief in the power of vernacular translation of the Qurʾān for drawing new peoples to the faith. At a broader level, though, the NV is a salvation history, and its study, in mnemohistorical terms, is also an examination of how Muslim intellectuals have remembered their religious past, and the role of translators in its periodic renewal, from the earliest Islamic period to Sultān’s own time. Mnemohistory opens out the possibility of “survey[ing] the story-​lines of tradition, the webs of intertextuality, the diachronic continuities and discontinuities of reading the past.”62 We examine why certain mythical traditions of the past live on in Sultān’s salvation history, why others were “forgotten,” and why new ones took their place. We see how translation, and the multifarious levels of meaning-​making it offers, is mobilized to rewrite Islamic salvation history in a manner that makes it relevant to Bengalis. Sultān’s translation is not a mere expression of hope for the conversion of non-​Muslim Bengalis to Islam, but rather, I argue, a form of social action. The NV simultaneously emplots conversion within the historiographic

59. Ibid., 9. 60 . Ibid. 61 . Ibid. 62 . Ibid.



process, while sowing the seeds of ideas that, ultimately, expand the Bengali hinduāni (Indic and Hindu) imagination, opening it out for the reception of new musalmāni ideas and beliefs.63 In exploring translation as “both an aesthetic and a politic of communication,” as Vincent Rafael has observed about the Christian evangelical context, I thus hope to reveal “the ideological structure” of Islamic missionary practice and identity-​ building activities, crucial to my reconstruction of the role of Muslim Bengali intellectuals in the rooting of Islam in Bengal.64 But what exactly is known about Saiyad Sultān?


This is how a famous disciple of his describes him: In Āmir Hocan’s line was born a repository of virtue: an expert in all the scriptures, an ocean of the nine rasas. His beautiful body is like the dark new raincloud; in charity, he is the heavenly wishing tree, the kalpataru, itself; in steadfastness, the very earth. His face is more radiant than the full moon; his eyes like lotus-​petals; his smile, sweet and gentle, is ambrosial. Pīr Śāh Sultān is an ocean of grace: affectionate lord to his servants, and in virtue, a veritable jewel mine.65 Couched in the topoi of classical Sanskrit literature, this eulogy, in the vein of both Perso-​Arabic encomia to God, the Prophet, kings, and pīrs, and

63. Concerning the term hinduāni as it is used in Sultān’s writing, see Chapter 3. 64. Rafael 1988, 22. 65. My translation of a passage quoted in Karim and Sharif 1960, 349–​350 from a manuscript of the Maktul Hosen of Muhammad Khān (No. 346, Ms. 554, in the Munshi Abdul Karim Collection). Cf. similar manuscripts quoted by Karim and Sharif 1960, 354–​355, 371.

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vandanās to the deity, or to the saints in South Asian hagiographies,66 shows how Muhammad Khān chooses to enshrine the memory of his master, Saiyad Sultān. A prominent poet in his own right, Muhammad Khān wrote Maktul Hosen,67 “The Slain Hosen,” the first work in Bangla on the battle of Karbalā, which has been hailed as “the prototype of all Bangla poems on the Karbalā stories.”68 Of significant social standing, Muhammad Khān was Saiyad Sultān’s chief disciple,69 and was a descendant, seven generations removed, of Rāstī Khān, the governor of Chittagong under the later Ilyās Shāhī ruler, Rukn al-​Dīn Bārbak Shāh. Rāstī Khān is mentioned in Muhammad Khān’s family tree as Cāṭigrāma deśapati, presumably the de facto independent ruler of northern Chittagong under Bārbak Shāh’s rule.70 A few tidbits on the historical Sultān can perhaps be gleaned even from this hyperbolic tribute to his master: Sultān was considered to be a pīr, a venerable Sufi master, by his disciples; he was considered to possess vast scriptural knowledge; and he was dark-​skinned, hence most likely a native of Bengal. A passage from a manuscript of the Kiyāmatnāmā (the last section of the Maktul Hosen) informs us that Muhammad Khān composed his work at the behest of his master: The Nabīvaṃśa was composed by an eminent man (puruṣa pradhāna). He narrated all that arose in the beginning. No sooner did he finish composing “The Death of the Prophet” than he ordered me to compose the conclusion. To respect his command, I thought

66. Concerning such eulogies in South Asian hagiographies, see W. L. Smith 2000, Chapter Six. 67. The title has many variants in the scribal tradition: Muktul Hocaen, Maktul Hocen, Muktāla Hochana, etc. Manuscripts of Maktul Hosen, Karim and Sharif 1960, 344–​360. 68. Ibid., 345. 69. It is the literary historian Muhammad Śahīdullāh who is credited with determining the master-​disciple relationship between Saiyad Sultān and Muhammad Khān. Haq [1957] 1991, 295. 70. For Muhammad Khān’s family tree, see Karim 1964, 154. Sharif 1962, 211. Also see Satya-​Kali Vivāda Saṃvāda of Muhammad Khān, 101–​110. Concerning Rāstī Khān, see Qanungo 1988, 154. The a.h. 878/​1474 c.e. inscription at the Rāstī Khān mosque, in Jobrā village, Hāthahazāri, Chittagong, identifies Rāstī Khān as Majlis-​i Aʿlá, “the exalted governor” of Rukn al-​Dīn Bārbak Shāh in Chittagong. Karim 1992a, 173–​174.



to compose a padāvalī on the tales of the four companions. Having completed the description of the two brothers, I retold the accounts of doomsday. In conclusion, I composed a section on the vision of the Lord. Beyond this, there can be no more to say. If one were to join the two pāncālikās together, one could thread together the accounts of the beginning and the end.71 Muhammad Khān’s Maktul Hosen is a voluminous work in eleven cantos concerning the tales of the first four caliphs, the story of the two brothers, Hāsan and Hosen, at Karbalā, and the eschaton, which he completed in 1646 C.E. He thus takes upon himself to bring his master’s work to what he considered to be its logical conclusion.72 To my mind, however, Sultān’s NV is a complete work. The title itself, “Lineage of the Prophet,” is appropriate to the author’s chosen subject, a universal history of the Prophet Muhammad. In his conclusion to the NV, Sultān does appear to allude to future projects, specifically mentioning the possibility of his composing “another book” (bhinna eka pustaka) when the opportunity arises.73 While this suggests that he considered the NV to be complete, it does not negate the possibility that Saiyad Sultān later asked his disciple, Muhammad Khān, to carry forward his literary legacy by taking up the projects he himself was either unable or unwilling to work on. In Muhammad Khān’s homage to his master, we see the beginnings of an hagiographic tradition surrounding Sultān, which gathers further significance in the early-​modern Bangla literary tradition, wherein Sultān is hailed as a kavi guru, teacher of poets. Khān immortalizes his master not merely for his erudition, but for his spiritual authority as pīr. He legitimates his own writings, thus, by placing them within the literary 71. This is my translation of a passage from Maktul Hosen quoted in Haq [1957] 1991, 296–​297. Cf. also tāhāna ādeśa mālya sireta dhariā | mohāmmada khāne kahe pāñcāli raciā || aparādha māgī āmhi gunigana pāe | doṣa teji guna vicāribā sarvvathāe || Maktul Hosen of Mohamad Khān quoted in Karim and Sharif 1960, No. 346, Ms. 554, 349–​350. 72. For the chapter outline of the Maktul Hosen, see Haq [1957] 1991, 326. See also Maktul Hosen, quoted in Sharif [1972] 2006, 71–​72. For further details on Khān’s work, see Karim and Sharif 1960, 344–​367; and Haq [1957] 1991, 321–​328. 73. NV 2:547.

The Prophet of Light and Love


and spiritual genealogy of a local pīr-​author, who provides his stamp of authority for Khān’s own literary endeavors. By ostensibly providing instruction to his student to carry forward his literary project, Sultān too ensures that his legacy is sustained and extended, at least into the succeeding generation. The only self-​description Saiyad Sultān himself has ostensibly left behind is embedded in the opening lines of a single manuscript of the NV held in an unknown private collection. Translated here into prose, this crucial autobiographical passage, found only in this unique manuscript,74 has become the elusive basis for all scholarly debate concerning Sultān’s dates and birthplace, a subject that I  have elaborated upon elsewhere:75 74. I have yet to set eyes on the manuscript that contains this significant, oft-​quoted passage. Most of this passage, which Haq reproduced from a manuscript of the Śab-​i merāj, was first cited by him in Haq [1934] 1997, 315–​316. (The longer passage provided here is quoted from Haq [1957] 1991, 294–​295.) From this article (Haq [1934] 1997, 314), it would seem that the manuscript in question was in the private collection of Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada. However, an examination of the manuscripts in his collection in the Dhaka University archives shows that this is not the case. Sharif also quotes the passage ([1972] 2006, 66), citing Sharif 1958, 551, raising the hope, thereby, that the manuscript cataloged as No. 490, Ms. 433 therein, would contain the said passage. Close examination of the manuscript, however, reveals that beyond the opening two couplets, which Sharif quotes correctly, the essential next few couplets, beginning with ebe pustakera kathā. . . . and ending with sahāya rasūla yāra taribe sāgara, were erroneously ascribed to this manuscript. While Sharif also quotes this passage in his introductions to volumes one and two of the NV, the passage is nowhere to be found in the critical edition itself. Sharif, introduction, NV 1:9, and introduction, NV 2:7. An editorial note in Sharif 1958 (44) mentions that this kālajñāpaka śloka (the verse that intimates the date of composition) was collected by Muhammad Enamul Haq. Later (ibid., 251) another editorial note about this manuscript mentions: Puthiṭi mālikera kāchei rahiyā giyāche. Tini hātachārā karite cāhena nāi. (“The manuscript has remained with the owner; he did not wish to relinquish it.” Translation mine.) For these reasons, it is highly probable that this manuscript was in the private collection of Muhammad Enamul Haq. Haq’s manuscript collection was posthumously donated by his son, Ibne Inam, to the Jahangirnagar University. While this collection had not been cataloged by the university, when I visited in December 2014, I was able to examine the manuscripts in this collection in person. I was unable to locate the concerned manuscript among the thirty or so manuscripts that comprised this collection at Jahangirnagar University. The Dhaka University manuscript archives were then in the process of digitizing this collection at Jahangirnagar University. An appendix of a list of public and private manuscript collections in East Pakistan and West Bengal found in Sharif (1958, 704), however, records that Muhammad Enamul Haq’s private collection comprised one hundred and twenty-​five manuscripts. It is uncertain where the remaining manuscripts of this important collection are currently located. 75. Irani 2019.



Know that Āllā’s glories are too boundless to communicate. First, I salute the formless Lord. I shall proclaim all that was in the beginning. Second, shall I speak of Khodā’s messenger, widely known in the world as Nūr Muhammad. Third, I  salute all the companions; fourth, I bow to the pīrs and messengers. I shall now attempt to speak about this book, even though I’m not capable of bearing in mind all that is to be conveyed. Obeying the Commander (laśkar) Parāgal Khān’s orders, Kavīndra [Parameśvaradāsa, the poet] thoughtfully narrated the tales of the Mahābhārata. Hindus and Muslims, thus, read it in every household. None listen to the tales of Khodā and the messenger. The year/​s (abda) calculated via the addition (yoga) of graha śata and rasa has/​have passed. [Yet] no one has told these tales in the local language. In Arabic and Persian, there are many books. The learned understand these, not the ignorant. Feeling pained, I internally resolved to speak a great deal about the tales of the messenger. In the settlement of learned men of the Commander’s town (laśkarera pura), I am but a fool, a descendant of a saiyad. I ask for forgiveness at the feet of the learned. If they find fault, let them forgive me, and not complain. Says Saiyad Sultān, why do you worry yourself to death? Those who have the messenger for assistance will cross the ocean.76 This passage reveals several details about the author, some of which recall snippets of information supplied by Muhammad Khān’s portrait. Sultān appears to be impressed by Kavīndra Parameśvaradāsa’s Bangla abridgment of the Mahābhārata, which, to his chagrin, is popular even among Muslims. Parameśvaradāsa wrote this work under the patronage of Commander Parāgal Khān—​the son of Rāstī Khān,77 and governor of Caṭṭagrāma under ʿAlāʾ al-​Dīn Ḥusayn Shāh (r. 1493–​1519). This Rāstī Khān, as seen earlier, is also the ancestor of Sultān’s disciple, Muhammad

76. Haq [1957] 1991, 294–​295; translation mine. 77. Mahābhārata of Kavīndra Parameśvaradāsa, 1:5.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Khān. We learn that Sultān came from a line of saiyads and lived in the Commander’s town in a settlement of ālims, men learned in the Islamic sciences. It might be safe to infer, thus, that he belonged to a family of local Muslim elites, who were socially prominent and well-​connected. Unlike the poet Parameśvaradāsa, Sultān’s status allows him to become an independent author, whose only allegiance is to his Sufi master, Śāh Hosen. Most importantly, we have here laid out for us, a classical feature of premodern Islamic works wherein the author presents his ostensible reasons for the composition of his work (sabab-​i taʾlīf-​i kitāb). He resolves to create a text to popularize the traditions of Āllā and his messenger among native Bengalis, to whom Arabic and Persian texts are linguistically inaccessible. Confusion reigns in scholarship on the meaning of the controversial chronogram supplied in the passage above. Most interpretations treat abda as a singular noun. But the most thoughtful and plausible reading of this chronogram has been provided by Sukhamay Mukhopadhyay, who treats it as a plural noun.78 In his opinion, these lines suggest that the NV is based upon an Arabic text on the Prophet Muḥammad composed 906 years ago, which had not been translated into the deśī up until Sultān’s time. While Mukhopadhyay was unable to identify the Arabic text in question, his interpretation of the chronogram brings up the promising possibility that the text this NV manuscript refers to is Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq’s renowned Sīrat Rasūl Allāh. Ibn Isḥāq was born circa 85/​704, and according to tradition, died in 150/​767.79 From this emerges an intriguing, and in my view potentially compelling, scenario: that the problematic couplet makes reference to Ibn Isḥāq’s death date, and that the NV was completed just prior to Muhammad Khān’s 1056/​1646 Maktul Hosen, in the same year or the year prior. For if Ibn Isḥāq died in a.h. 150, adding Mukhopadhyay’s 906 to this (assumed to be hijrī years) would yield a.h. 1056, that is, 1646 c.e. Admittedly, this would leave a short window of time

78. Mukhopadhyay 1974, 191–​193. 79. The earliest extant manuscript (riwāya) of Ibn Isḥāq’s sīra was written in Medina by Ibrāhīm ibn Saʿd (110–​184). Guillaume (1955) 2004, xxx.



for Muhammad Khān to complete his work, but there is no reason to rule this out. A crucial piece of evidence used to determine Sultān’s floruit is evinced by a chronogram supplied by a manuscript of Muhammad Khān’s Maktul Hosen.80 This chronogram supplies both the śaka date and the hijrī date, a doubly verifiable, definitive date for the completion of the Maktul Hosen: 1567 Śaka (1646 c.e.) and a.h. 1056 (1646 c.e.).81 Given that Muhammad Khān professes to have composed this work, when the NV was completed, we can conclude that the terminus ad quem of Sultān’s floruit can be taken to be 1645. Based upon Muhammad Khān’s descriptions of his master as a youthful-​looking man, moreover, I suggest that the earliest possible date for Sultan’s birth could be 1580 or so, making him, at the most, sixty-​five years of age when he completed his NV.82 Furthermore, as I have shown elsewhere, this suggested date of birth corroborates well with Saiyad Sultān’s possible contemporaries in Muhammad Khān’s family tree.83 A significant piece of internal evidence appears to bolster a seventeenth-​ century dating for the NV. The author states that the reason why he excludes the tale-​cycle of Yūsuf from his tales of the prophets is that it is already well-​known to local peoples. While it is certainly possible that oral accounts of the Yūsuf tale were in circulation, intertextual evidence, examined in detail in Chapter 5, suggests that Sultān was likely familiar with Śāh Muhammad Sagīr’s Iusuph-​Jalikhā, the earliest extant Bangla

80. Here I  concur with the view first put forward by Āsāddar Ālī; Ālī 1979, republished in 1990, 122. 81. Haq [1957] 1991, 326–​327. Concerning the manuscript from which this colophon is taken, see Karim 1914/​1321 B.S., Ms. 241, 161. This manuscript, according to Eaton (1993, 294), is preserved in the National Museum Dhaka, Ms. No. 2826, Acc. No. 6634. I have personally seen this manuscript on display in the National Museum Dhaka, but was not given permission to examine it in person. The Śaka or Śakābda calendar (not to be confused with the Bāṅgālā Śaka (B.S.) of Baṅgābda calendar), produces an approximate Common Era date by the addition of 78. Bhattacharjee 1978, Pariśiṣṭa Ga. 82. Ālī 1990, 124. 83. Irani 2019.

The Prophet of Light and Love


retelling of ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān Jāmī’s Yūsuf u Zulaykhā.84 Sagīr’s translation was probably composed toward the end of the sixteenth century.85 I argue that Sultān took Sagīr’s aesthetic choice of representing the pious Yūsuf as the antithesis of the purportedly profligate Kr̥ṣṇa into new, polemical, and iconoclastic directions. While dispensing entirely with the well-​known tale-​cycle of the prophet Yūsuf, Sultān replaces it with the tale of the god-​ turned-​prophet Kr̥ṣṇa. Sultān’s invective against Kr̥ṣṇa, moreover, seen in his account of Hari, would only have been necessary at a time when Vaiṣṇavism was perceived as a potent threat to Islam. Although Vaiṣṇavism was a long-​ standing religious tradition in Bengal, it was not driven by a missionizing impetus until it was newly charged in the sixteenth century by the charismatic founder of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava movement, Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya (1486–​1534). As I argue in Chapter 5, the inaugural Kheturi festival, organized sometime between 1615 and 1620, and then celebrated annually in years to come, was a historic moment in the consolidation and spread of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava movement in east Bengal. It was in the early seventeenth-​century that Gauṛīya missionizing activities were at their peak, making them the greatest rivals of Islam in the region. In my view, Sultān’s strong polemic against the Vaiṣṇavas, discussed in Chapter  5, suggests that the NV was written in the post-​Kheturi period of Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism’s missionary expansion and consolidation, most likely situating it sometime between 1620 and 1645. Such a reading thus allows us to determine Sultān’s floruit to be 1620–​1645. Over the last several decades, Saiyad Sultān’s legacy has become embroiled in regional controversies, wherein modern Chittagonian and Sylheti groups of scholars and the faithful have sought to claim him to

84 Since the Bangla consonants cha and sa are used interchangeably in middle Bangla orthography, as are the Bangla vowels a and o, and i and e, “Sagīr” is alternatively spelt as “Chagīr,” “Iusupha” as “Iuchupha,” and “Jalikhā” as “Jolekhā” or “Jolikhā.” 85. For a discussion of the dating of Sagīr’s work, see Irani 2018b.



bolster the prestige of their respective regions.86 Through these claims and counter-​claims, more heat than light has been generated about Sultān’s birthplace and time, a subject that I have discussed in detail elsewhere.87 Concerning the geography of Saiyad Sultān’s life, consideration of all the evidence scholarship has brought to light favors the author’s association with medieval Cakraśālā of Chittagong. As earlier seen, the ancestors of Sultān’s chief disciple, Muhammad Khān, were important figures in the history of Chittagong during the Bārbak Shāhī and Ḥusayn Shāhī periods. Parāgal Khān and his son, Rāstī Khān, and their descendants administered the two regions of Chittagong: Parāgalpura in the north, just south of the Feni River in today’s Mirsarai district, and the principality of Cakraśālā, in central Chittagong, which, under the Arakanese, spanned the region between the Karṇaphuli and Mātāmuhuri rivers, and bordered on the medieval principality of Cākariā. M.  E. Haq and Ahmad Sharif identified the laśkarera pura of Sultān’s verse to refer to Parāgalpura, in north Chittagong. No local histories about the author, however, have been found in this area. Given that the poet Muhammad Mukīm associates Saiyad Sultān and his descendants with Cakraśālā,88 it seems possible, as Muhammad Śahīdullāh suggests, that laśkarera pura referred to Cakraśālā, which was governed by the Arakanese representative, who probably bore the title of “Laśkar.”89 As I explore elsewhere, local legends collected from 86. For scholarship on Saiyad Sultān’s legacy in Chittagong, see mainly M. E. Haq [1934/​1341 B.S.] 1997/​1404 B.S.; Sharif (1972/​1379 B.S.) 2006. For Sylheti counter-​claims to his legacy, see Ālī 1990/​1397 B.S., first published in 1979/​1386 B.S.; Islam 1999 and [1981/​1388 B.S.] 1990/​1397 B.S.; Ābdullāh forthcoming; and Hosenī Ciśtī 1987/​1394 B.S. See also Bhattacharjee 1944–​1945/​ 1351–​1352  B.S. 87. Irani 2019. 88. ebe praṇāmiba āmi pūrva kavi jāna | pīra mīra cakraśālā chaida cholatāna || mohāmmada khāna vitarpaṇa daulata kājivara | ehi tina āra eka āche tatpara || gauravāsi raila āsi rosāṅgera ṭhāma | kavi guru mohākavi ālāola nāma || Mukīm’s couplets cited in Sharif ([1972] 2006, 57; cf. Karim and Sharif 1960, 88–​89, and Śahīdullāh [1965] 2002, 100. Mukīm also writes: cakraśālā bhūmi mauddhe pīra jādā ṭhāma | chaida cholatāna vaṃśe sāhādallā nāma || eke tāna bhrātr̥putra dutīye jāmātā | sarva śāstra viśārada śarīyata jñātā || tāna putra śrī chaida mohāmmada chaïda | nijapīra sthāne dui haïla murīda || Satya-​Kali Vivāda-​Saṃvāda of Muhammad Khān, 112. Cf. Karim and Sharif 1960, 85; and see Sharif [1972] 2006, 57. 89. Śahīdullāh [1965] 2002, 101.

The Prophet of Light and Love


two villages in modern-​day Patiya district (medieval Cakraśālā) corroborate the holy man Saiyad Sultān’s enduring connection to this region in community memory, bolstering the case for Saiyad Sultān’s association with Cakraśālā over that of Parāgalpura.90 Since the time of Rāstī Khān’s son, Mīnā Khān, Cakraśālā had been a seat of administration for the de facto governor of Ḥusayn Shāhī Chittagong, and though these regions were past their heyday by Sultān’s time, it seems likely that they retained a significant population of Muslim elites. During the Mughal period, Cakraśālā was broken down into smaller sub-​units (ṭhāṇas) and is today reduced to a small village in present-​day Patiya.91 Local histories of Saiyad Sultān associate him with Baṛaliyā village in Patiya, where he is said to have established his homestead.92 With this brief historical background of the author in mind, let us return to Sultān’s amazing story of creation.


Let us return to Sultān’s invocation to reconsider how Sultān inscribes Islam into the Bengali religious landscape. Sultān commenced his narrative with prayerful praise of Prabhu Nirañjana, the Immaculate Lord. His eulogy transposes the encapsulated form of the Persian ḥamd and

90. Irani forthcoming. 91. Qanungo 1988, 78–​79 and 627–​628. According to Luard’s note in his translation of Travels of Fray Manrique, Cakraśālā, known to the Portuguese as Saccasalā, is “the present district of Sacannya or Sat-​Kannya, lying between Ramu and Chittagong. It stretches north-​east to Comilla, south to Halabun near Cox’s Bazaar and the east of Chittagong.” Luard 1927, 1: n. 5, 89. 92. Irani forthcoming. Of decidedly Buddhist nomenclature, the principality of Cakraśālā, is considered to be an important Buddhist center in local tradition, a region where the Buddha allegedly established Dharmacakras. Qanungo 1988, 81. It is relevant to note here that Unainpurā, Baṛaliyā’s neighboring village, houses a Theravāda temple and is the seat of the supreme patriarch of the Buddhists of Bangladesh, H. H. Saṃgharāja Dharmasena Mahāthera.



naʿt—​the encomiums to God and the Prophet, respectively, with which Persian narrative poems (mas̱navī) begin93—​into the locally available Indic maṅgalācaraṇa or Bengali vandanā, the invocation to the deity that opens most Bangla narrative texts. The poetic form of the Persian mas̱navī is translated into the Bangla payāra, which, like the mas̱navī, is composed of a series of rhyming couplets with the end-​rhyme (aa, bb, cc, dd, and so on) and possesses metric qualities that make it conducive to a declamatory, sonorous, and quick-​paced narrative rendition used in epic poetry.94 While emulating the Persian praise poems, Sultān’s Bangla counterpart, like that of the coeval Punjabi qiṣṣa tradition, is considerably truncated in form.95 Yet the tasks it accomplishes are several. In addition to its liturgical function of soliciting the blessings of the deity for the auspicious inauguration of the literary enterprise at hand, the Bangla hāmd functions narratologically as a prologue. Here it encapsulates key cosmogonical and prophetological themes, while coincidentally supplying a sampler of the NV’s distinctive rhetorical strategies. Drawing upon purāṇic cosmology, the prologue traces the creation by Prabhu Nirañjana of the triple world,96 which consists of the fourteen realms (bhuvana or loka): the seven heavens (ākāśa or svarga), including the earth (martyaloka, the lowest heaven), and the seven netherworlds (pātāla).97 While finding a suitable purāṇic equivalent in the bhuvanas or lokas, Sultān’s “fourteen realms” refer to the Islamic cosmological strata of the seven heavens and the seven earths represented in the qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ accounts.98 Āllā’s omnipotence is such, as Sultān explains, following the eleventh-​century Persian qiṣaṣ author 93. In imitating the Persian poet Niẓāmī, Amīr Khusraw was the first to introduce the narrative convention of the Persian invocations to God and the Prophet (ḥamd and naʿt respectively) into the mas̱navīs of the Indian subcontinent. Mir 2006, 738. 94. For a definition of the mas̱navī, see Rypka et al. 1968, 98. 95. On the Punjabi qiṣṣa tradition that began in the sixteenth century and for examples of invocations peculiar to the Punjabi qiṣṣa, see Mir 2010, 152–​155. 96. Concerning the choice of name for the creator, see below. 97. Rocher 1986, 130–​131. 98. ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī, trans. Brinner, 10–​13 and 19–​24. Qiṣaṣ al-​ anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 1997.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Muhammad Juwayrī, that the fourteen realms are created in the blink of an eye (B. nimiṣa; Pers. yak tarfat al-​ʿayn).99 Creation proceeds through the mysterious crystallization of the shape of the void within the primeval, indivisible, formless void (śūnya). Through the words śūnya and nairākāra (the formless), the theology of the local Dharma cult is also invoked, since the supreme deity of this cult is typically referred to as the formless one and is represented as taking the form of the void (śūnyarūpa).100 While the epithet Nirañjana (the Immaculate One) is the immanent form of Dharma Ṭhākura or Dharmarāja, the supreme deity of the Dharma cult, it is also used by the Vaiṣṇavas to refer to their supreme entity, Viṣṇu Nārāyaṇa. Though compatible with Islamic conceptions of the godhead, the choice of this particular theonym immediately draws multiple Bengali religious communities into the text’s embrace. The form of the formless, according to Sultān, manifests as heat in fire (ānala, Sanskrit anala), coolness and fragrance in wind (pavana), solidity in earth/​clay (mr̥ttikā), and as the kūrma (Turtle) avatāra in water (jala). Whereas these elements translate a Sufi metaphysics into Sāṃkhya terminology, the Turtle presages the purāṇic descent of the ten manifestations (avatāras) of Viṣṇu, in the prophetology that is to follow.101 For in Sultān’s salvation history Nirañjana takes the form of Muhammad, “his own avatāra,” propagating himself via “his own part or portion (aṃśa).”102 Further echoing the Vaiṣṇava doctrine of divine descent, we are told that the creator creates his messengers (B. paygāmbar; Pers. payghāmbar) in age after age in order to provide right guidance to all

99. Cf. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Muḥammad Juwayrī, 8. Cf. Qurʾān 54:50. 100. Ferrari 2010, 32, 52, 54, and 96–​97. See ibid., Chapters One and Two, 24–​114, for an understanding of the various religious overlays that constitute Dharma religiosity and its conception of cosmogony. Cf. also the Oṛiyā Vaiṣṇava conception of Jagannātha as śūnya puruṣa. I  am grateful to Tony Stewart for this suggestion. Concerning the Dharma literature showing awareness of the cult of Jagannātha, see Patnaik 2005, Appendix 1, 229–​236. 101. The Sufi metaphysical terms referred to here would be the four-​fold series—​bād (air), ātish (fire), āb (water), and khāk (clay), which, for instance, in Ibn al-​ʿArabī’s metaphysics are considered to be the four pillars (arkān) of earthly existence. Chittick 1989, 13. 102. For a detailed discussion of Muhammad as avatāra, see Chapter 5.



peoples. The Sāṃkhya-​derived cosmogonic principles then continue to be drawn upon: creation comes about via the active principle (rajaḥ guṇa); it is protected and maintained via the sentient principle (sattva guṇa); and is involuted via the principle of inertia or darkness (tamaḥ guṇa). Next followed reflections upon the Lord’s creation of various paradigmatic social types, functionally and antithetically paired (for instance, the householder versus the ascetic, or the scholar and the fool), and mythological heroes, heroines, and anti-​heroes (Rāma, Sītā, Rāvaṇa, and Hari). References to Rāma and Hari also continue to allude to the tradition of the ten avatāras invoked earlier, while foreshadowing the tale-​cycles of these Muslim prophets in the making (here termed “great, persons” (mahājana). Sultān, thus, skillfully sows the seeds of several theological and polemical ideas within the invocation, seeds that will germinate and bear fruit in the NV’s tale-​cycle of Hari, and further, as the narrative unfolds.103 By referring to the supreme deity in local terms, by allusion to Vaiṣṇava mythic heroes and deities, and by employing vocabulary drawn from purāṇic, Dharma cult, and Sāṃkhya literature, Sultān’s invocation serves to draw various interpretive communities into his discourse. On the face of it, the Prophet’s name and Persian loan-​word payghāmbar for messenger are probably the only distinctively Islamic words to appear in this opening passage; and this too is encountered furtively, as the poet couches the Prophet’s description in purāṇic terms, as an aṃśāvatāra (“descent from a part”) of Nirañjana. It would not be too unfair to argue, therefore, that unless the performance context suggested otherwise, premodern auditors beguiled by the formal equivalences Sultān establishes could well believe that what they were about to listen to was just another purāṇic tale. In this competitive narrative, which seeks to displace such tales, Islamic ideas are inscribed so delicately that they would have been almost unnoticeable to a Bengali audience less familiar with an Islamic worldview. The subtlety with which Sultān presents Islamic doctrine as continuous with Bengali, and wider Indic, religious traditions is crucial for the impact he

103. For an analysis of the tale-​cycle of Hari, see Chapter 5.

The Prophet of Light and Love


hopes to have in inviting his fellow Bengalis to his faith. Nor is this entirely empty rhetoric, for Islam indeed had a four-​century-​old history in Bengal by his time. This representational stance adopted by many Muslim Bengali authors has occasionally confounded modern literary historians, who have argued that works such as the NV present, on the one hand, a mixed-​up doctrine of Hindu-​Muslim syncretism, or on the other, a “secular” vision of religious ecumenism.104 Not only are the intellectual underpinnings of such contentions questionable, the textual evidence itself belies such claims. Whereas Islamic elements may not be immediately obvious to the early modern auditor (or even to the modern reader, as noted), they undergird the NV’s system of cosmogonical thought in vital ways, and underscore the poet-​pīr’s religious identity.105 The sentiment, for instance, that Prabhu Nirañjana is the sole creator iterates the qurʾānic emphasis upon Allāh as the lone “creator of the heavens and the earth” (Q 2:117 and 6:101),106 who brought all things into being by his “Command . . . a single (Act), like the twinkling of an eye” (Q 54:49–​50) (nimiṣe sr̥jiche yei e caudda bhuvana).107 In his omnipotence, he is without partner, without peer;108 all acts, good and evil, are his doing (ehi ye karite āche saba jāna ahi). In his omnipresence, he exists in all that one sees (yatha dekha nirañjana chāṛi āra nāhi). The traditional Hindu avatāras, the Muhammad avatāra, and other messengers (paygāmbar), like Muhammad, are all “created” by Nirañjana, an issue that Sultān is careful to clarify at the very outset because of the significant theological and ideological ramifications this has for the Indic prophetological genealogy he endeavors to establish for the Prophet.

104. For instance, see Roy 1983, and also Ābdul Karim’s characterization cited in Miyā 1993, 38; or Sharif 1960/​1367 B.S., 22. For a deconstruction of the problematic term “syncretism,” see Stewart 2001, 261–​288. 105. Cf. how the invocations of the Punjabi qiṣṣa also serve a similar purpose, in Mir 2010, 155. 106. Peterson 2011. In all such instances, henceforth, the abbreviation “Q” refers to the Qur’ān. 107. The Qurʾān, ed. and trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 1462. 108. Peterson 2011.



The NV shares a conceptual vision of cosmogony with the Avadhi Sufi premākhyānas, the first of which, Maulānā Dāʾūd’s Cāndāyan (1379), precedes Islamic Bangla literature by approximately two and a half centuries. Within the late medieval “cosmopolitan vernacular” literature of India, the Sufis who wrote the Avadhi premākhyānas in many ways prepare the ground for Bengali pīr-​poets such as Sultān, being the first to inscribe such Islamic cosmogonic themes and Persianate Sufi and poetical traditions into a local idiom and regional literature of northern and eastern India.109 As in the premākhyāna literature, we find echoes in the NV of the philosophy of waḥdat al-​wujūd (the unity of being), a concept that found wide acceptance in South Asian Sufi circles, particularly in the region of Avadh.110 Sultān highlights the transcendence yet immanence of the creator who sports, adorned in all the multitude of forms that he has wrought. Ever present within creation, “like butter in cow’s milk,” he simultaneously displays his unmanifest (A. bāṭin) and manifest (A. dhāḥir) aspects—​ gopate vekata veśa vekate gopata.111 Both literatures share much common vocabulary—​common epithets, for instance, for Allāh:  the Creator (Av. and B. karatā/​karatāra); the Immaculate One (Av. and B. nirañjana); the Formless One (Av. nirūpa, nirākāra; B. nirūpa, nairākāra); and the Invisible One (Av. alakh; B.  alakṣya).112 These cosmological terms and attributes for the Supreme Being had been used in North Indian Sufi circles since the fourteenth century,113 possibly adopted through Sufi interactions with the Nāthas, a Śaiva ascetic order who trace their lineage to the legendary gurus Matsyendranātha and Gorakṣanātha. Furthermore, Muḥammad 109. The expression “cosmopolitan vernacular” is from Pollock 1998. 110. Concerning this philosophy, see Chittick 1994. With regard to Avadh as “a traditional stronghold” of this doctrine, see Alam 1996, 174. 111. Cf. the Kanhāvat, wherein Kr̥ṣṇa reveals himself as “ghee in the milk,” and “scent in the flower.” Orsini 2014a, 218. 112. Walter Hakala has suggested that the authors of the Avadhi premākhyānas, in their usage of Hindavī words such as karatāra or sirjanhāra for Allāh as creator (A. bārī), were drawing upon Arabic-​Persian-​Hindavī lexical conventions previously established by the Khāliq Bārī, a thirteenth-​century text in “the niṣāb genre of multi-​lingual vocabularies in verse.” Hakala 2014. 113. The dohās of Kabīr, for instance, the Avadhi Sufi premākhyānas beginning with Maulānā Dāʾūd in the fourteenth century, and the Rushdnāmah of Shaykh ʿAbd al-​Quddūs Gangohī (1453–​ 1537) are suffused with such vocabulary. Concerning Kabīr’s language, see Behl 2012, 69–​70.

The Prophet of Light and Love


is represented, in both literatures, as “the cosmic principle of the creator within creation, the reason for creation and the light within it.”114 Both literatures resort to a Sufi metaphysics of the Nūr Muḥammad as well as the Sanskrit aesthetics of prema rasa (prīti rasa in the NV) in their portraiture of the Prophet as God’s beloved.115 Both literatures, like the Persian traditions they overlay, engage with the word as the wellspring of cosmic and poetic creativity.116 That both traditions share a host of these and other common features—​theological, narratological, aesthetic, rhetorical, and linguistic—​ suggests that they participated in overlapping polysystems of performance and reception, of Sufism, Nātha doctrine, haṭhayoga, and Kr̥ṣṇa bhakti,117 of orality and textuality, evidence of, among other things, the fluency of the circulation of ideas and peoples in the premodern period.118 NU¯R MUHAMMAD AS THE ONTOLOGICAL PRINCIPLE OF LIGHT AND LOVE

After the initial hāmd, Sultān continues: At first, the Lord (prabhu) held a shape without form. He did not produce his own self within himself. That site had neither front nor back, left nor right, above or below. Nor did Nirañjana bear all these multitudinous created forms. 114. Behl and Weightman 2000, xxvi. 115. For extended discussions on these themes in the premākhyāna literature, Behl 2012. Concerning the representation of the Prophet as God’s beloved in the NV, see Irani 2010, 225–​251. 116. See, for instance, Madhumālatī of Mīr Sayyid Manjhan Shaṭṭārī Rājgīrī, trans. Behl and Weightman, vv. 24–​26, 12, and Haft Paykar of Niẓāmī, trans. Meisami, 22–​23. 117. Orsini’s study of the performative and textual context of Malik Muḥammad Jāyasī’s Kānhāvat in the literary and performance context of the harikathā in Avadh shows that authors and auditors were drawn from different religious traditions, sharing in a common public sphere. Orsini 2014a. 118. For more on the fluidity of movement of peoples and literatures, culture and thought in Sultanate and Mughal India, see three recent edited volumes: Orsini and Sheikh (eds.) 2014; Busch and de Bruijn (eds.) 2014; and Dalmia and Faruqui (eds.) 2014.



All shapes, rather, were united with that without shape. All forms together made up a single form. Within the Lord, thus, a key self-​image (svarūpa) lay. As fragrance is sealed within a flower-​bud, awareness (jñāna) was concealed within unawareness (ajñāna). When from unawareness awareness was born, he discovered the “I” within his own self. To himself, he flaunted his very own form. Seeing himself within himself, transformations were born. Abandoning unconsciousness, when consciousness dawned, he discerned his own self within himself. When he saw himself thus, he was crazed with desire (kāmātura). Entranced, he ever gazed into his mirror. From the undivided whole emerged parts, from the parts the whole. In the ardor of rapture (bhāva), the whole burst into numerous parts. When he began to see himself within himself, he saw emerging therein a prime confidant (sakhā). When he beheld the sight of the face of this close friend, he fell into a swoon and remained thus for a time. Twin coexistent visions at a single site merged, each into the other, light into light. One ocean split into three portions (aṃśa), with three distinct names. The three remained distinct, each entirely peerless. Three exquisite images were strung upon a thread: one by the other, pair by pair, they manifested. When the lover (bhāvaka) gazed in rapture (bhāva) upon the beloved (bhāvinī), within the lover’s form arose wondrous transformation (vikāra). Once three separate guṇas emerged from the one, countless others surged forth from these three strands.119

119. NV  1:4–​5.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Sultān’s view of the process of becoming, of taking form, is the manifestation within the cosmic formlessness (or unconsciousness) of the supreme selfhood or “I”-​ness. The first vision of this emergent, nascent self transforms Nirañjana, filling Nirañjana with anthropopathic sentiment. It stirs within him a passionate desire to continue to gaze upon his own countenance in the mirror of self. Mesmerized by his reflected self, his mirror image, the creator finds love. The terms bhāvaka (lover; the male principle) and bhāvinī (beloved; the female principle), are here indicative of the Lord and his beloved companion (sakhā).120 Sultān declares that their passionate love brings forth the supreme soul (paramāttamā), the individual souls (jīvāttamā), the great mystic formulae (mahāmantra); the four elements—​fire (ānala), water (varuṇa), wind (bābi), and earth (mr̥ttikā); the moon, the sun, and the heavens (ākāśa); the Throne (khāṭa siṃhāsana), the Pen (sukāṭhi), and the Tablet (pāṭa); paradise (svarga) and hell (naraka). All else that ever was or ever will be emerges from the sweat of their passionate absorption (bhāva).121 Having thus far scrupulously avoided the use of any Perso-​Arabic loan-​ words in his translation of Islamic cosmogony into Bangla, Sultān now slips into his narrative a significant Islamic theological term, reserved for the Lord’s beloved: He, in whose sweat, the formless one created all of this, was named Nūr Muhammad. Listen, that which is called mahājutirmae, “the exceptionally effulgent one,” the Arabs call “Nūr Muhammad.”122 120. Concerning the pair bhāvaka-​bhāvinī in Islamic Bangla literature, see Irani 2018b. It is noteworthy that though the term bhāvinī, in the feminine gender, is used, descriptions of the anthropomorphized Nūr in the NV do not make any specific reference to the female form. See more on God as lover and Muhammad as beloved in the context of the Prophet’s reunion with God during his ascension, discussed in Chapter 6. 121. NV 1:4–​6. Cf. NV 2:3–​9. Compare Sultān’s account of creation from light with Juwayrī’s account, Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Muḥammad Juwayrī, 4–​5, and with Jābir ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-​Anṣārī’s account, Katz 2007, 24–​25. 122. yāra gharme e saba sr̥jila nairākāra | nūra muhammada nāma thuila tāhāra || yāhāka bulie śuna mahājutirmae | nūra muhammada hena ārabe bolae || NV  1:5–​6.



Here Sultān provides a key translational definition of the Nūr Muḥammad, to specifically introduce an Arabio-Persian theological term to his audience. Taken in its entirety, moreover, this passage on cosmogonical beginnings reifies the divine saying, “But for you, I would not have created the heavens” (lawlāka mā khalaqtu’l-​ aflāka), a tradition that affirms God’s love for Muḥammad as being the catalyst necessary to generate the cosmos.123

A¯di-​antera Rasul: The First and Last Messenger

In the next eleven couplets we learn of the creation of the angels, the seven heavens and their thirty-​six thousand crore and seventy lakh (367  million) strata; the earth’s creation some fourteen thousand and seventy-​seven cosmic years later; and the creation of Ādam another thirty-​six lakh and five thousand (3,605,000) years later. Eight thousand years after Adam, when the earth’s burden of sin becomes unbearable, the Lord sends forth his very own companion (āpanāra nija sakhā): He came to be born in Ādam’s line. Proudly he took the name “Nūr Muhammad.”124 By referring to the historical Muḥammad as “Nūr Muhammad,” an epithet usually reserved in Islamic sources for the preexistent essence of the Prophet, Sultān affirms that his Muḥammad is not merely the last prophet, but the first as well:  the preexistent, primordial “Light of Muḥammad,” which passes from Ādam through the line of prophets down to the historical Muḥammad.125 A  paradox that had been explained by medieval

123. See Schimmel 1975, 215. See also Chittick 1983, 197–​198. 124. ādamera vaṃśeta janama āsi bhela | nūra muhammada nāma gaurave dharila || NV 1:6. 125. See, for instance, in the case of Ābdullā, Muhammad’s father, NV 2:16–​27; and in the case of Ibrāhim, NV 1:444. Cf. Sīrat Rasūl Allāh of Ibn Isḥāq, trans. Guillaume, 68–​69. See below for further details.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Muslim intellectuals centuries before Sultān, the latter’s designation for the Prophet as ādi-​antera rasul, “the first and the last messenger,” is better understood in this context.126 The motif of light is widely associated, in early Muslim sources, with the legendary figure of Muḥammad, his prophetic stature, his mission and its future expansion.127 The eighth-​century theologian, Muqāṭil, was probably the first to interpret the qurʾānic Sūrat al-​Nūr (the Light Verse) as referring to the Prophet: to Muqāṭil, Muḥammad is the miṣbāh, “the lamp” of the Light Verse, the universal guiding light for all humankind.128 Moreover, Qurʾān 33:7, the prophetic covenant that God extracts from the prophets Muḥammad, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, is interpreted (bolstered by a prophetic ḥadīth, by the early commentator Qatāda [d. 118 c.e.]) to suggest that Muḥammad was the first prophet to be created by God, and the last to be sent in corporeal form.129 The concept of the first and the last prophet is formulated into an entire salvation history, centered around the principle of the Nūr Muḥammad (the Light of Muḥammad) in pre-​eternity,130 and the qalb Muḥammad, the heart of Muḥammad, in post-​eternity, “the goal of man in the psychological order.”131 “This belief in the preexistence of Muḥammad’s essence,” states Annemarie Schimmel, “first elaborated by Sahl al-​Tustarī and Ḥallāj, praised in eloquent words by authors like al-​Thaʿlabī, and systematized into theory by Ibn ʿArabī, permeates later Sufism.”132 Indeed, it is after Ibn ʿArabī that

126. These words credited to Muḥammad, “The first thing God created was my spirit,” and “I was a prophet while Adam was still between water and clay,” have been much discussed by Islamic scholars. See Schimmel 1975, 215. NV 2:54; see also NV 2:56, 260, and 285. 127. Rubin 1975a, 62–​67. 128. Schimmel 1985, 124. 129. Rubin 1975a, 69. 130. Sahl al-​Tustarī develops the principle of the Nūr Muḥammad from his interpretation of the Light Verse. Böwering 1976, 16. 131. Ibid., 15–​16. 132. Schimmel 1985, 132. For a translation of Ḥallāj’s text, see The TS of the Lamp in Ernst 1999,  16–​20.



“the Muḥammadan reality” (al-​ḥaqīqa al-​muḥammadīyya), the primordial quiddity of the Prophet, becomes in Sufi thought “the fountainhead of all prophetic activity.”133 Sultān also echoes early Muslim sources wherein the light motif associated with the primordial spirit of Muḥammad becomes additionally connected to the pre-​existent spermatic substance passed down through Ādam, through the prophetic forefathers of Ismāʿīl, and through Ismāʿīl via Muḥammad’s Arab ancestors (Ar. waṣīyya) reaching the corporeal Muḥammad through his father, ʿAbd Allāh (B. Ābdullā):134 A trace of Nūr Muhammad’s soul (jīvāttamā) arose peerlessly in Ābdullā’s body. This unfaltering light (nūr) of Nūr Muhammad, which had shone upon Ādam’s forehead, came down through the generations to Ābdullā. It arose within him like the full moon.135 As Uri Rubin has shown through a multitude of examples from period literature, this cosmogonic conception of prophetic primordiality in the form of fecund light gained wide currency by the third Islamic century and is developed particularly by the Shīʿīs in formulating Imāmate theology.136 “Cross-​relations between the speculations of Sahl al-​Tustari, Hallaj, and Ibn ʿArabi on the one hand,” explains Schimmel,

133. Schimmel 1985, 132. 134. Rubin 1975a, 67; and Rubin 1975b, 43. 135. nūra muhammadera kiñcita jīvāttamā | ābadullāra ghaṭeta udita niupāmā || nūra muhammada honte ehi sthāvya nūra | ādamera lalāṭeta āchila ujhara || sei nūra ābadullāe krame krame āsi | udita haila yena pūrṇimāra śaśī || NV 2:14. Sultān provides a chain of transmission of the Nūr Muhammad that begins with Ādam and ends fifty-​three names later with Muhammad’s. NV 2:10–​14. This list (reproduced in Chapter 5 of the present monograph), with the exception of the group of six prophets who follow Ismāil, is remarkably close to the genealogy of Muḥammad provided by Ibn Hishām, the difference being that Muḥammad is listed as the fiftieth prophet in the Sīra. Guillaume [1955] 2004, 3. 136. Rubin 1975a, 67–​102.

The Prophet of Light and Love


and Shiite doctrines of the light of the imāms on the other hand are highly probable, but it is difficult to assess their exact articulation. The same is true for the influence of Hellenistic-​Gnostic ideas that may lie at the base of the entire mysticism of light as well as of other traditions in which the Prophet was elevated to an almost superhuman rank.137 Thus, while scholars such as Gerhard Böwering have shown, for instance, how the Iraqi Sahl al-​Tustarī (d. 896) formulated his concept of the Nūr Muḥammad by integrating “principal ideas of [his] cultural environment (e.g., the Hellenistic logos idea and the gnostic light speculation) into the matrix of Islamic thought,” the full picture of these historical connections, according to Schimmel, has yet to emerge.138 Though it is impossible to pinpoint the precise Islamic traditions that inform Saiyad Sultān’s articulation of the principle of the Nūr Muḥammad, these various traditions on prophetic primordiality and light—​qurʾānic, prophetic, hagiographic, Sunnī, Shīʿī, and Sufi—​form a body of prior texts which Sultān dips into, choosing a prophetic ḥadīth or qurʾānic theme here, a poetical utterance or image there, which he then reformulates into a Bengali idiom. He thus presents Muhammad as an aṃśa of Āllā, drawing upon the Vaiṣṇava theory of descent from a part (aṃśāvatāra). Though originally articulated in Vaiṣṇava purāṇic literature, such as the Harivaṃśa, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, this classical concept could have reached Sultān via one of several oral and literary routes, including the hagiographical tradition around Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya. The Sanskrit Kr̥ṣṇacaitanyacaritāmr̥ta (“The Nectar of the Acts of Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya”), the first hagiography of Caitanya, completed by Murāri Gupta in 1533, refers to Caitanya as an avatāra of a “part” (aṃśa) of Kr̥ṣṇa.139 The

137. Schimmel 1985, 130. 138. Böwering 1976, 17. 139. Stewart 2010a, 20. This early construal of Caitanya’s divine nature as “partial” was swiftly supplanted, as Tony Stewart points out, by other conceptions of the avatāra, such as the yugāvatāra (the avatāra designated to restore order in a particular age), the kāryāvatāra (the



theology of the aṃśāvatāra was bound up not only with the purāṇic myth of the avatāra relieving the earth of its burden of sinners, but closely linked to the emission of tejas. The latter is defined by André Couture as “a procreative substance which higher beings (such as gods and ascetics) possess and which gives them the capacity of occupying a womb in order to create a duplicate of themselves.”140 Both tejas and the Nūr Muhammad are associated with divine light and procreative substance, and it is through the respective agency of these two that the aṃśāvatāra and the nabī respectively partake of the very substance of the godhead. When Sultān states that Muhammad is the Lord’s “own aṃśa” (nija aṃśa), he has struck upon the perfect translational equivalent for the Nūr Muḥammad in Bangla.141 And by playing into the parallels between Indic and Islamicate processes of messianic descent, he has enabled his Bengali audience to view Muhammad as a divine avatāra, corroborating thereby the Islamic understanding of his primordial sacred stature. The tensions between Sultān’s appropriation of the concept of the avatāra to represent Muhammad and his distancing of Islamic conceptions of the godhead from the doctrine of descent (avatāravāda) is examined in Chapter 5. Fecund Light, Fertile Images: Augmenting Bengal’s Archive of Cosmogonic Myths

The cosmogonic opening of Book Two of the NV (“Rasul Carita”) on Muhammad’s life further elaborates upon the Islamic mythology surrounding the Nūr Muhammad first laid out in Book One. The prologue of Book Two presents certain cosmogonic, mythic elements to Bengali auditors that may seem familiar but are refashioned to tell an Islamic tale. avatāra that “fulfilled specific contextual work-​functions”), and so on, that did not carry such a label of incompleteness. Ibid., 56–​57 and 112. 140. Couture 2001, 318. 141. For parallel conceptions of Muhammad as an aṃśa of the Lord in the Avadhi Sufi premākhyāna literature, see, for instance, Citrāvalī, composed by ʿUs̱mān in 1613. Pandey 1960, 120.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Altogether new mythic elements are also introduced that expand the rich mythological archive of Bengali cosmogonic traditions. These elements are detailed here as well as in the sections that follow. As seen earlier, Book One set forth the idea of creation emanating from the sweat that broke from the rapturous absorption of Prabhu Nirañjana in Nūr Muhammad. This conception of genesis from a primordial sweaty matrix, generated through the encounter of the Lord with the Nūr Muhammad, became the inceptive myth for most Bengali Sufi cosmogonical texts, as further detailed later in this chapter.142 Such an idea can be traced back to Ibn ʿArabī and his contemporary Najm al-​Dīn Rāzī Dāya, and even further back in time to al-​Thaʿlabī (d. 1036).143 In his ʿArāʾis al-​ majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ, al-​Thaʿlabī recounts: He [God] commanded Gabriel to bring him a handful of the white (soil) which is the heart of the Earth, its splendor and its light, to create Muḥammad from it. So Gabriel descended with the favorite angels of Paradise, the Cherubim, and the angels of the highest plane, and took a handful (of soil) from the place of the Prophet’s tomb, which, at that time, was white and pure. It was kneaded in the Blessed Water of Paradise, and was so fresh that it became like a white pearl. Then it was immersed in all the rivers of the Garden. When it came forth from the rivers, God looked at this pure pearl and it trembled for fear of God, whereupon one hundred and twenty-​four thousand drops fell from it, and from each drop God created a prophet, and all the prophets—​may the blessings of God be upon our Prophet and upon them—​were created from his light. Then the pearl was shown round the Heavens and the Earth, so the angels came to know Muḥammad at that time, before they knew Adam.144

142. Cashin 1995, n. 7, 62. 143. Schimmel 1985, 127. 144. ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī, trans. Brinner, 44. Kisāʾī’s account also provides an account of creation wherein a primordial pearl dissolves into water from fear of God. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 5.  Juwayrī provides an account wherein



Later, Ibn ʿArabī’s interpreter, ʿAbd al-​ Karīm al-​ Jīlī, spoke of the Muḥammadan reality (al-​ḥaqīqa al-​muḥammadiyya) appearing as a white chrysolite in pre-​eternity, which dissolves, when God’s gaze falls upon it, into waves of water from which all of creation emerged.145 “According to certain traditions,” states Najm al-​Dīn Rāzī Dāya, God Almighty looked upon the Mohammadan Light with the gaze of love, so that shame overcame it, and drops of sweat appeared from which He created the spirits of the prophets, upon whom be peace and blessings. Then, from the light of the spirits of the prophets, He created the spirits of the saints; from the light of the spirits of the saints, the spirits of the believers; from the spirits of the believers, those of the sinners; from those of the sinners, those of the hypocrites and the unbelievers. Then, from the light of the spirits of men, He created the spirits of the angels; from the spirits of the angels, those of the jinn; from those of the jinn, those of the devils, rebellious spirits, and demons, in accordance with the different degree and state of each.146 Indic antecedents for the conflation of sweat with creative or procreative substance abound in the mythology of Śiva and Brahmā in the Sanskrit Mahābhārata and the purāṇas.147 The particular use of the term bindu in Islamic Bangla literature for the fecund drops of light shed from Nūr Muhammad suggests resonances with Śaiva tantric as well as Nātha literature.148 Bengali parallels for this doctrine of creation from sweat or watery substances are also to be found in the cosmogony of the Dharma the primordial pearl perspires out of shyness when God’s majestic gaze falls upon it. Qiṣaṣ al-​ anbiyāʾ of Muḥammad Juwayrī, 6. 145. See al-​Jīlī quoted in Nicholson 1921, 122. A tradition ascribed to Abū Hurayra says that the Prophet told him that “everything was created out of water.” Al-​Alousi 1965, 73. 146. Mirṣād al-​ʿibād min al-​mabdaʾ ilā’ al-​maʿād of Najm al-​Dīn Rāzī, 61. 147. Doniger O’Flaherty 1973. 148. Roy 1983, 130–​131; Dasgupta [1946] 1969, 237.

The Prophet of Light and Love


cult, making this Islamic conception of genesis not altogether alien to the Bengali imaginaire. “In the Shunya Purana and Dharma-​puja-​bidhana,” explains Fabrizio Ferrari,   .  .  .  the [cosmic] waters are restrained in the bubble on which Dharma is seated. After the collapse of the bubble, Dharma Ṭhakura creates his immanent perceivable form (Niranjana) and then, sustained by his mounts, the earth. But, in the Shunya Purana (12: 121) another generative process takes place when Adyashakti is formed from a drop of Niranjana’s perspiration. The goddess conceives three sons: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Each of them represents a single guna (attribute)—​sattva (whiteness, purity), rajas (redness, dynamism) and tamas (darkness, ignorance)...149 Inasmuch as the Bengali auditor would have been acquainted with fecund sweat in creation myths of the Dharma cult, they may also have recognized the significance of the three guṇas to Sultān’s cosmogony through familiarity with these principles in the same Dharma cult creation stories.

Through the Jeweled Lantern: Etiologies of Worship and Human Action

Sultān’s continuing account of creation from the Nūr Muhammad elaborates a detailed mythology of the Nūr and its various stations, wherein he develops an ontic hierarchy in the vein of medieval authors such as Najm al-​Dīn Rāzī and others. After creating paradise and hell, according to Sultān’s account, the Immaculate Lord created the beautiful, luminous Rabbānur tree, perfumed with the fragrance of musk.150

149. Ferrari 2010, 53–​54. 150. Sultān’s Rabbānur (Persian rabb-​i nūr? “God of light”) tree is probably some version of the Tree of Life that abounds in Islamic cosmogony, a tree whose myths have been connected in one way or another to the figure of the Prophet. Cf. also Schimmel 1985, 131. The Sūrat



It bore fragrant flowers whose radiance lit up the seven heavens (sapta svarga), and fruits so enormous that a single one could sate all the created beings who filled the earth and the heavens. At the Lord’s command, Nūr Muhammad takes the form of a peacock—​an association appearing elsewhere in the Islamic tradition—​and comes to settle upon this tree.151 The Nūr Muhammad is aptly glorified via its association with musk and the peacock, precious, exquisite, and sought-​after natural treasures of the medieval world, which have become metaphors for rarity and beauty in both Indian and Islamic literary traditions. For seventy thousand years, the peacock of light performed prostration (paraṇāma kailā). At the Lord’s command, Nūr Muhammad then dived into the sea of honor (mānya) where he dwelt for the next seventy thousand years, worshiping the Lord with his body and mind (kāyamane). Thus he dwelt worshiping the Lord for seventy thousand years, successively, in the seas of majesty (mahimā), well-​being (khemā, kṣema), valor (vikrama), and others.152 Marshaling the

al-​Najm (Q 52: 13–​18) speaks of Muḥammad’s vision of God at the Lote Tree of the Boundary. See also Najm al-​Dīn Rāzī Dāya’s comment on “the tree of creation,” quoted above, and its relationship to the figure of the Prophet. Compare also to the discussion below on the Daqāʾiq al-​akhbār. 151. This account can be compared with the first few lines of the account of creation provided in the medieval Islamic eschatological text Daqāʾiq al-​akhbār fī dhikr al-​janna wa-​al-​nār (“Subtleties of the Traditions Commemorating the Garden and the Fire”) ascribed to Imām ʿAbd al-​Raḥīm ibn Aḥmad al-​Qāḍī: “It is related in Tradition that Allāh-​taʿalá created a tree with four branches and called it the Tree of Certainty (shajarat al-​yaqīn); then He created the Light of Muhammad in a veil of white pearl like the peacock and placed it on that tree. So the Light said ‘Subhānallāh’ (glory to Allāh) on it for 70,000 years.” Daqāʾiq al-​akhbār ascribed to Abd al-​Raḥīm al-​Qāḍī, trans. ʿĀʾisha ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān, 20. Elsewhere in the medieval Islamic tradition, we also see the Prophet’s spirit being compared to “a white bird.” Katz 2007, 27–​29. For more details on this text, and Sultān’s further use of it, see below. Cf. below how the later Muslim Bengali poet, Mīr Muhammad Saphī, in his Nūr Nāmā also deploys the trope of Nūr Muhammad taking the form of a peacock (mayura) who settles on a heavenly tree, here called the tubā tree, while providing a narrative different from Sultān’s. Nūr Nāmā of Mīr Muhammad Saphī, 232. 152. The seas into which Sultān’s Nūr Muhammad dived can be compared to the veils (sing. ḥijāb) of light called qudra and al-​ʿaẓama in Shīʿī traditions, veils within which the light of the Prophet is purported to have circulated for eighty thousand years each, and from which Muḥammad’s light derived its creative force. Rubin 1975a, 113. These veils can be traced further back, as Rubin points out, to Sahl al-​Tustarī. Ibid., 113–​114. Concerning this tradition, see also

The Prophet of Light and Love


attributes (guṇa) of these various seas, Nūr Muhammad returned to settle upon the Rabbānur tree.153 Book Two of the NV continues to tell of how the Lord created a jeweled lantern (rattanera kandil) in which he placed Nūr Muhammad; enhanced by the earlier image of the rainbow-​hued peacock, the Nūr is here refracted by the gem-​studded lantern into multicolored beams of light that illuminate the ten directions.154 This image recalls the exoteric images of the Light Verse (Q 24:35), from which Sufi thinkers such as Sahl al-​Tustarī, and others, referred to earlier, drew out the esoteric doctrine of the Nūr Muhammad.155 While Sultān acknowledges the esoteric nature of the Nūr Muhammad, here he expressly reduces the philosophical principle back to the graphic images from which Sufi thinkers had originally extrapolated the doctrine. By doing so, he harnesses their eidetic power, making visible an abstract concept to a rural Bengali audience. The NV’s narrative now takes on a distinctly didactic overtone, proceeding to delineate what might be called a “trial by light” that prognosticates the destiny of each Bengali beholder of the Prophet of Light. Underlining the tension between predetermination and free will that has been debated by Islamic theologians for centuries, the tale at once stresses that the Lord commands all created beings to gaze upon the Nūr Muhammad, while simultaneously placing the power of choice, and, hence, responsibility for action in the individual.156 Sultān relates how the Lord directed all created beings (jīvas) to countenance Nūr Muhammad within this lantern. Those who prostrated before him upon seeing him

Böwering 1976, 16. ​Khargūshī also records a tradition wherein Allāh placed the light in the veil of the qudra for twelve thousand years and subsequently in the veils of the ʿaẓama and the minna for eleven and ten thousand years respectively. It passed through twelve such veils while praising Allāh in each. Rubin 1975a, 116–​117. Cf. also Jābir’s account in Katz 2007, 25. 153. NV  2:5–​7. 154. Cf. Nūr Nāmā of Mīr Muhammad Saphī, which conflates two of Sultān’s tropes into one. These are elaborated upon below. 155. Böwering 1976, 16. 156. Frolov 2002.



were born as believers (mumīn); those who prostrated thrice were born as those with good conduct. Those who did not prostrate before the Nūr were born as infidels (kāphirs), while those who did not prostrate initially but did so later were first born into a Hindu family (hindu kula), and later embraced Islam. Those who paid obeisance at first, but did not do so later were born as Muslims, but later abandoned their faith. Those who prostrated at first and also later, but not during the middle phase became hypocrites (munāphik).157 Those who witnessed the entire form of the Nūr were born as messengers (rasul) upon the earth; those who saw his face became saints (auliyā); those who saw his forehead became believers; those who gazed into his eyes became scholars (paṇḍitas); those who saw his back became infidels; those who chanced upon the soles of his feet became hypocrites; and those who caught sight of the back of his hands became fools (murkha).158 “In this manner,” states Sultān, “when a certain person saw a particular part of the body [of the Nūr], he learnt to perform certain actions (karma) within the world.”159 Sultān’s peacock of light worshiping on the sacred tree and his etiology of human action draws respectively upon the images and Islamic mythology of the consequences of the interaction of created beings (Ar. arwāh, Sultān’s jīvas) with the anthropomorphized Nūr presented in Daqāʾiq al-​akhbār fī dhikr al-​janna wa-​al-​nār (“Subtleties of the Traditions Commemorating the Garden and the Fire”), a circa eleventh-​century text attributed, in the most widely attested manuscripts, to ʿAbd al-​Raḥīm ibn Aḥmad al-​ Qāḍī.160 It would be mistaken to think that this was a relatively obscure 157. NV  2:7–​8. 158. NV 2:8. 159 . Ibid. 160. Daqāʾiq al-​akhbār ascribed to ʿAbd al-​Raḥīm al-​Qāḍī, 20–​22, and cf. the following excerpt: Then Allāh taʿalá commanded all the arwāh [cf. Sultān’s jīvas, individual souls] of creation to look at the form of Muḥammad, and so they looked at it. Whoever saw his head became a khalīfa (ruler and sultan among creatures; whoever saw his forehead became a just prince. Whoever saw his eyes became one who preserves the Word of Allāh taʿalá; whoever saw his eyebrows became an artist. Whoever saw his ears became one who listens and occupies himself with that. Whosever saw his cheeks became one who

The Prophet of Light and Love


text that Sultān was drawing upon. Rather, the Daqāʾiq, as Roberto Tottoli has meticulously traced, was the single-​most-​popular eschatological text that had circulated in manuscript (and later even in print) form, under various recensions, titles, and authorial names throughout the medieval and early modern Islamic world from the far Muslim east to its westernmost regions. Known as the Daqāʾiq al-​akhbār fī dhikr al-​janna wa-​al-​nār in Middle Eastern lands, it circulated in manuscript form in India and Indonesia, mostly under the title of Daqāʾiq al-​ḥaqāʾiq (“Subtleties of the Realities”), being attributed here to an Abū al-​Layth al-​Samarqandī and even to Fakhr al-​Dīn al-​Rāzī, while it was known in the western Islamic lands as Shajarat al-​yaqīn (“The Tree of Certainty”) and attributed to one Abū al-​Ḥasan al-​Ashʿarī.161 That Sultān draws upon this text provides the first piece of firm evidence that the work also circulated in the Bay of Bengal’s early modern literary and cultural zone. Though the NV does not follow the Daqāʾiq in every detail, it draws upon the frame idea, shading it in with those homiletic concerns and ethical teachings that its author believed to be relevant to a Bengali audience.162 Sultān’s composition is unrivalled in Bangla, and Avadhi, literature in its detailed and multivalent exposition of Islamic cosmogony through the

is muḥsin (knowing) and has intellect. Whoever saw his lips became a wazīr (ruler). Whoever saw his nose became a doctor and whoever saw his mouth became one who fasts. Whoever saw his teeth became one who is beautiful of face among men and women. Whoever saw his tongue became a messenger among sultans. Whoever saw his throat became one who admonishes, gives good counsel and a mūʾadhdhin (one who calls the prayer). Whoever saw his beard became one who does Jihād (battle in the Way of Allāh). . . . Whoever saw his feet became a hunter; whoever saw under his feet became a foot-​soldier. . . . Whoever saw nothing became a Jew, Christian, Magian or kāfir (one who rejects the Reality). Whoever did not look at him at all became one who lays claim to sovereignty like the pharaohs and other kāfirūn. (Ibid., 21–​22; diacritics added). Concerning the date of this text, see Smith and Haddad 1981, n. 11, 206. 161. Tottoli 2006, particularly 466–​477. 162. It is worth noting that the lantern motif surfaces in the cosmogonical accounts of the qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ tradition, particularly the account of Muḥammad Juwayrī, though here the emphasis is quite different. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Muḥammad Juwayrī, 4–​5.



Nūr Muhammad. His Nūr Muhammad is not merely a transcendent, mediatory cosmogonic principle—​a doctrinal abstraction. Rather, through the power of storytelling, inflected throughout by local motifs, Sultān presents the Nūr Muhammad, and through him the exoteric Prophet, as a familiar and attractive figure. As a blazing exemplar of devotion, the Nūr Muhammad invites adoration. Sultān recounts legends of the Lord’s passionate love for the Nūr’s anthropomorphized form, he extols the Nūr’s glorious attributes gained through heroic feats of worship. Sultān’s elucidation of the doctrine of the Nūr Muhammad was so compelling that it fueled the Bengali Muslim religious imagination well into the late-​ eighteenth century and beyond, expanding the mythological archive of Bengal’s cosmogonies in unprecedented ways.163 THE ISLAMIC COSMOGONY OF OM̐

A second significant dimension of Sultān’s cosmogonical thought is his elaboration of a cosmogony of the Word. Sultān expounds a process of cosmogonical evolution that takes place through combinations and divisions of the three guṇas, the “strands or qualities,” that in this view become mapped onto trifold sonic expressions of the cosmic syllable, om̐ . While providing a familiar translational equivalent, om̐ allows Sultān to introduce an Islamic cosmogony of the Word to a Bengali auditor.164 In his prologue to the Mirigāvatī (1503), Quṭban foreshadows Sultān’s translation of the qurʾānic “Kun!” (“Be!”) (Q 36:82) into the Upaniṣadic

163. Though modern developments in the conception of the Nūr Muhammad in Bangla literature from Chittagong are beyond the purview of this chapter, it is noteworthy that the theology of the Nūr Muhammad continues to flourish in modern-​day Bangla literature. It is germane, for instance, to the hagiographical and popular song traditions on the saints of the Māijbhāṇḍārī Sufi order, founded in the nineteenth century. The saints of this order are represented as embodiments of the Nūr Muhammad. Harder 2011, 72–​76, and 217. 164. Stewart (2001, 280–​282) has suggested the term “dynamic equivalent” for such translational codes.

The Prophet of Light and Love


om̐.165 Sultān’s delineation of this cosmogony of the Word, however, is far more elaborate than that provided in the Avadhi premākhyānas, and more deeply embedded in local understandings, yet never abandoning its Islamic moorings:  Then, when its consciousness awakened, the undivided form of the orb (maṇḍala) yearned to cleave . . . Within the formless form was born the cosmic syllable u (ukāra). When it found itself within itself, the syllable ma (makāra) arose. Seeing the syllable ma within itself, it remained hidden within the syllables ā (ākāra) and u (ukāra).166 The syllabic trio ā, u, and ma remained coiled together for eternity. Within the syllables ā and ma rested the syllable u: one portion (aṃśa) was segmented into two along an axis (daṇḍa). Āhād, Āhmad, separated by the syllable ma: know that within this syllable ma lies the triple world (tribhuvana). The light (nūr) from Āhmad created the syllable ma. Āhād and Āhmad are both of one body (kalevara). When Āhād beheld the sight of Āhmad, he looked closely at him, taking the form of a lover (bhāvaka). When he saw himself within the form of Āhmad, he meditated upon the form, becoming a spiritual aspirant (sādhaka). Absorbed in the juice of love (pirīti rasa), the formless Lord began to gaze upon Nūr Muhammad. When each beheld the other in mutual, visual absorption (dr̥ṣṭibhāva),

165. Behl 2012, 40. See also the 1545 Avadhi premākhyāna, Madhumālatī of Mīr Sayyid Mañjhan Shaṭṭārī Rājgīrī, trans. Behl and Weightman (v. 25: 22), which introduces into its prologue a similar trope. Ibid., 44–​45. See also below on the Bangla Sirnāmā of Kājī Sekh Mansur and the Tālibnāmā of Śekh Cānda. 166. The Upaniṣadic syllable om̐ consists of the syllables a, u, and ma. The author presumably replaces a with ā in order to accommodate the new Islamic understanding of om̐ wherein the first syllable stands for Āhād.



a sweat broke from this wondrous entrancement (dr̥ṣṭirasa) in each other.167 The Upaniṣadic cosmogony of the sacred syllable om̐, as developed in the Māṇḍūkya, delineates three phonemes, a, u, and ma, plus a supra-​ phonemic fourth, which invoke the four states of the self. These are respectively waking; dreaming, which according to the Māṇḍūkya is characterized by its intermediate nature or “both”-​ness (ubhayatva); deep sleep; and a final state beyond all sonic expression and “ordinary transaction.”168 Sultān develops a similar, but tripartite phonetic identification of om̐ with an Islamic cosmogony based upon a well-​established tradition of letter mysticism connected to certain venerable names of Allāh and his messenger: Āhād (Ar. Aḥad, meaning “One”) and Āhmad (Ar. Aḥmad, “the most laudable”). Aḥmad is the spiritual name of Muḥammad, the name given by God to the Prophet (Q 61:5), and has a special significance in Islamic theology.169 When Sultān states “Āhād, Āhmad, separated by the syllable ma” (āhāda āhāmmada makāra bhinna), he relies upon the ḥadīth qudsī, “Anā Aḥmad bilā mīm” (“I am Aḥmad without the mīm”), a tradition extensively elaborated upon in the Persianate world beginning with the twelfth-​century Iranian mystical poet, Farīd al-​Dīn ʿAṭṭār.170 In his Muṣībatnāmah, ʿAṭṭār portrays the two worlds (ʿālam) as being generated orthographically in Arabic script from the two circular heads of the twin mīms of Muhammad’s name,171 a sentiment echoed in Sultān’s “within this syllable ma lies the triple world.” According to the Persian poet ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān Jāmī, who took up this theme three centuries after

167. NV  2:3–​4. 168. Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, trans. Olivelle, vv. 1–​12, 289–​290. 169. Schimmel 1985, 108. 170. Ibid., 116. For its extensive use among Sufis and poets of South Asia, see ibid., 117 and n. 66, 289. 171. Ibid., 116.

The Prophet of Light and Love


ʿAṭṭār, “alif, the first letter of Aḥmad, came into existence . . . from the ‘dot of Unity’ . . . This alif,” in Schimmel’s words, is upright like the diameter of a circle . . . and thus split the circle of the hidden Divine Ipseity into two:  one half is the world of uncreatedness, of the unknowable Divine Essence, and the other is the world of contingency. The Prophet—​or rather the ḥaqīqa muḥammadiyya—​is the juncture between the two.172 Though Schimmel does not mention this, Jāmī is also playing upon the Arabic word qaws (the semi-​circular arc), which also means “the arc of the bow,” specifically referring in the very next verse to “the two bow-​ lengths,” the qurʾānic qāb qawsayn (Q 53:9), the approximate distance that remained between the Prophet and Allāh upon his ascent into His presence.173 The Sufis interpreted this as “ ‘two drawn bows, with their chords touching’, making a complete circle of union.”174 This Sufi understanding provides meaning to Sultān’s otherwise opaque lines: Within the syllables ā and ma rested the syllable u: one portion (aṃśa) was segmented into two along an axis (daṇḍa). Whereas the ākāra of Āhād signifies the uncreated, formless one, from whom all form arises, the makāra of Āhmad or Muhammad indicates the culmination of all creation.175 Between these two, at the juncture (daṇḍa) of

172. Ibid. Cf. nuqtah-​’i vaḥdat chū qad afrākhtah /​az pay-​i aḥmad alifī sākhtah. kardah cū quṭr ān alif mustaqīm /​dāyarah-​’i ghayb-​i huvīyat dū nīm. nīmī az ān qaws jahān-​i qadam /​qaws-​i digar mumkin rū dar ʿadam. Haft Awrang of Nūr al-​Dīn Jāmī, 376. 173. bar hadaf andākhtah az dast ū pā /​zīn dū kamān tīr zahy shast-​i pā. Ibid., 376. 174. The Qurʾān, ed. and trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, n.  5089, 1444. For Sultān’s further elaboration upon this theme in his account of the Prophet’s Ascension, refer also to Irani 2010. Concerning this trope in eighteenth-​century Bengali Sufi Ālī Rajā’s Āgama, see below. 175. In explaining the mystery of how the Prophet could be the first of all creation and its culmination, Najm al-​Dīn Rāzī Dāya states: “Since the Prophet, peace be upon him, was the choice essence of all beings and the fruit of the tree of creation . . . he was also of necessity the origin



the formless and the formed, lies the mysterious ukāra, the Muḥammadan Reality (al-​ḥaqīqa al-​muḥammadiyya), the intermediary principle of the Nūr Muḥammad, the principle of light and love that mediates between the formless one and the world of form, the uncreated one and the created world. Echoes of Ibn ʿArabī’s doctrine of Muḥammad as the Perfect Man (al-​insān al-​kāmil) are present here, whereby Muḥammad becomes “the suture between the Divine and the created world; he is, so to speak, the barzakh, the isthmus between the Necessary and contingent existence.”176 As noted earlier, Sultān maps this Islamic triad—​Āhād, Āhmad, and Nūr Muhammad—​onto the three syllables comprising om̐ as well as the Sāṃkhya-​derived terminology of the three guṇas. The latter serve as the ontological means by which the esoteric, attribution-​less (nirguṇa) singular entity, Āhād, takes on exoteric (saguṇa) form as Āhmad, a process accomplished through the hidden Nūr Muhammad, who is inconceivably both esoteric and exoteric by nature. Though the act of translating philosophical terms from one religious system into another produces certain kinds of synchronic transcultural analogues, these, as Tony Stewart points out, by virtue of being mere metaphors, are asymmetrical and imprecise at a philosophical level.177 It is futile therefore to endeavor to develop the philosophical implications of specific analogues diachronically across the systems in the hope of finding parallel, homologous philosophical systems. Thus, though the Islamic triad is here mapped onto the guṇa-​triad, any effort by the discerning auditor to draw into comparison other related and ostensibly parallel ontological concepts across the systems, such as Allāh with Puruṣa or even with Dharma Ṭhākura, or Nūr Muḥammad

of all beings. For creation is like a tree, and the Prophet is the fruit of that tree, and the tree originates in truth from the seed contained within its fruit.” Mirṣād al-​ʿibād min al-​mabdaʾ ilā al-maʿād of Najm al-​Dīn Rāzī, 60. 176. Schimmel 1985, 134. The mysteries of God’s oneness and the two-​in-​oneness of God and Nūr Muḥammad have also been discussed by Sahl al-​Tustarī. Böwering 1976, 15–​16. Regarding the concerns of some Sufis that according Muḥammad too exalted a status might jeopardize the Islamic position on God’s essential Unity, and the later eclipse of such concerns among Sufis, see Schimmel 1985, 130. 177. Stewart 2001, 282–​286.

The Prophet of Light and Love


with Prakr̥ti or with Ādyaśakti, results in further asymmetry in the philosophical contours of these superimposed pairs. Yet for the lay auditor with a general knowledge of Sāṃkhya or Dharma cult terminology and imprecise knowledge of its philosophy or theology, a single reference to a common cosmogonical term can potentially conjure up a concatenation of implied philosophical or theological analogues, rough-​and-​ready country bridges to unfamiliar religious and philosophical shores. Sultān’s cosmogony of the Word is distinctive on account of the multivalent nature of the various mediations the Word is made to undertake. The Word, as he explains it, draws upon the widely known form of genesis through primordial resonance—​creation from śabda or kalima as promulgated, respectively, in Indic and Islamic systems of cosmogonic thought. The author’s discursive prowess, however, lies in his ability to bridge these commonalities between systems through a second layer of mediation—​or a third, if one were to take into account the Avadhi-​Bangla imbrication—​which derives its force directly from the intrinsic nature of translation as a mediatory tool between worlds: cultural, generic, linguistic, and religious. It is this polysemic and palimpsestic play with the Word as mediator that animates Sultān’s cosmogonic ruminations, empowering him to make Islam both familiar and appealing to newcomers to the faith.


Evidence for the NV’s significance to local Muslims is suggested by the large number of manuscripts of the text recovered from the Chittagong and Comilla regions. In Bangladeshi archives alone are preserved as many as ninety-​three manuscripts of Books One and Two of the NV, or of independent manuscripts of popular sub-​sections of Book Two (on the night of the Prophet’s ascension, and on the Prophet’s death).178 Furthermore,

178. For further details on manuscript distribution, see Chapter 2.



Muhammad Khān, Saiyad Sultān’s chief disciple, carried forward his literary project by authoring works such as Maktul Hosen, “The Slain Hosen,” which he claims to have composed at his master’s behest.179 Several works from the northwest of present-​day Bangladesh bear the imprint of the NV both in content and style:  we have the eighteenth-​century Ānbiyā Vāṇī of the Rangpur author Heyāt Māmud, in the “Tales of the Prophets” genre; the Śab-​i Merāj (“Night of the Ascension”) of aspiring Rangpur poet Phaijuddin; and the Rasul Vijaya of the Dinajpur author Phakir Cānda.180 These works provide evidence that the text’s circulation was not merely limited to the Chittagong region alone, but had been disseminated more widely across the length and breadth of eastern Bengal. Since the NV provides one of the earliest detailed and multivalent expositions of Islamic cosmogony through the Nūr Muhammad that draws upon Arabo-​ Persian and Bangla literary traditions, it supplied a template for translational strategies and a rich trove of ideas and images to be mined by later Muslim Bengali authors in their elaborations on Islamic cosmogony. Several genres of Islamic Bangla texts take up cosmogonical themes in some shape or form. Other texts like the NV in the “Tales of the Prophets” genre, such as Heyāt Māmud’s Ānbiyā Vāṇī (“The Message of the Prophets”), as noted above, imitate its idiom and content in its cosmogony of the Nūr Muhammad—​the prelude to the new prophetological dispensation these offer to Bengali Muslims.181 Bengali Sufi narratives on

179. Haq [1957] 1991/​1398 B.S., 296–​297. 180. For instance, Heyāt Māmud follows Sultān’s letter mysticism: From his own light (nūr), he created Nūr Mahāmmad. He himself is Āhād, but he created Āhāmmad. Āhād and Āhāmmad are separated by a single mīm. The light (nūr) created the syllable ma—​this indeed is its distinctive trait. Ānbiyā Vāṇī Kāvya of Heyāt Māmud, 8. Concerning other ways in which this author imitates Sultān, see Miyā 1993/​1399 B.S., 39–​44. On this author’s birthplace, see Mazharul Islam, Kavi Heyāt Māmud, 2. On Phakīr Cānda, see Muphākhkhārul Islām, n.d., 2–​3; and on Phaijuddin, see Miyā 1993/​1399 B.S., “Upakramaṇikā,” 8–​12; Bhuim̐yā 1980/​1387 B.S., 1–​80. 181. Concerning the role of the Nūr Muhammad in the Ānbiyā Vāṇi’s cosmogony, see Mazharul Islam 1961, 8–​9.

The Prophet of Light and Love


the theme of love constitute a second genre that continues to utilize cosmogonic themes. Śāh Muhammad Sagīr’s introduction of Islamic cosmogonical themes into Bangla in his Iusuph-​Jalikhā has been previously noted. Ālāol’s compositions also continue to follow the Persian mas̱navī traditions by including invocatory openings to Āllā and Muhammad. In his Sayphul Muluk Badiujjāmāl, for instance, Ālāol pays tribute to the Nūr Muhammad, God’s supreme friend (parama sakhā), picking up on the cosmogonic vocabulary and themes in circulation among his Muslim Bengali predecessors, while adding to these the miracles of the Prophet, including that of his “splitting the moon” referred to in the Qurʾān (54:1–​ 2).182 Some Bengali musicological treatises (rāgatālanāmās) posit the origin of the six rāgas and thirty-​six rāginis in the body of Nūr Muhammad, one among several Bengali origin myths for the musical modes.183 Another set of texts that concern themselves with the Nūr Muhammad are Sufi manuals that provide practical yogic and philosophical knowledge to the Bengali darveś. Some, such as the Jñāna Pradīpa ascribed to a Saiyad Sultān, are more practice-​oriented, and often offer visualization techniques that focus upon light.184 Thus, for instance, this text presents a process of incantation of the tripartite mantric form of om̐, whose ā evokes the visualization of the white-​colored Father Ādam (Adam), i that of 182. mahāmmada nabī pade sahasra praṇāma | prabhura parama sakhā ati anupāma ||. . . yakhane āchila satya svarūpa gom̐sāi | āpe āpe bhāvila dvitīya keha nāi || mahāśūnya tamomaya nā chila ākāra | gopate āchila mātra eka karatāra || āpe āpe bhāviyā cetana haila yabe | pracārite nija guṇa śuddha haila tabe || nūra mohāmmada āge kariyā sr̥jana | tāhā hante haila yatha jagat jīvana ||. . . pāpī sabe apratyaya nā māne imān | aṅguli iṅgite candra kailā dui khāna || Sayphul Muluk Badiujjāmāl of Ālāol, 453–​454. Cf. his praise of the Prophet in his Sapta Paykar, ibid., 198–​199. The Qurʾān, ed. and trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 1454. 183. Texts such as Dvija Rāma Tanu’s Nūr Nāmā detail the descent of musical knowledge to the world of mortals through the primordial Prophet’s initiation of Ālī into these secret arts. For a synopsis of the descent of music in this text, see Roy 1983, 134–​135. Though Roy attributes the text to Deoyān Ālī, Ahmad Sharif insists that the latter was a scribe, while the text was, in fact, composed by a local Hindu, who invokes Islamic cosmogony to describe the origins of music. Sharif 1997/​1404 B.S., 13. Cf. also Sultānā 1987, 125. 184. While Ahmad Sharif believes that the Jñāna Pradīpa and the Jñāna Cautiśā are both texts composed by the author of the NV, I am wary about attributing these texts to the Saiyad Sultān of the NV without more evidence. Jñāna Pradīpa attributed to Saiyad Sultān, ed. Ahmad Sharif, in NV 2:571–​660; and Jñāna Cautiśā attributed to Saiyad Sultān, 661–​666.



Nirañjana, who “dwells in the breath,” and u Muhammad’s white form, all of which conjointly produce a visualization of the supreme light (parama juti).185 Other such Sufi manuals, such as Śekh Jāhid’s Ādya Paricaya, Śekh Cānda’s Tālibnāmā, and Śekh Mansur’s Sirnāmā offer short cosmogonical sections.186 Making no explicit reference to the Nūr Muhammad or a cosmogony of light, Śekh Jāhid and others nonetheless continue several themes germane to Bengali Sufi cosmogonical discourse. Jāhid elucidates a cosmogony of desire, the longing of the lonely creator for an interlocutor, whom he brought into being through a single oṃkāra. The four elements are then said to have ensued from the Lord’s interactions with his companion (mitta), providing implicit reference to the Nūr Muhammad, well-​ known by Jāhid’s time in Bengali Sufi circles as the Lord’s chief confidant. Both Śekh Cānda and Śekh Mansur adopt the approach of the Avadhi Sufis who resort to a cosmogony of the word through the qurʾānic “Kun.”187 Alongside these aforementioned genres and texts, which engaged with cosmogony in varying degrees of depth, there developed treatises entirely dedicated to cosmogonical doctrine, often closely related to the esoteric texts mentioned above that circulated among the Bengali Sufi practitioners of the Chittagong region. Authors such as Śekh Parāṇa (a contemporary or successor of Saiyad Sultān), Mīr Muhammad Saphī, Ābdul Hākim, Deoān Ālī, and Ābdul Karim Khondkār independently wrote texts called Nūr Nāmā (“Treatise on Light”), while Saiyad Jādā composed Nirañjanera Nūr Nāmā (“Treatise on Nirañjana’s Light”) and Muhammad Hāri his Śr̥ṣṭira Pattana (“Creation’s Inception”).188 As David Cashin has noted, the theme

185. Jñāna Pradīpa attributed to Saiyad Sultān, 641. 186. Ādya Paricaya of Śekh Jāhid. The cosmogonical section of this text is also available in Sharif 1969a/​1375 B.S.,  ḥ–​ka2. 187. Kāpha-​nuü dui harapha sr̥jana haïla | karima āpanā nāma jāhera karila || Tālibnāmā of Śekh Cānda, 52. Kāphe nū-​e dui akṣare haïla saṃsāra, Sirnāmā of Śekh Mansur, 242. 188. Nūr Nāmā of Ābdul Hākim; Nūr Nāmā of Muhammad Saphī; Nūr Nāmā of Śekh Parāṇa; and Ādya Paricaya of Śekh Jāhid. The others are unpublished, and have been listed by Cashin 1995, 310. See also Sultānā 1987, 117–​125; and Sharif 1997/​1404 B.S. Muhammad Khāter of Howrah district in West Bengal also authored a Nūr Nāmā in the nineteenth century. Sultānā 1987, 125.

The Prophet of Light and Love


of creation from a fecund primordial sweaty matrix produced through the interaction between Prabhu Nirañjana and the Nūr Muhammad—​a theme discussed earlier in the context of the NV—​becomes ubiquitous in most later texts, even if the manner in which this theme is inflected varies based upon the particular philosophical orientation of the author. Thus, Cashin argues that those authors who were in closer contact with the Sahajiyā Vaiṣṇavas (a Vaiṣṇava tantric sect of Bengal heavily indebted to Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism) presented this primal sweat as the juice (rasa) of desire (kāma) or love (prema), while those who were conversant with Nātha discourse presented it as “a sort of seed by which the various elements of creation emerge,” bereft of an overarching “philosophy of love.”189 While Cashin claims that the Nātha-​oriented Muslim texts represent a historical stratum that preceded the Sahajiyā-​oriented Sufi texts,190 this chronology is not always borne out by the texts themselves, the NV itself being a significant early case in point. Such texts instead suggest that their Sufi authors shared in a common conceptual world that freed them to draw upon multiple philosophical orientations to bolster their Islamic ideas.191 I shall now elicit examples from a pair of texts written by authors of the Chittagong region—​the Nūr Nāmā of Mīr Muhammad Saphī192 and 189. Cashin 1995, n. 7, 62. In the case of the texts, such as the NV, Mīr Muhammad Saphī’s Nūr Nāmā, and Śekh Parāṇa’s text by the same name, creation proceeds from the sweat dripping from the body of the Nūr Muhammad, and not from that of Nirañjana, as Cashin suggests. In the case of Ābdul Hākim’s Nūr Nāmā, creation proceeds from the drops (bindu) of light that emerge from the body of the Nūr, when the Lord commands him to produce a sonic resonance (jhaṅkāra) from his body. Nūr Nāmā of Ābdul Hākim, 475–​478. Though Heyāt Māmud’s cosmogonical section in his Ānbiyā Vāṇī Kāvya follows the processual emanation of specific aspects of creation from the Nūr spelled out by Ābdul Hākim, the drops (bindu) of light here emerge from Nūr’s body at God’s command to shake himself. Ānbiyā Vāṇī Kāvya of Heyāt Māmud, 9–​11. In both texts, one hundred and twenty-​four thousand prophets emerge from an equal number of drops of light that exude from the Nūr, a harking back to this theme in al-​ Thaʿlabī’s ʿArāʾis al-​majālis discussed above. Cf. also a similar theme in the accounts of Jābir ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-​Anṣārī and Ibn al-​Jawzī, Katz 2007, 24–​28. 190. Cashin 1995, 56–​57. 191. I am indebted to Tony Stewart for helping me articulate this issue better. 192. On the basis of flimsy evidence, Ahmad Sharif suggests that Mīr Muhammad Saphī was the paternal grandson of Saiyad Sultān. Sharif 1969/​1375 B.S. c, 212–​213. The higher incidence of Persian vocabulary in this text suggests that it was written in the eighteenth century.



the Āgama of Ālī Rajā.193 These texts provide new variations on many of the themes and cosmogonic myths that Saiyad Sultān first introduced into Bangla, often making explicit the allusions to specific Arabo-​Persian or Indic myths discussed above in the context of the NV that Sultān left implicit. In his Nūr Nāmā, Mīr Muhammad Saphī presents the Arabian myth of the primordial pearl (muti or muktā), implicit in Sultān, that comes into being here from the light (rośana; Pers. rawshan) of Nūr Muhammad’s lamp (śāmā, Ar. shamʿ). Saphī’s narrative further relates how the primal creative matrix arises from Nūr’s sweat, released from his exertions when Nirañjana chases him through the four quarters.194 Saphī also pairs two themes familiar to us from the NV in order to map what might be seen as a taxonomy of the Sufi body. The trope of the Nūr acquiring various subtle attributes through dwelling in several seas for a specified number of years is combined with the trope of the “Nūr within a lantern.” Saphī uses these to reveal the Nūr seated in various yogic postures (āsanas) in eight different lanterns (some of which are designated with specific names and colors), while acquiring various forms of knowledge (B. elam; Pers. ʿilm) and other attributes through specific kinds of meditational practice.195 The eighth lantern marks the site of the tubā tree (Ar. Ṭūbá) upon which the Nūr dwelled in the form of a peacock for several thousands of years propitiating the Lord, a trope that also recalls the NV. Saphī’s eight lanterns provide visualizations in some respects analogous to the bio-​ cosmological stations of yoga, known as cakras, here recast in a Bengali Sufi meditational practice that focuses upon the Nūr.196 This analogy is further strengthened by Saphī’s use of various Bengali Sufi esoteric terms

193. Āgama of Ālī Rajā, 323–​362. This text has also been edited and translated by Cashin (Āgama/​ Jñāna Sāgara of Ālī Rajā, trans. Cashin). According to Sharif, Ālī Rajā was an eighteenth-​ century figure who lived in Ośakhāin village in the district of Ānoyārā, in the Chittagong region. Sharif 1969/​1375 B.S. b, 311. 194. Nūr Nāmā of Mīr Muhammad Saphī, 219–​221. 195. Ibid., 230–​233. 196. Concerning these levels in Bengali Sufi yoga practice, see Hatley 2007.

The Prophet of Light and Love


in his text (such as tripiṇīra ghāṭa, and the four moons or candras—​ādi, nija, unmatta, and garala) that have parallels in haṭha yogic practice,197 and by the elaboration of the detailed visualization of the luminous form of the Nūr through a unique head-​to-​foot description (sarāpā) of the bejeweled Nūr:198 Adorning his head is a great crown, upon which rests an elephantine pearl (gajamuktā), the king of jewels. It spreads its luminous form in the four directions. His forehead is adorned with light (nur), his ears adorned with twin lights (nur), like buds of sapphire and emerald. Upon his forehead are two eyes adorned by the brow’s bow—​ no color such as this can be found in the world. He bears a well-​measured (susammita) long nose through which fragrant breath circulates.199 His back bears the mark of the seal (mohara) of prophethood. His long body is of elongated form. A  jeweled necklace adorns his neck. By the touch of his feet, stones turn to molten wax. Who upon this earth can compare favorably with this form? None could match a single hair of his [in beauty].200 Through this passage, Saphī provides an anthropomorphic visualization of the Nūr for the Bengali darveś’s meditational practice, assuring him that the compassionate touch of Nūr Muhammad’s feet will melt the most stony-​hearted practitioner.

197. Other texts, such as Śekh Cānda’s Tālibnāmā, suggest that tripiṇī refers to the susumnā yogic channel (nāṛī), one of a triad, of which the other two are the iḍā and piṅgalā. Roy 1983, 181. For more on the psycho-​physiological meanings of candra in these texts, see ibid., 133. 198. Nūr Nāmā of Mīr Muhammad Saphī, 218–​219 and 221–​223. Concerning the sar tā pā or sarāpā (head-​to-​foot) descriptions in the Avadhi premākhyānas, see Behl 2012, 76–​80. 199. The edition provides suṣamita, which I have construed as susammita. 200. Nur Nāmā of Mīr Muhammad Saphī, 218–​219.



Doctrinal texts such as Ālī Rajā’s Āgama are rare, and provide the philosophical justification for the esoteric practices laid out in Sufi manuals. Rajā, who devotes the opening section of his work to cosmogony, uniquely names Nirañjana, the Immaculate One, as Viṣṇu. Though echoing Sultān’s emphasis on the paradoxical Sufi conception that God is both transcendent yet immanent, that Āhād and Āhmad are essentially one but mysteriously separated yet connected by the Nūr Muhammad, Rajā’s Āgama bears examination in the light of Stewart’s remarks on the connections between Islamic cosmogony and Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava thought. His cosmogonic ideas are compatible with the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava philosophy of acintya bhedābheda, defined by Stewart as “a simultaneous distinction and non-​ distinction between the ultimate and the created world that is cognitively unresolvable.”201 Mirroring Sultān, Rajā declares “the unity of the creator before creation, while noting the ineffable connection between this unity and the dualism necessary for all existent things to interact with the divine, the dualism necessary for a relationship of love to exist.”202 Yet his early emphasis on Nirañjana as Viṣṇu more explicitly dyes his cosmogonic account with the Vaiṣṇava theology of love. Rajā closely follows Sultān’s cosmogony of om̐, which he likewise maps onto a tripartite taxonomy of the guṇas:203 From the formless one (nirākāra) was born form (ākāra) in the shape of the syllable ā. Within the syllable ā, the formless one created the syllable u. Within the syllables ā and u originated the syllable ma. 201. Stewart 2001, 284. 202 . Ibid. 203. Āgama of Ālī Rajā, 323–​335. While this is one of the few Islamic Bangla texts that has been entirely translated into English, by David Cashin, it is unsatisfactory for several reasons. First, the text’s inherent esoteric nature makes it difficult to comprehend; I  point out below some of Cashin’s misunderstandings. Second, Cashin entirely relies upon Ahmad Sharif ’s “edition,” which itself is based upon a unique, and in places, corrupt manuscript, which, in my view, Sharif has not suitably edited. While Sharif himself does not mention which manuscript he bases his edition upon, this is clarified by Cashin 1995, 310, who used the edition for his translation. The concerned manuscript seems to be No. 9, Ms. 146, 9–​10 in Karim and Sharif 1960.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Sattva, rajaḥ, and tamaḥ became his very own powers (śakti). When he found himself within himself, the syllable ma arose within the formless. Seeing himself within himself, he was entranced with the love a devotee feels (bhakta bhāva). Seeing his form within the looking-​glass, he recognized himself. Within the syllables ā and u he remained engrossed. The syllable ā remained tightly coiled for eternal time. Within the syllables ā and u was the orb (maṇḍala) of the syllable ma. The syllables ma and ā remained within the formidable syllable u. From one emerged two like a pair of archers’ [bows with] bow-​ strings touching to form a single line.204 One name remained hidden within the three worlds. It was the quintessential union of the syllables ma and u. One other syllable rests within the three syllables. The triple world arises from this syllable.205 When the Vedic syllable (vedākṣara) is taken together, the syllable u becomes manifest. When the moon-​syllable (candrākṣara) is stolen away, the two become as one.206 The syllables ā and u become united. Having united, they exclude one syllable. 204. Cashin and Stewart have independently construed yugala dhānuki guṇādaṇḍa to refer to the pair of the archer and his bow. Āgama/​Jñāna Sāgara of Ālī Rajā, trans. Cashin, verse 18, 11; Stewart 2001, 278. Since the construction is ambiguous, and also because number is unspecified in Bangla, it could just as well be translated as “a pair of archers with bows.” Given the qurʾānic allusion, mentioned earlier, it is probably more meaningful to interpret dhānuki guṇādaṇḍa as a genitive tatpuruṣa compound, as I have suggested in my translation. 205. For an alternative translation of the passage up to this verse, see Stewart 2001, 278. Stewart’s translation includes the lines that immediately precede the passage I have translated. 206. The next few lines are problematic and seem to be corrupt. From the pattern set by Sultān’s cosmogony, it seems logical to accept the following alignments:  on the one hand, Āhād, the bhāvaka (the male lover) is represented by the ākāra, and, on the other, the Nūr Muhammad, his companion, his bhāvinī (the female beloved), is represented by the ukāra. Thus, it seems advisable that makāra in the foregoing section be emended to ākāra in order to better pair with the ukāra. This emendation is consistent with Rajā’s further development of cosmogony in the Āgama.



The syllables ā and u are of one body, one reflected image. The syllable ā gazed into the syllable u. It reflexively gazed upon the bhāvinī, the female beloved. It saw itself in the form of the syllable u. When it countenanced its own form within itself, it remained in meditation (dheyāna), its sight fixed upon the u. Becoming a spiritual aspirant (sādhaka), it continued to gaze on,207 as though the bhāvaka, male lover, had drowned in the bhāvinī’s ocean . . . The formless one was engrossed in the absorption of love’s savor. He beheld Nūr Muhammad with pride.208 Rajā draws upon Sultān’s translation strategy of explaining om̐ through the Islamic letter mysticism of the mīm/​makāra associated with the sacred names, Āhad and Āhmad.209 Alluding to the circular head of the sacred

207. The first foot (pāda), sādhakera pāye dr̥ṣṭi kariyā rahila, has been emended to sādhaka haïyā dr̥ṣṭi kariyā rahila in keeping with Sultān’s, which it clearly draws upon: “āhamada rūpe āpanā dekhā pāi | sādhaka haïyā rūpa rahilā dheyāi ||” quoted above, which it closely parallels. 208. This is the original text, with emendation in brackets: nirākāra haïte yabe ākāra janmila | nirākāra ākāreta ukāra nirmila || ākāra ukāra madhye haïla makāra | sattva rajaḥ tamaḥ haïla śakti āpanāra || āpeta pāila āpe makāra udita | āpe āpa dekhi bhakta bhāveta mohita || nija ākāra darpaṇe dekhi pāila cina | ākāra ukāra madhye raila haï līna || cirakāla chila eka kuṇḍalī ākāra | ākāra ukāra madhye maṇḍala makāra || makāra ākāra raila ukāre pracaṇḍa | eka haïte yugala dhānuki guṇādaṇḍa || trilokera eka nāma gopate rahila | makāra ukāra yuga sāra eka laila || tina akṣare āra eka akṣara basila | tribhuvana sei eka akṣare udila || vedākṣara saṅge haïle ukāra hae vyakta | candrākṣara haraṇe yugala eka mata || ākāra [makāra] ukāra nāma hae yuga rīta | eka hae ekākṣara karile varjita || ekākṣara harile yugala hae eka | eka kalevara dom̐he nahe ye pr̥thaka || eka kāyā eka chāyā ukāra ākāra [makāra] | ākāre [makāre] karila dr̥ṣṭi ukāra mājhāra || bhāvinīra [bhāvakera] pāne dr̥ṣṭi āpane karila | ukārera rūpete āpana dekhā pāila || āpanāra rūpa yadi dekhila āpane | ukāreta dr̥ṣṭi kari rahileka dhyāne || sādhaka haïyā [sādhakera pāye] dr̥ṣṭi kariyā rahila | bhāvinī sāgare yena bhāvaka ḍubila ||. . . nairākāra magna haila prema rasa bhāve | nura mohāmmada ’pare darśilā gaurave || Āgama of Ālī Rajā, 324–​326. 209. Unable to identify a convincing Sufi explanation for the three syllables, ā, u, and ma, Cashin mistakenly insists that Rajā’s syllables derive “from the Tantric concept of mantra.” Thus, according to him the makāra may allude to the five M’s of tantric practice, “though,” he concedes, “Rajā never spells out the five M’s or makes any use of them”; Cashin suggests that this is “in keeping with the Sahajiyā practice which had laid aside many of the trappings of Tantrism in favor of the culture of love.” Cashin 1995, 98–​99.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Arabic letter mīm of Muhammad, Rajā points out that the orb (maṇḍala) of the ma rests within the syllables ā and u. In ceaseless entwining motion like the guṇas of Prakr̥ti they have been likened to, the syllables ā and ma also lie within the powerful u, which we know from the NV represents the mysterious Nūr Muhammad. Being Muhammad’s hidden name it accordingly “is the quintessential union of the syllables u and ma.” Yet it is also the fundamental cause of duality. Even as it joins ā and ma—​Āhād and Āhmad respectively—​together, it also separates them, causing the undivided formless whole to be bisected along its axis. Making explicit Sultān’s implicit allusion to the qāb qawsayn, the qurʾānic “two bow-​lengths,” Rajā here deploys the metaphor of a pair of archers’ drawn bows, attached at their strings, to graphically describe this cosmic mitosis. To further complicate his cosmogonic riddle, Rajā then introduces an additional akṣara, letter or syllable, which he describes as resting within the three syllables ā, u, and ma. He refers to it as the vedākṣara, “the Vedic syllable,” from which, he tells us, the triple world arises. As is well known, the Upaniṣadic om̐ is written as a unique conjunct letter (akṣara) in the Bangla script, orthographically distinct from the three letters that constitute it syllabically in Rajā’s system. It is through the apprehension of this mystical vedākṣara, we are told, that the u becomes manifest. The removal of the candrākṣara, Rajā teasingly continues, causes the other two syllables to become one. Alluding to the “intentional language [sandhyābhāṣā]” of tantrics, David Cashin mistakenly reads candra as “semen.”210 I  would argue that “the moon-​letter” should be construed more literally to refer to the orthographic symbol of the candra-​bindu (m̐), which stands for the makāra/​mīm of Muhammad, by the removal of which, as delineated above with reference to the NV, Āhād and Āhmad are recognized as being essentially one. Here Ālī Rajā’s Āgama may be drawing upon Śaiva tantras such 210. While it is plausible that candra might refer to semen in certain Bengali Sufi practice manuals, and while the yoga of love presented in Āgama has distinctly Gauṛīya, and perhaps even Sahajiyā, Vaiṣṇava overtones, candra, here, as I have shown, has little to do with semen. Cashin reproduces the same arguments, which I  have mentioned in this and the preceding note, in the annotation to his translation of the text. Āgama/​Jñāna Sāgara of Ālī Rajā, trans. Cashin,  3–​12.



as the Netratantra, which describes the four phonic divisions (kalās) of the om̐ mantra as a, u, ma, and [candra-​] bindu.211 Taking further inspiration from the NV, the passage concludes with the absorption of the Lord in his beloved companion, Nūr Muhammad. It is worth considering how too the luminous moon, in Sufi poetry, becomes a metaphor for Muhammad, while the crescent moon, visually linked, in Rajā’s case, to the orthography of the candra-​bindu, has multifaceted associations with Islam. These famous lines, for instance, from the twelfth-​century Arab poet ʿUmar Ibn al-​Farīd exemplify such mystical symbolism: “We drank upon the remembrance of the Beloved a wine wherewith we were drunken before ever the vine was created. The full moon was a cup for it.” If the Beloved, here, refers to God, the vine represents his created world, while the goblet of the moon, the Prophet himself, the primal receptacle of the wine of divine love.212 As playful as Ālī Rajā’s riddle of om̐ might seem, his choice of the word vedākṣara is significant. Through it he identifies om̐—​the primeval sonic syllable declared by the Upaniṣads, the ancient revealed texts of his non-​ Muslim auditors—​as being the true revealer of the Nūr Muhammad, the mysterious, hidden (Ar. bāṭin) name of Muhammad. He thereby recognizes the prior insight of local non-​Muslim peoples into the most secret doctrines of Islam. Rajā’s text shows that the powerful doctrinal and literary legacy of the NV continues to hold sway over late eighteenth-​ century east Bengal. Not only is its doctrinal content imitated and developed by authors such as Rajā, but its translational strategies continue to be meaningful to Chittagonian society, which as Rajā asserts continues to be socially diverse. It is divided hierarchically into a social order constituted by śūdras (untouchables), Musalmāns, vaiśyas (traders), Vaiṣṇavas, and brahmins, with poets, kings, and prophets at the elite end of this spectrum.213 211. Padoux 1990, 410. 212. Hillenbrand 2015, 204. The verse itself, cited in Hillenbrand, is from Arberry 1965, 126. 213. śūdra mochalamāna vaiśya nānā jāti nara | brāhmaṇa vaiṣṇava kavi nr̥pa payagāmbara || Jñāna Sāgara of Ālī Rajā, 454.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Ālī Rajā, like his predecessor Sultān, takes his place in a long Persianate mystical tradition wherein poets endeavor to translate the Word of Allāh into the world of humans. They elaborate upon the philosophical mysteries of the Word through their own polysemic play with words, boldly advancing controversial linkages between cosmic, prophetic, and artistic creativity. Through his musings upon the Vedic syllable om̐, wherein he subtly overlays Islamic letter mysticism onto a familiar religious landscape, Rajā, following Sultān, draws non-​Muslims into an Islamic understanding of the genesis of the cosmos and of primal discourse. This beguilingly universalistic approach includes such auditors by acknowledging their darśanas of the Word, while subtly revealing to them their “ ‘real’ meaning.”214 Such a translation strategy ensured that henceforth in the Chittagong region om̐ would be uniquely charged with an Islamic valence that could enrich but also abrogate previous resonances of this Vedic syllable. In the hands of certain Muslim Bengali authors, translation, thus, could transcend its basic mediatory function between languages and cultures to become a potent ideological tool for establishing the verity of Islam.


Though undoubtedly a single factor among many affecting the process of religious change, the precise manner in which Saiyad Sultān and his successors handle the translation of an Islamic cosmogonic doctrine and cosmology into an idiom that is continuous with Bengali understandings has significant implications for the ways in which Bengali Sufi preachers helped to root Islam in Bengal. To comprehend this facet of Sultān’s writing, it is instructive to turn to Richard Eaton’s study on conversion to Christianity among the Nagas of northeast India, a study that, as the author claims, “suggests a paradigm of how previous aboriginals of India,

214. I cite here Stewart’s observations on Ālī Rajā. Stewart 2001, 286.



might, in earlier epochs, have acculturated to Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam.”215 This paradigm argues that four “active” factors contributed to conversion to Christianity among the Nagas. The first two were the positive reception among the Nagas of the perceived connections of Christianity with literacy and Western medicine; the third was the perception of Christianity’s power as “a new technique” in negotiating mundane problems; and the fourth was the ability of this new religion to integrate isolated tribal groups, socially, economically, and politically, into the wider world order presented by the British empire.216 Relevant to our discussion, Eaton’s fifth, “passive” factor is insufficient in itself but nonetheless contingent for conversion to take place. It pertains, in general, to the approach adopted by missionaries in the presentation of Christianity to the Nagas, and, in particular, to the translation of Christian superhuman deities into the languages of the Nagas and the conceptual enmeshing of Christian cosmologies with their religious systems.217 “For mass conversion,” explains Eaton, “whatever else it may have meant, ultimately involved the transfer of certain ideas and symbols from one cultural and linguistic framework into another such framework.”218 Where the presentation of Christian superhuman deities continued to uphold Naga terms for their own supreme deities, while simultaneously clarifying, enlarging, and universalizing old conceptions of the supreme deity, the Nagas, as in the case of the Ao and the Sema, became favorable to the new religion, converting in large numbers. Given constancy in the first four “active” factors between tribes, however, the unsatisfactory fulfillment of the fifth became the key missing element that tilted the balance against the ready acceptance of Christianity among the Angami. These findings are indeed crucial to understanding the strategies of translation that Sufis like Sultān used to establish Islam in the subcontinent. 215. Eaton 1984, 2. 216. Elsewhere, Eaton (1993) himself has shown how Islam in Bengal provided local peoples with most of these “active” factors. 217. Eaton 1984, 43. 218. Ibid., 27.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Nowhere better on display than in his presentation of Islamic cosmogonical doctrine to Bengalis, Sultān shines in his role as missionary translator, “a sort of intellectual engineer,” to apply Eaton’s remarks on the Baptist missionaries here, “tinkering with” Bengali “cosmologies, trying to fit his own system into the” Bengalis’, at the level of translation, while eventually, through salvation history’s historiographic process, doing the precise opposite at the level of conversion. 219 For by coopting hinduāni deities and doctrines into an overarching musalmāni worldview, the text declares that hinduāni peoples were, in fact, musalmāni. A word of caution is necessary, however, while drawing southeast Bengal’s Islamization into comparison with the acculturation of the Nagas to Christianity. In the arguments that Eaton lays out elsewhere about Bengal’s Islamization, he claims that Muslim converts were mainly drawn from indigenous peoples who were “not yet, at the time of their contact with Islam,. . . fully integrated into either the Hindu or the Buddhist social system”; they were peoples who were “only lightly exposed to Brahmanic culture.”220 He maintains, moreover, that in “the hinterland of Chittagong” where “Brahmanical social institutions were persistently weak, a scripturally based tradition such as Islam (and later, Christianity) faced little competition.”221 Contrary to Eaton’s understanding of southeast Bengal, Arakanese Chittagong, as discussed earlier, in the seventeenth century was a vibrant cosmopolitan area. While some indigenous communities of southeast Bengal may indeed have been acculturating to Islam, Islam was establishing itself in the region despite the growing presence of Christianity, and the long-​standing existence of various Indic religious traditions, including Buddhism and brahmanical traditions, such as Vaiṣṇavism. Eaton’s findings about the translation of Christian doctrine by missionaries working among the Nagas nonetheless sheds significant light on the cultural work that the NV’s cosmogony accomplishes. 219. Ibid., 43. On the hermeneutic movements of translation and conversion in the NV’s historiographic process, see Chapter 3. 220. Eaton 1993, 118–​119. Cf. also Eaton 2017, 380–​381. 221. Eaton 2017, 388.



The NV epitomizes a Muslim preacher’s keen awareness of the opportunities for equivalence that Bengali systems of religious thought and literature present. Indeed, what the Baptist missionaries wrote about Naga religious systems could well have come from the pen of Sultān, had he left us a memoir of his observations of Bengali beliefs:  “the old religion  .  .  .  furnishes a splendid basis for Christianity. The fundamental ideas are there, perverted . . . but there. And most of the needful terms are there.”222 Sultān consciously builds upon these continuities in doctrine and terminologies used for the Supreme (e.g., Nirañjana), clarifying and enlarging existing conceptions of divinity and cosmogony (eg. om̐, Sāṃkhya principles, Dharma cult conceptions of creation by sweat, the Vaiṣṇava doctrine of divine descent) into a new coherent system, which makes space for Hindus of all stripes—​practitioners of the Nātha and Dharma cults, and Vaiṣṇavas. The presentation of such continuities recognizes these sects’ prior “witness-​ ship” (shahāda) of the Islamic creed, while simultaneously teaching them new and better ways to re-​ conceptualize their own doctrines. Sultān’s two-​pronged approach to his hinduāni auditors of facilitating recognition of their doctrines in his text, on the one hand, while urging re-​cognition of these very doctrines, on the other, is also central to his presentation of prophetology, a subject we will turn to in Chapters 4, 5, and 6. We will learn how Sultān reconstitutes Islamic prophetology to include Hindu divinities and sacred texts, tacitly enlarging the Qurʾānic category of People of the Book to uniquely embrace the Hindus of Bengal. Chapter 4 focuses upon the Islamic and Indic elements that together forge Sultān’s Indo-​Islamic salvation history. In Chapter 5, we turn to Sultān’s boldest innovation—​the tale-​cycle of the god-​turned-​prophet Hari or Kr̥ṣṇa—​to examine the ways in which translation can become a speech act of creative iconoclasm. In the final chapter, we focus upon the NV’s narrative on the Prophet’s ascension to analyze how Sultān reimagines an Arabian prophet for Bengal.

222. Eaton 1984, 26.

The Prophet of Light and Love


Prior to diving into Sultān’s prophetology, however, it is necessary to situate the text more precisely in its cultural and literary contexts, and to better understand Sultān’s hermeneutics of translation. Thus Chapter 2 studies the NV in its Bengali oral-​literate and performance contexts, and in relation to the wider world of Islamic literature. It examines the manner in which the author harnesses orality and literacy in the service of his text, discusses the structure of the NV, and analyzes the relationship of the critical edition to the manuscript tradition. This chapter also studies the role of the author in forging Islamic identity and community. Chapter 3, for its part, queries the cultural work that Sultān’s translation accomplishes through the historiographic process. In this chapter, I  develop a theoretical framework for understanding Sultān’s sophisticated strategies of translation. Beginning by examining Sultān’s lengthy statement about translation, this chapter extrapolates from the NV a hermeneutic model of Islamic missionary translation that Sultān’s textual practices exemplify.


Text, Author, and Authority The Nabı¯ vaṃ s´a and the Making of Islamic Community

Identity is “inherently” relational, i.e., differential and/​or comparative—​and not infrequently agonistic, confrontational, and/​or conflictual. In the interstice, from the interstice, identity is necessarily, structurally unstable:  the necessary duality of identity formation means that the relation between the two terms can, at any time, be reversed. —​Tim Murphy1

As a text that emerges in an Islamic literary tradition of Bengal, the NV is discursively enmeshed with the histories and practices of orality, literacy, and performance of Islamic and Bengali traditions, both separately and conjointly. Here is how Saiyad Sultān describes his composition: . . . Listen carefully to the Prophet’s pañcālī with single-​minded attention. It shall steal the sins of human birth, 1. Murphy (2007) 2014, 146.

The Muhammad Avata¯ra. Ayesha A. Irani, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190089221.003.0002.

Text, Author, and Authority


and destroy the mind’s affliction if you listen to it with focused mind.2 As these lines demonstrate, Sultān characterizes the NV as nabīra pāñcālī (or pañcāli), an epic song on the Prophet Muhammad. I begin this chapter by exploring what it means for the NV to be a pāñcālī in the Bengali context, before going on to examine the structure of the text and the role of the author in Islamic identity construction.


As an epic, the NV exhibits three main features widely acknowledged to be traits of the genre: it is narrative, poetic, and heroic.3 Being a pāñcālī, which was sung and recited, it stands within a pan-​Indian epic literature and performance tradition of song-​recitation.4 And in its role as an epic tale on the Prophet and his predecessors, which incorporates Judeo-​ Christian traditions of prophecy into Islamic narrative frameworks, the NV participates in the Arabic oral traditions of the quṣṣāṣ, the storytellers, of the Arab world. As the Tales of the Prophets (qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ) genre developed in the hands of Persian authors, its stories of prophetic heroism

2. NV 2:112. Several other references to the NV as pāñcāli can be found throughout the NV. See NV 1:888 and 927; and NV 2:60, 195, and 732. 3. Concerning these features, see Blackburn and Flueckiger 1989, 2–​3. In his discussion of the designation “epic” to the Homeric oral epic song tradition, Albert Lord declaims narrative length as being a distinguishing criterion of the “epic”; so too does he find the qualification “heroic” to be narrow since such songs could also bear romantic and historical elements. These remarks can be instructively applied to the pāñcālī tradition as well. Like the Greek epic song tradition, the pāñcālī tradition, notwithstanding its subaltern nature, would be misrepresented by the qualifications “folk” or “popular.” For a discussion of the problems related to such qualifications with regard to the Greek tradition, see Lord 1964, 6–​7. 4. Blackburn and Flueckiger (1989, 9) opine that the Indian oral epic falls into two broad performance styles: song-​recitation and dance-​drama, the latter being secondary to the former. For epic performance traditions that extend beyond South Asia into Southeast Asia, see, for instance, Flueckiger and Sears 1991.



and adventure must have participated in the long-​standing Persianate performance traditions of dāstān-​goi or qiṣṣah-​khwānī (storytelling) and naqqālī (dramatic storytelling).5 Within Bengal, the NV is situated within a long and rich Bengali tradition of song and performance that extends back to the beginnings of Bangla song literature in the Caryāgīti.6 Sukumar Sen divides old Bangla literature into three streams: song-​poems (gīti-​kavitā); purāṇic narratives (ākhyāyikā) that are to be sung (geya) or recited (pāṭhya); and non-​ purāṇic poetic narratives (kavitā-​ākhyāyikā) that are sung. The latter two streams, according to him, have a single compositional structure or form called the pāñcālī.7 Thus, the Bangla Rāmāyaṇa—​Kr̥ttivāsa’s Śrīrāma Pāñcāli—​Mālādhara Basu’s Śrīkr̥ṣṇavijaya, and the maṅgala-​vijaya literature celebrating various folk deities (loka-​devatā) were all written in this performative pāñcālī genre.8 Whereas the Rāmāyaṇa was composed by brahmins to be sung on festive occasions, the Bangla Mahābhārata, albeit designated as a pāñcālī, was never sung at religious or cultural festivals, but solely recited by readers (pāṭhakas) at the Muslim courts or other elite private gatherings. Since there was no liturgical function attached to the recitation of the Mahābhārata, translations of the latter text into Bangla were often composed by non-​brahmins, such as the kāyasthas and other scribal castes.9 5. The most popular of the Persian “romances” of North India (and to a lesser extent in Bengal) were the pseudo-​biographical adventures of the Prophet’s uncle, Ḥamzah, and those of the legendary conqueror, Alexander. Concerning these traditions, see Pritchett 1991, 1–​2. Concerning the Ḥamzah romance in India, see ibid.; with regard to Amīrhāmjāra Puthi composed in dobhāṣī Bangla by Phakir Garībullā and his disciple, Saiyad Hāmjā, see Mannan 1966, 105–​133. For the Alexander romance in Avadhi and Dakkhani literature, see Gaeffke 1989. For Ālāol’s Sikāndarnāmā, a translation of Niẓāmī’s Iskandarnāmah into Bangla, see Sikāndarnāmā of Ālāol; and d’Hubert 2018. On Persian and Urdu storytelling traditions and the romance genre, Pasha M. Khan 2019. 6. Concerning the various rāgas that the siddhācāryas composed their padas in, see Mojumder (1967) 1973, 8. See also Kvaerne 2010, 8. 7. Sukumar Sen (1940) 1978, 103. 8. Ibid. 103. Mohanta 2006. 9. Sukumar Sen (1940) 1978, 208. Concerning the Bengali kāyasthas, see Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya 1968, 141–​148.

Text, Author, and Authority


As an epic song on the Prophet Muhammad, which self-​confessedly competes with the pāñcālīs on Rāma and Kr̥ṣṇa, the NV closely follows this pāñcālī performance tradition, which is believed to have been originally associated with puppets (pāñcāla).10 Puppet-​dance (putula nāca) and the accompaniment of song, dance, and drama were integral components of the pāñcālī performance tradition.11 Though puppet-​dance disappeared from the pāñcālī by the eighteenth century, the designation continued to be applied to epic songs composed around deities.12 Pāñcālīs such as the Rāmāyaṇa came to be sung, declaimed, and enacted by one lead singer (mūla-​gāyana) as he brandished a fly-​whisk, while he danced, wearing ankle bells on one or both feet. A  chorus of singers (dohāra or pāli) would also participate, playing accompanying instruments such as the mr̥daṅga or pākhoyāja, ḍhola, and gong (kānśi).13 Kr̥ttivāsa’s Rāmāyaṇa continues to inspire the modern-​day Bangladeshi performance genres of Rāmāyaṇa gāna (variously known as rāma kīrtana, rāma līlā or rāma maṅgala) in the Mymensing, Comilla, Dhaka, Jessore, Khulna, and Faridpur districts; kusāna gāna of Rangpur (which also contains elements of Kāśīrāmadāsa’s Mahābhārata); lakṣmīra gāna of Rajshahi; rāma yātrā of Khulna, Faridpur and Jessore; and maheśa khelā of Durgapur and Taherpur in the Rajshahi district.14 Pāñcālī performances, as they evolved over time, came to exchange many performance conventions with other genres, including pālā-​kīrtana, the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava performance tradition on the līlās of Kr̥ṣṇa and of Caitanya, which began with Baṛu Caṇḍidāsa’s Śrīkr̥ṣṇakīrtana.15 Pāñcālī

10. Mohanta 2006. 11. Sukumar Sen (1940) 1978, 103. Mohanta 2006. 12. Putula nāca continues to be an extremely popular performance genre in Bangladesh, while putula yātrā is performed in the greater Faridpur region. Concerning these genres, see Jamil Ahmed 2000, 320–​326. 13. Sukumar Sen (1940) 1978, 103–​104. Mohanta 2006. 14. Jamil Ahmed 2000, Chapter Two. 15. For a description of the common performance conventions observed across various present-​ day Bangladeshi performance genres, see ibid., 337–​347. For a detailed description of the pālā-​ kīrtana, līlā-​kīrtana, and other Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava performance genres as they are performed



performances also developed into the more fully theatrical yātrā tradition still prevalent in West Bengal and Bangladesh, wherein male actors are cast as characters in a drama of the gods.16 In Bangladesh today, the pāñcālī genre has acquired a narrow association with performances related to folk deities such as Manasā, Caṇḍī, Lakṣmī, Bhagavatī, Śaṇi, and Satyanārayaṇa.17 However, it seems to have other specific meanings in other performance texts and contexts. Mary Frances Dunham, for instance, describes a typical jārīgāna recital in which the “pāñcālī” is one short element of the performance, specifically associated with the invocation or vandanā.18 Pāñcālīs, such as the NV and Muhammad Khān’s Maktul Hosen, as Dunham shows, are the literary and bardic precursors of the jārīgāna, Islamic Bangla epic songs inspired by the Urdu mars̱iya tradition; and the gājīgāna, a form of the maṅgala-​vijaya genre dedicated to Sufi gājīs (Pers. ghāzī).19 Hence it is entirely likely that the NV was performed in seventeenth-​ century east Bengali villages, participating in a performance tradition that had at its core elements associated with the modern-​day jārīgāna.20 One might imagine a scenario wherein the NV was performed over several nights by a troupe of traveling artistes, patronized by a wealthy landowner. Based upon its manuscript transmission and circulation, it is also likely that sections of the NV were performed separately. The Śab-​i merāj (Night of the Prophet’s Ascension) and the Ophāt-​i rasul, on the Prophet’s last days today in Bangladesh, see ibid., Chapter One. Concerning the view that the Gītagovinda and the Śrīkr̥ṣṇakīrtana were possibly produced with puppets, see Sukumar Sen 1965/​1372 B.S., 97–​99. 16. Concerning the yātrā tradition, see Khatun 2006. For a description of the Kr̥ṣṇayātrā performances prevalent in the early nineteenth century, see Ward 1818, 1: 189–​192. For a complete catalog of the over seventy different forms of performance genres found in Bangladesh today centered upon Kr̥ṣṇa and Caitanya; folk deities, such as Manasā; Śiva and Kālī; the Nātha cult; Rāmacandra; and Islam, see Jamil Ahmed 2000. 17. Ibid., 125–​128, 156–​157 and 311–​313. 18. Dunham 1997, 63. 19. Ibid., 42–​43, 45–​46. Concerning the performance in Bangladesh today of gājīra gāna and other related forms of gājīra yātrā, gājīra pāṭa, and pīr gāna, see Jamil Ahmed 2001, Chapter Three. 20. Concerning the performance of the jārīgāna, see Dunham 1997, especially Chapter Four.

Text, Author, and Authority


and death, were singled out as independent texts for artful narration and sung performance. In the context of the annual commemoration of the Prophet’s Ascension on the 27th Rajab of the Islamic calendar, celebrated in Bangladesh to this day, such performances renewed the meaning of the text and the Prophet’s memory for east Bengali communities. Having contextualized the NV within Islamic and Bengali performance traditions, we shall now examine the text’s structure as a salvation history, and the ways in which it draws upon medieval Islamic historiographical writing.


Though the earliest Arabic writings in the qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ (Tales of the Prophets) genre can be traced back to Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. circa 110/​ 728),21 the most widely circulated accounts across the Islamic world, and especially in the Persianate regions, were the ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Abū Isḥāq Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad al-​Thaʿlabī (d. 427/​ 1036)22 and those versions ascribed to the apocryphal author Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh al-​Kisāʾī.23 Little is known of Kisāʾī, except that his tales were held in high regard by medieval storytellers (Ar. sing. qāṣ);24 the earliest known manuscript of his Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ is dated to 617/​1220.25 If Thaʿlabī’s work represented “the learned strain of prophetic literature,” 21. Concerning the publication of the papyri of Wahb ibn Munabbih and other early authors, see Kister 1993, 113. 22. ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī. 23. For points of comparison between the NV and Kisāʾī’s account, I mainly use Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, checking it with Eisenberg’s edition (1922–​23), upon which Thackston’s translation is based. For a new critical edition (1998) of these tales, see Badʾ al-​khalq wa-​qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī. 24. Nagel 2011a. 25. Thackston 1997, n. 29, xxxvii. A sixth/​twelfth-​century dating for the work has been provided by al-​Ṭ. B. Sālma, who has made the most recent critical edition of the text. Tottoli 2011, 527.



deriving “directly from qurʾānic commentary,”26 Kisāʾī’s presented the more popular face of this genre, reflecting, according to some scholars, twelfth–​thirteenth-​century Arabic folk literature.27 As the independent genre of the qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ was taking shape, these tales, from very early on in the Islamic period, also percolated into the sīra literature on the life of Muḥammad, into ḥadīth and tafsīr traditions, and into the tārīkh traditions, the great universal histories of prophets and kings, being “duly embedded in the preamble (the mubtadaʾ, badʾ, or ibtidāʾ) with which, as a rule, these compilations began.”28 This is why modern western scholarship on the qiṣaṣ tradition has emphasized the important distinction between qiṣaṣ as genre and qiṣaṣ as “a broader tradition” or “discourse.”29 The same observation is applicable to other related genres and their development, such as the biography of the Prophet (sīra) and the narrative of the Prophet’s ascension (miʿrājnāmah), which can be analyzed as both independent genres as well as discourse. The monumental History of Prophets and Kings (Taʾrīkh al-​rusul wa-​ al-​mulūk) of the Persian polymath Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-​ Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) thus covered legends of the pre-​Islamic prophets and the biography of the Prophet Muḥammad (sīra ), as did his Qurʾān commentary.30 The Sāmānid vizier Muḥammad ibn Abū ʿAlī Balʿamī (d. 363/​ 974) translated Ṭabarī’s History into Persian in 963 C.E., excising bio-​ bibliographic details while adding materials of new historical value.31

26. Thackston 1997, xx. 27. Brinner 2002, xxi. For further points of contrast between Thaʿlabī and Kisāʾī, see Klar 2009, 11. 28. Kister 1993, 114. Ḥadīth compilations set aside special sections on the prophets, one of the earliest examples being book no. 60, “Aḥādīth al-​anbiyāʾ” (“Traditions of the Prophets”), of the Ṣahīḥ of al-​Bukhārī (d. 256/​870). Rubin 2011b. 29. Pregill et al. 2017, 12, and n. 29, 12. 30. Milstein 1999, 9. Similar was the case of al-​Bidāya wa-​al-​nihāya (“The Beginning and the End”), the universal history of Abū al-​Fidāʾ Ibn Kathīr (d. 1373 C.E.). Brinner 2002, xx–​xxii. 31. Bosworth 2011. For a critical edition, I  have used Tārīkhnāmah of Balʿamī. Concerning Balʿamī’s Tārīkhnāmah, see also Peacock 2007.

Text, Author, and Authority


It is Balʿamī’s synoptic translation of Ṭabarī’s history that achieved wide circulation in the Persianate sphere. The Persian trio—​Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Manṣūr ibn Khalaf al-​Nīshābūrī,32 Muḥammad Juwayrī/​ Ḥuwayzī,33 and Muḥammad ibn al-​Ḥasan al-​Daydūzamī34—​the first two of whom flourished in the late tenth and eleventh centuries c.e. in Persia—​ produced tales of the prophets in Persian that adapted the tale-​cycles set in place by Kisāʾī, Ṭabarī (via Balʿamī), and Thaʿlabī. Another important trend in the development of the qiṣaṣ tradition in the medieval Islamic period, of direct relevance to the study of the NV, is represented by those qiṣaṣ texts that imitate the structural model of Ibn Isḥāq’s formative biography of Muḥammad, which began with a mubtadaʾ, the history of creation and the prophetic forerunners to Muḥammad. The Persian trio, mentioned earlier, as well as other Persian and Turkish authors, carry forward this “qiṣaṣ cum sīra” model into their Qiṣaṣ al-​ anbiyāʾ.35 The NV too draws upon just such a model, but takes it a step further because it also draws upon the miʿrājnāmah as discourse by including an elaborate account of the Prophet’s ascension within the Prophet’s biography, a feature not to be found in the independent Qiṣaṣ of the Persian authors Nishābūrī and Juwayrī. Comparison of the NV’s narratological features and storytelling style with the most widely circulated texts of the Arabic qiṣaṣ tradition in the Persianate sphere, those of Thaʿlabī and Kisāʾī, reveals that the NV draws more on Kisāʾī than on Thaʿlabī. Furthermore, comparison of the NV’s

32. Nīshābūrī is alternatively spelt Naysābūrī or Nīsābūrī. 33. Milstein 1999, 9–​10. 34. The works of the first two authors have been published. See Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī; and Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Muḥammad Juwayrī. Daydūzamī’s work is available in a nineteenth-​ century Iranian lithographic edition. Tottoli 2011, 533. 35. Hagen 2017. Such is also the case with the Arabic Qiṣaṣ al-​Qurʾān of Abū al-​Ḥasan al-​ Hayṣam ibn Muḥammad al-​Būshanjī (d. 1075 c.e.) of Nīshāpūr, which appends a biography of the Prophet Muḥammad to the tale-​cycles of the pre-​Islamic prophets. This work was translated into Persian under the title Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ by the medieval author Muḥammad ibn Asʿad al-​Tustarī. Both the Arabic original and Persian translation are available in published editions. Tottoli 2011, 531–​533.



linguistic and narratological features with the Persian qiṣaṣ of Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī suggests two significant findings. First, rather than relying solely and directly on Kisāʾī’s Arabic, the NV was most likely using a Persian model. Second, the NV shares complex intertextual relationships with the Persian qiṣaṣ of Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī, and occasionally, independently of these two, with Balʿamī and Kisāʾī. Some tale-​cycles of the NV, such as the tale-​cycle of Ibrāhim (Ar. Ibrāhīm), are closer to the Nīshābūrī-​Balʿamī intertext than to Kisāʾī. Others, such as the tale of Musā (Pers. Mūsá) and Khijir (Pers. Khiz̤r), are profoundly indebted to the Juwayrī-​Balʿamī tradition, which, in this case, overlaps to a large degree with Kisāʾī.36 The Muḥammad cycle, on the other hand, shares features of both Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī. Such complex intertextuality with these Persian authors suggests an array of textual meanderings, reticulate networks, and composite textual possibilities via which the tales of the prophets could have reached the author of the NV. Furthermore, as Milstein and colleagues demonstrate with regard to the sixteenth-​century illustrated manuscripts of the Persian trio—​Nīshābūrī, Juwayrī, and Daydūzamī—​scribes would copy sections of one author into the work of another, rendering these manuscripts composite works. One possibility, therefore, is that Saiyad Sultān worked with one such composite manuscript, which itself bore an intertextual relationship with Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī, and also with Kisāʾī, Balʿamī, and Ṭabarī, unmediated by the former two Persian authors but perhaps by another unidentified Persian source. Alternatively, Sultān could have shared with the Persian authors a model of translation in which the author felt at liberty to choose tales from the full range of Arabic and Persian qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ texts available to him, embroidering these, as they did, with his own imagination. Where Juwayrī inserted tales of pre-​Islamic Persian kings and epic heroes, such as Qāyumars̱ and Jamshīd, harmonizing these pre-​Islamic traditions with the tales of the pre-​Islamic prophets, Saiyad Sultān interchanged Persian kings with Hindu gods and heroes.

36. For more details on the intertextual history of the NV, see Chapter 4; on the intertextual history of the NV’s tale of Musā and Khijir, in particular, see Irani and Stewart, forthcoming.

Text, Author, and Authority


Since the Persianate qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ tradition is vast and remains a relatively underdeveloped area in scholarship, one cannot rule out the possibility that Sultān worked with a single unidentified Persian exemplar. Yet, given that any text in the qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ tradition is primarily a collection of stories, it seems more likely that there is no single text “out there” that Sultān consulted, a text waiting to be identified in some archive. Rather, a rich tapestry of texts was available to our seventeenth-​ century poet, written and oral texts passed from scribe to storyteller, from preacher to poet, woven back and forth by the shuttles of time and space. Given the likeliness of this scenario, the attempt to retrace a specific intertextual genealogy may prove futile. Just as we cannot determine the precise oral-​literate intertextual pathways by which tales of the avatāras reached Sultān, so too is it impossible to trace the specific tributaries that fed the river of qiṣaṣ traditions that flowed into Bengal’s delta of story. Despite hindrances to tracing the NV’s literary genealogy, in Chapter  4 I  attempt to circumscribe the Persianate “repertoire” of qiṣaṣ materials it potentially draws upon. Through a reconstruction of these textual antecedents, I seek to map what Karin Barber has called “the ideational resources,” in other words, “what was conceptually available to people of a given time and place” to reveal the complex configurations of intertextuality that each of the NV’s tale-​c ycles share with a loosely defined set of hypotextual sources.37 More importantly, I seek to reconstruct, as far as the materials allow, the mnemohistorical discourse—​“the vertical line of memory and. . . the threads of connectivity.  .  .  working behind the texts”—​that shaped the NV’s historiographic process. Apart from intertextuality, these “threads” also include the “evolution of ideas, recourse to forgotten evidence, shifts of focus, and so forth.”38 Of epic scale and ambition, the NV draws within its wide narrative sweep the sacred beginnings of the cosmos, the unfolding of sacred history

37. Barber 2007, 9. 38. Jan Assmann 1998, 16.



through the line of the prophets, and their apogee in the Prophet of Islam. The author thus depicts cosmogony; the formation of the primordial pair, Māric and Mārijāt,39 from whom were born two classes of jinn, whom Sultān styles the gods (sura) and the demons (asura); the eventual destruction of both parties by sin; and the futile creation of the four Vedas in order to reform humankind. These divinely revealed Hindu texts, as detailed in Chapters 4 and 5, acknowledge the future manifestation of the Prophet of Islam. Then follows the descent of various prophets identifiable as specific Hindu deities, such as Śiva and various avatāras of Viṣṇu, including Rāma, all of whom fail to eradicate evil from the earth. This leads to the eventual creation of Ādam, and after him a line of prophets including Hābil (Abel), Śiś (Seth), Idris (Enoch), Nūh (Noah), Ibrāhim (Abraham), Musā (Moses), Dāud (David), Solemān (Solomon), Jākāriyā (Zachariah), and Īsā (Jesus), whose stories are told in some detail, culminating with the Prophet of Islam. Born of the line of Kābil (Cain), Hari (i.e., Kr̥ṣṇa) is the only Hindu god who punctuates the line of Judeo-​Islamic prophets after Ādam. Through inclusion of this Muslim Kr̥ṣṇa and the Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava “apostles” who precede Ādam, the Prophet Muhammad’s monotheistic genealogy becomes uniquely augmented. Book Two, the section of the NV on the Prophet’s life, for which Ahmad Sharif provides the subtitle, “Rasul Carita” (The Acts of God’s Messenger), is divided into three parts in the edited version. This tripartite division is ostensibly based upon the manuscript tradition. While entire manuscripts of Book Two were produced, parts two and three also circulated in independent manuscripts. Part one begins with a recapitulation and further elaboration of cosmogony, with distinctly Sufi themes. Essential principles delineated in the beginning of the text are here fleshed out, with extensive description of the role of the Nūr Muhammad, the Muhammadan Light, in creation. Then follows Muhammad’s birth and his early life in Mecca. Part two, Śab-​i merāj, “The Night of the Ascension,” begins with the ascension narrative, which is followed by the account of the death of Khadijā 39. These are the Bangla forms of “Mārij,” the Perso-​Arabic terms for the primordial jann, and his mate, “Mārija.” NV 1:7. For more details, see discussion in Chapter 4

Text, Author, and Authority


(Ar. Khadīja).40 The edition follows some manuscripts of the Śab-​i merāj in including within part two the emigration to Medina; the Prophet’s various military campaigns against the Meccans; his relationships with his daughter, Phātemā (Ar. Fāṭima), and wife, Āyeśā (Ar. ʿĀʾisha); his final triumphant return to Mecca; his later conquests of various lands; and the farewell Hajv (Ar. Ḥajj) (section 2.4 in the following outline). It should be noted that when I refer to Sultān’s merāj, throughout this book, I address the section that specifically deals with the Prophet’s ascension (the first 854 couplets). Though I take into account the reactions of the Prophet’s community to his ascent—​a forty-​verse section that immediately follows the sectional colophon of the Śab-​i merāj41—​I do not consider the other narratives about the Prophet’s mid-​life (section 2.4) to be a part of the ascension narrative, even though they fall under the scribal (and editorial) subtitle Śab-​i merāj.42 Part three, Ophāt-​i rasul, “The Prophet’s Death,” concerns Muhammad’s last days and demise, ending with a brief description of the conquests of the first three caliphs. The contents of the NV may be outlined thus: 1.1 Invocation, NV  1:1–​3 1.2 Cosmogony 1.2.1 Prabhu Nirañjana and Nūr Muhammad, NV  1:4–​6 1.2.2 Māric and Mārijāt, NV  1:7–​12 1.2.3 The gods (suras) and the demons (asuras), NV 1:13–​22 1.3 The earth’s tale of woe: the descent of the Vedas and the failure of the mahājana (Śiva and Viṣṇu’s avatāras) to eradicate sin, NV 1:23–​41 1.4 Ādam and his sons, Hābil, Kābil, and Śiś, NV 1:42–​247 40. While the NV holds that it was Āyeśā (Ar. ʿĀʾisha) who was beside the Prophet in his room when he had this experience, it claims that Khadijā yearned to leave the world after she heard the Prophet speak to Āyeśā and herself of his wondrous time with God. NV 2:279–​286. 41. NV 2:281–​284. 42. Scribes are inconsistent in determining where to end this section, and I have decided to follow the format of medieval Islamic authors, provided by Vuckovic (2005), to facilitate ease of comparison.



1.5 Minor Prophets in Śiś’s line and Sufis 1.5.1 Mayāil, NV 1:248–​249 1.5.2 Vārad, NV 1:250–​252 1.5.3 Hāsān of Basra and Varasiyā, NV 1:256–​288 1.6 Idris, NV 1:289–​305 1.7 Nūh, NV 1:306–​325 1.8 Ibrāhim, NV 1:326–​466 1.9 Hari, NV 1:468–​500 1.10 Musā, NV 1:501–​695 1.11 Dāud, NV 1:697–​729 1.12 Solemān, NV 1:730–​833 1.13 Hārut and Mārut, NV 1:834–​846 1.14 Īsā, NV 1:847–​935

Rasul Carita 2.1 Recapitulation and further elaboration upon the Nūr Muhammad in cosmogony, NV  2:3–​15 2.2 Muhammad’s birth and early life in Mecca 2.2.1 The Prophet’s parents: Ābdullā and Āminā, NV 2:16–​27 2.2.2 Early life, NV 2:28–​96 2.2.3 Prophethood, NV 2:97–​112 2.2.4 Conflict with enemies, and miracles performed, NV 2:113–​184 2.2.5 Ābu Tālib’s death, NV 2:185–​195 Śab-​i  merāj 2.3 The night of the ascension, NV 2:199–​284 2.4 Muhammad’s mid-​life in Medina 2.4.1 Khadijā’s death, NV 2:285–​286 2.4.2 Emigration to Medina, NV 2:287–​309 2.4.3 Battle with Ābu Jehel, NV 2:310–​332 2.4.4 Phātemā and other children, NV 2:333–​344 2.4.5 Āyeśā, NV 2:345–​349 2.4.6 War and diplomacy, NV 2:350–​437

Text, Author, and Authority


2.4.7 Conquest of Mecca, NV 2:438–​461 2.4.8 Conquest of various lands, NV 2:462–​475 2.4.9 The poet’s entreaty, NV 2:476–​482 2.4.10 The farewell Hajv (Ar. Ḥajj), NV 2:483–​494

Ophāt-​i rasul 2.5 The Prophet’s last days and death, NV 2:495–​547


One Text or Many?

That the NV was a popular text in the Chittagong and Comilla regions is attested by the large number of manuscripts of its various sections collected from these areas. With a total of forty-​six manuscripts of various sections of the NV, the Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada collection of the Dhaka University Library contains the largest number of manuscripts ascribed to Saiyad Sultān in a single collection.43 The earliest dated manuscript of the NV is from 1122 maghī, equivalent to 1761 c.e.44 The most recent dated manuscript of any section of the NV is from 1248 maghī (1887 c.e.), showing that manuscripts of the NV were copied well into the latter half of the nineteenth century.45

43. For a table containing the distribution of manuscripts of the NV in various Bangladeshi archives, see Appendix. 44. This manuscript is currently cataloged in Karim and Sharif 1960 as No. 487 Ms. 297, under the scribal title Śab-​i merāj. As mentioned in Irani 2011, Appendix One, it is advisable to re-​ catalog it, based upon its contents, as a manuscript of Book Two of the NV, cataloged under the title “Rasul Carita.” Irani 2011. The maghī dating system was prevalent in Arakan, Chittagong, and Sylhet during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Common Era (C.E.) date is derived by adding 639 to the maghī year. For these calculations, see Bhattacharjee 1978, Pariśiṣṭa Ga. 45. Ābdus Sattār Caudhurī 1996–​97, No. 60, Sam. 317.



The question arises as to whether the NV was in point of fact composed as a single text, for there is no single manuscript that transmits the entirety of what Ahmad Sharif publishes as the critical edition.46 Having personally assessed manuscripts from various archives in Bangladesh, including those in the Dhaka University archives, some of which Sharif uses in his edition, it is clear that the division of the critical edition into two volumes has some basis in the scribal tradition. The manuscripts corresponding to Sharif ’s volume one, cataloged under the title Nabīvaṃśa, begin with the story of creation (1.2–​1.3)47 and present the tales of the prophets up to Īsā (1.4–​1.14). Many NV manuscripts end with the tale-​cycle of Solemān (up to 1.13), leaving out the tale-​cycle of Īsā (1.14), which Sharif attributes to the antipathy of colonial-​period scribes to the British, and to Christian missionary activities.48 The so-​called “Rasul Carita” manuscripts,49 corresponding to Sharif ’s second volume, usually begin with a cosmogonical section (2.1) followed by the biography of the Prophet Muhammad from birth to death (2.2), which generally includes the ascension narrative (2.2.6). Since the scribal tradition does not have a separate, stable designation for this section, it appears likely that Sharif himself supplied

46. For a complete list of manuscripts of the NV, including its various sub-​sections, see Appendix One, Irani 2011. 47. The numbers in parentheses refer to the NV outline provided above. Only three complete manuscripts of the lengthy first book of the NV are known. The first, dated 1207 san/​bāṅglā (1800 C.E.), albeit missing two intervening folios, has 213 folios in total, and is an example of a manuscript which omits the tale-​cycle of Jesus. See BAPP Bā. Bo. Mu. Puṃ. Naṃ. 210, Irani 2011, Appendix One, 430. The abbreviation BAPP in the note refers to Viśvāsa 1995/​1402 B.S. It is likely that this manuscript was collected from Comilla and donated to the Bangla Academy by Ālī Āhmad. The second, dated 1213 sāla (1806 C.E.), copied in Śākapurā, Patiya, Chittagong, is also in the possession of the Bangla Academy; it was gifted to this collection by Muhammad Enamul Haq. See BAPP Bā. Bo. Mu. Pum̐. Naṃ. 527, ibid. The third complete manuscript is in the relatively unknown private collection of Muhammad Ishāq Caudhurī, son of a well-​known manuscript collector of Chittagong, Ābdus Sāttār Caudhurī. Ibid, 434. This beautifully copied, pristine manuscript, dated between 1204 and 1210 maghī (1843–​1849 C.E.), is the most recent of these three. It contains 633 folios (with approximately 36 couplets per folio) and even includes a complete table of contents. The manuscript ends with the tale-​cycle of Jesus. 48. For Sharif ’s comments, see NV 2: Pariśiṣṭa Kha, 692. 49. See discussion below about this designation provided by Sharif.

Text, Author, and Authority


the generic designation “Rasul Carita” for the second volume of the NV without explicitly stating this to be the case.50 Since Ahmad Sharif ’s critical apparatus is not particularly transparent, the interested reader is referred to two charts provided in Appendix Two of my dissertation, one identifying the manuscripts utilized by Sharif for volume one of the critical edition, and the other for those used for volume two.51 These charts map correspondences between manuscript folios and page numbers of the text of the critical edition. Sharif makes no attempt to explain his considerations in manuscript selection or hierarchization; nor is an effort made to create a stemma or explain what the historical or textual relationship is of one manuscript to another. Though Sharif claims to consult other manuscripts beyond the principal ones (each designated with a number), his critical edition does not specify where and in what manner these additional manuscripts are utilized. The circulation of independent manuscripts of subsections of the NV initially led scholars such as Muhammad Enamul Haq,52 and others following him, to represent these as separate texts. On the basis of a passage in a particular manuscript, which describes the Śab-​i merāj and the NV as dui pustaka, “two books,” M. E. Haq considers the two to be separate texts. However, based on the variant reading provided in another manuscript, Sharif considers this to be a scribal error.53 There are several reasons why I support Ahmad Sharif ’s editorial decision to consider these as separate sections of a single text, the NV. First, internal evidence, namely authorial remarks found even in the so-​called “Rasul Carita” section, identify the 50. For a complete list of manuscripts of Book Two of the NV, on the Prophet’s life, cataloged under the title “Rasul Carita,” see Irani 2011, Appendix One. Only three complete Rasul Carita manuscripts are available in these collections. The Ahmad Sharif collection of the Dhaka University Archives holds two complete Rasul Carita manuscripts, Ā.Śa. 71 (ibid., 434) dated 1169 maghī (1808 C.E.) and (designated as Rasul Vijaya), and Ā.Śa. 287 Ka (ibid., 438), dated 1212 maghī (1851 C.E.), containing 165 and 271 folios respectively. The Bangla Academy archives has a third, dated 1231 maghī (1870 C.E.), with 172 folios (Bā. E. Sa. Pum̐. Naṃ. 115/​Sula 17/​ Rachul 5, ibid., 436). 51. Irani 2011. 52. Haq [1957] 1991. 53. Concerning Sharif ’s refutation of Haq, see Sharif [1972] 2006, 69–​70.



text as the NV.54 Second, the Bangla literary tradition remembers Saiyad Sultān as the author of the NV rather than of multiple, related texts.55 Muhammad Khān, Sultān’s chief disciple, refers to the NV as a single pāñcālikā, a performed metrical narrative.56 Third, the last lines of the text printed at the end of volume one of the NV intimate the contents of volume two: “Now listen to how Muhammad shall be born. Listening to these tales, adversity dissipates.”57 Picking up on this, the opening lines of the printed text of volume two mention Sultān’s desire to “make known tales he has left half-​told,” and recapitulate the author’s brief account of Ādam’s creation.58 On the one hand, while this suggests narrative continuity from one book to the next, it also suggests a degree of separation between the two texts, gesturing toward the possibility that the first book was in circulation before the author continued composing book two. Related to this issue is the matter of the text’s structure and its relationship to manuscript transmission. Like manuscripts of volume one, those transmitting text corresponding to volume two begin with invocatory verses to God and the Prophet, abbreviated versions of the classical Persian ḥamd (praise of Allāh) and naʿt (eulogy of the Prophet), respectively, a tradition of salutations to the deity (vandanā) familiar to the Bangla pāñcālī. Though this invocation elaborates upon the cosmogony first laid out in part one, showing thematic and doctrinal continuity, it nonetheless creates for part two a discrete structural identity of its own, effectively bifurcating the NV into two books. In addition, volume one includes the tales of the prophets up to the tale-​cycle of Īsā, and volume two focuses upon the life of Muhammad; these form discrete structural units, which also left their mark on the manner in which the NV came to be transcribed. 54. NV 2:477, 480–​482. 55. Concerning how Saiyad Sultān and his NV are remembered in the Bangla literary tradition, see Irani 2018a and 2019. 56. Muhammad Khān’s Maktul Hosen cited in Sharif [1972] 2006, 70–​71. 57. ebe śuna yerūpe janmiba muhammada | śunile se saba kathā khaṇḍiba āpada || NV 1:935. 58. ardheka ye āchila kathā karimu pracāra | NV 2:3.

Text, Author, and Authority


Beyond formal concerns, there may have been pragmatic ones that dictated such independent transmissions:  first, the sheer convenience of copying, reading, performing, and handling smaller units of a lengthy text such as the NV;59 and second, the manner in which demotic sensibilities affected scribal production. It is possible that the pietistic and emotive nature of the subject matter and the relative brevity of the two discrete sections on the Prophet’s ascension and his last days led to the independent transmission in manuscript form of the Śab-​i merāj and the Ophāt-​i rasul respectively.60 The latter is the section of the NV of which the largest number of separate extant manuscripts are available. It is perhaps these very concerns that prompted Ālī Āhmad to critically edit the Ophāt-​i rasul, making it, in 1949, the first published edition of any part of the NV.61 Scribes who copied these sections separately supplied their own invocations, two to four couplets in length, thereby providing it with a separate identity.62 Independent transmissions of sections of a single text are not unknown to the Bengali manuscript tradition: numerous manuscripts of discrete sections (khaṇḍas) or chapters (parvas or pālās) of large popular works such as, for instance, Kr̥ttivāsa’s Rāmāyaṇa, Kāśīrāmadāsa’s Mahābhārata, Vr̥ndāvanadāsa’s Caitanya

59. Sharif [1972] 2006, 13. 60. For a complete list of manuscripts of the Śab-​i merāj and the Ophāt-​i rasul, see Irani 2011, Appendix One. The titles—​Śab-​i merāj and Ophāt-​i rasul—​for these independent transmissions of these manuscripts were taken from the scribal tradition. 61. This edition, though entitled Ophāt-​i rasul, begins with the lines yanukrame callisa sahara māri laila | eke 2 callisa sahara jurddha kaila || Ophāt-​i rasul of Saiyad Sultān, ed. Ālī Āhmad, 1, corresponding to NV 2:473. This shows that some manuscripts designated by scribes as manuscripts of the Ophāt-​i rasul bore as many as 222 couplets before the lines, rasulera maneta haïla hābilāsa | śahīda haiyā yāite ilāhira pāśa ||, which have come to be associated with the opening lines of the section on the Prophet’s death in the critical edition, itself probably based upon the emerging consensus arising from such manuscripts. NV 2:497. Ophāt-​i rasul, 24. This lack of consensus, in the manuscript tradition, of a defined beginning, within the corpus of manuscripts of the Ophāt-​i rasul, shows that there was textual continuity and overlap between various independent transmissions of sections of the NV, another argument that bolsters the fundamental unity of the text. 62. For instance, from the Ophāt-​i rasul, in Karim and Sharif 1960, 45, 46, 47 and NV 2: Pariśiṣṭa Ka, 928.



Bhāgavata, and Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja’s Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta were in circulation in Bengal.63 The titles of sub-​sections in the critical edition are entirely editorial. These are Sharif ’s paratextual interventions for the ease of the modern reader; the manuscripts very rarely contain any subtitles, but instead have sectional divisions demarcated by changes in meter (chanda) and musical mode (rāga), which are also indicated in the critical edition.64 These, in turn, signal a change in theme or mood, which was crucial to the performative contexts of medieval Bangla texts such as the NV.

Harnessing Orality and Literacy: Authorship and Textual Integrity

In this section, I  argue that the NV was composed by a single author, named as Saiyad Sultān in authorial colophons provided throughout the text. Such a claim is founded upon my study of the stability of the NV’s manuscript tradition, which strongly suggests that the NV was written by one author. What is presented here is only a preliminary foray into 63. See, for instance, such manuscripts in Kumāra Śaratkumāra Rāya Bāhādura’s collection in Manīndra Mohana Caudhurī 1956, 5–​19, and 38–​41. 64. Rāgas, selected according to the mood of the theme, are specified for individual sections of the NV. Among these musical modes are Āsāvari, Bhāṭiyāla, Bhūpālī, Veloyāra, Deśāvaṛāri, Dhānaśī or Dhānaśrī, Dīpaka, Duḥkhita Bhāṭiyāla, Gāndhāra, Guñjarī, Hillola, Kānaṛā, Kedāra, Mallāra, Pāhāṛi, Pahāṛiyāla, Pañcama, Paṭamañjarī, Rāmagaṛā, Sindhurā, Śrī, Śrī Gāndhāra, Sūhi, Tuṛi, Uttarī, Varāṛi, and Vasanta. Among the chandas (meters), payāra and tripadī are the most common and easily identifiable, though candrāvalī, dīrgha, jamaka, kharva, and sahelāra also occur. Appendix Four in Irani 2011 lists the various rāgas and chandas as these occur in the text. Payāra consists of rhyming couplets with fourteen syllables in a foot (pāda), with the use of end-​rhyme, in an aa, bb, cc, dd, etc. format. The sections in payāra are narrative, the quick pace of the meter’s rhyming couplets being well suited to maintaining the buoyancy of the narrative. Tripadī, as the term suggests, contains two rhyming feet of three hemistiches each in the pattern of eight, eight, and ten syllables, hence with six caesurae per verse. It is the more languid of the two meters and marks descriptive, lyrical passages, typically of a melancholy or romantic nature. For tripadī, see for instance, the love-​sport of Kābil and Ākimā, NV 1:154–​157; or Sārā’s svayaṃvara (NV 1:392–​397); or the lament of the woman who pined for Ābdullā, NV 2:26–​27. For more details on the links between meter and narrative, see below. For an examination of the stylistic usages of payāra and tripadī in middle Bangla literature, see Stille 2015.

Text, Author, and Authority


this manuscript tradition, as I have been unable to personally scrutinize all of the nearly one hundred extant manuscripts of the NV. The large number of manuscripts I have examined thus far, however, all point toward a general structural unity of organization and transmit text with a shared doctrinal vision. Barring the occasional omission of the tale-​cycle of Īsā, discussed in the previous section, Ahmad Sharif, in his capacity as critical editor, also does not report any significant disruption or instability in the manuscript tradition. Further, the authorial voice that runs through the text, with its particular didactic and pedagogical concerns, is coherent:  themes of identity formation, the marking of community boundaries, religious competition, conversion, proscription of idol worship, and the prescription of yoga are threads running through the text, presenting a consistent missionary program. Furthermore, as I will show, the text maintains a consistent approach to translation as entextualizing, and enacting conversion. In light of the apparent stability of the text in the manuscript tradition—​a matter discussed in detail elsewhere—​and for the other reasons delineated in the previous section, I regard the text as a unitary composition of a single author, namely Saiyad Sultān.65 This does not rule out the possibility of an interlude between the composition of the

65. Since Ahmad Sharif says little about the relationship of the manuscript tradition to his published text, some effort is made to explain this through three appendices in Irani 2011. Appendix Two provides a map of the relationships of the manuscripts used by Sharif to his critical edition. Even though entire manuscripts of either of the two books of the NV are rare, based on the effort documented in Appendix One to match manuscript content with the text of the critical edition, the impression emerges that the text is fairly stable. Moreover, so far in all cases I have been able to match the content of any given manuscript with text in the printed edition, even when the concerned manuscript was not used for the critical edition. This observation is further corroborated by the exercise carried out in Appendix Three to collate a sample from various manuscripts of fifty verses, which correspond to the beginning of volume two of the NV’s critical edition. These manuscripts were selected purely on the basis of their availability to me. Two of these were used by Ahmad Sharif for the critical edition, while five others were not. The latter five have not been arranged in any preconceived hierarchy. At the risk of generalizing from so small a sample, some tentative observations can be made, which undoubtedly await future verification through more extensive collation and critical editing. Despite the esoteric nature of the content of the first fifty verses, the text exhibits notable stability across the seven manuscripts collated. Differences between manuscripts may be accounted for not by bardic interpolation, but by scribal agency and error, much of which relates to the developing nature of the Bengali language, script, and grammar.



texts’ two major parts, nor the possibility of minor changes in the course of transmission. Several of the author’s choices seem to preempt interpolation. Short preludes that list upcoming narrative events as well as recapitulations of those that went before appear at regular intervals throughout the text.66 These often occur at the end of one narrative segment, such as the end of one prophetic tale-​cycle and the beginning of another. Further, the author simultaneously assumes a tradition of oral performance and listening, but also a literate tradition of reading, transmission, and preservation, which appears to be firmly in place by his time. One proleptic passage, best read in the context of the discussion on literacy and Islamization in the subsequent section on the NV’s partaking of qurʾānic authority, specifically anticipates scribal interpolation of the text and warns against it: In writing [it] (lekhite), neither augment the syllables nor break them. If an error is made in writing, take pains to correct it. Such that Āllā’s words may not become inaccurate, write with care, feeling fear at heart. To the messenger Muhammad, the Lord told all the tales of the prophets who went before. If you should write such tales inaccurately, it shall not be my fault if you fall into hell. If you write and recite (paṛa) it accurately, you shall earn great virtue. All sin shall be destroyed; you shall proceed to paradise.67 It is impossible to reconstruct the exact manner in which Sultān’s pāñcālī was first recorded. It could have been written down by the author himself, or sung or dictated, as this passage suggests, to one or more assiduous disciple-​scribes. In either case, it was composed with the idea of reaching a mostly illiterate rural population through oral recitation, singing, and drama, very likely accompanied by instrumental music, performative 66. NV 2:481. 67. NV 1:696.

Text, Author, and Authority


features of texts still practiced by Sufis and other Muslim, and Hindu, groups of Bangladesh today.68 Without discounting the significance of oral dissemination to the author, or the specific features of verbal performance art that imbue its literization, we find that writing is privileged notably as the means of textual transmission.69 The Bangladeshi literary historians M. E. Haq and Ahmad Sharif have ascribed to Saiyad Sultān an array of texts:  Jñāna Cautiśā and Jñāna Pradīpa; Jaykum Rājāra Laṛāi; and thirteen songs.70 The Jñāna Cautiśā, “Thirty-​Four Consonants of Knowledge,” is an alphabetical acrostic devoted to esoteric knowledge structured by the thirty-​ four (cautriśa) consonants of the Sanskrit/​Bangla alphabet, while the Jñāna Pradīpa, “Lamp of Knowledge,” is a Sufi yoga practice manual, which provides a window into the doctrines and practices of early modern Sufis of Bengal.71 The attribution of these two works to Saiyad Sultān is at best tenuous,72 and that of the Jaykum Rājāra Laṛāi, “Battle with King Jaykum,” to Saiyad Sultān not secure.73 M.  E. Haq and Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada have 68. Literature on Islamic song and performance traditions of East Bengal and Bangladesh is rare. A few exceptions are Dunham 1997; Ahmed 2001; and Ahmed 2000. 69. The term “literization” is coined by Pollock (2006, 4)  for “the breakthrough to writing.” Pollock (1998, 8–​9) has argued that middle period texts are distinguished by their intimate connection with writing. 70. Sharif has provided critical editions of all of these texts in NV 2. Haq [1957] 1991/​1398 b.S., 285–​305; Haq has additionally also ascribed the Iblisnāmā to Saiyad Sultān. 71. For a complete list of manuscripts of these two esoteric texts, see Appendix One, Irani 2011. These twin works have been edited by Ahmad Sharif and have been published in NV 2. 72. Since the Jñāna Pradīpa, much like the NV, makes a point to perpetuate the Saiyad Sultān–​ Śāh Hosen relationship through its authorial signature-​lines, bhaṇitās, it is possible that the authors of the two texts were identical. The claim, however, that the Saiyad Sultān of the Jñāna Cautiśā is the same as the author of the NV is less secure. While the author of this text pays obeisance to the guru, there is no specific mention of the name of the guru. 73. This text narrates Muhammad and Ālī’s victory over the ruler Jaykum, an infidel king of Iraq. The published edition of this text is based upon two manuscripts written in Arabic script, both of which lack the beginning and concluding folios; one of these collected by Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada is now lost, while the other was a part of Ahmad Sharif ’s private collection, later donated to the Dhaka University library. For details, see Appendix One, Irani 2011. Based on the fact that no manuscript of the NV’s “Rasul Carita” section contains any part thereof, Ahmad Sharif regards this work as an independent composition. However, he is guarded in his



additionally ascribed the Iblisnāmā to Saiyad Sultān.74 An examination of all the evidence surrounding the Iblisnāmā suggests that it should probably be attributed to a different author by the name of Nanā Gāji. Discussion of these works nonetheless foregrounds important questions about the nature of authorship, the identity of Saiyad Sultān, and the ways in which he was memorialized in local literary traditions, a matter that I have studied elsewhere in the context of the thirteen songs attributed to Saiyad Sultān.75

assertion, since both manuscripts were missing their first few pages. Sharif [1972] 2006, 72–​73. This is a revised view; earlier Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada and Sharif had stated that it was a part of the NV. Karim and Sharif 1960, 155. Karim and Sharif suggest that this text was composed by the Sultān of the NV; however, there are problems with this ascription. The critical edition contains a single bhaṇitā in the name of Saiyad Sultān; this is present only in the now-​ missing manuscript once in the Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada collection. The other manuscript in Sharif ’s collection bears a bhaṇitā in the name of Cheyānat Ullāh. Sharif proposes that this is the name of a scribe. 74. A  single manuscript of Saiyad Sultān’s Ophāt-​i Rasul, part of the NV’s so-​called “Rasul Carita” section, contains an interpolated tract called Iblisera Kecchā, “The Tale of Iblis,” which Sharif designates as Iblisnāmā. Muhammad Enamul Haq and Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada suggest that the latter work should also be ascribed to our author. NV 2: Pariśiṣṭa Kha, 696–​697. On three grounds, Sharif justifiably argues against this ascription. First, the interpolated section lacks a bhaṇitā (authorial colophon). Second, its narrative content—​a lengthy conversation between Iblis and the Prophet—​is not connected to the subject-​matter of the “Rasul Carita.” Third, it is not found in any other manuscript concerning the “Rasul Carita” section of the NV. Ibid.; and Sharif [1972] 2006, 69. Referring to the afore-​mentioned interpolated section, Sharif also observes that its opening lines are almost identical to those of an anonymous Iblisnāmā manuscript (Karim and Sharif 1960, No. 35, Ms. 666) that could probably be ascribed to Nanā Gājī (Sharif 1958, 39). Indeed, its opening lines are similar to an Iblisnāmā manuscript in the same collection ascribed to Nanā Gājī (No. 34, Ms. 652). Karim and Sharif 1958, 31. No. 36, Ms. 269 (ibid., 33) has been “presumably” designated as Iblisnāmā; the manuscript contains no bhaṇitā. The cataloger mentions that it could “probably” be ascribed to Saiyad Sultān. Placing my examination of an additional Chittagong University manuscript of an Iblisnāmā ascribed to Saiyad Sultān alongside Sharif ’s well-​justified arguments, it seems fairly unlikely that Saiyad Sultān wrote such a work. The Rare Books division of the Chittagong University library possesses a single manuscript of an Iblisnāmā attributed to Saiyad Sultān. Kramika 10, Saṃyojana 224, Ābdus Sattār Caudhurī 1996–​97, 67. Though the manuscript has a colophon bearing the name of Saiyad Sultān, close scrutiny of the manuscript raises some doubt about its authorship. Beyond the opening couplet, which is anomalous for including an authorial signature, the next three lines are identical to the opening lines of the anonymous Iblisnāmā manuscript (No. 35, Ms. 666)  in the Dhaka University archives mentioned above, which is likely to be Nanā Gājī’s. 75. Irani 2020.

Text, Author, and Authority



Despite the fluidity that oral performances bring to the transmission of text, I argue that the NV was composed by a single author, whose name is inserted in the authorial colophons that appear regularly throughout this epic. As the NV reminds us, it was transmitted via an oral and written culture of the book practically as old as Islam itself: its tales that immortalized prophetic deeds were meant to be carefully written by scribes, and recited and sung by bards bringing religious merit to those who accurately reproduced it and to those who heard it. Its transmission and preservation therefore depended upon acts of faith. While the NV can be firmly situated in an oral-​literate culture, it should be emphasized that literacy was confined to an elite few and the text would have primarily reached its rural audience through performance. The NV aimed to bind its audience into a cohesive ummat (religious community) centered around the author as guru, the immediate locus of charisma, himself positioned along an axis of spiritual authority reaching back into the Islamic past to the Prophet Muhammad and the line of pre-​Islamic prophets, through the Nūr Muhammad to Āllā. My explorations of the “text” of the NV that follow—​its oral-​literate culture—​should be read within such practices of authorship and authority that were both constituted by and constitutive of a Bengali Islamic community of believers. A classical feature of premodern Islamic works is for the author to present his reasons for the composition of his work (sabab-​i taʾlīf-​i kitāb). Though a mere representational stance, such prefaces usually mark the work’s intended audience, the ways in which the authors wish to cast themselves for this audience, and the nature of the literary enterprise. Part of the project of interpreting Sultān’s purported intention in writing the NV is also to uncover the intended illocutionary force of his biographical enterprise, to understand, in other words, the nature of what Quentin Skinner, the historian of political thought, would call his “intervention.”76 This, according 76. In Skinner 2002, 115, quoted in Ganeri 2008: 552.



to Skinner, can only be fully understood by situating the act of writing in context, which would include an understanding of the life and times of the author,77 a context that Chapter 1 sought to explore. In his application of the Skinnerian “text in context” method to premodern Sanskrit literary and intellectual traditions, which provide a paucity of information especially about biographical context, Jonardon Ganeri argues for the importance of situating texts within their “intertextual” context to uncover the nature of authorial “intervention.”78 It is in this light then that we turn to Sultān’s motives—​explicit and implicit—​for composing this salvation history.

Structuring the (Un-​)Bounded Community

Saiyad Sultān addresses “the Musalmāns of Baṅgadeśa”79 with the ­following words: “May all your minds be inclined to virtuous action. May the Lord Nirañjana be satisfied with you.” Sultān speaks, addressing all: “Reflect upon the likelihood of this: if there is in this land a man learned in the Islamic sciences (ālim) who does not guide others, he shall certainly go to hell. Seizing the scholar if they sinned, men would thrash him with a staff in Āllā’s presence. I have taken birth among you all; this is why I expound the teachings of the scriptures (śāstra). [Were I not to] Āllā would reproach me, ‘You were a learned man! 77. Ganeri 2008, 552. 78. Ibid., 553–​554. 79. Baṅgadeśa referred to east Bengal, the eastern part of the delta and the region beyond the Brahmaputra, i.e., Śrīhaṭṭa (Sylhet) and Caṭṭala (Chittagong). It was distinct from Gauṛa, which meant the regions of north central Bengal, west Bengal, and the western part of the delta. Chatterji [1926] 1970, 1:146 and 148.

Text, Author, and Authority


[Yet] you didn’t forbid men from committing sin.’ If sins exist among you, the learned man eradicates these. Because of others’ sins, however, he will be destroyed. You serve me on a daily basis; there is no separation between you and me. When Elāhi asks you for an account of the good and the bad you’ve done then you’ll tell Āllā, ‘I found a guru but he did not guide me.’ More than you, Āllā will flog me: in my mind I constantly nurse this fear. Thus, I thought to speak of the significance of the Prophet, hearing which humans shall not be drunk with sin. Brooding on this fear, I composed the Nabīvaṃśa, listening to which sinners shall no more be destroyed by sin.”80 What emerges is a picture of a Sufi guru for whom writing a salvation history for his community becomes a means of personal salvation. As one who understands the Korān, he feels obliged to spread its message. Ostensibly motivated by pious fear of God, Sultān is actively engaged as a pīr-​author with issues of Islamic identity construction in the Bengali sociocultural milieu. He desires to strengthen his community’s understanding of Islam and invite others to the faith in a complex religious world, wherein those with Islamic affiliations, and certainly those who self-​identified as “Musalmān,” were presumably still a minority. In this precolonial world, as Sudipta Kaviraj delineates, religious as much as linguistic groups are “fuzzily conceived”: group boundaries are not precisely defined, but transmute gradually. Geopolitical regions, too, before colonial cartographers first calibrated these on maps, were conceived by local actors as radiating outward from the space of the village, one village shading off into another.81 Even today in rural Bangladesh, Syed Jamil 80. NV 2:476–​477. Cf. NV 2:480. 81. Kaviraj 1992, 39–​40.



Ahmed documents the cross-​denominational appeal of performances related to Manasā (the Goddess of Snakes), Muslim pīrs, and the Nātha cult. He also notes that both Muslim and Hindu performers perform lakṣīra gāna (songs to the Hindu goddess Lakṣmī) and genres associated with Muslim pīrs and the Nātha cult.82 In 1876, Maulvi Ābdul Majid, author of the Chohi Emāmsāgar, confesses to taking up the pen because of what he considered to be the corrupt practices of Muslims he saw around him, their religious practice being characterized by little more than their dress and food-​habits. Wearing caps and consuming beef, they nonetheless did not so much as recite the kalimā, and participated in the “un-​Islamic” practices of worshiping pīrs, Viṣaharī (Manasā), and Kālī.83 Until 1914, Muslims continued to visit non-​Muslim households “to watch yatras and hear panchali songs,” even providing subscriptions to local non-​Muslims who organized public entertainment programs during (non-​Muslim) religious celebrations.84 Hence, it is not surprising that Sultān, writing two and a half centuries earlier, when “the forested hinterland of the southeastern delta was only beginning to be touched by plow agriculture and intense exposure to the Qurʾān,”85 complains thus about his co-​religionists: By the fault of their past actions (karma), they are born as Bengalis in Baṅga. The Bengalis do not comprehend Arabic utterance; they did not understand a word of their religion (dīn). They remain possessed of animal nature. They ever recite the tales of Rāma and Kr̥ṣṇa, hearing which I feel great remorse. 82. Jamil Ahmed 2000, 337. Ahmed also acknowledges that certain genres, such as those focusing upon Kr̥ṣṇa and Caitanya or Islamic jārīgāna, do not have a cross-​denominational appeal in the modern period. Ibid. 83. In Maulvi Abdul Majid’s Chohi Emāmsāgar 1876, 245, quoted in Anindita Ghosh 2006, n. 22, 264. 84. In Ibn Majuddin Ahmed’s Āmāra Saṃsāra Jīvana:  Islāmera Jivanta Prabhāva 1914, 116, quoted in Anindita Ghosh 2006, 265. 85. Eaton 1993, 285.

Text, Author, and Authority


These people did not understand a word of religion. They had no knowledge of self (āpana) and other (para), and were immersed in sin.86 We now see how Sultān seeks to construct Islamic identity through what Tim Murphy, as seen in the epigram above, calls “relational. . . differential and/​or comparative processes” of self and other—​“a necessary duality” which is “structurally unstable.” The NV seeks to mark the boundaries of self and other by classifying peoples into three categories: mumīn (the believer), kāphir (the unbeliever), and munāphik (the hypocrite).87 One fascinating narrative, found in many versions in the ḥadīth collections, represents the Prophet as suggesting that one who follows islām and imān is a muslim and a muʾmin. While the term islām suggests the recognition of the individual’s “vertical relationship” with God “in surrender” to him, it is also a recognition of the “horizontal relationship” with members of the community who do likewise.88 The Prophet is said to have pointed out that islām is the performance of certain duties encompassed by what have come to be described as the five “pillars” of the faith. Imān, on the other hand, as suggested by the Prophet, was faith in “God, his angels, his books (or book), his messengers (or messenger), the resurrection, the garden and the fire, and other eschatological realities.”89 It has been associated with matters of the heart, inner matters of belief. Set against the muslim and the muʾmin, the kāfir is “one who actively rejects the will of God.”90 According to qurʾānic justice, the hypocrite suffers the same fate as the unbeliever, both burning in hell. Yet Muslim theologians were prepared to accord hypocrites a status equivalent to believers as long as they kept their views to themselves. However, if discovered, and unrepentant of their stance, they

86. NV 2:479. 87. In order to compare this categorization with traditional qurʾānic categories, see Denny 2011. 88. Smith 2011. 89 . Ibid. 90 . Ibid.



could be given the death penalty.91 In using the term munāphik, Sultān resorts to a “technique of Qurʾānic polemical discourse typical of the Medinan era, corresponding to conflict situations in which the religious argument often comes to the aid of the political.”92 Over the course of Islamic history, the term munāfiq has been used pejoratively by Sunnī authors against the Shīʿīs, and vice versa, both groups using it as “a convenient way of denouncing one’s opponents and discrediting them.”93 In the following homiletic passage, Sultān specifies the characteristics of each of the three groups: I shall now describe whom one might call a hypocrite. When they hear this the believers shall not perform such actions. Prabhu, the Lord, who has created all peoples upon the earth has allowed us to communicate in various languages. Based upon the actions of all peoples, three principle designations have been formulated: the first is the designation mumīn, of pure behavior; know that the second is the conduct of the munāphik; the third, designated as kāphir, is of animal nature, he does not dwell on Nirañjana, the Immaculate One, but perpetually worships idols.94 Sultān then provides a detailed description of each, most notably of the hypocrite: Knowing the essence of imā and islām, the mumīn accepts, in his heart, the one Creator. The kāphir does not know the essence of imā and islām.

91. Adang 2011b. 92. Chabbi 2011. 93. Adang 2011b. 94. NV 2:47.

Text, Author, and Authority


Worshiping idols, he is ever engaged in all kinds of immoral acts (adharma). The munāphik does not remain steadfast in one kind of conduct: this sinner neither becomes the mumīn nor the kāphir. He always takes on the appearance of a Musalmān; but, at heart, this evildoer never performs musalmāni deeds (karma). All hypocrites are duplicitous at heart; they are unable to decide between profit and loss. Before other people, they behave in one way; in secret, they commit other acts of despicable behavior. On their lips is “Creator” (karatāra), but there is nothing in their hearts. They always speak of Āllā, and swear by him. For the sake of saying things they assert “Āllā is with all,” but in their hearts they never believe in Āllā. They attend public assemblies, and perform the Islamic ritual of prayer (nāmāj). But on coming home, the sinners abandon prayer. For public display, they utter the kalimā. [Yet] they continually squabble with their neighbors; in all kinds of ways, the sinners dissipate themselves.95 Sultān then goes on to list in further detail the characteristics of the hypocrite (munāphikera lakṣaṇa), who has a more terrible fate than even the idolater.96 If the believers throughout their lifetime are considered to be “untouched by disease” (arugī), idolaters are the living dead, “a corpse” (marā deha), while the hypocrite, ever “afflicted by disease” (vyādhie pīḍita), lives in limbo, neither finding release from this life through death nor enjoying a happy existence.97 Sultān’s black description of the munāphik is perhaps indexical to the backsliding into idolatry he fears for his neophyte community. 95. NV 2:47–​48. 96. NV 2:48–​49. 97. NV 2:50.



Although Sultān sets up the characteristics of the good Musalmān to bind his Islamic community via the hallmarks of Islamic ethics and beliefs (islām and imān), and raises them above the munāphik and the kāphir, he never specifically names ethnic or religious groups, particular social bodies, that he may consider to be munāphik or kāphir. On the contrary, as I  show in this and in Chapters  3 and 4, he makes every effort to include the iconophilic hinduān within his salvation history, thereby suggesting the potentially open, “universal,” and un-​bounded nature of this community. Yet this universality should not lead us to believe that he is not setting up asymmetrical relationships between social groups, for as Tim Murphy’s definition of religion reminds us, religion “has historically been the structuring of asymmetrical relations between real or imagined groups or classes with the involvement of non-​obvious beings, states, and events.”98 Indeed, Sultān’s hierarchy of mumīn-​kāphir-​munāphik may be real or imagined, but it sets up asymmetrical relations between groups that can be plotted on “a continuum of identification and differentiation.”99 In the next two subsections, we shall see how Sultān puts psychological processes of identification to work, processes through which “imagined membership” in an Islamic community or “membership in an imagined” Islamic community is enacted through speech acts.100

Partaking in the Qurʾaˉ n’s Authority

Though Sultān actually translates the para-​ qurʾānic qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ materials, it is relevant to note that the Korān is the only text that the NV names as its source:  in the case of specific anecdotes, Sultān occasionally mentions “the kitāba,” as his source;101 he also speaks of the NV as 98. Murphy [2007] 2014, 141. 99. Ibid., 150. 100. Ibid., 151. 101. The author’s emphasis is not on the act of reading but rather that a written version of the text was consulted.

Text, Author, and Authority


explaining kitābera kathā, “matters/​tales of the Book (or any book using Perso-Arabic script).”102 Sultān offers a self-​assessment of the value of his “intervention”: You know me to be your well-​wisher. I disseminated the teachings of the Islamic faith: how the three worlds were created; how the gods and demons were known to be created; how Ādam and Hāoyā were created; how all the prophets arose. Nobody in Baṅga knew of any of these matters. I related all in the Nabīvaṃśa pāñcālī. Father and mother gave birth to you. But it was I who later bestowed you with divine vision. Having given you birth, [your] parents dropped you into a dark well.103 By giving you knowledge, the guru rescued you from it. Know that the guru is more distinguished than one’s father and mother. For it is from him that you receive directions for the way. I am the sinner who communicated all of this [to you]. For your sake, I created a mirror. When you peer into this mirror, confusion shall be dispelled. When you look intently into the mirror, you’ll know good from evil. Those who’ll become believers (mumīn), of compassionate heart, shall attempt to preserve the book (pustaka) of the Nabīvaṃśa. If they are able to preserve this book, they shall be showered with Āllā’s grace.104

102. NV 2:477. 103. I have emended amhāra kūpa to āndhāra kūpa. 104. NV 2:481–​482.



Through his NV, Sultān attempts to strengthen the faith (imān) of the believer. In addition to strengthening belief in the shahāda, the profession of faith in monotheism and in Muhammad as God’s messenger, Sultān is interested to elucidate other core tenets of Muslim belief: “God’s earlier messengers, his revealed books, his angels, and the hereafter.”105 In Sultān’s own words, the NV is like a mirror, looking into which one can discriminate between good and evil. We are invited to draw the text into comparison with the Qurʾān, among whose proper names is Furqān, “the Criterion,” “that which sets apart or distinguishes,” an appellation that Sultān too uses elsewhere when referring to the Qurʾān.106 “Furqān” alludes to the holy book’s ability to unequivocally set the parameters of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, the lawful and the unlawful.107 Additionally, the metaphor of the NV as mirror recalls the heart-​mirror of the Sufi practitioner, polished by the daily practice of dhikr, continual remembrance of God. The NV is likened to the aspirant’s finely polished consciousness, which enables discrimination between good and evil; but the NV is better in one important respect. Like the Qurʾān, it is a readymade mirror for humankind: by bestowing the NV upon his community, Sultān hopes to simplify everyday moral choices, and perhaps also reduce the layperson’s need for supererogatory contemplative practice.108 The mirror-​ conscience metaphor, then, through its allusion to the concept of dhikr, reifies the NV-​Qurʾān parallel, for Dhikr is another proper name for the Qurʾān, “a remembrance for the entire world” (Q 68:52).109 When read in 105. Adang 2011a. 106. Mustansir 2011a. 107 . Ibid. 108. Nor should his approach lead us to believe that contemplative practice is not important to Sultān, for, indeed, if we accept our Sultān’s authorship of the Jñāna Pradīpa, we see how he provides detailed instructions for such esoteric endeavor. However, the two books target entirely different audiences: the Jñāna Pradīpa clearly addresses the Sufi practitioner, Sultān’s most intimate circle of initiates, whereas the NV is for a wider audience. 109. Mustansir 2011a.

Text, Author, and Authority


these textured ways, Sultān’s statement perhaps makes a bolder claim than any pious Muslim might wish to put forth; yet even a more conservative reading reveals this passage as an assertion of the NV’s role in filling the qurʾānic void, and of Sultān’s role in “representing” the Qurʾān.110 Indeed, Bengali Muslims in Sultān’s time generally had no linguistic access to the Qurʾān, and would not until 1881, when Girish Chandra Sen wrote the first Bangla translation and commentary on the holy book.111 As a book that transmits qurʾānic matters, the NV is suffused with its aura of holiness and urges similar ritual treatment:  the performance of ablutions by its readers and auditors. We note in this passage, quoted here, the emphasis Sultān places on the observance of ritual purification for any form of interaction with the book of the NV: When one listens to these teachings of the Korān, all should purify themselves by performing ablutions (oju). If you do not perform your ablutions, do not recite the Nabīvaṃśa. Pay heed to the tales of the messengers. While listening, do not discuss other matters. If someone begins to chat, you shall forbid him from doing so. If you recite the vernacular (hindi) Nabīvaṃśa without ablutions, it shall not be my fault if you drown in sin.112 . . . If you write and recite it accurately, you shall earn great virtue. All sin shall be destroyed; you shall proceed to paradise.113 God narrated the tales of the prophets to Muhammad, and Sultān positions himself as the conveyor of these tales to the people of Bengal.

110. Eaton 1993, 291. 111. Uddin 2006, 87. 112. NV 1:696. 113 . Ibid.



The question of the original script that was used to transcribe the NV is also important to this examination of how the NV partakes in the qurʾānic mantle. Though this seems unlikely in the light of my study of the NV’s manuscript tradition and the importance that Sultān places on the vernacular, one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that the first manuscripts of the NV, like that of Muhammad Khān’s Maktul Hosen, were written in Arabic script.114 If this was the case, they would have acquired an additional sacrality associated with the holy script, as in the case of Javanese, Tamil, and Malay texts written in Arabic script that were accorded the ritual purity due the Qurʾān, even when these books dealt with secular themes.115 The fact, however, that the NV is emically referred to as a pustaka suggests that it was probably initially written in Bangla script rather than in Arabic.116 Sultān’s exhortation to his community to preserve the NV powerfully connects them to processes of sacred memory and the preservation of the Word through written transmission, processes central to Islamic identity since the earliest formations of the Islamic umma. Through Sultān’s plea to preserve the NV, he organizes his new community around Islam as the “religion of the Book,” in ways that parallel the social organization of the early Islamic community around the Qurʾān, a process of building social solidarity later replicated in every region touched by Islam. Reinforcing this traditional Islamic connection between “literacy and divine power,” he urges his partially literate society to band around the book of the NV.117 114. Concerning the earliest dated manuscript of the Maktul Hosen in Arabic script, see Eaton 1993, 294. I have not been able to gain access to this manuscript, which was on display at the National Museum of Bangladesh when I visited in 2014. 115. Ricci 2011, 175. Books written in Arwi script were known as kitāb, rather than the Tamil pustakam, equating such books, via such a designation, to the Qurʾān. Ibid. 116. For instance, NV 1:15, 398, 467, 500 and so forth. The word kitāb, in the NV, moreover, is strictly used for referring to a Perso-​Arabic source, or for a book in the context of Islamic history. For instance, NV 1:8, 116, 387, and so forth. 117. Eaton 1993, 291. Concerning how Islam spread in the Bengal countryside as much through the plow as through the authority of the book, see ibid., 291–​297.

Text, Author, and Authority


Charismatic Authority and Islamic Community

Other reasons for composing this salvation history remain implicit, chief among these being valorization of a pre-​existing structure of charismatic authority in which the author places himself, and its strengthening through the historiographic process. It is evident that Sultān, himself a Sufi master, invested considerable authority in the institution of the guru.118 Sultān occasionally glorifies the virtues of his own master, Śāh Hosen, in the NV.119 In the passage above, we have seen his claims for the superior position of the guru to that of parents, for the former rescues the seeker from “the dark well” of the world into which his parents abandon him. In the NV, the author further elaborates on the distinguishing characteristics of a true guru, indexical of the values he perhaps strove to emulate in his own role as guru. Here, Sultān uses Hāsān (Ar. Ḥasan) of Basra (d. 110/​728), the early Sufi, as his mouthpiece: Then, Hāsān of Basra gave these instructions: By becoming acquainted with his disciples you can better appraise the guru. It is necessary to ask after the master from those who live in the area where he has always lived. First, inquire with the neighbors, one by one, about the state of his mental purity. If the neighbors attest to his good behavior then it is acceptable to make him your guru.

118. It is noteworthy that Sultān prefers to use the Indic term guru when referring to the Sufi pīr in the role of preceptor. Concerning such usage in rural Bengal, see Nicholas 1974, 11. For the use of this term in Islamic Bangla literature, see Roy 1999, 188. Also, note that Śāh in Śāh Hosen is alternatively spelt as Śāhā in middle Bangla manuscripts. 119. Concerning Sultān’s master, see Chapter 1.



He grieves in his neighbor’s grief; and contemplates the means to human welfare; As a good neighbor he assuages one’s pain, and ever meditates upon Prabhu Nirañjana, the Immaculate Lord. Should his neighbor ever commit sin he rebukes him to his face, and raps him on the hand, ever turning him away [from sin]. He teaches those actions whereby he does not sin. He, successively, instructs him in the principles of ethics, so that the mind never remains too tangled with the world. He prostrates with one-​pointed mind to Nirañjana. Night and day he remains yoked to action (karma). His body ever burns in the fire of action. He stays up, day and night, ever awake. He is disciplined, abandoning all entanglements. He bakes the clay pot of the body in the fire of action, and fires the self by his own self at all times. He constantly polishes the heart’s mirror. When meditating upon the [third] eye, he applies the salve [that clarifies one’s vision]. By yoga, he transforms the body’s clay into gold. He constantly recites the great formula of the ajapā. It is always fitting to become the disciple of such a one. To become the disciple of any other practitioner (sādhaka) is not proper. Once you have gathered all of this from a neighbor, then pay a visit to the guru at your pleasure. Put all your questions to him in words of brevity, and take note of his rejoinders, successively. If, to your queries, he responds suitably, then, by all means, take him to be your master. For, if he is not an experienced spiritualist himself how could he possibly guide another?

Text, Author, and Authority


If the steersman remains steady at the helm only then can he take you across the deep ocean. If an untrained pilot wishes to take control he would go down mid-​ocean together with the cargo.120 Having listed these characteristics, he pays obeisance to his own master, bluntly emphasizing the importance of this act should a guru desire similar devotion from his own disciples.121 Such candid passages document the importance Sultān places on modeling reverent behavior for his own disciples to emulate—​one of numerous ways by which he perpetuates through the authority invested in him his master-​disciple (guru-​śiṣya or pīr-​murīd) lineage. While the historiographic process serves to reinforce Sultān’s authority within his community, Sultān also explicitly acknowledges that his authority as guru invests his role as historiographer with credibility. Sultān tells a story in which the baby Muhammad is exchanged with another child in order to save him from being killed by the evil ruler Ābu Jehel, known in the Islamic tradition as the Prophet’s arch​enemy. Echoing the tale of Kr̥ṣṇa’s birth, this narrative is representative of the complex interplay of appropriation and competition characteristic of the NV. The author explains that he read this story in “a/​the book” (kitāb),122 and insists that if people hear these words from the guru’s mouth, they become credible. The composition of the NV places a seal on the authority of the pīr-​ author within an existing institution, the master-​disciple lineage of Śāh Hosen–​Saiyad Sultān. Sultān’s writings, as I  will now show, add further genealogical depth to this axis of charismatic power, extending it back to include Āli, the Prophet, earlier prophets, and God. A recurring rhetorical device is the intermittent insertion of the authorial voice within the narrative on the Prophet’s life, whether through colophons or direct

120. NV 1:287–​288. 121. NV 1:289. 122. NV 2:52. It is impossible to determine from the language of the text whether the book in question is “the Book,” or merely “a book.” It is likely, as in the case of Islamic Javanese, Malay, or Tamil texts, that such references point to an Arabic or Arabic-​derived source. Ricci 2011, 175.



didacticism. In these colophons, Sultān occasionally salutes the Prophet’s feet, and at other times his own guru’s. Both śiṣya and guru, disciple and master, Sultān models for his disciples humility and servitude to his own person as their Sufi master.123 In one colophon, he explicitly mentions: “If I serve the feet of my guru, then shall my own disciples gain knowledge [of proper behavior]. If I did not prostrate at my guru’s feet, my disciples would be of the same mould.”124 These authorial colophons embedded in the NV serve as constant reminders of the spiraling relationship of power between Sultān as pīr and the figure of the Prophet. A section in Sultān’s miʿrāj further deepens the pīr-​murīd relationship in the context of the Āllā-​Muhammad encounter. When Muhammad comes into Āllā’s presence, we are told that the latter imparts to the Prophet knowledge of ninety thousand matters (kathā): thirty thousand of these were knowledge of the scriptures (śāstra), thirty thousand were knowledge of Brahman, the Supreme Being, and the remaining third were secret expressions the author does not consider appropriate to reveal.125 The Āllā-​Muhammad master-​disciple relationship presented here establishes a paradigmatic model for the pīr-​murīd (or, in Sultān’s language, guru-​śiṣya) relationship that Sultān and his disciples carry forward. While a primary concern of the NV is the genealogy of the Prophet Muhammad, who is placed in a long line of Hindu gods, prophets, and cultural heroes, Sultān, 123. For the Prophet, see, for instance, rasulera pade kahe saiyada sulatāna | tumhi vine pātakīra gati nāhi āna || āmhi pātakīra mane āra nāi āśā | pāpa honte uddhārite tumhi se bharasā || NV 2:52; rasulera padayuga śireta vandiyā | saiyada sulatāne bhaṇe pāñcāli raciyā || NV 2:60. For his pīr, see, for instance, śāhā hosenera dāsa saida sulatāna | racilum̐ korāna kathā esaba bayāna || NV 1:422; śāhā hosenera dāsa saida sulatāna | eta śuni bhāvite lāgilā mane mana || NV 1:829; and śāha hosenera dāsa saida sulatāna | eke eke kahiyāchi nabīra bayāna || NV 1:896. It is noteworthy that in Book Two of the NV, the Prophet completely replaces Sultān’s pīr. Concerning similar patterns of inscribing authority through the padas ascribed to Ravidās and other bhakti poets, see Hawley 1988, 269–​290, especially 271–​273. 124. muñi yadi guru pade karilum̐ sevana | tabe jñāna pāibeka mora śiṣyagaṇa || muñi yadi padabandha nā karitum̐ sāra | mohora śiṣyera haiba ehena prakāra || NV 1:289. 125. NV 2:270. See also NV 2:283. For the idea of God granting secret knowledge to Muḥammad as depicted in Sufi sayings on the Prophet’s ascent, see Laṭāʾif al-​miʿrāj of al-​Sulamī, 64–​65 and 82–​83. Concerning God’s revelation of “three times thirty thousand mysteries” to Muḥammad, as presented in ʿAṭṭār’s depiction of the Prophet’s ascent in the Ilāhīnāma, see Schimmel 1985, 168.

Text, Author, and Authority


in numerous ways, invites us to connect his spiritual lineage to that of the Prophet. The Prophet of Islam brings God’s latest revelation to the people of Arabia, and Sultān becomes the “bearer” of his message to the people of Baṅga.126 Given his anxiety over detractors—​the Muslim elite—​who deride him for corrupting the Islamic faith by writing in the Bangla vernacular, a subject examined below, this preoccupation with genealogies can be seen as a move to allay criticism. Rhetorically, he reifies the “purity” of his spiritual ancestry, credentials fortified by the title of Saiyad127 and his powerful social standing within a community of learned men (ālim). Other homiletic tales provide further opportunities for the pīr-​author to enhance his authority as guru. A tale in the NV that recounts an encounter of Hāsān of Basra with Iblis attests to Sultān’s belief that it is through the guru’s guidance alone that one learns the process of meditation (dhyāna), through which the realization of the Immaculate Lord (Prabhu Nirañjana) is possible.128 Hence, he cautions against Iblis, who endeavors to turn a disciple away from his master by sowing the seeds of doubt. The tale of Musā, who apprentices with the formidable teacher, Khoyāj Khijir (Ar. Khiḍr; Pers. Khvājah Khiz̤r), in the NV, further emphasizes the inscrutability of a guru’s actions, and the inability of a disciple to judge their propriety.129 Doubt destroys the disciple’s capacity to focus on the guru’s form in meditation, and, hence, detracts from his ability to realize Prabhu.130 Sultān also warns his audience of Iblis’s role in publicizing the false guru, his henchman in leading humankind astray. Such an imposter, “who takes on

126. baṅgeta e saba kathā keha nā jānila | nabī vaṃśa pāñcālīta sakala kahila || NV 2:481. 127. Concerning the title of Saiyad, the Imperial Gazetteer of India (1907–​1909) provides a proverb that has many variations in different parts of North India: “Last year I was a Jolāhā (weaver); now I am a Sheikh; next year if prices rise, I shall become a Saiyid.” The Ethnology, Languages, Literature and Religions of India, 329. 128. The Arabic proper name Ḥasan is also spelt as Hāsān in Bangla. Here I have used the form provided in the text. 129. For a translation of this tale, see Irani and Stewart, forthcoming. 130. guru honte tabe yadi phirāila mukha | prabhura ākāra nahe dhyāneta samukha || NV 1:260.



disciples without receiving the title (padavī) of guru from his own master will fall into hell along with his disciples.”131 The mantle of authority a teacher passes down to the disciple whom he chooses to be his spiritual successor is thus key to the making of a guru. In Saiyad Sultān’s eyes, this is a key feature that distinguishes the true guru from a fake. To drive home this point, the NV tells a fascinating tale, 302 verses in length, of the guru Varasiyā, which is worth summarizing here.132 Varasiyā had developed a formidable reputation as a “sādhaka darveś” a Sufi spiritual aspirant who practiced great penance (mahātapaśāli) and had developed the power of omniscience.133 As a result, he attracted a large following and grew wealthier than his own guru. Swollen with arrogance, Varasiyā disavowed his living guru, bringing his master great anguish. Unknown to him, his guru cursed Varasiyā with the words: “May all his disciples be blinded. May all become confused in their knowledge, meditation, and vision of the divine.”134 Having uttered this terrible curse, Varasiyā’s guru returns to his own land. Varasiyā’s land is suddenly attacked by a neighboring king. At this time, he is approached by two orphaned and desperate brothers, who must leave their unmarried younger sister behind when they are obligated to enlist in the king’s army. Hearing of Varasiyā’s repute, they decide to place their beloved sister under his guardianship. In the hope of protecting their sister’s virtue, they seal her into a hut that they build close to Varasiyā’s dwelling, leaving her with provisions and water enough for a year. Having instructed her to lead a life such that their family honor remains unsullied, the brothers leave. A pious young woman, she lives incarcerated in this hut, “ever chanting the name of Nirañjana, and reciting the Korān in a voice,” we are told, “as sweet as the cuckoo (kukila).”135 Varasiyā would 131. guru honte padavī nā pāi śiṣye kare | guru same śiṣya saba naraketa paṛe || NV 1:261. 132. The tale has been summarized from NV 1:264–​287. 133. NV 1:268; 272. 134. yāhāre karila śiṣya seha hoka andha | jñāna dhyāne daraśana saba hoka dhandha || NV 1:265. 135. NV 1:269.

Text, Author, and Authority


pass by her hut on a daily basis while going to the river for his ablutions. He would stop by to listen to her beautiful recitation and greet her with fatherly pride. But the evil Iblis had other plans. One night, he paid a visit to Varasiyā in a dream in the guise of a beautiful woman. Entranced by her beauty, the august sādhaka had a nocturnal emission. The next day, he finds that his paternal resolve to protect the young girl entrusted to his care has dissolved into lust. After having cleansed himself at the river, he is tempted to peek into her hut. What he sees bedazzles him, for she is as bewitching as a vidyādharī, a celestial beauty. Varasiyā is smitten by Kāma’s arrows. He cuts open a door into her sealed hut and enters inside. She falls at his feet, pleading for his blessings, invoking her brothers’ trust in him. The maiden’s solicitous reminders of the value of upholding virtue in this life, should he crave bliss in the hereafter, make him retreat. But only temporarily. He now believes that the woman would expose him to her brothers on their return, whereas if he robbed her of her virginity, he reasons, she would be too humiliated and scared to tell them. Overwhelmed by desire, he sets aside his pious accoutrements—​his rosary (japa mālā), robes, and raised hat (ṭopara)—​and enters her hut as a digambara, naked as a sky-​clad Jaina monk. He rapes her then, and repeatedly the next few weeks, until she becomes pregnant. One wrongdoing leads to another, and Varasiyā spirals into a pit of sin, in the hope of masking his previous misdeeds. Realizing that the girl’s pregnancy would expose him as a charlatan, he acts on Iblis’s advice to kill her and quickly buries her body. When the brothers return he simply informs them that their sister died, and that he buried her in the same room in which they had installed her for her safety. They are heartbroken to hear this news. But the duplicitous Iblis, keen to accomplish Varasiyā’s complete ruination, visits the brothers in the guise of an old man and reveals Varasiyā’s misdeeds. They find it hard to believe him, but Iblis eventually convinces them by informing them of his long being Varasiyā’s confidant, familiar with his ways since his childhood. Ultimately, the guru is led away to the king’s court to be brought to justice. In his shame, he chooses to commit suicide by impaling himself on a pike (śāla).



The narratorial voice reveals that Iblis was able to befriend Varasiyā because “he took on disciples without his guru’s command, as a result of which he became inimical to his guru.”136 The author thus implies that only those taking on the mantle of spiritual authority through the express dispensation of their own guru align themselves with the Islamic axis of charisma that runs all the way back to Āllā. Thus a real guru, like Muhammad, is untouched by Iblis, and like the community of Muhammad, the living community of the Sufi guru is immune to Iblis’s corruption, protected by this vertical axis of charisma that the living guru is allied with. The other moral of this tale is that the guru should never be criticized, for criticism of the guru leads not only to the disciple’s annihilation, but the ruin of his entire lineage.137 From this discussion, it should be clear that the living master, who bears the mantle of spiritual authority passed down by his own teacher, is veritably the agent of Āllā and his Prophet. Likewise, it is clear that Sultān’s motives in composing his salvation history are manifold:  first, to construct a tale of the Prophet’s lineage that would compete with Hindu narrative texts such as the Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata,138 and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, widely available in Bangla translation by Sultān’s time. Sultān seeks to ultimately displace these “prior texts,” creating in the process a new “prior text” for his community that fills, at least temporarily, the void of the unavailable Qurʾān.139 His second aim was to establish a moral code for Islamic practice in Bengal’s rural provinces where qurʾānic law and the sharīʿa were still relatively unknown. In this regard, the NV’s account

136. vini se gurura ājñāe śiṣya kare nita | ripubhāva haila tāra gurura sahita || NV 1:278. 137. tekāraṇe guru nindā kare yei sakala | hata vaṃśa kandha nāśa haiba se sakala || NV 1:287. 138. As we have seen in Chapter 1, Haq and Sharif refer to a passage in which Sultān states that he draws inspiration from the first Bangla Mahābhārata, composed by Kavīndra Parameśvara dāsa. Haq [1957] 1991, 294–​295. NV 1:9 and NV 2:7. 139. Becker 1995, 287. I  follow Ricci (2011, 245–​260) in the application of this concept to the literary process by which religiously motivated authors create new sacred texts for their communities, usually via translation. In time these texts displace older “prior texts,” eventually themselves becoming the new “prior texts” for the community. For a more detailed discussion of the application of this concept to the NV, see the next chapter.

Text, Author, and Authority


of the deeds of the prophets (studied in Chapter 4), and particularly the Prophet Muhammad’s ascension (Chapter  6), provide model templates for ethical practice, defining how a true Muslim can emulate prophetic models. A discussion of authorial motives in the context of the historiographic enterprise demonstrates how the historiographer and his subject, the Prophet Muhammad, are entwined in an escalating relationship of power. If the institution of the guru within Bengali culture invests the author with the initial authority required to root the Prophet of Islam in Bengal, the historiography ipso facto extends the guru-​śiṣya lineage back through Muhammad, to God himself. It is around this axis of charismatic power, extended and strengthened through the historiographic process, that the pīr-​author seeks to consolidate his Islamic community.


Translation and the Historiographic Process The Work of a Text in the Making of Bengali Islam

Every real conversion is first a revolution at the level of our directive images. By changing his imagination, man alters his existence. —​Paul Ricoeur1

Finding gods.  .  .  ready at hand, religious hermeneutes deploy them in whatever contexts they find themselves, always with the result, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or incidentally, of forming asymmetrical structures of being, reality, power, and value. —​Tim Murphy2

Exceptional among Bangla texts by early-​modern Muslim authors, the NV supplies an extensive statement on the subject of translation. Here is how Saiyad Sultān articulates his motives for writing in Bangla:

1. Ricoeur 1965, 127. 2. Murphy (2007) 2014, 154. The Muhammad Avata¯ra. Ayesha A. Irani, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190089221.003.0003.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


“Listen, people!” urges Saiyad Sultān, “pay heed to this account of the Prophet’s lineage, the Nabīvaṃśa of Hind. It was in the Arabic language; I rendered it into an Indic tongue (hindi), disseminating it thus, so the people of Baṅga could comprehend it. Not knowing Persian, these people remained ignorant. Upon hearing it in a language of the Indians (hinduāni), they learned righteous conduct.”3 Although authorial intention is never fully recoverable, Sultān’s translation statement, elaborated more fully in the sections that follow, provides further opportunity for understanding the author’s purported aims in composing the NV. It also provides a starting point for analysis of his understanding of “translation,” in terms of concept, function, process, and practice. The manner in which he positions his translation allows us to hypothesize about the nature of his intervention, the religious and cultural work he desired his translation to perform. Sultān’s statement is to be understood within the context of the Islamic Bengali literary system and the wider literary polysystem: its overlap with and inclusion within Sanskrit, ​Arabic, Persian, and Indian vernacular systems, and the position of translating and translators within these intertwined systems.4 The project of vernacularization, in Sultān’s case, is self-​declaredly a project of “explaining” the Korān, the primary impetus for composing the NV. His statement is shot through with historical tensions between the “inimitability” (ʿijāz) and hence, “untranslatability” of the Qurʾān, and a recognition of the reality that its message had, indeed, been translated for Islam to have spread beyond its original Arabian home. THE TERMS OF TRANSLATION

For “translating” Arabic or Persian text into Bangla, an Indic language, Sultān uses the verb hindi karā, “to render ‘Indian’ (hindi),” or more 3. NV 1:696. For an alternative translation of this passage, cf. Irani and Stewart forthcoming. 4. I am drawing here upon Itamar Even-​Zohar’s polysystems theory. For the place of translated literature within the literary polysystem, see Even-​Zohar 1978. Concerning various systems and descriptive approaches to translation, see Hermans [1999] 2014.



specifically “to render into an Indic tongue.” His concept of translation is, thus, closely associated with transmission as a mode of cultural exchange—​the conveyance of A ​ rabic or Persian utterance into hindi. It is noteworthy that Saiyad Sultān here conflates Arabic with Persian, suggesting either that he is referring to an Arabic source text mediated through Persian translation or to the Perso-​Arabic script in which he would have read the Persian text. Sultān further nuances his definition of translation by using the terms hinduyāni/​hinduāni karā, “to render into a language of the Indians, the people of Hind,” emphasizing the geographical marker, al-​Hind or Hindustān (the respective Arabic and Persian terms for India). It also indicates an ethnic marker for its peoples, the Hinduvān (the Persian plural of Hindu, an inhabitant of Hindustān),5 as well as its languages, here collectively referred to as Hindi or Hinduāni.6 Notably, even though the NV refers to local people as baṅgālīs, those who inhabit baṅga deśa (the land of Baṅga),7 the NV’s language, elsewhere described as deśī bhāṣā (“language of the land”), is here named as hindi.8 The term hindi reveals that Sultān categorizes the language of Baṅga, in broad terms, as a language of Hind or Hindustān.9

5. Steingass [1892] 1992, s.v. “hinduvān,” 1514. Concerning the etymology and conceptual evolution of the term “Hindu” from an ethnic to a religious marker, see Ernst 1992, 22–​27. 6. NV 2:477 and 480. 7. karmadoṣe baṅgeta baṅgālī utapana | nā bujhe baṅgālī sabe ārabī vacana || NV 2:479. 8. Three instances of the term deśī bhāṣā occur in the NV, all in Book 1. NV 1:66, 421, and 698. 9. Premodern Bengali brahmins termed Bangla simply as bhāṣā; the Muslim elite called it hinduyāni bhāṣā; other terms used by premodern authors were prākr̥ta bhāṣā, loka-​bhāṣā, and laukika bhāṣā. Occasionally it was termed baṅgabhāṣā, but it was mostly called deśī bhāṣā. Sharif (1972/​1379 B.S.) 2006, 273. It is also noteworthy that the last couplet of the critical edition (NV 2:547) uses the word bāṅgālā to describe the language of this text. It reads: adhika uttama kathā kitābe śuniyā | ālima sabhāta dila bāṅgālā raciyā || The editor also provides a variant reading of the second half of this couplet from a manuscript of the Ophāt-​i rasul: ālima sabhera cāha tāhā jiñāsiyā || It seems likely that the use of bāṅgālā here is a later scribal interpolation, since this is the only occurrence of the term in the entire text. Often the first and last pages of manuscripts tend to wear out, leaving very few extant complete manuscripts of the NV. Under these circumstances, it is not uncommon for scribes to supply the first few lines and the last few lines of texts that they are copying.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


As can be seen in the writings of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī (b. 651/​1253), the nomenclature Hindavī, a catch-​all term for the vernacular in Sultanate India, was prevalent at least since the early fourteenth century among the Muslim elite. Khusraw’s contested lines show that he saw the various languages of separate regions of India, including Bengal, as constituting hindavī, Indic language(s): In every territory, there is A language specific, and not so By chance either. There are Sindhī, Lāhorī, Kashmīrī, Kibar, Dhaur Samandarī, Tilangī, Gujar, Maʿbarī, Gaurī, and the languages Of Bengal, Avadh, Delhi And its environs, all within Their own frontiers. All these are Indic [hindvī], and Are in common use For all purposes since antiquity.10

10. az maḥal-​i khvīsh bar ārad nafsī. hast darīn ʿarsah bahar nāḥatī | muṣtalḥá-​i khāṣah nah az ʿārītī. sindī u lāhaurī u kashmīrī u kibar | dhaur samundarī u telangī u gujar. maʿbarī u gaurī u baṅgāl u avad | dehlī u pīrāmanash andar hamah-​i ḥad. īn hamah hindavīst kah zi ayām-​i kohn | ʿāmah bakār ast bahar gūnah-​i sukhan. Since the text of these lines is problematic, and has been variously interpreted by scholars of Persian, I have retained here the translation of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, while also providing in this note the original lines from the Nūh Sipihr of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī, 179–​180, which Faruqi has translated (2001, 66). Note also Suniti Kumar Chatterji’s observation that: a new style or form of this Common Indo-​Aryan, as it was spoken round Delhi, as ‘Hindustani’ or ‘Urdu’, . . . (or the Indo-​Aryan speeches of North India), in their ensemble or totality, came to be known to non-​Indians from the West, simply as the Hindu or the Indian Speech (Hindawī, Hindūi, or Hindwī). Even this Indian (Hindwi, Hindi) Speech at first did not have a specialised sense; and when taken by the Muslim conquering troops from North India, who established a number of Muslim-​ ruled states in the Deccan and South India . . . , the name Dakni or Deccani, or the Southern Speech, was used by the Muslim rulers and sojourners among Marathi, Konkani, Telugu, Kannada and Tamil speakers. From the name of a North Indian tribe



Though in the passage above, Khusraw uses “Hindvī” in the sense of “Indic” or “Indian,” Muslim authors, as Christopher Shackle clarifies, tended to be rather indiscriminate in their application of the term not merely to “varieties of language which would now be described as early forms of Urdū or Hindī, but also for others which are clearly different, e.g. Panjābī or Rājasthānī,”11 or in this case, Bangla. To return now to Sultān’s argument for translating the Korān: Āllā stated, “I have sent messengers in accordance with each land and its language.” For, if the messenger spoke one language, and the people another, neither would comprehend the conversation. Every prophet and messenger that ever was was created with the language of his community.12 Sultān here reinforces the vertical, ontological axis of religious translation, as the Word flows from God to his messengers, and from messengers to ordinary people. Sultān iterates the qurʾānic affirmation that “each nation has its own prophets sent to it” (Q 10:47; 16:36) and that every apostle was only sent “with the language (lisān) of his people” (qawmihi, Q 14:4).13 Thus, as Uri Rubin explains, “Muḥammad the Arabian prophet . . . has brought to his nation an Arabic Qurʾān (e.g. Q 12:2). His Arabic Qurʾān was revealed to him that he may warn ‘the mother of cities’ (umm al-​qurā,

from the Panjab and Rajasthan and Gujarat, it also received another name—​Gujari. A common sobriquet for it was also Bhakha or Bhasha, just “Speech of the People” by which all kinds of Spoken Aryan from c. 1000 A.D. came to be known in a general way—​Assamese, Maithil, Bengali, Oriya, Kosali, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Brajbhasha, Ḍingal or Rajasthani, Gujarati, Marathi, Konkani, Panjabi, Sindhi and everything else in the way of the spoken forms which Indo-​Aryan included. The italics and bold-​face emphasis are Chatterji’s (1973, 36). 11. Shackle 2011. 12. NV 2:477. 13. Rubin 2011b.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


Q 42:7  . . . ), which is Mecca, according to the exegetes.”14 Thus Sultān too continues: The Arabs who lived in the land of Mecca, had forgotten all the scriptures, their intellects befuddled. Then, Prabhu Nirañjana—​ the Immaculate Lord—​ the primeval repository, created a messenger from that lineage. Muhammad, the messenger, Āllā’s beloved companion, who had met with Āllā upon his throne, spoke in Arabic to the Arabs, thus, communicating matters of religion (dīn) to all. The Arabs found their faith (imān) through the Arabic language: when they heard the teachings of the Korān, they became Musalmāns.15 Muhammad is here represented as the “translator” of the word of Āllā, whom he met upon his throne, into Arabic, the language of his community (ummat).16 In keeping with traditional Islamic discourse, the NV portrays the Korān as an axial text that ends the age of ignorance (Ar. jāhilīyya), what Sultān calls the bhora buddhi, “befuddled intellects” of the pre-​Islamic Arabs, and marks a new epoch.17 Alluded to here is the wondrous nature of the miracle of the Qurʾān; Islamic tradition records conversion stories of the Prophet’s early companions which center upon the role that hearing (samāʿ) the divine revelation played in their embracing the new faith.18

14 . Ibid. 15. NV 2:477–​478. 16. Concerning the topic of God’s speech (kalām Allāh) and the debates it generated in early Islamic theology, see Zadeh 2012, 178–​213. 17. Khalidi (1994) 1996, 7. 18. Zadeh 2012, 216–​217.



In a rhetorical move that links the translation of the Korān to religious conversion, the practice of korānic translation being inaugurated in the sacred presence of the Prophet himself, Sultān then tells of how the natives of Khorāsān became Muslim: Now, the natives of Khorāsān were unaccustomed to speaking in Arabic with the Arabs. The Arabs did not understand the words of the Khorāsānis, while the Khorāsānis did not follow the speech of the Arabs. When the Prophet began to recite the Korān before the Khorāsānis, none of the Khorāsānis who visited him could understand his words (bāta). Then, one who knew both languages came up. He sat before the two parties, and made each side comprehend [the other]. He, who knew both Persian and Arabic, came between them, and spoke. The Khorāsānis asked the Arabs in the Khorāsānī language all matters pertaining to the Arabic. When they heard the words of the Korān in Persian, all the Khorāsānis accepted the faith.19 Sultān perhaps alludes here to the well-​known incident recorded by Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad Ibn Saʿd (d. 230/​845 See conventions.) in his al-​ Ṭabaqāt al-​kubrá of the Prophet sending diplomatic missions to various monarchs of the world in the year 7/​628, instructing them to accept Islam. The emissaries were specifically chosen for their ability to communicate the meaning of the Qurʾān in the language of the kingdom.20 Sultān’s representation of the Prophet in Khorāsān elicits the Prophet’s personal role in spreading the qurʾānic word beyond Arabia, invoking prophetic example to underline the significance of translating the Korān into other 19. NV 2:478. 20. Zadeh 2012, 262.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


languages. Notice how one who had earlier “translated” the divine word for his people now sanctions the services of translators/​interpreters to spread the prophetic message beyond Arabia. The translator is here described as a mediator between cultures and languages, as one who “knew both languages” and “came between them [both parties], and spoke.” The translatorial powers of one such early preacher-​translator, Mūsá ibn Sayyār al-​Aswārī (fl. second/​eighth century), whose Arabic was at par with his Persian, is noted by Abū ʿUthmān al-​Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/​868–​9.) in his al-​Bayān wa-​al-​tabyīn. He was famed for his ability to explain, in Arabic, a verse from the Qurʾān to the Arabs, sitting to his right, and then, in Persian, to the Persians, to his left.21 Though speaking ostensibly of second/​eighth century Khurāsān, Sultān’s portrayal of the oral nature of this early act of qurʾānic translation, as we shall see, reverberates across time and linguistic frontiers to be situated eventually in semi-​literate, rural Bengal, where scriptural translation continued to have a strong oral component. For Sultān, conversion is concomitant to effective oral communication of scripture’s message such that it would be comprehended by the receptor community; it is represented as a natural and swift outcome of explaining the Korān (vākhāna) in the target language.22 He emphasizes the connection, moreover, between four sequential acts:  first, Āllā’s revelation; second, the messenger’s interpretation/​translation of it to create a message that is communicated, either through oral or written means, in the language of the community (ummat); third, the community’s effective reception of the message, which is tied explicitly to comprehension and, implicitly, to its meaningfulness, relevance, and acceptability to the receptor community; and, fourth, the community’s conversion to Islam. In other words, for Sultān, an ideal translation of scripture is one that communicates religious meaning effectively across cultures such that the target culture receives it in a form both comprehensible and palatable. 21. Ibid., 254–​255. 22. On vākhāna, see further below.



Revealing a savvy geographical awareness of the global reach of Islam in the early modern period, Sultān next portrays the Islamization of Southeast Asia, the Tamil country, Byzantium, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, as the direct outcome of interpreting the Korān and transmitting it across languages: The people of Java (yāvā) traced the Book’s teachings from Arabic words into Javanese [Yāvā]. On becoming well-​acquainted with the Islamic faith, they were able to assess that there is but one Creator (karatā). The Coliyās [Colās], in Coliyā [Tamil] words, explain (vākhāna karae) the teachings of the Korān.23 The Byzantines (rumi) made arrangements for people to write down the essential teachings of the Korān in the Byzantine tongue. In Turkīstān, they wrote in their native Turkish the import of the Korān’s teachings. Having heard the essence of the Korān in Syriac, the Syrians (sāmī) began to practice musalmāni conduct.24 Having heard the Korān’s principles in the Amharic language (emrānī), the Ethiopians became adept in the Islamic faith. [Hearing about] the Islamic faith in Irākī, the Irakīs began to practice the distinctive musalmāni conduct. Having heard the Korān’s teachings in Paśtu, the Paṭhāns understood the practices. In how many lands and languages have arrangements been made to explain (bujhi deyanta) the Muhammadan religion [through] the teachings of the Korān!25

23. Torsten Tschacher (2014, n. 19, 208) considers this to be “possibly the first external mention of Islamic Tamil literature found in any source. Tschacher (ibid.) further points out that yāvā could also be a reference to the Malay rather than to Javanese. 24. The first and second line of this couplet have been interchanged, and need to be emended. 25. NV 2:478–​479.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


Translation to Sultān, then, is the transmission, the conveyance or “carrying over” of text, of form and meaning, from one geography to another, from one ethnic group to another, from one language to another, and even from oral into written forms of expression. More significantly, in his understanding, translation is a process of transculturation, of cultural interchange between peoples of one language group and another.26 Explicit in this understanding is that this process is dialogical (uttara-​paduttara): it is a bi-​directional process that affected both parties in the interchange. Implicit, however, is that these parties were intimately bound up by asymmetries of power, creating in the process of interchange new cultural formations at both ends.27 In Sultān’s translation statement, we are presented with a mnemohistory of Islam’s expansion beyond its original home in Arabia to the four corners of the early modern world. The transnational spread of Islam is remembered highly selectively as a concatenation of local Qurʾān translation movements. Yet it is this deliberately narrow, symbolic reconstruction of the past that allows Sultān to harness its historical “truth” for legitimizing his own translation project. He now explains the expediency of rendering the teachings of the Korān into the language of his birth-​community: Having read the Book, when the learned man tries to explain it, how could he explain it to all the people of Baṅga if he were not to make it Indic (hinduyāni kari)? For he would [surely] not be able to explain it to them in Arabic! To each, the language with which God has created one, is indeed one’s priceless wealth. Sinners say that Saiyad Sultān made Āllā known

26. I draw here on the Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortiz’s definition and use of “transculturation” in his study of cultural interchange between Europeans and the native peoples of Latin America. Ortiz 1947, 102–​103. 27. On transmission and transculturation as two of three basic modes of translation, see Tymoczko [2007] 2010, 107–​139. See further, my discussion on these modes below.



by revealing his imperfections (chidri). Hearing this I began to wonder: in what way did I put forth Āllā’s defects? [Rather] I proclaimed his glories, dwelling upon the words [most suitable] for his praise.28 I proclaimed the glory of all the messengers. I exposed the sinful Iblis’s disrepute. Why, then, do they claim that I laid bare Āllā’s defects? Those sinners did not give this due thought. Then I began to ponder over the issue of Iblis. I have been hurt because I exposed him. For Iblis is the hypocrite’s very own friend. [And] I have made known the descriptions of Iblis. This is why the hypocrites feel dissatisfied: they are incensed, seeing that I uncovered all Iblis’s deeds. The Creator (karatā) knows the emotions that run through my mind: to whom [else] could I confide all my inner concerns? All those who listen single-​mindedly to the Nabīvaṃśa shall entreat Āllā, for my sake. With my heart and my lips, I beseech Āllā to ever forgive all the sins I may have committed.29 Sultān attempts to thwart any obstacle to his project by branding his detractors “hypocrites,” minions of Iblis (Ar. Iblīs), who turn against the author because he has exposed their own weaknesses. Such proleptic speech acts highlight the anxiety of translators, no doubt, but also of the Bengali Muslim elite, to whom the translation of sacred texts was almost seditious, destabilizing the nexus between traditional institutions of knowledge and power. Such anxieties of the Muslim elite, moreover, were not different from those of Bengal’s brahmins, who looked askance at the

28. I have accepted here the alternate reading put forth by manuscript “gha.” NV 2: n. 19, 480. 29. NV 2:480–​481.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


translation of Sanskrit sacred texts into Bangla. Their united scorn of the vernacular was related to the subaltern, hypoglossic status of the vernacular vis à vis the cosmopolitan and sacred stature of Persian and Sanskrit.30 Writing about Islamic matters in Bangla, a language of Hind, was widely perceived by the Islamic elite of Sultān’s time to be a corruption of their faith. Sultān, being one of the first Bengalis to rebel against such convention, blazes a trail for later Bengali Muslim writers to follow.31 His proleptic statements, however, suggest “the anxiety of innovation”:32 Āllā has told me that he shall punish those who, though knowing the essence of the Book’s teachings, do not convey it to others. Āllā shall rebuke all such individuals. He has declared that they shall certainly fall into hell. 30. In the case of the brahmins, this hesitance was also related to the strong impulse towards literization that accompanied vernacularization and the centuries-​old ambivalence to writing exhibited by the brahmanical class, for whom orality continued, long after writing practices were well-​established, to be a complementary and even privileged medium for the transmission and codification of knowledge. Concerning the complex attitudes to orality and literacy within brahmanical society, see Kaviraj 1992, 27–​32. Such brahmanical anxieties, as Dinesh Chandra Sen has shown, persisted into the early part of the nineteenth century, at least where the Vedas were concerned; Raja Rammohan Roy’s translations of the Sanskrit Upaniṣads were considered sacrilegious. Dinesh Chandra Sen (1909) 2007, 1:  7–​8. Concerning such shared premodern anxieties over vernacular production in other regions of South Asia, for Marathi literature, see Pollock 2006, 310–​312; for Brajabhāṣā, see Busch 2004, 46–​49. 31. Cf. Roy 1983, 58 and 67–​69. See also Roy 1999, 183. In this context, it is worth noting Muhammad Khān’s proleptic utterance, probably inspired by his master, Saiyad Sultān: “In Hindustān, people do not understand the Book. Not comprehending it, not heeding it, they ever commit great sin. For this reason, I have summarized it and composed a pañcālī. I did not consider good and evil, sin and virtue. All fear to read the pañcālī. But they will undoubtedly hear about the matters the Book puts forth, of how those who heed Āllā’s orders shall perform acts of virtue, of charity and righteousness. They will then surely bless me. By the blessings of the great, my blunders will be shattered. It is not possible to disobey the orders of a special pīr. Because of him, I composed this little pañcālī.” My translation of the lines: hindusthāne loka sabe na bujhe kitāba | na bujhi na śuni nitya kare mahāpāpa || tekāje saṃkṣepa kari pañcālī racilum̐ | bhāla manda pāpa puṇya kichu na jānilum̐ || pañcālī paṛite sabe mane bhaya pāi | avaśya kitāba kathā śunibeka yāi || kibhāve āllāra ājñā śunibenta yabe | dāna dharma puṇya karma karibenta tabe || avaśya mhore sabe dibe āśīrvāda | mahājana āśīrvāda khaṇḍiba pramāda || viśeṣa pīrera ājñā na yāya laṅghana | racilum̐ pañcālikā tāhāra kāraṇa || (Maktul Hosen) quoted in Haq (1957) 1991, 328. 32. The phrase is taken from Busch 2004, 45–​59.



Those who do not understand my words condemn me for having composed a pāñcālī.33 Caught between God’s commandments and the condemnation of “hypocrites,” he defends himself against allegations of “plagiarizing the Book” (“kitābetu kāṛāno”),34 for “fragmenting the Book” (“kitāb bhāṅgana),35 and for “Indianizing”—​or worse, “hinduizing” (hinduāni karā)36—​the teachings of the Qurʾān. His anxiety reflects elite concerns about Islam becoming “impure” in local contexts. Well into the eighteenth century, Muslim Bengali writers continue to speak of suppressing their translational anxieties in order to disseminate the teachings of Islam.37 In this lengthy translation statement, Sultān appeals to the transnational and universal claims of the Islamic daʿwa, call to the faith. For all the ethno-​linguistic claims of the Arabic Qurʾān, the Book also represents Muḥammad, unlike any other prophet, as a universal messiah, sent “to mankind (lil-​nās) as an apostle” (Q 4:79) and as a mercy “to the worlds (lil-​ʿālamīn)” (Q 21:107).38 Thus, implicit in Sultān’s choice to translate the sacred biography of the Prophet is the affirmation that the acts of the beloved Messenger and his sublime message are universally communicable across all linguistic, ethnic, and geographical boundaries. He simultaneously calls for embracing one’s mother tongue as one’s “priceless wealth” (amūlya dhana) for the translation of religious ideals: yāre yei bhāṣe prabhu kariche sr̥jana | sei bhāṣa tāhāra amūlya sei dhana ||39 33. NV 2:477. 34. munāphike bole āmhi kitābetu kāṛi | kitābera kathā dilum̐ hinduāni kari || NV 2:477. 35. tekāraṇe katha katha paśubuddhi nare | kitāba bhāṅgila kari dūṣae āmhāre || NV 2:480. 36. NV 2:477. On the tongues of his slanderers, the verb hinduāni karā, takes on the double-​ edged ethnic and religious connotation of “Indian/​Indic” and “Hindu.” Cf. also the condemnation of Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya by the kājī, in the Caitanyabhāgavata of Vr̥ndāvanadāsa—​kājī bole hinduyānī haïla nadiyā | karimu ihāra śāsti nāgāli pāiyā—​cited in Sanyāla 1989, 55. 37. Concerning such examples from premodern Islamic Bangla literature, see Hak 2002, 227–​ 229; and Roy 1983, 67–​70. 38. Rubin 2011b. 39. NV 2:480.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


To each, the language with which God has created one, is indeed one’s priceless wealth. An early expression of language activism in Bengal, these lines demonstrate that authors who favored writing about Islam in the vernacular pushed back against attempts made by the Persian immigrant elite of Bengal to guard the frontiers of religion and culture. In his translation statement, Sultān primarily lays out that the pragmatic value of the translation of scripture is conversion. The ultimate measure of the success of the Korān’s translation is its power to convert new peoples to Islam. Conversely, a translation of korānic matters that does not lead directly to conversion would be deemed an unsuccessful, faulty, or ineffective translation. Since the end justifies the means, accuracy of translation is considered less important than the use of translation as a tool for persuasion and propaganda. Sultān’s emphasis on “translation” as explanation of the korānic message in a readily comprehensible and acceptable form is key to understanding his emphasis on translation as transculturation. But does he follow through on this stated purpose in his own translation practice? I believe he does, and he does so through a process that I have termed entextualization. I shall argue that in Sultān’s practice, translation entextualizes conversion within the historiographic process. By this I mean that his translation of salvation history adopts sophisticated textual strategies that embed processes of conversion within his discourse of salvation history by harnessing the generative structures of language, genre, and narrative.40 Additionally, by entextualizing conversion, I believe translation also enacts conversion. For, as Karin Barber suggests, “texts,”

40. The term entextualization has been defined by discourse analysts as the process of setting down in writing previous forms of oral interaction. Within modern institutional contexts, such processes create a permanent public record and archives that establish and foster the authority and power of the institution. For a summary of these theories, see Park and Bucholtz 2009. This definition should not be confused with mine, as in the study of the premodern context of Bengali oral-​literate culture, a “text” could be constituted by either oral or written discourse. This being said, it should be evident that the study of the entextualization of conversion is more amenable to linguistic, formal and discursive analysis in written text.



whether oral or written, “are forms of action, speech acts embedded in the context of their emission and reception.”41 The main purpose of Sultān’s historiographic enterprise is to produce a new “prior text” for the people of Bengal. The potential challenges he faces in doing so, and the interpretive strategies he masters to create such a tour de force of missionary writing, are aspects this chapter details. This preliminary contextualization prepares the ground for the other significant focus of this chapter, an a posteriori reconstruction of process from translation product to lay out a hermeneutic model of Islamic missionary translation practice. I end this chapter with an account of “frontier literature”: how texts such as the NV can be characterized, and what cultural work such literature performs for frontier peoples on the threshold of the House of Islam (dār al-​Islām). Let us now examine the cultural work that translation performs in the rewriting of salvation history. Since “translation” is a fuzzy and open concept, with no universal definition, I  continue this exploration along Maria Tymoczko’s three axes of cultural exchange pivotal to most understandings of translation:  transmission, representation, and transculturation.42


Translation to Sultān, as we have seen earlier, is the transmission of the Qurʾān from Arabic into other languages. Yet translating the Qurʾān, whether into Bangla or any other tongue, has historically been considered a transgressive act that trespasses against the doctrine of qurʾānic inimitability (iʿjāz). The Qurʾān, according to tradition, is the earthly repository (or at least a part) of the heavenly book, the Umm al-​Kitāb, Mother of the Book, also known as the lawḥ al-​maḥfūẓ, the Preserved Tablet, which according to most interpretations, “sits either to the right of or underneath

41. Barber 2007, 3. 42. Tymoczko [2007] 2010, 107–​139.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


God’s throne, above the seventh heaven.”43 Despite its divine source, the Qurʾān reflexively emphasizes its Arabic nature (Q 12:1–​2; 13:37; 41:2), and asserts the superiority of the language of the Arabs (al-​ʿArab, interpreted by Arabic lexicographers to mean “eloquent expression”) over the language of the non-​Arabs, al-​ʿAjam (related to ʿajm, “dumbness”).44 Translation of the Qurʾān has historically been rejected in Muslim scholarship on these and other logocentric grounds that argue for qurʾānic meaning and charisma, via rhetoric and syntax, to be inexorably wedded to its particular linguistic expression in Arabic.45 “Central to the inimitability of the Qurʾān,” as Travis Zadeh explains, in his study of Persian translations of the Qurʾān from the fourth/​tenth to the sixth/​twelfth centuries, “is the literary status of its revelation in its Arabic form.”46 Since no other language was deemed to match Arabic’s “sublime literary expression, all attempts at translation are necessarily imperfect.”47 Nonetheless, this logocentric argument was displaced by the pragmatic needs of Islamic preachers, as Zadeh has shown in the case of Persian. Starting in the third/​ninth centuries, as Islam expanded beyond the frontiers of the Arab-​speaking world, Islamic jurists became increasingly concerned with accommodating converts from other ethnic and linguistic groups.48 Islamic law stipulates that Muslims are only required to recite from memory a small portion of the Qurʾān for ritual prayer, the most important being the the opening chapter (fātiḥa) and the final sūras.49 Of all the major Sunnī legal schools, moreover, the Ḥanafī school, which gained wide currency in Eastern Iran and Central Asia and later in the Indian subcontinent, provided the greatest leniency to the performance of ritual

43. Wisnovsky 2011. 44. Rahman 1988, 23–​24. 45. Zadeh 2012. 46. Ibid, 198. 47 . Ibid. 48. Ibid., 253–​268. 49. Paret 2011; Graham 2011; Zadeh 2012, 54–​55, 103–​105.



prayer in a non-​Arabic language.50 Ḥanafī scholars argued that qurʾānic inimitability is wedded as much to meaning (maʿnā) as to form; the Ḥanafī privileging of the communicability of the qurʾānic message, when placed in the context of the opinions of jurists across Islamic legal traditions who also argued for the mediation of scripture through other languages, opened up the possibilities for the Qurʾān to appear in translation.51 In these and other ways, the weight of early Islamic evidence suggests that as the centers of Islamic power shifted eastward away from ʿAbbāsid Baghdad, Persian, by the fourth/​tenth century, became institutionally authorized as a legitimate vehicle for conveying, first, qurʾānic exegesis, and later, interlinear translation of the Qurʾān itself.52 Zadeh explains how this crucial early shift in translation practice took place: With. . . attention to the lexical comprehension of the message in the philological search for primary meaning, translation operated at the most basic level of interpretation, even in a primarily Arabic-​speaking milieu. The situation was even more protracted when set within the Persianate ecumene where, although Arabic still carried prestige liturgically and culturally, Persian, as literary vernacular, emerged as a viable alternative for non-​Arabic speakers. The conceptual link between exegesis (tafsīr) and translation (tarjuma) is readily apparent in the interpretive realm. It is in the field of interpretation that the translation of the Qur’an came to gain the greatest form of legitimisation.53 Since Ḥanafī law was well-​established among Bengal’s Muslims by 1500,54 it is possible to place Sultān’s arguments for translation within the context of the Ḥanafī discourse on the translatability of the Qurʾān. Furthermore, 50. Concerning the rulings of the Ḥanafī school with regards to this issue, see Zadeh 2012, 53–​62, and 92–​99. Concerning the development of Ḥanafī law in India, see Guenther 2003, 209–​230. 51. Zadeh 2012, 263–​268. 52. Ibid., 264–​268. 53. Ibid., 264. 54. Eaton 1993, 130.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


given the slippage in Islamic discourse on the Qurʾān between translation and explanation/​interpretation, Sultān is positioning his NV as a commentary, a Bangla “vākhān,” in his words, an exegesis (Ar. tafsīr), of the Qurʾān. To return to Sultān’s emphasis on translation as exegesis, we reiterate his words quoted above: Having read the Book, when the learned man tries to explain it, how could he explain it to all the people of Baṅga if he were not to render it into a language of the Indians (hinduāni kari)? For he would [surely] not be able to explain it to them in Arabic!55 The verb used here is vākhāni balā, short for vākhāniyā balā, “to speak by explaining.” Middle Bangla vākhāno is a verb derived from the Sanskrit noun vyākhyāna, “commentary” (Apabhraṃśa vakhāṇa), and would be equivalent to the modern Bangla vyākhyā karā.56 Unlike Persian translations of the Qurʾān, which never attempted to replace it, the NV recognizes that it is filling the place of the Qurʾān in rural Bengal. It hence demands a fealty from the faithful equivalent to the holy book.


Before we are able to fully appreciate Sultān’s translatorial and historiographic process as one that entextualizes conversion, some basic questions are in order. How does Sultān represent musalmāni and hinduāni traditions? How does he define “conversion”? How does he represent it as happening? And why are such mere representations of conversion important to the study of the history of religion?

55. For original text, see details provided above. 56. Kāium and Sultānā 2007–​2009, s.v. “vākhāna,” vol. 2: 126; Turner 1962–​1966, s.v. “vyākhāna.”



The Representation of “Conversion” to Islam

How conversion to Islam was represented to have happened by some of its primary agents is a little-​studied facet of Islamization in East Bengal. I believe that the NV reveals aspects of a complex process unavailable through any other source. For in these narratives of how conversion happened, in their expressions of a cultural memory of Islam’s spread over geo-​political frontiers, and in their rhetoric, authors such as Saiyad Sultān disclose their hopes for religious change in their own communities. With every act of re-​ imagining and re-​narrating the Islamic past, they articulate new ontologies and epistemologies of self for their own time. Such discourse, however, was not only charged with hope, but also with the pragmatic task of religious change. The text is formed by, and, in turn, shapes the dramatic processes of cultural change taking place in the author’s religiotextual community. What specific terminology does Saiyad Sultān use to speak of “conversion” to Islam, and in what ways does he explain the process? The NV’s translation statement refers to “conversion” in several ways, perhaps the most basic of which is “becoming Musalmān” (musalmān haoyā). “Becoming Musalmān,” for Sultān, is explained as a process of “fully grasping matters of imān and islām” (imā islāmera kathā bhāla mate jānā). The qurʾānic term islām, derived from the Arabic verb aslama (“to submit or surrender [to the divine]”), designates the individual or communal act of submission to God, as well as the community of all those who have submitted to the divine. The term islām, thus, in its additional emphasis on the communal, or “horizontal” nature of religious identity, is more expansive than the qurʾānic term imān (“trust in God,” often translated as “faith”), which focuses upon the personal and “vertical” relationship of the individual with the divine.57 When a community, moreover, recognizes the meaning and value of the unicity of the creator (eka karatāra parimāṇi laoyā), an “intellectual” process of understanding the central principle of tawḥīd (korānera tattva), the essence of the Korān (korānera marma)—​the

57. Smith 2005.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


community, in Sultān’s account, recognizes the truth it needs to enter into the Muhammadan religion (dīn muhammadī).58 Finally, “becoming Musalmān” also involves following the ritual and social practices that the Korān prescribes for Muslims (musalmānī karma). This should be understood in the context of Sultān’s taxonomy of religious community discussed earlier. Most significantly, Sultān’s representation of conversion stresses not the conversion of individuals to Islam but rather the en masse conversion of an entire community (ummat)—​which he describes, as seen in his translation statement, as a geo-​political formation, a nation united by a single linguistic identity. Sultān describes conversion as a swift and expansive shift in religious identity that sweeps over an entire language community. This representation conforms to traditional Islamic discourse on the subject. As Devin DeWeese notes in his study of the Islamization of Central Asia, Islamic texts refer to such a “ ‘communal’ model” of conversion by way of Arabic verbs such as fataḥa, “to open” new communities to Islam, or in terms of the “ ‘territorial’ model” of the House of Islam (dār al-​Islām) and the House of War (dār al-​ḥarb). These are devices used to explain the Islamization of foreign and barbaric peoples, which, as we also see in Sultān’s case, “were quickly appropriated by the Islamizing community concerned as part and parcel of their Islamization.”59 The conversion of an entire ethnic population involved a change in status in the religious identity of a community. As DeWeese emphasizes with reference to the Islamization of the Golden Horde, it is a mistake to trivialize such nominal conversion to Islam as being merely “a change in name” rather than “a change in heart.”60 For in the Islamic tradition, as opposed to the Christian, even such “purely formal and ‘external’ adoption of Islamic practices and patterns” is considered “religiously meaningful, since those patterns, even in their formal aspects, are conveyors of divine

58. These textual passages are from NV 2:478–​479, quoted in full earlier. 59. DeWeese 1994, 24–​25. 60. Ibid., 25.



grace, barakah.”61 To call oneself “Musalmān” emphasized one’s entry into a community of Islam, and thereon, into an ethical and ritual system of belief and faith—​in Sultān’s words, musalmānī karma and imān. What DeWeese has argued for Inner Asians is also applicable to the NV’s representation of conversion: “to adopt a name is to change one’s reality, and in this sense, there could be no deeper ‘conversion’ than a nominal one.”62

Representing Islam as Hinduaˉ ni, Transculturating Self and Other

If conversion is a change from one religious identity to another, how does Sultān represent the religious identity of those who convert to Islam? To answer this question we must return to Saiyad Sultān’s definition of translation as hinduāni karā. At one semantic level, he asserts that hinduāni karā, as we may recall, is the transfer of a text from a language unknown to local peoples into an Indic language that is known to them—​in his case, Bangla, the mother-​tongue of his religiotextual community. However, he is also playing with the possibility implicit in this definition that Islam and its sacred history, even as his detractors had decried, can be “made Indic” not just in linguistic terms but in cultural terms. By translation, Arab peoples, their culture, their religion, and their prophets can be represented as Indic. Bengalis of Sultān’s time would be well aware that Islam was no newcomer to Bengal’s “religious marketplace.”63 In India, over the several centuries of its establishment, Islam had become Indic, so it would be unproblematic for it to be represented as such. But Sultān does not rest content with employing only these meanings of hinduāni, but additionally exploits the open semantic field of the term to represent Islam as Hindu,

61 . Ibid. 62. Ibid., 55. 63. Sheikh 2010, 162, 172.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


or more accurately as continuous with the non-​Muslim Indian (hindu) self.64 Why and how does he do this, even at the risk of being accused of blasphemy? And what does such a representational strategy signify for “conversion”? The author’s challenge in the representation and construction of Bengali Muslim identity lay in parsing the peculiar nature of its “in-​betweenness,” in “the borderline negotiations of cultural difference.”65 He needed to establish the apartness, and ultimately, the superiority of Islam in Bengal, while acknowledging its “part-​ness” within the Bengali multicultural landscape. Such acknowledgment was not merely a recognition of the historical situation of Bengali Muslims of his generation, but a polemical necessity, especially since his interest lay beyond the construction of Muslim selfhood to the invitation of the non-​Muslim other to the faith. Sultān uses translation as a highly sophisticated tool for acculturating an Arabian prophet and his doctrines to Bengal. He employs translation’s power to manipulate and reshape the non-​ Muslim other’s epistemic and ontological identity. To accomplish this feat of representing Islam as Hindu, Sultān reformulates cosmogony, as delineated in Chapter 1, as well as bibliology and prophetology, which the chapters that follow detail. Through his rhetorical reworkings of salvation history, he repositions the Hindu Bengalis as having prior knowledge of Islam and as occupying a primal place in this history. He represents Hindus as the forebears of Islam, while fitting them into an overarching Islamic teleological history of time. If one were to condense Sultān’s rhetoric and idiom into a brief address to the hinduāni peoples of Bengal, it might run somewhat like this: “You are the ancient forebears of Islam. The cosmos, as your Vedas and Purāṇas correctly endorse, came into being through the sacred syllable, om̐, although you have forgotten its true meaning. Your Vedas foretold the advent of our Prophet. Your avatāras, whom we call mahājana (great

64. The following discussion is indebted to stimulating conversations I had on the NV with Tony K. Stewart in October 2014. For this generous sharing of ideas, I owe a debt of gratitude to him. 65. Bhabha [1996] 2011, 54.



persons), were our prophets’ ancient ancestors. Your beloved Hari (Kr̥ṣṇa) is just one of our many nabīs, prophets, who were sent as warnings to their peoples. We have eternally been part of one great community, joined together by our sacred books and sacred histories. But somewhere along the way, you forgot this universal, shared heritage. Your gods were led astray by the diabolical Iblis-​Nārada, who encouraged the worship of idols. As a result, you were duped into forgetting the principle of God’s unicity. This is why I am here; I am here to remind you of our conjoined ancient past, to remind you of the long-​forgotten yet ‘real’ meaning of your own sacred books and doctrines.” Though never articulated as bluntly as I have in the preceding lines, such implicit rhetoric is carefully constructed by the NV’s narrative logic; it is through this, as I shall show, that the NV reshapes the epistemological and ontological self of the hinduāni Bengali. Sultān’s historiographic enterprise, as I  demonstrate in Chapter  4, involves gradually expanding his auditor’s circles of knowledge from the familiar to the less familiar. He thus applies to narrative discourse one of the most fundamental principles of pedagogy:  to lead the learner from the known to the unknown. Yet this extension of the Hindu self (nija/​ apara) to include the Islamic other (para) manipulates the auditors’ epistemic structures by acknowledging and reinforcing their prior knowledge of Islam, a knowledge that is implicitly represented as a foundational truth of the Vaiṣṇava tradition itself. This manipulation of the ontological foundations of belief takes place at various levels of narrative discourse. Through mobilizing translation’s power of transculturation and representation, Sultān moves freely between source and target cultures at various ranks of the text, from the level of the word through sentence/​couplet and paragraph/​stanza; between various text and genre types and their respective places in their literary, religious, and aesthetic traditions; to the level of doctrinal discourse, or more specifically, the transmission of a sacred genealogical identity via cosmogonical, prophetological, and ethical discourse. This ultimately allows him to unite hinduānis and musalmānis into a single community of belief, connected by a common faith, sacred texts, and sacred genealogies.

Translation and the Historiographic Process



The Prior Text in the Context of the Semiotic Theory of Religion

In her study of The Book of One Thousand Questions, an Arabic conversion narrative translated into Tamil, Malay, and Javanese, Ronit Ricci applies A.  L. Becker’s concept of “prior texts”—​clichés, quotations, everyday phrases and expressions, and all such “languaged” aspects of an entire cultural universe66—​to  ask, How does a society, in the face of such a significant change as the conversion to a new religion, address the absence of prior text and memory, which are both so important in creating and maintaining a shared identity? If prior texts, are, by definition, old and familiar, the challenge of assembling them to fill a void for a society transformed by conversion would seem daunting. How are texts newly created for this purpose, and how are they established so that they, in turn, come to figure as prior texts?67 Ricci’s questions are central to understanding Sultān’s fundamental intervention: the aspiration to create a new prior text for his neophyte community. Ricci argues that new prior texts are created in two ways, which often overlap: first, “the reformulation of old texts”; and second, “the creation of new ones, often through translation.”68 In other words, Ricci looks at

66. In discussing “the silences across languages” as one of the key challenges of translation, A. L. Becker introduces the concept of the “prior text.” According to him, Everything anyone says has a history and hence is, in part, a quotation. Everything anyone says is also partly new, too, and part of anyone’s ability in a language is the ability to tell the difference between the new and the old. Because of the lack of such cultural memory of prior texts, a foreigner can find him/​herself adrift in a new culture. Becker 1995, 286. 67. Ricci 2011, 246. 68. Ibid.



conversion through the study of changes in religious discourse, its reinterpretation and rewriting by translators. Although the NV, as I  shall explore later in this chapter, can be interpreted variously, depending upon the auditors’ vantage point, as continuing many different literary genres—​Arabic o-Persian, Sanskritic, and Bengali—​I nonetheless treat the text functionally as a translation of Islamic salvation history. Translation, as I shall detail in Chapter 4, is itself the process by which Sultān reformulates old prior texts for Bengal, in this case, established models of Islamic and purāṇic salvation history. He can only do this because the formulation of religious texts and the process of translation are, in essence, both semiotic operations—​the coding and recoding of signs and symbols, and their interpretation. The idea of the prior text and its translation by social actors keen to bring about religious change is thus fundamentally tied to the ways in which religion functions as a semiotic structure. In developing a semiotic theory of religion, Tim Murphy argues that religion is, in essence, semiotic: “it is an ensemble of signifiers.”69 This is the first premise of his theory, which I find useful to understanding how translation in the NV is able to manipulate the semiotic structures of received religious traditions. His next three premises, spelt out below in some detail, address key questions at the heart of this book. First, how does Islam “retain some sense of continuous identity through time and geographic dispersion, and yet undergo constant change?”70 And what is the role of translation in these processes of religious continuity and change? Murphy’s second premise argues that “the internal relations of this ensemble of signifiers” constituting the “original” materials of any religion are best understood through the Saussurian terms langue et parole, “language as a system and language as an act of articulation”—​in other words, the relationship between the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic axes respectively.71

69. Ibid., 158. 70. Ibid., 157. 71. Murphy [2007] 2014, 158.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


Any utterance about religious doctrine falls within a particular paradigmatic system of religious discourse but is articulated via the syntagmatic codes, that is the specific idiosyncrasies of individual regional tongues. Murphy’s third principle meshes semiotic theory with Jonathan Z. Smith’s description of “sacred persistence,” which Smith defines as the product of a relationship between a “canon” and a “hermeneute.” Thus, in our specific case of religious translation, the source text falls under the category of canon or paradigm, while the translator is a hermeneute, one who syntagmatically interprets and re-​articulates the canon-​paradigm. Finally, in order to address the question of what provokes processes of continuity or change within a religion, Murphy invokes the concept of the “ ‘addressivity’ of all signification, of all discourse.”72 By this, he refers to “the specific scenes of the provocation of signification, of speech, of discourse,” emphasizing that all discourse, explicitly or implicitly, is in response to someone, is directed at someone, and hence constituted by the discourse of the other.73 This last principle of Murphy’s theory reminds us that while the discourse of Islam was redefined in Bengal by the very structures of seventeenth-​century Bangla, it was not a mere product of the translator-​hermeneute’s choice of words “from a neutral plenum of lexical possibilities.” 74 Rather, this was a discourse in response to the hinduāni other, and, hence, constituted by it.

The Nature of Addressivity

Sultān’s role as preacher, his need to persuade, to win people over to his faith, shapes his role as a translator in paradoxical ways: fidelity to his religious ideal and its successful establishment in Bengal is inversely proportional to his fidelity to the source text, to the ways in which his religious ideal

72 . Ibid. 73 . Ibid. 74 . Ibid.



had previously been articulated.75 If, as Gideon Toury states, “a translated text can be located on an axis between the two hypothetical poles of adequacy (source-​text oriented) or acceptability (target-​language oriented),”76 the translator in Sultān is subordinated to his role as a preacher, making him privilege “acceptability” to his target audience over “adequacy” vis-​à-​ vis received discourse. Expressed in terms of the religious politics of self (apara) and other (para), of identity/​alterity, the greater the identity of the preacher with his religious ideal (source text/​culture oriented) and the exigencies of its establishment within a new cultural context, the greater is his translatorial need for othering (target-​culture oriented) the received religious discourse. To make sure that his message successfully reaches his target audience, he does not shy away from domesticating his text and representing salvation history as hinduāni, as Indo-​Islamic. Indeed, as research on translation in oral contexts has shown, when translations are addressed to live audiences and scripted for performance, domestication becomes a foundational feature of the pragmatics of translation and the effective communication of its message.77 Since constructions of identity/​alterity are germane to the processes of translation and conversion, and the preacherly exigency of conversion controls the process of translation, this introduces us to the complex dialogic tensions showcased by the NV’s historiographic process, which are tied in to the concept of “addressivity.” Identity and alterity are never absolutes, but “non-​definable” concepts that can be “inter-​defined by relations of reciprocal presupposition.”78 To appreciate the complexity of this layered dialogic process, it is instructive to apply Peter Haidu’s semiotic square of alterity to the NV’s historiographic process. The square

75. I am drawing upon Ronit Ricci’s identification of such a characteristic in the case of Tamil, Javanese, and Malay texts; see Ricci 2011, 171. 76. Toury 1980, 29. Cf. Toury 2004, 208. 77. For more on translation in oral contexts and its orientation toward “the semiotic networks of the receiving audience because of performative constraints on the speakers and perceptual constraints on the receiving audience,” see Tymoczko [2007] 2010, 61. See also Tymoczko 1990. 78. Greimas and Courtés 1982, s.v. “Alterity.”

Translation and the Historiographic Process


is set up as a quadrature of the binaries, ipseity-​nonipseity79 and alterity-​ nonalterity. As relative “undefinables” these binaries are not fixed. I see these on a spectrum, a sliding scale of value, constructed in the real world by all partners in a relationship with the writer, but, in literature, always mediated by the writerly “I.” Taking the French je and tu to be true personal pronouns, while il, “he” (along with “she” and “it”), to be nonpersonal, representing those who are absent, Haidu argues that the euphoric axis, the axis that registers Sameness, is located on the ipseity-​ nonalterity pole, while that which registers Otherness on the alterity-​ nonipseity pole.80 The diagram below (Figure 2.1) reproduces a form of the square, adapted to my purposes from Haidu, which I further elucidate below.81 In modern Bangla sādhubhāṣā and standard colloquial, three forms of the second-​person pronoun are found: the polite, āpani; the familiar, tumi; and the very familiar, tui. Suniti Kumar Chatterji explains that it is only since the eighteenth century that the reflexive, āpani, was extended to the 79. Haidu (1990, 680) replaces the more common “identity” by the term “ipseity.” 80. Ibid., 681. Haidu (ibid., 681–​682) explains the nature of this quadrature thus: The euphoric axis  .  .  . contains those relations which Benveniste considered properly “personal.” The real, concrete speech act constitutes an immediate and inclusive community of presence, insofar as the interlocutors share the same linguistic codes. Simultaneously, the same speech act institutionalizes this community:  it is the community’s act of incorporation. The dysphoric axis is that of nonpersonality, represented in Benveniste’s discussion only by il. The position of alterity is that of the pronouns representing beings absent from immediate interlocution, from this small intersubjective community I have indicated as euphoric. But a fourth position is possible, which consists of treating a person in the mode of nonpersonality in spite of the person’s immediate, corporeal presence without granting it the full and recognized presence of the “thou.” Politeness is a formula for recognizing nonintimate presence, a logical position that, in reference to the euphoric axis, is that of a present alterity. The “he” is the representation, within an intersubjective and interlocutory relation, of an excluded third; the “you”—​the dominant form in English, but secondary and subordinate to the intimate “thou” in French, where it holds interlocutors at a distance—​the polite “you” represents the inclusion of alterity, and the fact of being interlocuted in a communicative situation that is not that of “full intersubjectivity.” In such a communicative situation, it is not full subjectivities that are deployed by the formalized language, but “roles” in the sociological and semiotic senses. 81 . Ibid.



[Saiyad Sultaˉn]

euphoric axis

ALTERITY IL/SE/HE [non-Muslims; Vais∙n∙avas]

dysphoric axis



[Saiyad Sultaˉn’s disciples]

[“Musalmaˉns of Ban∙gades´a”]

Figure 3.1  The Semiotic Square in the Context of Saiyad Sultān’s Writing

honorific.82 Thus, premodern Bangla, like French, exhibits two forms of the second-​person pronoun, which in the NV take the forms tumhi and tuñi. From Sultān’s preacherly point of view, the intimate “you” may refer to his closest circle of disciples, though not excluded from the NV’s socio-​textual community. The polite tumhi form is used to address the “Musalmāns of Baṅgadeśa.” Among these addressees are undoubtedly located the practicing Muslim (mumīn). Yet, as Haidu points out, the “you” is a potential “thou:” Sultān’s tumhi has the potential to become the tuñi of his most intimate circle.83 Sultān’s se refers to non-​Muslims, the kāphirs; the Vaiṣṇavas, especially the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas, who remain unnamed, represent the extreme limits of alterity. The hypocrite (munāphik) could be plotted somewhere along the continuum between nonipseity and alterity. The Arabs, on the other hand, would fall somewhere along the ipseity-​alterity pole. Providing further commentary on the semiotic square, Haidu articulates the need to speak of “alterities in the plural, which acknowledge the multiplicity and differences of others, and the attendant multiplicity of criteria of difference, in relation to the one, concrete interlocutor.”84 In the context of sacred historiography as a socio-​historical entity, the task of the preacher-​translator then is to negotiate, through the I-​thou, I-​you, 82. Chatterji [1926] 1970, 847–​849. 83. Haidu 1990, 682. 84. Ibid., 684.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


I-​he/​she relationships entextualized through the historiographic process, these multiple “criteria of difference.” While each of these criteria is constructed by separate partners (Sultān-​intimate disciples; Sultān-​ preacherly community; Sultān-​“hypocrites,” and so forth) in their real-​ world relationships around a series of socio-​historical markers, such as religion, ethnicity, class, world-​view, and language, it is Sultān’s writerly task to negotiate these various constructions of alterity through the historiographic process. The table below (Table 3.1) provides a snapshot of the dizzying complexity Sultān might have had to negotiate between the writerly “I” and the “you/​tumhi” of his addressees—​multiple interpretive communities, since real-​life constructions of ipseity and nonipseity by Sultān and his audience were rarely synchronous in meaning. This complex dialogic spawns in the NV an astonishing array of dislocations, relocations, and collocations—​lexical, linguistic, literary, and doctrinal: the unseating of cosmopolitan languages by the vernacular while partly drawing upon cosmopolitan genres; the ostensible collocation of the text into two separate narrative and hagiographic traditions, pan-​Islamic and Bangla; the straddling of multiple linguistic and cultural worlds, Table 3.1  Negotiations of the Writerly “I” with the “You/​Tumhi” of the Text’s Addressees Socio-​historical Ipseity (“I”) Markers

Nonipseity (“You”)


Primarily Bengali, but also

Primarily Bengali

non-​Bengali Language

Bangla and Persian/​Arabic

Bangla for most, and Persian/​Arabic for a few


Elite, though not

Lower class, rural

necessarily urban Religion


The “Musalmāns of Baṅgadeśa”


Arabo-​Persian and Bengali

Primarily Bengali and for a few also Arabo-​Persian



Arabo-​Persian and Bengali; the simultaneous authorial distancing from and immersion in the literary imaginaire of the target audience; the subtle supplanting, by Islamic counterparts, of old orders of charismatic authority, whether textual, human, or supra-​human; and the relocation of hinduāni peoples within new Islamic frameworks of imagined community (ummat). Sultān has a virtuosic command over this unwieldy dialogic, regulating it textually through the ideological manipulation of language and form. All translation is metonymic in nature: based on their own ideological parameters, translators identify particular forms of meaning in the source text that they wish to transmit to the receptor culture. Setting aside the intractable philosophical difficulties with the concept of “meaning,” translation theorists elaborating on the nature of meaning in the source text have unveiled a bewildering array of possibilities: content; narrative elements; ideological framing; pragmatics; form; style; language variety; textual or literacy practices and structures; intertextuality; grammar; words; sound; performative elements of language; textual technology; historical, cultural, and socioeconomic context; reader response, and so on.85 “Because there is no boundedness to the initial meanings of the source text that the translator is called upon to transpose, no closed circle of meaning, no ‘all’ to be translated,” as Maria Tymoczko reasons, the translator can never be faulted for choosing parts, refracted fragments, that stand in for the whole. In constructing his salvation history of the Prophet Muhammad, Saiyad Sultān had to make choices about the precise kind of “meaning” associated with form and language in the source culture that he wished to translate into the target culture. Each of these we will now examine in turn.

Genre Ambiguity and the Illusion of Equivalence:  The Manipulation of Form

The NV’s literary distinctiveness lies in its remarkable palimpsestic qualities, its quilted narrative being layers of polyglot intertextuality. To 85. Tymoczko [2007] 2010, 276–​289.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


acknowledge this is to say little about the NV’s novelty, for as some literary theorists have suggested, intertextuality at its most abstract level is a universal quality intrinsic to all texts. Yet it is instructive to identify the specific hypotextual genres that the NV gathers into its intertextual net.86 The significance of an examination of such intertextuality lies as much in creating a literary genealogy for the NV as in understanding the consumption of translation as a product, the ways in which the translation opens itself out to multiple interpretive communities. In the chapters that follow, I shall elaborate upon the NV’s architextuality, “the entire set,” as Gérard Genette defines the term, “of general or transcendent categories—​types of discourse, modes of enunciation, literary genres—​from which emerges each singular text.”87 Here my purpose is to sketch in broad strokes the generic scaffolding of the NV’s salvation history and its relationship to hypotextual genres, leaving the filigree of mnemohistorical discourse and rhetorical detail to be filled in by the chapters that follow. Unlike early biographers of the Prophet, for whom historiographical “facts” (which included “miracles”) were the variables to be determined in their formulations of the image of the Prophet—​an inherently political process—​the choices Saiyad Sultān had to make in articulating his vision of Islam and its founder for seventeenth-​century Bengalis were very different.88 First, because of the great distance in time between the biographer and his subject, the image of the Prophet (more specifically, the religious ideal—​which should be treated as the “ ‘real’ subject” of such biography) had long been distilled through the Islamic historiographical tradition into an archetype.89 His bios—​life of the sacred subject as it was represented in narrative accounts—​filtered through nine centuries of 86. The “hypotext” as defined by Genette defines stands in a temporal relationship to the “hypertext,” which is a text derived from the former, either by processes of “transformation” or “imitation.” Genette 1997, 7. 87. Ibid., 1. 88. On the distinctions between hagiography and sacred biography, on the biographical process, and for a reconsideration of the application of the myth versus history binary to the narrative accounts of the lives of sacred figures, see Reynolds and Capps 1976. 89. Concerning the “real” subject of sacred biography, see Stewart 2010b, 237.



Islamic scholarship, had become an account of a paradigmatic hero and sacred model whose charismatic deeds were recounted for emulation.90 Hence, in articulating his ideal, Sultān chose from an intertextual pan-​ Islamic palette of biographical patterns and authorial orientations that had emerged in the intervening Islamic centuries. To communicate his religious ideals to Bengalis in ways that would be perceived as meaningful and relevant, he faced the additional challenge of renewing the Prophetic image through Indic biographical, hagiographical, and mythological patterns, generic forms, aesthetics, and orientations to the representation of sacred figures.91 While such processes of “inculturating” the Prophet to India had probably already been set in motion by various oral texts and religious practices in Bengal, and such vernacular literary processes to some extent been evidenced in Avadhi Islamic literature, the NV is one of the earliest Bengali literary texts that bears witness to these processes. Sultān’s use of this Indic palette helps his auditors recognize just how near the Prophet has long been to the people of Bengal. Indeed, through Sultān’s representations, the Prophet is depicted as being as much a pivotal part of Bengali village life and as near to the Bengali heart as the beloved local pīr. Sultān’s biography reconstitutes sacred “memory” by constructing the Prophet as the quṭb, the central pillar of his community. Another set of variables of “meaning” Sultān needed to determine in constructing his salvation history were the pan-​Islamic literary models he would translate into Bangla. From the retrospect of the literary historian it is possible to discern in the NV two broad Arabo-​Persian historiographic-​ hagiographic forms: the qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ and the sīra (the biography of the Prophet). Following in the model of the Persian authors—​Nishābūrī and Juwayrī—​the NV could be analyzed as a qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ that begins with cosmogony and ends with the sīra, the biography of Muḥammad. These authors,

90. For a discussion on how stylization of the bios is directly proportional to the remove in time between biographer and subject, see ibid., 238. 91. Cf. Stewart’s invocation of Dilthey’s early recognition of the biographer’s reconstruction of the past based upon its relevance to his present, ibid., 229–​230.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


however, as noted earlier, follow in the model of Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq, who wrote his sīra as a universal history beginning with cosmogony through the tales of the prophets, ending with the history of Muhammad. Embedded within the NV’s tale-​cycle of Muḥammad we discern two further genres: the miʿrāj (the tale of the Prophet’s ascension) and the maghāzī (accounts of the Prophet’s military expeditions). The miʿrāj was a narrative account that originally developed out of the sīra but became, by the fourth/​tenth centuries, an independent narrative genre: the kitāb al-​miʿrāj in Arabic, and the Persian and Turkish miʿrājnāmah.92 In the NV, what had become a distinctive genre in medieval Islamic literature is now folded back again into the NV’s sīra, having absorbed the elaborate details and embellishments the tale had received through its independent circulation in the Persianate sphere. Thus the NV’s account of the Prophet’s ascension is far more elaborate than those found in early sīras. As mentioned in Chapter 2, the NV’s detailed reconstruction of this prophetic event was so well-​loved in Chittagong that it took on a semi-​independent status through its circulation in manuscripts of the Śab-​i merāj (“The Night of the Ascension”). The maghāzī also acquired independent status as a genre of Islamic historiography, yet it is nested back into the NV’s sīra.93 If the current dating of the Bangla Rasul Vijaya texts can be relied upon, this Arabic maghāzī genre had found a corresponding Bangla form some time before the NV was composed. These were the maṅgalakāvyas or vijayakāvyas on the military victories of the Prophet, a genre most appropriate because it had traditionally celebrated the auspicious rise of Bengali deities. Albeit smaller in scale than the NV, Jainuddīn and Śābārid Khān had both written independent works entitled Rasul Vijaya.94 Daulat Ujīr Bahrām Khān’s Imām Vijaya on the battle of Karbalā also features the Prophet Muhammad, who appeared in the midst of the grieving congregation to mourn with them over the loss of their beloved leaders, Imām Hosen, and his brother,

92. Amir-​Moezzi 2010. 93. Concerning the maghāzī genre, see Hinds 2011. 94. Rasul Vijaya of Jainuddīn; and Rasul Vijaya of Śābārid Khān, in Śābārid Khānera granthāvalī.



Hāsān.95 Hence, these, if they predated the NV, could have provided Saiyad Sultān with readymade vernacular generic models. With the exception of the maghāzī-​maṅgala genre, to which some rural Bengalis may have been exposed, all the other Islamic literary forms mentioned above were altogether new to such auditors. Yet the NV also references indigenous forms that might have been more readily detectable. Indeed, as we have seen, Sultān sets up his epic on the Prophet as a rival pāñcālī to what he declares to be the popular tales of Rāma and Kr̥ṣṇa.96 Within the intertextual universe of the NV reverberate the purāṇa of Sanskritic pedigree; the Bangla vijayakāvya or maṅgalakāvya; and the carita or hagiographic literature surrounding the figure of Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya. The Sanskrit purāṇa is drawn into comparison with the Islamic universal history (tārīkh), both genres being flexible and capacious enough to incorporate cosmogony and cosmology, mythology and hagiography, genealogy, ascetic and devotional praxis, and ethics.97 The author appropriates both purāṇic deities and various narrative tropes from purāṇic literature into the NV’s cosmogony and prophetology, the latter being a subject I examine in detail in the next chapter. The carita form, the Bangla counterpart of the Arabic sīra, was pioneered by the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas to memorialize their founder Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya, and developed over the course of the sixteenth century to reach its apogee in Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja’s Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta, some time before Sultān composed the NV. As Biman Bihari Majumdar points out, no single other historical figure in India became the subject of so vast a body of hagiographic literature as Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya.98 In the context of the NV’s striking

95. Concerning the Imām Vijaya, see Miyā 1993, 29–​30. 96. See discussion below. 97. Concerning the five characteristics (pañcalakṣāṇi) or the ten (daśalakṣāṇi) of the Great Purāṇas (mahāpurāṇas), see Rocher 1986, 24–​30. 98. Majumdar 1939, 2. By the time the East India Company had established itself in India in 1758, over a hundred authors had written about Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya in Sanskrit, Bangla, Assamese, Oriya, and Hindi. Ibid.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


ideological opposition to the Vaiṣṇavas, discussed in detail in Chapter 5, it is likely that the recent popularity of the carita form provides the immediate impetus for Sultān to produce his own sacred biography of the Prophet. He recognizes the carita’s success as a genre in establishing Caitanya’s biographical image in Bengal, and co-​opts the groundbreaking attempts of his hagiographers to employ religious biography as “the favored theological, and ultimately political, tool,”99 swiftly turning this tool against them. As we shall also see in Chapter 5, Saiyad Sultān ridicules the doctrine and practices of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas through his reinterpretation of the theology of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, a foundational text for the Gauṛīyas. While castigating the doctrine of avatāravāda, he subsumes Kr̥ṣṇa, the supreme deity of the Gauṛīyas, within an Islamic prophetology. Through a series of complex rhetorical moves that displace Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya, Sultān presents, in his stead, Muhammad as the avatāra of the Kali age. Like his premodern contemporaries in the field of Sanskrit learning, in reformulating the Bengali carita for Islamic ends, intellectuals such as Sultān made deliberate political “interventions,” through the choice of specific “ ‘intertextual’ kinds of illocutionary act[s]‌” to provide commentary on an earlier tradition.100 This categorization of genre by cultural tradition is not meant to suggest that Sultān structured these textually into some sort of syncretistic literary model. Far be it. For Sultān’s model of structural translation, from the retrospect of the modern literary historian, indicates a process by which he embeds, within the broader Arabo-​Persian frame of the world-​historical sīra model, purāṇic heroes, tales, and tropes. Such a model of translation manipulates multiple forms of Vaiṣṇava prior texts—​ranging from narrative fragments, allusions, and tropes, to entire purāṇic texts re-​narrativized and transformed into metatexts—​and subsumes these for obvious polemical

99. Stewart 2010a, 6. 100. I cite these terms from Jonardon Ganeri, who tests Quentin Skinner’s historical method for the study of Sanskritic intellectual traditions in premodern India, reapplying the Skinnerian concepts of “intervention” and “illocutionary force” to “intertextual” contexts. In Skinner 2002, 115 and 143, quoted in Ganeri 2008, 551–​562 and 552. See also ibid., 554.



ends within a structural framework rather akin to the Persian qiṣaṣ models of Nishābūrī and Juwayrī.101 While avoiding a syncretistic formal structure, Sultān’s persuasive skill as a missionary translator lay in his ability to freely reference genres from separate literary traditions to build a literary edifice that was so “transparent” that the translator could move “invisibly” to and fro between the genres, creating the illusion of equivalence for various kinds of interpretive communities.102 In the hands of a master of his craft, “ambiguity”—​in this case, that of genre—​“becomes enhanced capability,” and, is indeed, “a species of power” harnessed for its ability to embrace a multi-​linguistic and multi-​religious audience.103 As the table below (Table 3.2) indicates, these genres shared common characteristics that heightened the mirage of equivalence. If Bangla possessed many key conceptual structures, as Tony K.  Stewart has argued, that facilitated the articulation of Islamic theology, making it “a potentially malleable medium for the message of Islam,” I suggest that its formal literary structures offered yet another level of plasticity for molding a new prior text for a neophyte community.104

A Strategic Title: The Manipulation of Language

Deconstructing the title of this epic text is akin to flipping open the lid and peering into the preacher-​translator’s tool box. For in the constitution of the title Nabīvaṃśa, one encounters rhetorical and translational strategies pursued throughout the text.105 The title encodes what Aditya Behl calls “a both and” paradigm, a feature common to the multivocality of premodern

101. For the reconstruction of the original form of this sīra, see Newby 1989. 102. On the translator’s “invisibility” and the “transparency” of translation, Venuti [1995] 2008,  1–​34. 103. Steinberg [1973] 1984, 40 104. Stewart 2001, 269. 105. Sukumar Sen 1979, 143.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


Table 3.2  Common Characteristics of Arabo-​Persian, Sanskrit, and Bangla Genres Arabo-​Persian Genres

Sanskrit Genres

Bangla Genres

Common Characteristics




Universal history Retrospective in orientation Incorporates cosmogony and cosmology; mythology/​ hagiography; genealogy; ethical models for emulation

Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ


Same as above



Sacred biography



Celebration of


heroic deeds of sacred subject

Indo-​Islamic literary traditions, representing the text simultaneously as Islamic and Indic through the strategic choice of words.106 As grammatical number is ambiguous in its construction, “The Line of the Prophets” is the translation that Asim Roy suggests.107 Indeed, this is in keeping with the Tales of the Prophets tradition that the text carries forward. However, use of the singular “Prophet” in translating the title can also be supported 106. In Aditya Behl’s words: “I would like to propose that, in larger cultural historical terms, we adopt what it seems to me obvious that the cultural forms of the period indicate: that the historical agents who put these forms together thought in at least a ‘both and’ way. That is to say, they produced forms that signified in various ways, both Indic and Islamic and much more besides.” In Behl (2008) quoted in Orsini 2014a, n. 21, 204. 107. Roy 1983, 12.



for several reasons. Comparison with titles of other works, such as Sekh Cānda’s Rasul Vijaya, “Triumph of the Messenger,” and the Sanskrit Harivaṃśa, “Lineage of Hari,” suggest that the singular number could also have been intended. While it could be argued that Sultān would have used rasul instead of nabī to refer to the Prophet Muhammad, numerous instances of him being addressed as nabī are also to be found in the NV.108 At the aesthetic level, the pleasingly alliterative consonance of nasals in “Nabīvaṃśa” may have been a factor in choosing nabī over rasul. Crucially, however, interpretation of nabī as singular in number is supported by intertextual considerations and the competitive nature of the NV’s narrative. First, it is clear that the author intends the Prophet of Islam to be the teleological and theological fulfillment of the line of the prophets. Second, as Sukumar Sen long ago observed,109 the title could have been modeled upon the Sanskrit title Harivaṃśa. As an appendix to the Mahābhārata, the Harivaṃśa shares in the great epic’s genre as itihāsa (“history”), while simultaneously being a purāṇa as well. Furthering this contrapuntal construction of genre, as Perso-​ Arabic, Sanskritic, and Bangla, Saiyad Sultān’s translation of the qiṣaṣ is, as argued in the prior discussion on genre, also an Islamic itihāsa, or his own purāṇa of the Prophet. Furthermore, his text’s title is not merely modeled upon the Harivaṃśa, but provides parodic comment upon it, for in the NV Hari (Kr̥ṣṇa), supreme deity of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas, is displaced by the Prophet Muhammad. The deceptively simple substitution of the name Hari by the Prophet Muhammad makes the title embody the very translatorial process of theological displacement that the text performs. It intimates the competitive nature of this narrative, which seeks to displace the tales of Kr̥ṣṇa from their previous positions of popularity. If one were to take the argument of narrative competition and the contrapuntal construction of genre a step further, one might read into such a title Sultān’s purported creation of a carita, a Bengali hagiography, of the Prophet. In translating the Arabic sīra 108. For instance, NV 2:54, 65, 90, 95, 131, 148, 166, 168, 182, 200, 221, 223, and so on. 109. Concerning the Nabīvaṃśa being modeled on the title “Harivaṃśa,” see Sukumar Sen 1979, 143.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


genre on the Prophet’s biography into this newly minted Bengali genre, Sultān, as mentioned above, implicitly displaces the Caitanya avatāra by the new Muhammad avatāra for the Kali age. Finally, this examination of the title allows us to see how changes that happen at the level of the canon, the paradigm, in this case the displacement of Hari with Nabī, also anticipate changes in syntagm, that is, in this case, the linguistic structure of Bangla as it develops in the middle period. For here, harivaṃśa, a Sanskrit genitive tatpuruṣa compound, gives way to an astounding new hybrid form: hari, the genitive half of the Sanskrit compound, is replaced by nabī, a Perso-​Arabic word. The title exemplifies how translating Islamic doctrine pushed the linguistic matrix of Bangla to expand in new and experimental ways to accommodate Islamic ideas. Translation, Intertextuality, and Religious Transformation

What emerges from this analysis is that translation can manipulate both the linguistic structures of language as well as its formal or generic structures. And it is through such implicit intertextual manipulation that translation re-​engineers the ontological and epistemological structures of the auditor. How precisely this is accomplished has to do with a more profoundly fundamental definition of intertextuality that Becker’s concept of the “prior text” has briefly alluded to.110 For intertextuality, as literary theorists have emphasized, is not merely an attribute of texts, something “out there” waiting to be discovered in the explicit citations provided in a text, but it is within each one of us, an attribute of the reader’s or the auditor’s own mind. It is summed up in the expression, “déjà lues,”111 a reference to all those prior texts and citations that “function as the ‘already read,’ ” whose precise origins we may or may not remember, but that remain sedimented in our minds as literary traces, as resources.112 “The domain of the intertextual,” as Jonathan Culler points out, 110. This process, theorized by Jonathan Culler (1976), will be discussed further in Chapter 4. 111. Barthes 1971, 229, cited in Culler 1976, 1383. 112. Culler 1976, 1383.



is the domain common to writing and reading  .  .  .  and a description of intertextuality would involve the most general and most significant considerations:  the relationship between a text and the languages or discursive practices of a culture and its relationship to those particular texts which, for the text in question, articulate that culture and its possibilities.113 Culler further explains how intertextuality operates not only via the explicit and implicit relationship to older texts, such as I have discussed above, but via what he calls “logical” and “pragmatic presuppositions.” I am inspired here by Tony Stewart, who utilizes Culler in productive ways in his analysis of how intertextuality works in the literature of the mythical pīrs of Bengal. For, as he explains, Culler’s four parameters of “logical” and “pragmatic presuppositions,” along with explicit and implicit forms of intertextuality, function as “constraints” and “opportunities” via which authors construct the discursive arena, what Stewart calls the “imaginaire”—​“the realm of possibility.”114 Logical presuppositions, as Stewart explains, are the “rules for conducting discourse,” which “include such things as what constitutes a rational argument, how to draw a proper inference, or what is allowable as a “fact” or proof.”115 Pragmatic presuppositions, in contrast, refer to the “identifiable shapes” that “every discourse takes” “by assuming certain structures.”116 Through language, genre, and form, these presuppositions set up expectations for the auditor-​reader. Two brief examples show how Sultān’s translation re-​patterns belief structures through such Culleresque patterns of intertextuality. As I detail in Chapter 4, the NV claims that the Vedas acknowledge Muhammad’s advent. This is a form of narrative argumentation where the “logical presupposition” of the Vedas’ knowledge of Islam’s Prophet “treat[s]‌the fact in

113 . Ibid. 114. Stewart 2019, 114–​123. 115. Ibid., 118. 116 . Ibid.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


question as already given,” as presupposed, as prior discourse.117 In other words, authorial authority endorses it as “fact” without the need for citation. It is what philosophers and cultural theorists have called ontological and epistemological foundationalism—​the “toujours dejà-​donné”118—​“the theory that knowledge of the world rests on a foundation of indubitable beliefs from which further propositions can be inferred to create a superstructure of known truths.”119 Such a statement about the Vedas in the NV presupposes the non-​Muslim auditor’s prior knowledge of Islam, and hence, sets up for the auditor a form of intertextuality. Because it explicitly cites the Vedas and, implicitly, therefore, the hinduāni discursive arena, as the source of this knowledge, this very rhetorical move can also be taken as a “pragmatic presupposition,” one that implicitly draws the text into the generic arena of Vedic discourse and stamps the weight of its authority on the auditor’s mind. The impact on ideal auditors would be to expand their epistemic structures of belief by enlarging hinduāni sacred bibliology (a form of self-​knowledge and self-​representation) to include the Muslim other, while simultaneously relocating non-​Muslims within the Islamic category of People of the Book.120 Likewise, Muhammad, as we learned briefly in Chapter  1 and will examine further in Chapters  4 and 5, is explicitly designated via logical presupposition to be the aṃśāvatāra (divine descent from a part) of Prabhu Nirañjana—​another “fact” that his auditors have to take for granted. Implicitly, via pragmatic presupposition, the term avatāra draws Muhammad into Vaiṣṇava discourse, allowing his hinduāni auditors to treat him as an avatāra of Viṣṇu, whose various manifestations antecede the Prophet’s advent. Thus the narrative connects an Arabian prophet with hinduāni discourse, domesticating him to Bengal. In doing so, it encourages 117. Culler 1976, 1390. 118. Chandler and Munday 2011, 12. 119. Honderich 2005, 310. 120. It is instructive to think about the ideal auditor, and the ways in which texts produce the ideal auditor, by referring to Umberto Eco’s conception of the “Model Reader.” Eco [1979] 1984,  7–​11.



receptors to expand their conceptions of the avatāra to include prophets of the Islamic tradition, while actually inserting the Vaiṣṇava avatāras into an Islamic prophetology wherein Muhammad is “the seal of the prophets.” Through the parallel logic of Indic fulfillment theology he also becomes the avatāra for the Kali age. By rewriting salvation history to include non-​ Muslims, their sacred texts, and their gods within the framework of Islamic community, we see how the NV accomplishes, at the level of narrative, what Sultān originally set out to do: “converting” the people of Bengal to Islam. Through this model of Islamization of Bengal that the text exemplifies, a two-​way process of transculturation plays out: Islam becomes Bengali, while Bengalis become a part of Islam’s community of believers. Such manipulation of the auditor is only possible if the psychological process of “identification”—​that is, “imagined membership in a group or membership in an imagined group”—​is effectively set into motion by narrative discourse, as described above.121 Such identification, as Tim Murphy has argued, is “the central social, semiotic, and psychological process that underlies the process of group identity formation, which is an integral aspect of the structuring of asymmetrical relations.”122 This is the process by which: the individual “enters” the symbolic order . . . that order of asymmetrical differentiations which constitute the conditions for the possibility of identity formation . . . It is through the magic of identification that seemingly neutral religious professions such as, e.g., “Allah akbar,” or ad majorem gloriam dei, shifts from a more abstract sense of “absolute” to a more socio-​psychological claim of “supremacy,” even self-​aggrandizement. The subtle, often deeply implicit, shift from “God,” in the generic, to “my God,” to “me” is all done by the semiotic, socio-​psychological magic of identification.123 121. Murphy [2007] 2014, 151. 122 . Ibid. 123. Ibid. The fuller implications of such theorization on “identification” are elucidated by Kaja Silverman (1983, 149–​193).

Translation and the Historiographic Process


Through translation, Sultān thus aspires to enable non-​Muslims to “enter” into the symbolic world of the text, to feel that to be Muslim is an extension of being Hindu. For identifying as Muslim does not involve the pain of giving up one’s old religion, but rather an expansion of one’s conception of self to include Islam. Religious transformation is achieved by reifying and broadening the Hindu religious imagination, by organically integrating the non-​Islamic past with the Islamic present, rather than via an abrupt conversion that necessitates turning one’s back on one’s beloved ancestors and way of life. Vernacular translation of salvation history thus becomes a significant vehicle for Islam’s expansion in Bengal, and may indeed have been a key factor in Islam’s success in east Bengal. Other religious groups were also vying for such success in Bengal. Indeed, in January 1600, the same Francis Fernandez, the Portuguese Jesuit priest mentioned in the introduction, visited the King of Arakan, who granted residences and a patent to proselytize in Chittagong and Arakan.124 To bring into comparison Jesuit strategies for missionizing with those of Sultān’s, Fernandez’s account of a religious debate in which the Jesuits engaged at Katrābo (Catabro), a Muslim-​dominated area, in April 1599, is significant. Fernandez reports: In the month of April I  went to Catabro which is subject to the Mansondolin King. There I  started examining whether there was any chance of propagating the Christian religion, but I  found that the people are nearly all Mahometans. There are, besides, in those parts, certain foreigners, whom their trade carries frequently to Agra and Lahore, towns of Achebar’s. They are keen-​witted and like to make a show of their learning. I had a conversation with them, before a large gathering, about the Christian laws and practices. One of them boasted that the law of the Gentiles is older than ours. He thought that this argument alone would overcome me. I answered that he was quite wrong, that ours was older, since Adam and Eve,

124. Zami and Lorea 2016, 264.



the progenitors of the human race, had observed the very same law as we, and that their children after them had for many centuries lived most holily under the same observance. On that occasion, I demonstrated clearly the beginning and origin of Idolatry, as we have it in the Book of Wisdom. Surprised at my answer, they did not know what to say, and after that they found it was hopeless to discuss with me. It is wonderful how the people of this world are unreasonable. When defeated, and although acknowledging that our law is good and the true one, they continue in theirs, quite staunch and satisfied.125 Katrābo in today’s Narayanganj, Bangladesh, as we may recall from Chapter 1, was the capital of the intrepid ʿĪsá Khān, who died in September 1599.126 It is either him or his son, Mūsá Khān, who is referred to here as the Mansondolin King, the self-​styled Maṣnad-​i ʿAlāʾ (“Of Lofty Throne”), and the successive leaders of the Twelve Chieftains, who were disrupting the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s (Achebar) control over the eastern delta via incessant guerilla warfare.127 As colorful as Fernandez’s debate with “unreasonably” stubborn intellectuals is, it throws into relief a polemic for missionizing that was at odds with the spirit of cultural exchange, religious debate, and pluralism that characterized seventeenth-​century Bengal.128 When one compares such one-​upmanship—​“ours was older”—​ and the Jesuits’ absolute rejection of non-​Christian doctrine to Sultān’s 125. Hosten 1925, 59. 126. Husne Jahan 2006. For the date of ʿĪsá Khān’s death, see Eaton 1993, n. 34, 177. 127. On the differing views in scholarship as to whether the father or son was in power at the time, see Chapter 1, n. 6. 128. Concerning the Jesuit mission—​the first Christian mission—​to Bengal and their efforts to convert local peoples, see Zami and Lorea 2016. They state: “There are examples in which the native lords [the Twelve Chieftains] proposed a form of compatibility between Christian and Hindu or Islamic spirituality, while the fathers would reject any such compatibility.” Ibid., 252. The authors conclude, however, that though they were welcomed by a few of the Twelve Chieftains who were Hindu and by the Arakanese, the ultimate failure of the Portuguese Jesuit mission had to do with the meddling of the Portuguese in the messy political complexities of Bengal and Arakan. Ibid., 266.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


more astute strategy of positioning Islam as hinduāni, one gains possible insight into a significant reason why Islam spread so rapidly in Bengal.


Thus far, we have looked at the concept of translation in the NV and the ways in which missionary translation can be framed via three modes of cultural exchange:  transmission of meaning from one language to another via explaining the Qurʾān; representation of self and other, of Islamic (musalmāni) and non-​Islamic (hinduāni) traditions; and tied into the latter, how such representation produces the transculturation of self and other. All these work together to make the NV a new prior text that restructures the religious imagination, and hence the very structures of belief. In what follows, I attempt to step back from these modes to another kind of exploration. What does examining the NV as the product of translation reveal about the practice of translation? Modern Christian missionaries, most prominently Eugene Nida, have written extensively about how the Bible should be translated. In his Message and Mission: The Communication of the Christian Faith, published in 1960, Nida put forward a model of Bible translation that brought together theoretical approaches from the fields of linguistics, semantics, anthropology, cognitive psychology, information theory, and translation theory, in order to most effectively communicate the Bible’s message across cultures.129 Through his theorization on missionary translation, through his personal direction of the American Bible Society’s translations from 1946–​1984, through his efforts to theorize the links between translation and culture,130 and most importantly through the cumulative experience of the effectiveness of his methods in bringing

129. Nida 1960. Cf. also Nida 1964. 130. For a brief biography of Eugene A. Nida, see Stine 2012.



new peoples to Christianity,131 Nida’s methodology is considered to have revolutionized Bible translation projects over the last six decades. For all these reasons, its central principles, despite being critiqued and modified by Bible translators, continue to be upheld around the world as the salient methodology of Bible translation. Precious little, however, is known about Muslim missionary methods of translation, and the NV as the translation product of a Muslim with a self-​declared missionary agenda provides us with a retrospective opportunity to reconstruct one such model of Muslim missionary translation.132 It is, of course, notoriously difficult, as translation theorists have observed, to unpack the “ ‘little black box’ of the translator’s ‘mind’ ” in order to map the psychological process that translation involves.133 What I  offer here is no more than an exploration of how I  read this process in the NV. Particularly useful to my examination is George Steiner’s hermeneutics of translation. His model is meant for universal application, a model for all translated texts, including translations of scripture.134 I would suggest, however, that there is an additional, hitherto unrecognized, hermeneutic process at play in the creation of a missionary translation. Describing translation as an act of aggression, Steiner delineates four hermeneutic moves via which a text passes into translation:  an implicit trust on the part of the target culture in the source culture; the invasion of the source culture by the target culture for extraction of linguistic, literary, and cultural elements; the incorporation of these source-​cultural elements into the target culture; and the final phase of reciprocity, an equalization

131. Numerous articles written by and for Bible translators, published by the Summer Institute of Linguistics in their journal Notes on Translation, attest to the continuing use and effectiveness of Nida’s methods. 132. I  would suggest that premodern Christian missionary texts, such as the Kristapurāṇa written by the English Jesuit missionary, Thomas Stevens (1549–​1619), an early contemporary of Saiyad Sultān, who translated the biography of Christ into Marathi-​Konkani was perhaps using a translation process very akin to that described here for Saiyad Sultān. Kristapurāṇa of Thomas Stevens, 2012. 133. Holmes [1988] 1994, 72. 134. Steiner 2004, 188.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


of the two languages/​cultures, wherein “order is preserved at both ends of the cycle, source and receptor.”135 “The translator,” thus, in this view, “invades, extracts, and brings home.”136 While I adopt Steiner’s model, in principle I prefer to understand the process of translation as a double movement, constituted by opposing forces, such that the directional flow of the Steinerian “translation” hermeneutic is always subordinated and modified by the controlling “conversion” hermeneutic. In his writing, Steiner hints at this possibility, but does not explore its ramifications adequately. “Though all decipherment,” says he, “is aggressive and, at one level, destructive, there are differences in the motive of appropriation and in the context of ‘the bringing back.’ ”137 The religious ideology of the preacher-​translator, understood in the light of the earlier discussion on addressivity, on identity/​alterity, defines his conceptions of what is to be invaded, what is to be extracted, and the meaning of “home.” In other words, the motive of conversion modulates the direction of the aggression and the specific categories of meaning that are to be mined from the source text. Thus, when Sultān translates an Arabo-​Persian (source-​cultural) poetics and universe of discourse into a Bengali poetics and universe of discourse, the controlling conversion hermeneutic dictates the choice of doctrinal terms and literary forms to be translated, the target-​cultural meanings that best serve the author’s motives, and the rhetorical means or discourse by which such translational codes are established. In direct opposition to the psychological movement of trust that translation undertakes from target to source culture, the conversion hermeneutic involves movement from the source to the target culture, which it invades and colonizes with source-​cultural linguistic forms, while extracting and incorporating Bengal’s prior texts and sacred figures into the Islamic Arabo-​Persian source culture. Once displacement of target-​cultural deities and prior texts is achieved within

135. Steiner 2012. For the quotation, see ibid., 160. 136. Ibid., 157. 137. Ibid., 158.



the space of the text, these opposing forces, finally, balance each other to create an equilibrium, a cultural reciprocity or transculturation, observable in the ways in which Bangla expands to include Islamic ideas while Islam is altered by Bengali culture.138 My five-​ fold model of identification, extraction, incorporation, displacement, and reciprocity, is what I propose more fully describes Sultān’s process of “translation as entextualizing conversion.” As stated earlier, by entextualization I refer to the discursive structures of language—​lexical, linguistic, narrative, and generic—​via which translation embeds elements of “conversion” into the historiographic discourse of salvation history, which by its very nature, is cumulative and teleological.139 Here the “conversion” hermeneutic, informed by religious ideology, is a superordinate motion that manipulates the movement of “translation” throughout, and modifies its flow. The first phase in the unfolding of this hermeneutic is identification of the translator with the source-​cultural universe. Implicit within the concept of identification is the Steinerian hermeneutic of trust that moves the translator out of his target-​cultural sphere to identify with the source culture. This, of course, presumes that the translator is embedded within the target culture as an insider, as someone who is either translating into the mother-​tongue or as one who has a native level of ease with the language and its discursive arena. Intrinsically, this is a model that is opposed to the most widespread Christian missionary model, followed in the colonies, of the translator standing as colonizer—​a foreigner to the target culture. In Steiner’s model, the “insider” translator trusts that there is some text out there in the source-​cultural universe that would be beneficial to the target culture. In contrast, for the preacher trust in the source culture involves such overarching faith in the source-​cultural universe that he considers it to be universally applicable, and hence, transportable to any target culture. At the level of language, form, and doctrine—​and all these work together to sustain Sultān’s manipulation of the identity/​ alterity dialectic—​ the preacher-​ translator then begins the enterprise 138. Stewart 2001, 281–​282. 139. Wansbrough 1978, “Preface.”

Translation and the Historiographic Process


of translation by identifying what meanings from the source culture he chooses for translation. The identification of target-cultural codes, however, for a preacher-​translator like Sultān—​a point that is fundamental to my argument—​is entirely governed by ideological considerations, by what I have designated “the conversion hermeneutic.” Sultān establishes translational codes in multiple, sometimes innovative ways. First, in some cases he provides Arabo-​Persian doctrinal terms with translational definitions. Thus, for instance, as seen in Chapter  1, Sultān introduces the term “Nūr Muhammad” with the equivalent mahājyutirmaya (“the exceptionally effulgent one”). Second, diglossic pair-​ words, such as nabī-​avatāra, Iblis-​ Nārada, or purāṇa-​korān, are slipped into particular narrative contexts to indicate equivalence. Third, often Bangla theonyms such as Prabhu Nirañjana are identified with “Āllā” or “Khodā” through the rapid substitution of the latter Arabo-​Persian theonyms immediately following the first use of the Bangla counterpart in a particular narrative. In both the latter two cases, the meaning of foreign terms is supplied by narrative context. Identification is also the process by which Culler’s logical presuppositions and pragmatic presuppositions are articulated. For to translate Iblis as Nārada presupposes the “fact” that Iblis is Nārada—​a logical presupposition, and it is also a pragmatic presupposition because as rhetoric it alludes to two separate discursive arenas—​the Arabo-Persian/​Islamic and the hinduāni. The NV, moreover, instantiates an approach to identification that is architextually pervasive: Sultān mines the source-​cultural text for various levels of meaning from the level of language into form, and from form, via a polyglot intertextuality, to transcultural discourse at the broadest systemic, intersemiotic level of translation.140 At the level of form, as we have seen, particular genres from separate linguistic traditions are referenced. The world history model of the Arabo-​Persian sīra, for instance, finds comparison with the Sanskrit purāṇa; the sīra (in its more restricted sense) as a biography of the Prophet finds its Bengali parallel in the carita, biography. Seen in this way, translation is transculturation. 140. Stewart 2001, 261–​88.



At a very basic level, the act of translation through such transculturative modes of exchange produces a new story in language that sounds familiar.141 Acculturative patterns of translation reveal the authorial intention of articulating the Islamic as Indic. Initial identification of these interlingual codes, furthermore, creates a cognitive space for equivocality, for the manipulation of the auditor’s epistemic and ontological processes, and for the ultimate displacement of the target culture by the source culture. Once linguistic and doctrinal codes of equivalence are established, the author begins to play with the auditor’s epistemic notions of self and other through deliberate acts of code-​switching. The author’s play, in turn, is enabled via the anisomorphism of languages and the play of the sign—​ the overdetermination or underdetermination of its meaning—​as it is flipped from one cultural context to another, and back again. These forms of equivocality or ambiguity of meaning associated with a particular sign, I shall argue, are crucial to the creation of semiotic spaces for the enlargement of semantic meaning of a particular code within the target language and culture.142 The play of the sign provides the author with a margin for maneuvering, for the ideological manipulation of auditors. Prompted by the author, the ideal auditor, driven by the dissonance and disconcerting nature of ambiguities, attempts to resolve these tensions through the historiographic process—​the logic of narrative. Such linguistic and doctrinal cavorting emerges most sharply into focus in “The Account of Hari,” examined in Chapter 5. Having played with his auditors by constructing seemingly equivocal and inconsistent theological and doctrinal meanings on the identity-​alterity spectrum, Sultān’s mastery of rhetoric lies in the manner in which he makes these cohere within a larger Islamic theological framework.143 141. Ricci 2011, 247. 142. Gudas 1993. Cf. the rhetorical device of īhām, “ambiguity” in the sabk-​i hindī style of Indo-​ Persian diction, see Alam 2004, 121–​122. 143. While Stewart (2001, 284) describes such inconsistency as the natural fallout of such acts of translating entire cultural worlds, Sultān, from the deliberate nature of the equivocalities, ambiguities, and inconsistencies he creates, as we shall see in Chapters 3 and 4, seems to be self-​consciously regulating this process in a highly controlled manner.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


The establishment of codes by such formal processes of identification flings open the gates that ordinarily guard the frontiers of source and target languages/​cultures, facilitating a bi-​directional movement of extraction and incorporation.144 At the level of translation, a typical manner in which extraction is facilitated is via transculturation. The recognition on the preacher-​translator’s part of the malleability of the linguistic structures, literary genres, and narratives of the target culture facilitates extraction of doctrinal and theological terms, such as nabī, Iblīs, Allāh, and rasūl; the translation of source-​cultural literary genres into Bengali genres; and narrative tropes from religious texts from the source culture into Bangla. This is how, for instance, source-​cultural figures come to occupy target-​cultural landscapes.145 Through the hermeneutic movement of translation, this extraction leads to incorporation of Arabo-Persian elements—​linguistic, literary, and cultural—​into Bangla. By contrast to the translation hermeneutic motion, the conversion hermeneutic motion prompts Sultān as preacher to raid the pantheon of Bengali Hindus, extract their deities, and relocate them within an Islamic cosmological and prophetological framework. This complete incorporation of indigenous superhuman agencies into an Islamic world order, an effective conversion, sets the stage for their subordination, subversion, and ultimate displacement.146 This controlling conversion hermeneutic is observed most evidently at the level of doctrine in Chapters 1 and 4 on cosmogony and prophetology respectively. Thus indigenous superhuman deities are incorporated within Judeo-​Islamic prophetological genealogies, a process 144. These processes of extraction and incorporation, both of which work bi-​directionally in a missionary text, are often lumped together by scholars studying religious texts under the term “appropriation,” which, in my view, does not characterize the complex dynamics of these processes precisely enough. 145. Ricci 2011, 248. 146. Richard Eaton has described the process of Islamization as a three-​step process of inclusion, identification, and displacement that takes place over the longue durée. In his scheme, Islamic super-​human deities are first “included” within local pantheons, next they come to be “identified with local super-​human deities” and ultimately “displace” local super-​human deities. Eaton 1993, 268–​303. This should, however, not be confused with my approach to the process of translation used in an Islamic missionary text such as the NV.



that effectively subordinates them to Islamic conceptions of world history, to Muḥammad—​the “first and last” prophet. At the level of form too, once equivalence is alluded to, indigenous prior texts, whether purāṇic tropes or metatexts, become embedded within Islamic literary frameworks. It cannot be stressed enough, however, that these features are more readily detected retrospectively by a modern readerly audience with a polyglot intertextuality, a second-​order level of analysis. For the premodern Bengali auditor who experienced the text as it unfolded through oral performance, perhaps over a period of several nights, apprehending this process would have been more difficult. The unprecedented nature of the text, and the brilliant manner in which Sultān sets up the opening cosmogonical section, would facilitate its experience as a text incorporating Islamic deities within a purāṇic framework. It is only through the lens of literary history that one sees the real process of incorporation at work:  the co-​ opting of indigenous gods, sacred tropes, and texts into Islamic doctrinal and literary frameworks as a way of subsuming the target culture within source-​cultural frameworks and of augmenting the existing valorization of the religious ideal in the source culture through the doctrinal and linguistic heritage of the target culture. Thus, the NV’s processes of incorporation enrich the traditional monotheistic genealogy of prophets with a Vaiṣṇava genealogy of gods, newly converted into prophets. The table below (Table 2.3), in which “SC” stands for “Source Culture” and “TC” for “Target Culture,” summarizes Sultān’s hermeneutic model. One of Sultān’s aims in composing the NV was to provide an Islamic alternative to the epic tales of Rāma and Kr̥ṣṇa. Translation, as entextualizing conversion, recalling Ricci, is a process by which the preacher-​translator creates a new sacred prior text for his community, a new tradition of sacred literature. This enterprise can involve, as in the case of the NV, the subsumption of sacred prior texts of the target culture within source-​ cultural sacred texts, and later the displacement of the former altogether, creating thereby a new sacred literature that would retrospectively acquire canonical status within the concerned community. The process of translation as entextualizing conversion is, like all processes of transculturation, a bi-​directional movement that involves a

Table 3.3 The Nabīvaṃśa’s Five-​Fold Hermeneutic Model of Translation as Entextualizing Conversion Stages

The Conversion Hermeneutic Motion

The Translation Hermeneutic Motion


Preacher from TC

Movement from TC to SC

overwhelmingly identifies with based upon translator’s trust religion of SC. Belief in the

in or identification with SC.

transportability of faith from

Translator identifies the kind

SC to TC.

of meaning to be extracted from SC and determines the precise TC codes that are identifiable with SC elements. TC codes are determined by conversion hermeneutic.


Extraction of TC deities,

Extraction of SC codes/

doctrinal elements, and

prior texts into TC. These

sacred prior texts into SC.

are determined by the conversion hermeneutic.


Incorporation of TC deities,

Incorporation of SC

doctrinal elements, and

codes/prior texts into TC.

sacred prior texts into SC. Displacement

Displacement of TC deities,

Displacement of TC

doctrinal elements, and

codes /prior texts by SC

sacred prior texts by SC


counterparts. Reciprocity

Religion of SC expands to

Language and literature of

between SC and

incorporate elements of TC.

TC expands to incorporate

TC and between the conversion and translation hermeneutic motions

elements of SC.



final Steinerian reciprocity—​not merely between the source culture and the target culture but also between, in this case, the conversion and the translation hermeneutic motions. In the Bengali context this changes the nature of Islam as much as that of Bangla and its semiotic universe. It is useful to recall here our preliminary discussion of the text’s title, involving transposition of the well-​known title Harivaṃśa into Nabīvaṃśa. What happens through this at the linguistic level epitomizes changes in the linguistic structure of Bangla as it develops in the middle period. The title itself anticipates how the linguistic matrix of Bangla expands to accommodate new Islamic concepts. Sultān’s literary endeavor thus inscribes a significant moment in Bengal’s history: while pushing the frontiers of Bangla to incorporate Islamic ideas, he creates a monumental prior text for Islam in Bengal. Reconstructing the processes that informed the translation of a competitive religious text such as the NV not only helps to explain the process of Islamization in Bengal, but pushes us to understand the spread of Islam across the globe as a series of local translation movements.


As a product of translation and competitive negotiation, the NV exemplifies, in terms of its production, processing, and reception, what might be characterized as “frontier” literature.147 It is useful to revisit the multiple dimensions of the expression “frontier literature” when used in the context of the NV. As opposed to the rigid line of a political “boundary,” “frontier,” as I understand it, is an elastic concept, dynamic and ephemeral in nature. Geographically speaking, it alludes to the southeast Bengal delta, where processes of competition, conflict, and cooperation between humans and the natural environment constituted the civilizational frontier. This was a land where the frontier of human settlement was being periodically shaped and reshaped by cultivation, on the one hand, and 147. I take inspiration from Tony Stewart’s use of “frontier narrative” to describe the tales of the fictional Satyapīr or Satyanārāyaṇa, a deity who cuts across religious confines. Stewart 2000, 24.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


the alternately receding and encroaching forests, on the other; by settled ways of life, on the one hand, and, on the other, the destruction and dislocation of human settlements by the vagaries of the seasonal monsoons, silting rivers, and stormy seas. It is important to note that the political boundaries demarcated by southeast Bengal’s early modern rulers did not coincide with the agrarian, religious, and cultural frontiers described here, though the economic incentives such rulers provided certainly helped to shape this frontier. Additionally, this expression follows both Richard Eaton’s exposition of Islamization on the Bengal frontier,148 and the nature of the NV’s historical socio-​textual community, located on a frontier of the dār al-​Islām, and constituted by non-​Muslims and Muslim neophytes alike, all of whom the text seeks to draw into its “universal” embrace. Furthermore, it is used in recognition of how the text might have been processed by the premodern rural Bengali auditor, whose “horizon of the expectable” would have been inadequate to apprehend the NV’s polyglot intertextual registers.149 This is not to suggest that the text’s auditors were either mainly indigenous peoples, as Eaton has argued, or people who were illiterate, but rather to acknowledge the multilingual and cosmopolitan nature of this frontier society, where Chittagonian Bangla, Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Portuguese, and Arakanese-​Burmese were all spoken and understood to varying degrees. Such auditors might have perceived the text’s ostensible slippage across expected boundaries of genre, at once familiar and unfamiliar, into an uncharted linguistic and literary terrain, a literary and linguistic frontier zone, where, like ocean waves, frontiers rapidly rose and fell depending upon an individual’s vantage-​point. As with all geographical frontiers where the identity of self and other is routinely performed, here too, in a performative text like the NV, these linguistic and religious frontiers were being performed through the medium of translation. Temporality itself,

148. Eaton 1993. 149. This expression coined by Hans Robert Jauss is, by his own definition, “constituted for the reader from out of a tradition or series of previously known works, and from a specific attitude, mediated by one (or more) genre and dissolved through new works.” Jauss 2000, 131.



in such texts, becomes, like a frontier, elastic, moveable, and malleable; for social actors on the frontier, the past was never past but continually remade in the present. The expression also acknowledges certain production processes that recognize the Bakhtinian idea that genres have a socio-​historical function beyond their formal aspects, as “drive belts from the history of society to the history of language.”150 Thus, as Tony Stewart has observed, such literature extends the frontiers of the Bangla language as much through the lexical increase in new vocabulary as the semantic expansion of existing vocabulary, which comes to accommodate new Islamic ideas. Finally, again following Stewart and Eaton, the “frontier” characteristics of this text challenge the epistemological world of Islam itself, pushing its boundaries to yet again expand, to yet again receive into itself ever-​new local expressions and understandings of faith. Taken together, the preceding and the present chapters help us appreciate Saiyad Sultān’s concern with creating a new prior text for Bengal: an Islamic pāñcālī on the Prophet Muhammad. Through his composition, he hopes to capture the attention of local Bengalis enraptured by myths of Rāma and Kr̥ṣṇa, diverting them, instead, to the figure of his beloved Prophet. His task was similar to that of scholars throughout Islamic history who mediated the ever-​changing frontiers of the dār al-​Islām. Islamic scholars between the first and third Islamic centuries (seventh to ninth centuries c.e.) had to wrestle with communal definition and identity construction among a minority Muslim population, surrounded in the Arabian peninsula by Jews and Christians, and, beyond it, by Christians and Zoroastrians.151 Early sacred biographers of the Prophet, such as Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq, wielded their pens not merely as mediators between Muslims and non-​Muslims, but also to counter, as Tarif Khalidi notes, the prevailing Islamic orthodoxy.152 Sultān is a revolutionary author writing against the Muslim elite (ashrāf) of his age, largely Iranian émigrés, who

150. Bakhtin 2000, 88. 151. Cf. Vuckovic 2005, 42. 152. Khalidi (1994) 1996, 35.

Translation and the Historiographic Process


asserted their superiority over the Bengali native population not merely through political power, but by linguistic, cultural, and religious snobbery. He is conscious of his authority as guru over local peoples, an authority that he deploys within his community to establish the Prophet’s preeminence. Once written, his historiography of the Prophet further consolidates the pīr-​author’s own status within the community, and facilitates the creation of a community identity, aligned around the spiritual axis of pīr, Prophet, and God. Such is the ongoing relationship of power between historiographer and sacred subject of historiography that each constitutes the social reality of the other in varying measure at various points in time; each partner in their spiraling dance through time reinforces the symbolic cultural capital of the other.153 Saiyad Sultān’s affirmations of the vernacular, much to the chagrin of the Bengali Muslim elite, place him at a pan–​South Asian level in the ranks of Sufis who harnessed the vernacular for their literary production. Within Bengal, such affirmations situate him among the burgeoning Muslim literati contributing to the making of a linguistic and cultural identity for local Muslims.154 This chapter has outlined the complexities of Saiyad Sultān’s position as a preacher-​translator and explored the hermeneutic processes by which he created a new prior text for east Bengalis. In the next three chapters, I  provide further elaboration on these hermeneutic processes through close analysis of the NV’s representations of prophetology. I show how Sultān makes Islam hinduāni in linguistic and cultural terms, while subsuming Hindu deities and doctrine within his new Islamic dispensation for Bengal.

153. Cf. Stewart 2010a, x.  For more on the relationship between historiographer and sacred subject, see Chapter 6. 154. Concerning similar developments in the precolonial Telugu region of Andhra Pradesh, see Talbot 1995, 692–​722.


A New Prophetology for Bengal Pura¯ ṇa-​Kora¯ n Salvation History

For He has said: . . . “Surely in their stories there is a lesson for men of understanding,” (Q 12: 111) and: “a guidance and warning for those who are godfearing” (Q 5:46). —​Abū IsḤāq al-​Thaʿlabī1

Reflection on the present as fulfillment recreates the past as promise, which reflection itself becomes promise of a future hope. —​Thomas L. Thompson2

Saiyad Sultān teaches that the prophets number one hundred and forty thousand in all.3 “One by one,” he states,

1. ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī, 5. 2. Thompson 1974, 329. 3. The critical edition provides the number eka lakṣa calliśa hājāra. NV 1:467. However, calliśa (forty) and cabbiśa (twenty-​four) in middle Bangla orthography are close, and this could well be a scribal error. Since the ­figure  140,000 occurs elsewhere in the critical edition (NV 1:69, 105), in connection with the total number of prophets, I  have not emended it here to 124,000. According to a well-​known Islamic tradition, the Prophet stated that God sent down 124,000 prophets and 315 messengers. Thackston 1997, n. 20, xxxiii. See also Chapter 1, n. 189, for traditions relating to the 124,000 drops of sweat that emanated from the Nūr Muḥammad The Muhammad Avata¯ra. Ayesha A. Irani, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190089221.003.0004.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


each offered their counsel. One after another, prophets (nabīgaṇa) were created to prohibit the worship of idols. How much could I possibly say in metered verse? I cannot conceivably record it all in a single book. Accordingly, so that one can draw one’s own inferences, I have noted the injunctions of a few prophets. Were I to compose a book for each messenger, I’d only be able to complete writing a fraction [of it all]. When people of the earth began to sin, the messengers (rasul) were created to destroy all sin. The messengers (rasul) were born to redeem all sinners, [and] to prohibit the worship of idols.4 The prophets being far too numerous to write about individually, Sultān claims he can only do justice to a few.5


Who, then, are the prophetic figures Sultān selects to introduce to Bengalis? As cosmogony gives way to prophetology in Book One of the NV, Sultān composes a novel purāṇic prophetology to precede the traditional line of

when God’s gaze fell upon it, and from each of which God created a prophet or a messenger. It is worth noting, however, that some exegetes put forth the view that God sent down 8,000 prophets. Rubin 2011b. For details about the various lists of prophets provided in the Qurʾān and in Islamic histories, see Thackston 1997, n. 20, xxxiii–​xxxv. 4. eka lakṣa calliśa hājāra nabī haiche | eke eke sabhānera parastāra raiche || murati pūjite niṣedhibāre kāraṇa | eke eke sr̥jana haïla nabīgaṇa || pada bandha kari katha kahibāre pāri | eka pustaketa etha lekhibāre nāri || tekāraṇe katha katha nabīra vacana | lekhilum̐ anumāna karite kāraṇa || eka rasūlera yadi eka puthi kari | tabe yadi kathañcita lekhibāre pāri || pr̥thimvita pāpa yadi haïte lāgila | khaṇḍāite pāpa saba rasūla sr̥jila || janmila rasūla saba pāpī nivārite | murati pūjite saba niṣedha karite || NV 1:467. 5. Though Sultān uses the terms nabī and rasul interchangeably, for the technical difference between the two, see my discussion in Chapter 5.



pre-​Islamic prophets. The prophetic figures who feature herein are Hindu deities such as Śiva, Rāma, and various other avatāras of Viṣṇu, none of whom were successful in eradicating evil from the earth. This leads to the eventual creation of Ādam, and the well-​established line of traditional prophets—​punctuated by Hari (i.e., Kr̥ṣṇa)—​including Śiś, Idris, Nūh, Ibrāhim, Musā, Dāud, Solemān, Īsā, building up to the biography of the Prophet of Islam. Despite intractable problems in reconstructing the NV’s possible Arabic and Persian sources, a few definitive statements can be made about the architextuality of the NV, and the specific hypotexts that it reformulates through translation. From among the qiṣaṣ traditions that were most widely circulated in the Persianate world, the NV, as elaborated upon in Chapter 2, draws upon Kisāʾī. Yet for all the reasons spelt out in detail in the pages that follow, the picture is far more complicated than a straightforward reliance upon this single Arabic source. My observations focus primarily upon Kisāʾī, Nīshābūrī, and Juwayrī, and to a select degree, upon the tārīkh traditions of Balʿamī and Ṭabarī, which the Persian duo—​Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī—​have independently distilled.6 Diverse linguistic and discursive features of the NV suggest that it relies on a Persian model. First, when it uses foreign loanwords for doctrinal terms, these are invariably Persian. Thus, it prefers the Persian firishtah for angel over the Arabic malak; bihisht for Paradise rather than the Arabic janna; the distinctly pre-​Islamic Persian term dīv for demon; and, in addition to the Arabic terms nabī and rasūl, which are naturalized into the Persian qiṣaṣ traditions, it also introduces the Persian term payghāmbar for God’s prophetic messengers. Second, Persian expressions, such as “this

6. Based upon narrative structure and style, I have ruled out more remote possible models, such as Tustarī’s Persian translation of Būshanjī’s Arabic Qiṣaṣ al-​Qurʾān. Būshanjī’s text, as scholars have pointed out, is closely related in style and structure to Thaʿlabī’s accounts, whereas the NV follows Kisāʾī’s traditions more closely. Concerning the relationship of Būshanjī’s Qiṣaṣ al-​ Qurʾān with the accounts of Thaʿlabī, see Tottoli 2011, 531. Daydūzamī’s unpublished Qiṣaṣ has also been ruled out for the same reasons. Daydūzamī and others, who wrote after the tenth-​and eleventh-​century authors Isḥāq al-​Nīshābūrī and Muḥammad Juwayrī, played a less formative role in establishing the basic patterns of prophetic tale-​cycles for the Persian tradition.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


tale is lengthy, and cannot be contained within this book” (qiṣṣah ṭawīl ast va dar īn kitāb nagunjīd-​am)7 and “in Arabic it/​he is called . . . ,”8 are adopted in the NV using similar Bangla expressions.9 Third, some discourse markers are also adopted from Persian: in Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī, a new episode often begins with “then” (āngāh kah, in Nīshābūrī) or “one day” (rūzī, in Juwayrī), mirrored in the NV by expressions such as henakāle (then) and āra dina (one day). All of this suggests that the author relies upon a Persian model rather than the Arabic directly. In terms of narrative style and diction, the NV is closest to the straightforward and fluent story-​telling style of Juwayrī, though Sultān is more prolix. Both Juwayrī and Nīshābūrī, following Balʿamī, dispense completely with the chains of authority (isnād) present in Ṭabarī’s Tārīkh, replacing these with the generic expression “They said . . . (guyand . . . ).” The main authorities Juwayrī invokes are ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās (d. c. 68/​ 687) and the Prophet Muḥammad himself. Kisāʾī too dispenses with isnād, though he does provide some accounts based upon a few well-​known authorities, such as Wahb ibn Munabbih (d. c. 110/​728), Kaʿb ibn Aḥbār (d. c. 34/​654) and ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbbās. The NV completely dispenses with the names of authorities and even the narrative device “they said.” Although the Persian tradition provides quotations from the Qurʾān and Arabic para-​qurʾānic literature, with their relevant Persian translations, the NV does away with this feature entirely. The diction of both Persian authors compares well with that of Sultān in their use of a direct and unsophisticated idiom, with the repetition of stock phrases and vocabulary, suggesting that these texts had a close relationship to oral story-​telling traditions. Let us now examine key narratological features of the NV vis-​à-​vis the Persian tradition. Though Juwayrī’s sequence of tales and the main storylines

7. For instance, Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Juwayrī, 333. 8. For instance, “in Arabic Yūshaʿ is known as Yūsaʿ,” Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 240. 9. See, for instance, NV 1:15, 398, 601, 648, for examples of the first expression, and NV 1:6, 8, 421, 698, for instance, for examples of the second expression.



follow those of Nīshābūrī’s Qiṣaṣ, Juwayrī’s version is far richer in legends and descriptive detail than the former, while it dispenses with the didacticism of Nīshābūrī.10 While Iblīs plays an important role in Nīshābūrī’s tales, his role is further emphasized by Juwayrī. As Milstein observes, repeatedly, between one chapter and another, it is said that after the death of the last-​mentioned prophet, Iblīs came into the world and taught humanity how to make idols and how to worship them. Then another prophet was designated by God to further His faith. In Juwayrī’s text world history is conceived as a constant struggle between God and Satan almost as in the dualistic religions.11 This last characteristic of the Persian qiṣaṣ tradition, which asserts the role of Iblīs and the unending conflict between good and evil, becomes central to the NV’s reconstruction of salvation history for Bengal. Islamic polemic of the tenth-​eleventh century Persian qiṣaṣ traditions provide counter-​ narratives to the ninth-​century Zoroastrian polemic against Islam, which had cast the fight against Islam as a ceaseless battle between the righteous deity Ohramazd and the satanic Ahriman, both co-​eternal creators.12 In much the same way, Sultān’s polemic against hinduāni peoples provides a counter-​narrative to the age-​old fight between dharma and adharma, led by the avatāra of the age, recasting Hindus, especially Vaiṣṇavas, and the Kr̥ṣṇa avatāra as being in the camp of the evil Iblis. As mentioned earlier, it is the Persian traditions of the qiṣaṣ that include an epitome of the life of the Prophet after the tale-​cycle of ʿĪsá, a structural feature that the NV follows. Compared to the Arabic tradition of Kisāʾī, the Persian tradition, moreover, places great emphasis upon the Light of Muḥammad, a theme that is strongly emphasized in the NV. Recursive images of prophetic light are characteristic of Juwayrī’s text, revealing the

10. Milstein 1999, 12. 11. Ibid., 12–​13. 12. Morony 2012.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


inspiration of ancient Iranian religions, despite the author’s explicit castigation of the “fire-​worship” of pre-​Islamic Persia. Thus, in Juwayrī, the first creation of God is light, and the text begins with an extensive section on the cosmogony of light.13 In Nīshābūrī, though creation ensues from the Pen, as in Kisāʾī, the tale-​cycle of Muḥammad opens with the Light of Muṣtafá (the Chosen One), which was, we are told, created before Ādam and passed down through him to each of Muḥammad’s prophetic and familial ancestors until it reached ʿAbd Allāh, Muḥammad’s father, and through him to the Prophet himself.14 This, of course, as we have seen in Chapter 1, is an important feature of the NV’s genealogy of light, a feature that is also taken up by the tale-​cycle on Ādam, discussed later in this chapter. The NV displays a complex intertextual relationship with the Persian tradition as well as with Indic vernacular sources, and often reaches back directly to Ṭabarī’s Arabic Tārīkh, circumventing a known Persian intermediary. The NV’s description of the Medinan period more or less follows the arrangement of the Prophet’s military campaigns provided in Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī.15 On the other hand, the section on the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and the Meccan period of his life draws on multiple sources. Some narrative details of the NV’s account of the Prophet’s birth absent from Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī are to be found in Ṭabarī, such as the woman who propositioned ʿAbd Allāh before he wed Āmina, and the narrative of the Prophet’s ascension.16 Tales of the miracles of the Prophet found in the NV and Ṭabarī, but not in Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī, in some cases also circulated widely in the vernacular literatures of South Asia—​ for instance, the Prophet’s splitting of the moon and his freeing of the

13. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Juwayrī, 4. 14. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 403. Cf. details from the NV in Chapter 5. 15. Like Juwayrī, the NV contains an extended section on the death of the Prophet not found in Nīshābūrī. However, unlike Juwayrī’s version, which concludes with the Prophet’s death, the NV ends with a short description of the first four caliphs, which is similar to Nīshābūrī’s version. 16. Taʾrīkh al-​rusul wa-​al-​mulūk of al-​Ṭabarī, trans. Watt and McDonald, Vol. 6, 5–​6; and 78–​80.



gazelle. The journeys of these tales from the Perso-​Arabic Dalāʾil literature into the vernacular are difficult to trace, as are Sultān’s sources.17 It will not be possible to detail the particular hypotexts that each of the NV’s prophetic tale-​cycles draw upon, for a​ n entire chapter could be dedicated to each. ​THis chapter takes up several representative cases. In conceptualizing the NV’s relationship to its hypotexts, it is best to conceive of this project as an “excavation” of source texts:  some surface through digging, while others remain buried in indeterminate literary strata; still others are invisible on account of being absorbed into other literary artifacts, transfigured in the process and sedimented in unsuspected ways. Specific tale-​cycles in the NV, such as that of Ādam, show that the NV sometimes follows Kisāʾī’s tales closely, though perhaps indirectly, since much of Kisāʾī’s Ādam cycle becomes part of Juwayrī’s. Yet the NV’s tale-​ cycle of Ibrāhīm follows that of Nīshābūrī in terms of the storyline, while the latter, in turn, follows Balʿamī. The earliest known illustrated Nīshābūrī manuscript, as Milstein and others mention, practically omits Ibrāhīm’s sacrifice of his son, a tradition that the NV follows in its complete ellipsis of this account.18 On the other hand, the NV’s tale of Musā’s encounter with Khijir reveals independence from Nīshābūrī’s version, which omits tales of Khiz̤r (B. Khijir).19 The NV here follows Juwayrī’s version in the greatest detail, a version that draws its minutiae more from Balʿamī than Kisāʾī. Although the latter contains most of the broad outlines mentioned in Juwayrī’s anecdotes about Khiz̤r, Kisāʾī also contains an additional tale about the seven skulls not found in Juwayrī (nor in the NV).20 The NV’s reliance on Juwayrī stands out when it echoes Juwayrī’s opening section on Mūsá’s encounter with his community, as well as the account of Khiz̤r’s revelation of five aphorisms, which were etched upon an emerald pendant, belonging to the master of the listing wall. This anecdote is spelt 17. On the tradition of the splitting of the moon in India, see Friedmann 1975. On the Prophet and the gazelle in Sindhi literature, see Schimmel 1985, 77–​78. 18. Milstein 1999, 11. 19. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 239–​240. 20. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 248.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


out in detail by Balʿamī on the authority of Qaṭādah, but only alluded to obliquely in Kisāʾī’s truncated tale of Mūsá and the tablets of gold, on the authority of Ibn ʿAbbās.21 Given the range of oral-​literate sources that the NV draws upon, what emerges is a complex web of relationships to established models of the Perso-​Arabic qiṣaṣ tradition, which the NV at times follows and at others breaks away from decisively. The significance of my attempt to circumscribe these models lies in its delineation of a discursive arena, the repertoire of tales, and the ideational and rhetorical resources available to Sultān as both substance and methodology for his translation. Furthermore, while Sultān’s decisions about which tales and rhetoric to carry forward from older sources are meaningful, I would argue that his several radical departures from tradition provide greater insight into his historiographic intervention. This mapping of mnemohistorical discourse also allows me to determine that the NV was, in many ways, continuing the grammar of translation practiced by medieval Muslim intellectuals in their salvation histories that spread through the Persianate sphere. Perhaps the single most pervasive pattern that emerges from these Islamic salvation histories was that translators were reformulating them for their own time and place. As the Islamic frontier was being pushed farther and farther eastward, they were being remade regionally to make them relevant to new peoples. Some authors, such as the Persian qiṣaṣ author Nīshābūrī, suggest this by implicitly placing poets in a genealogy of prophets who renew God’s word for their respective audiences. Nīshābūrī states that Yūshaʿ ibn Nūn, a disciple of Mūsá, is said to have taught the tūriyat, Jewish law, to the Banī Isrāyīl and “endorsed Mūsá’s sharīʿat anew” (sharīʿat-​i Mūsá tāzah mīdāsht).22 Nīshābūrī’s speech act reveals that while poets are not prophets, without poets to sing about the prophets’ reaffirmation of God’s word, such acts

21. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Juwayrī, 183–​188; Tārīkhnāmah of Balʿamī, 326–​334; Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 247–​250. 22. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 241.



would be long forgotten. It is poet-​translators like Nīshābūrī, moreover, who are truly responsible for renewing and manipulating Islamic salvation history. For let it not be lost here that when Nīshābūrī uses the term sharīʿat to describe Jewish law, his particular choice of word—​a logical presupposition—​indexes his own project to reaffirm the tales of the prophets for his own Islamicizing Persian-​speaking peoples of Iran. He signals that Mūsá, like all pre-​Islamic prophets, anticipates Islam and its messenger, teaching a law that was tantamount to Islamic law. Indeed, the medieval Islamic qiṣaṣ traditions seem to reify a Prophetic ḥadīth: “The prophets are half brothers; their mothers differ, and their religion (dīn) is one.”23 It is this peculiar combination of recursivity and newness, persistence and change, that marks all doctrinal shifts and sacred histories. The recurring narrative motifs, rhetoric, prophets, and doctrinal terms lend historical depth and the authority of the past to such texts’ retaining what is familiar to an audience, while purging what is redundant. Newness, on the other hand, is designed to update salvation history and make it relevant to the audience to which the work is addressed. Like Nīshābūrī, Juwayrī, and the innumerable singers of tales before him, Saiyad Sultān strives to make tired recipes for preaching and entertainment “fresh” (tāzah) again for his time, place, and people, infusing them with local flavor and new missionary purpose. The rest of this chapter focuses on Sultān’s accounts of hinduāni prophetic predecessors, the accounts of Ādam and his son Śiś (Seth, Ar. Shīth, Pers. Shīs̱), and his characterization of Iblis (Ar. Iblīs). This analysis reveals the continuities and discontinuities with older materials, resetting the parameters of Islamic salvation history by redefining this history as distinctively Indo-​Islamic. To explicate Sultān’s historicization of Islamic theology, I treat salvation history, as other scholars have signaled, as a literary form. I evaluate the authorial voice for its exegesis or paraphrases of scripture (vākhān), and the parabolic or narrative framework itself for its allusions to scripture, through imagery and locution.24 Following 23. al-​Bukhārī 60.51 (no. 3481) cited in Lumbard 2015, 1766. 24. The categories of “exegetical” and “parabolic” are adopted from Wansbrough 1978, 2.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


John Wansbrough, I  also pay close attention to the stylistic and structural features of historical discourse as being “teleological, cumulative, kerygmatic, and nomothetic.”25 All salvation history, all historiography for that matter, as Wansbrough argues, has a kerygma, “a message” that runs through its telling.26 Likewise, it is also nomothetic: it reifies an old law through the enunciations of its prophets (nabī) or proclaims a new one through its messengers (rasūl), and with the latter, a new dispensation. To uncover the NV’s salvation history and the imperatives that shape it, I take Gottfried Hagen’s lead in exploring the forest of redemptive history that is often lost in the trees of narrative detail of individual exempla. THis forest emerges from the interstices of narrative, from the synapses between prophetic tale-​cycles, in the assertions and the silences, the quiet ellipses of source topoi, and the invisible insertions of new ones that translation makes allowances for. Having examined the lines of this mnemohistorical discourse, we finally analyze the work of intertextuality in the manipulation of the ontological and epistemological self of its hinduāni auditor.


In Sultān’s cosmogony, as explained in Chapter  1, all of creation—​the Tablet and the Pen, the Throne, the waters, the heavens, paradise, and hell—​emerge from the sweat of Nūr Muhammad. In contrast, Kisāʾī stresses predestination and creation from Logos via the primordial tools of writing: the Tablet and the Pen, the first created things. In Kisāʾī, moreover, the creation of the waters, which follows the creation of the Pen and Tablet, is related to the primordial pearl that God created, similar accounts of which we may recall from Chapter 1. When God spoke to this pearl, says Kisāʾī, “it trembled so much that it became moving water.”27

25. Ibid., “Preface.” 26. Ibid., 1. 27. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 5.



Thus, creation, in both accounts, proceeds from watery substances—​ pearly water or sweat (gharma)—​whose etiology varies in the two texts. Possibly taking inspiration from the Persian tradition of Juwayrī’s Qiṣaṣ, Sultān instead stresses the Sufi tradition of creation from primordial light, Nūr. While Kisāʾī provides short sections on each of the aspects of God’s early creation—​the canopy and the throne; the earth, the mountains and the seas; the heavens and the angels; the sun and the moon; paradise and hell—​Sultān devotes no more than a couplet to each. Once the Lord creates the earth, asserts the NV, he desires to populate it with created beings. From a smokeless fire, he creates Māric, the primal male (puruṣa pradhāna). Pleased with Māric’s devotions (bhaktibhāva), the Lord decides to create for him Mārijāt, a woman of supreme beauty, whom he draws out from Māric’s left side. Upon seeing this woman of great virtue (ati sucaritā), Māric becomes faint with amorous longing. Since this woman had been brought forth from Māric’s very own body, an ethereal voice authorizes him to enjoy sexual pleasure with her. Dutifully he obeys, in time filling the woman with his seed.28 Sultān’s Māric corresponds to Mārij, the primordial jann of Kisāʾī’s Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ, and his Mārijāt to Mārij’s mate, Mārija.29 Lest they be considered utterly “other” beings, the author is quick to point out that Māric and Mārijāt are, in fact, well-​known to Hindus, the people of India (hindugaṇa), only by different names: All Hindus, the people of India, call this man and woman Īśvara and Pārvatī. Of Īśvara and Pārvatī were born two sons: one Brahmā, the other Viṣṇu, of marvelous form. Our book (kitāba) explains the course of destiny (vidhi) through Māric. Māric created Jāna, the treasure-​house.30 28. Summarized from NV 1:7. 29. In Qurʾān 55:15, the jinn were created “from a bright flame (mārij) of fire,” or “from fire free from smoke.” The former quotation is taken from Ṭabarī in Rosenthal 1989, 252, the second from The Qurʾān, ed. and trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 1474. 30. NV 1:8.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


Sensitive to his audience, Sultān thus stresses that the Islamic figures he is introducing are neither new nor foreign, but none other than the divine pair of tantric cosmogony, Īśvara (Śiva) and Pārvatī, so well-​loved in Bengal.31 From Jāna, the first of Māric’s progeny, and his sister, continues Sultān’s narrative, are born two individuals:  Jānabil, a presumably male asura, and a nameless female. When the two cohabit, Ājājil (Ar. ʿAzāzīl) and a daughter are produced sequentially, who later mate to generate all the asuras and suras.32 The suras inhabited the earth and the heavens, while the asuras, the still air of the void (śūnya), which lies beneath a certain heaven. Like expert spiritual practitioners (mahanta sādhaka), the suras worshiped the Lord in each of the seven heavens before reaching the tree (vr̥kṣa) beyond, where they gather in the Lord’s worship.33 The earth (pr̥thivī), then envious of the heavens, which possessed the radiant sun, moon, constellations, and angels (phiristā), complains to the Lord about his “useless” (nāhika kona kāma) gifts to her: grass and bugs, canals, rivers, and mountains. “Bequeath me,” she pleads, “ with those who shall worship you.”34 Thrice petitioned, the Lord finally commands the asuras of the void to take up residence on earth, exhorting them to virtuous acts. The asuras obey God’s command throughout the satya yuga, the purāṇic Age of Truth—​the first of the four yugas—​after which they fall

31. On how the Persian Sabeans adopted a similar approach of naming ancient Persian heroes as equivalent to Islamic heroes, albeit for different political ends, see Gluck 1968, 94. 32. Even as the NV later clarifies, Ājājil is the name for Iblis before his banishment to hell on account of his refusal to prostrate before Ādam. NV 1:293. While ʿAzāzīl does not appear in the Qurʾān, or in Kisāʾī’s tales, he appears in some Islamic legends as a fallen angel or jinn; an ḥadīth, traced back to Ibn ʿAbbās, refers to ʿAzāzīl as the name of Iblīs before his fall, a tradition that is also related by Thaʿlabī in his ʿArāʾis al-​majālis. Vajda 2011; Wheeler 2002, 17; ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī, 56. He was given the name Iblīs because he “despaired (ablasa) of God’s mercy,” as Thaʿlabī explains. Ibid. This is a tradition that the NV also follows: “When he despaired of the Lord’s curse, his name was broadcast as Iblis.” (prabhura śāpeta yadi haila nairāśa | iblisa kariyā nāma haila prakāśa || NV 1:293). 33. NV  1:8–​9. 34. ye tomhāke seviba dea mora ṭhāma || NV 1:10.



into moral decrepitude. Then the embattled earth renews her complaints to the Lord, explaining that the intolerably heavy burden of sin she has been bearing has the potential to make her collapse into the netherworld: At the Lord’s feet, the earth pleaded: “Know that my soul cannot bear this fear of sin. Unable to bear this burden of sin, I shall sink; I could easily be drowned in the netherworld.”35 Moved by her entreaties, the Lord decides to create a prophet (nabī) for the wayward asuras, who would bring them a code of conduct (nītiśāstra). Prabhu Nirañjana sends the prophet Ām (Ar. Āmir), an asura, the son of Umar (Ar. Umayr, himself the son of Jann).36 When he forbade sinful action, imploring his kin to worship Nirañjana, they killed him. Sultān’s account follows the broad outlines of Kisāʾī’s narrative of the creation of the jinn from a smokeless fire. While omitting many of the original details, dilating instead on ethical issues when the opportunity presents itself, Sultān retains certain peculiarities of expression found in Kisāʾī’s account, suggesting that he used this tradition of the qiṣaṣ as his source for his account of Māric. Moreover, it is noteworthy that Sultān’s narrative of the suras and the asuras consistently translates the Arabic jann by the Bangla asura, and the Arabic jinn with the Bangla sura, even though he does not portray their genealogies exactly as per Kisāʾī, who seems keen to weaken the impression of incestuous relations between these primordial semi-​divine tribes through the manner in which he constructs their genealogy.37

35. NV 1:12. 36. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 21. 37. Occasionally, as in NV 1:19, Sultān uses deo (Pers. dīv), meaning “demons” (which should not be confused with the Sanskrit/​Bangla deva), and daitya, as in NV 1:10, 22, as synonyms for the asura/​jann.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


Sultān’s treatment of Śiva and Pārvatī as “created” beings echoes the Qurʾān’s treatment of the jinn. The Qurʾān subordinates the jinn to the will of Allāh, curtailing their access to “the secrets of destiny (ghayb),”38 demoting them from their previous status among the Meccan Arabs as the kin of Allāh (Q 37:158), “equals with God” (Q 6:100), to one among the three classes of “created” beings: while the angels were created from light, and humankind from clay, the jinn were created from a smokeless flame.39 Because of their powerful hold over the popular imagination of the Meccan Arabs, who regularly sought their intervention and who performed sacrifices to these semi-​divine beings,40 the Qurʾān, as Jacqueline Chabbi asserts, “finds itself in the surprising position of having to come to terms with the jinn, i.e. subjecting them to its God.”41 Similarly, here we see how the popular deities of the Hindus, Śiva and Pārvatī, are equated with the semi-​divine jinn, demoting them from divine status to the status of “created” beings, and in like fashion subjugating them to the will of Nirañjana/​Āllā. Next, in Sultān’s account, the Lord sends a messenger (dūta) to witness paradise and hell, and to warn the suras and the asuras of what would befall them in the afterlife. For a while, both parties performed virtuous deeds, but then again fell into evil ways. When the earth complained again, the Lord created the prophet Chālak, son of Nāyāk (“Saïq ibn Naïq ibn Marid”42). Following Kisāʾī, Sultān’s account tells of how the asuras/​ jann did not heed him, but slaughtered him instead. In a like manner, the Lord creates eight hundred prophets, each one of whom is murdered by the jann. When the tormented earth cries out for help yet again, the Lord orders the suras/​jinn to descend to earth to wage war against the asuras/​jann. Here ends Sultān’s reliance upon Kisāʾī’s account.43 The suras,

38. Chabbi 2011. 39. Boratav 2011. 40 . Ibid. 41. Chabbi 2011. 42. This is quoted from Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 21. 43 . Ibid.



outnumbered and outclassed by the mighty asuras, soon ask for help from the Lord, who sends the angels (phiristā) to their aid. Thus reinforced, the suras succeed in killing all the asuras, and then start to lead a virtuous life on earth, until a time comes when they too fall into sinful ways. Hearing the earth’s complaints once more, the Lord burns to death the sinful suras; those among them who were virtuous quietly disappear, wandering eternally (kṣitita ālopa haï sadāe bhramaṇa).44


After the suras/​jinns sink into sin, the Lord commands the angels to inhabit the earth. But a number of virtuous suras, who had disappeared, again gradually populate the earth. Sultān mentions that they were henceforth called naras.45 It is important to note that this term, quite distinct from Sultān’s term manuṣya for the “human beings” of post-​Adamic time, designates a creature from the pre-​Adamic, Vedic age. Here, nara is essentially another name for the jinn. At this point, Nirañjana sends down the first scripture: For the naras to know the difference between sin and virtue, he [the Lord] sent down four illustrious persons (mahājana) with the four Vedas. When Nirañjana sent forth the four Vedas the Sāmaveda, the śāstra on ethics, then descended. When they set eyes on these folios, all were filled with wonderment. “Nirañjana has bequeathed these to us!” they exclaimed. Thus the Formless One (nairākāra) sent down the Sāmaveda with Brahmā that the people of that age could gain knowledge. 44. Ibid. NV 1:13–​25. 45. Aihi ye ālopa haï āche suragaṇa | tāra vaṃśe puni kṣiti haïla bharana || se sabera nara nāma haila pr̥thivīta | dāna dharma satkarma karilenta nita || NV 1:25.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


Then when Viṣṇu was created, Nirañjana sent down the Yajurveda with him. When the third, Maheśa, was created, the R̥gveda was sent with him. The fourth time around, when Hari was created, Nirañjana sent the Atharvaveda with him. Through these four Vedas, the Creator (karatāra) provides witness (sākṣi) that verily, verily shall Muhammad become manifest.46 The naras were illiterate fools bewildered by the Vedas. An angel who lived in space (antarīkṣa) began to teach them literacy. Those who learnt to read the Vedas became known upon earth as the best of the twice-​born (dvijavaras), the latter term being used for brahmins. Assimilating the teachings of these books, these naras began to follow the path of virtue. But after long ages had passed, they too abandoned good works. The earth now renews her grouse about the heavens being composed of exquisite precious stones and effulgent planets, whereas God’s only bequest to her were the wicked (durjana sakala āni dilā mora pāśa).47 Kisāʾī’s topos of the earth’s plea has a corresponding equivalent in purāṇic literature, which Sultān has been simultaneously referencing. First elaborated upon in the Mahābhārata and the Harivaṃśa,48 and later echoed in the purāṇas, including the Bhāgavata, and still later in the Bengali carita literature surrounding Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya,49 the earth 46. NV 1:25–​26. 47. NV 1:26. The first heaven, in this account, is made of pearls, and accommodates Saturn (śaṇi); the second of diamonds, with Jupiter (br̥haspati); the third of gems, with Mars (maṅgala); the fourth of gold and the sun and the constellations; the fifth of ruby (B. eyākut, Ar. yāqūt) and Mercury (budha); the sixth of silver, and Venus (śukra); and the seventh of emerald (B. jamarud, Ar. zumurrud) and the moon. NV 1:27. Cf. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 11–​12. For the use of this motif in Sultān’s narrative of the Prophet’s ascension, see NV 2:279, discussed in Chapter 6. Cf. also the Ibn ʿAbbās narrative of the Prophet’s ascension, Colby 2008, Table 1, 138–​141. 48. Couture 2001, 314–​315. Cf. Harivaṃśa of Vyāsa, 135–​138. 49. This trope is used by Caitanya’s hagiographers, starting with Murārī Gupta, in conceiving Caitanya’s advent. Stewart 2010, for instance, 61 and 175.



personified, in the Mahābhārata and the Harivaṃśa, entreats the Lord to remove the burden (bhārāvataraṇa) of demons and feisty warriors who oppress her.50 This topos, along with the conflation of the jann and asuras, becomes Sultān’s segue into the Hindu prophetic ancestors of Muhammad. They include seven recognizable avatāras of Viṣṇu: the Fish (matsya), the Turtle (kūrma), the Boar (varāha), the Man-​Lion (nr̥siṃha), the brahmin Dwarf, Paraśurāma, and Rāma—​all “created” by Prabhu Nirañjana to restore righteousness to the earth.51 We now see why Sultān did not retain the original terms jinn and jann, but instead chose to translate jann with a local equivalent, asura, for this word provides him with the opportunity to present Islamic prophetology as being continuous with the purāṇic tradition. Thus the earth now recapitulates for the Lord the afflictions imposed upon her by the asuras, naming, for the first time in her numerous petitions thus far, the purāṇic demons who wreak havoc upon her back: There is no end to the torments I have been afflicted with. All is known to you at your feet. Raising one problem after another, I complained to you about everything that has transpired upon my back. Those vile asuras—​Kālanemi and others, the wicked Śumbha, Niśumbha, Caṇḍa, and Muṇḍa—​52

50. Couture 2001, 314–​315. 51. The avatāras of Hari (Viṣṇu), as the Bhāgavata affirms, are countless, but Viṣṇu’s principal manifestations came to number ten, by the end of the seventh century: the Matsya, Kūrma, Varāha, Nr̥siṃha, Vāmana, Paraśurāma, Rāma, Balarāma (the elder brother of Kr̥ṣṇa), Buddha, and Kalki (Rocher 1986, 107). The Varāha and Agni Purāṇas, according to Kamala Ray (1941, 371), provide a list that substitutes Kr̥ṣṇa for Balarāma. In this article, Ray points out that the epigraphic evidence from Bengal on the daśāvatāra, which dates from the fifth century c.e., combined with the sculptural evidence, show that these ten avatāras of Viṣṇu were the most popular in the region. This is backed by literary evidence from the region, which attest to these ten; particularly relevant here is the evidence of the Gītagovinda of Jayadeva. 52. The Devī Bhāgavata, Skandha 5, tells the tale of Śumbha and Niśumbha, the sons of Kāśyapa and Diti, demons who could not be killed by any god, human being, or animal, as a result of a boon granted them by Brahma. They meet their deaths at the hands of Devī and Kālikā, who

A New Prophetology for Bengal


who engaged in evil acts while dwelling upon my back, the Lord destroyed them all on account of their sins.53 Next she remembers a great yogī, whose detailed iconography is reminiscent of Śiva. He is described as wearing tiger-​skin and bearing dreadlocks; he sports a garland of skulls around his neck, along with a snake. He roams about on a bull, having smeared himself with ash. Flanked by his two devoted wives, he goes a-​begging from house to house. This yogī was the perfect ascetic until he became a drunk, consuming wine regularly along with poison (garala). Once, in a drunken stupor, he gives away his wife and daughter to the asuras. The two women escape them by fighting a great battle to uphold truth.54 Though Sultān presents a largely Vaiṣṇava prophetology, by recalling Śiva here and elsewhere, Sultān speaks to a broad Hindu audience, potentially drawing in Nātha practitioners and Śāktas. When the earth continues to petition the Lord, he sends down another savior. This individual, we are told, lusts after a guru’s beautiful wife, and is cursed by her husband to be deformed by vulva-​like marks which erupt all over his body. The earth wryly comments:  yei śradhā chila sei haila alaṅkāra—​“what he desired became his adornment”!55 This tale seems to be based on a popular legend of Indra, who is cursed by the sage Gautama when he was discovered to have slept with the latter’s wife, Ahalyā.56

challenge them to battle. Caṇḍa and Muṇḍa, also powerful demons, were the attendants of the invincible Śumbha and Niśumbha. Mani 1975b, 542. 53. NV 1:27. 54. NV 1:27–​28. It is unclear as to what precise myth of Śiva or the goddess Sultān is here invoking. He is probably creating a new mythology of Śiva here in order to portray him in a negative light. 55. NV 1:27–​29. 56. There are many tellings of Indra’s seduction of Ahalyā in the Rāmāyaṇa and the various purāṇas, particularly the Brahma, Padma, Brahmavaivarta, and Skanda. The vulva marks become “the most popular form of punishment for Indra” in the purāṇas. Söhnen-​Thieme 1996, 58.



A valiant and fearless king is next sent down. His mistreatment of a sage draws a curse: the earth upon which he lived was to be entirely flooded. Accordingly, he constructs a boat, taking aboard every kind of creature in gendered pairs. When the boat is drawn into a whirlpool on the stormy seas, an eminent person (mahājana) on the boat urges the Lord to save them from sinking. The Lord then commands a giant fish (matsya) to navigate the boat to calmer waters. Once the flood recedes, the creatures again populate the earth.57 This tale of the ark, as is often the case with the other tales in this section, does not provide the specific names of the legendary heroes in question, thereby allowing various interpretive communities to savor “parallel enjoyment.”58 It recalls at once legends from two separate traditions, the first being that of the purāṇic matsyāvatāra, the first avatāra of Viṣṇu, who saves Manu, and through him, all creatures from the great deluge.59 In the NV’s repatterning of pre-​Ādamic prophetology this purāṇic legend is undoubtedly a better fit with the text’s narrative design. Yet its inclusion anticipates the tale of the Judeo-​Islamic Nūh (Noah), which receives separate treatment in the NV in the traditional tale-​cycles of the prophets that follow Ādam. The earth then recalls how the turtle (kūrma) is created when the creatures of the ark, who have populated the earth, begin to sin. The turtle raises the earth upon its back and prevents her from slipping into the netherworld on account of her sinful burden (pāpa bhāra). Next, the Lord sends a boar (varāha) to hoist her upon its tusks (daśana). When the evil asura Hiraṇyakaśipu wreaks havoc upon the earth, the Lord sends down a man-​lion (narasiṃha) to kill him. Then comes the asura Bali, who is duped by a certain brahmin with his humble plea to be granted all the land he could cover in three strides. The brahmin then assumes enormous proportions, and with his third step banishes Bali to hell. These

57. NV 1:29–​30. 58. This is Francesca Orsini’s term, Orsini 2014a and 2014b. 59. Rocher 1986, 107. For the development of the flood legend from the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa through the Mahābhārata and the purāṇas, see Shastri 1950.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


saviors reference the well-​known second, third, and fourth avatāras of Viṣṇu.60 Next we encounter an unnamed king of the solar race who kills his mother at the command of his father.61 The story recalls that of the sixth avatāra of Viṣṇu, Paraśurāma, son of the brahmin, Jamadagni, and Reṇukā, who dutifully killed his mother as per his father’s orders when his elder brothers refused their father’s bidding.62 The NV emphasizes the cardinal sins of matricide and brahminicide over Paraśurāma’s vaunted martial prowess; in the purāṇas, his fame stems from ridding the earth of the oppression of kṣatriyas by exterminating their race twenty-​one times.63 The earth then tells the tale of yet another ineffectual savior,64 Rāma, regarded in the purāṇas as the seventh avatāra of Viṣṇu.65 Accorded fifty verses in the NV, Rāma’s tale is longer than that of any other avatāra in this section, reflecting his legend’s popularity in Bengal. In Sultān’s version of the tale, Rāma, who is here named, retires to the austere life of the forest, at his father’s command, while the father dies of grief. The grieving son, who cannot even participate in the cremation of his father, roams the forests, living as an ascetic in the home of a sage. Seeing his wife alone, one day Rāvaṇa kidnaps her. Rāma’s younger brother reassures him and advises him on ways to rescue his wife. When he travels to the south, he meets with monkey bands; he befriends Sugrīva in order to rescue his wife. On Sugrīva’s advice, Rāma kills Vāli. “If he had befriended Vāli,” says the earth, “he would have recovered Jānakī swiftly. Instead, he performs an egregious act:  without any fault of Vāli’s, he killed him.”66 When he

60. NV 1:30–​33. For details concerning these, the second, third, and fourth avatāras of Viṣṇu, see Mani 1975a; for scholarship on the subject, see Rocher 1986, 108. 61. NV 1:33–​34. 62. Rocher 1986, 108–​109. 63. Ibid., 108. 64. NV 1:34–​38. 65. Rocher 1986, 109. 66. NV 1:35.



finally rescues Sītā, he makes her undergo the fire ordeal to determine her chastity.67 Later, listening to the aspersions of a dyer (rajaka), he once again abandons his pregnant wife in the forest. The earth again remarks disparagingly: Though an eminent person (mahājana), he did not engage in proper action. By putting her through the test of fire, he again foundered. If, indeed, he did not believe her, it would have been better to relocate her to a different place. [Instead] he left this pregnant woman in the forest, alone in the company of wild beasts. The husband for whom she underwent such pain deserted her, turning away indifferently. Had the demons (rākṣasa) once again kidnapped Sītā, the sin of killing a woman would have been upon him! Had a tiger or a bear preyed upon her the stain of such sin would have tainted the world! From that lady’s womb were born twin boys. Two heroes were born, of exceptional caliber. Were that lady to have died, both would have perished. Not a single individual gave this any thought! Not one learned pandit was present at the court to forbid such action!68 When the reunion of Rāma and Sītā is finally imminent, Rāma wishes to put Sītā through a second ordeal. Hearing this, Sītā is heart-​broken, and resolves never to return to Rāma’s palace again. Instead she requests Nirañjana to let her collapse into the earth’s embrace. Hereupon the earth

67. NV 1:35–​36. 68. NV 1:35–​36.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


remarks: “Seeing that she was a satī, a woman of great virtue, I gave her a place within my womb” (satī nārī dekhiyā garbheta dilum̐ ṭhāi ||).69 Sultān’s Rāmāyaṇa follows the broad contours of Vālmīki’s Sanskrit original,70 and also iterates themes from the epilogue (Uttarakāṇḍa) of regional recensions, including Kr̥ttivāsa’s popular Bangla version.71 While Kr̥ttivāsa’s critique of Rāma’s abandonment of the pregnant Sītā, as Tony Stewart and Edward Dimock point out, chooses an “apophatic” tone,72 Sultān has no need to dissimulate about Rāma’s near-​parricidal crime. His Sītā gives up the doublespeak of Kr̥ttivāsa’s, who “criticiz[es] without actually seeming to do so.”73 Whereas Kr̥ttivāsa’s Sītā returns to Rāma’s palace even when she hears of his desire to put her through yet another ordeal of fire,74 Sītā, in the NV, refuses to return to Rāma, turning directly to the earth for shelter. In Kr̥ttivāsa, Rāma grabs Sītā by the hair as she attempts to disappear into the netherworld, giving her the opportunity to ascend to Viṣṇu’s heaven—​Vaikuṇṭha—​in her form as Lakṣmī.75 Sultān’s Rāma exhibits no such narrative agency, heroic gallantry, or salvific power. Sultān’s denouement takes after Vālmīki’s version, allowing Sītā the final say. Given the otherwise normative, patriarchal approach to women that Sultān adopts in his elaborations upon Muslim ethics—​not unusual, of course, for a premodern Sufi—​his defense of women wronged by the “two Rāmas” (Paraśurāma and Rāma), though characteristic of Bangla literature,76 pales into self-​serving polemic—​yet another narrative ploy to discredit the Hindu avatāras.

69. A summary of NV 1:36–​37. 70. For an outline of the original narrative, see Goldman 1984, 6–​13. 71. For comparison, I have used the Rāmāyaṇa of Kr̥ttivāsa. 72. Stewart and Dimock 2000, 243–​264. 73. Ibid., 252. 74. Ibid., 263. Rāmāyaṇa of Kr̥ttivāsa, 526. 75. Ibid., 527. 76. Stewart and Dimock 2000, 251.



In a brief summative section that precedes the advent of Ādam, Sultān recounts and recasts the four ages of purāṇic history. In the first age of 4,040,000  years, it is the asura/​jann and the sura/​jinn, who dwelled on earth. The avatāras, here known as mahājana (eminent individuals), also known as suras in the purāṇic tradition, were sent down as prophets to their own clansmen, the suras, to help them in their fight against the asuras. In the second age of 1,820,000 years, the angels (phiristā) take up residence there. The naras, the erstwhile jinn, were sent to earth in the third age of 1,220,000 years, in which as many as five hundred Ādams were created. Finally, in the fourth age of 825,000 years came the flying horses (aśva). One after another, the Lord Nirañjana destroyed these ineffectual species, to whom he had sent down the Vedas for their betterment. In frustration, the Lord tells the angels that the creation of the Vedas accomplished nothing, and instructs them to cast all four of these useless texts into the ocean.77 Eventually, God decides to create Ādam, the progenitor of humankind (manuṣya).78 Sultān’s deep knowledge of Sanskritic and A ​ rabio-Persian traditions allows him to stitch together a seamless Indo-​Islamic prophetology for Bengal. This section on the purāṇic prophets provides a window into Sultān’s multilinguistic intertextuality, his easy familiarity with purāṇic tales and Bangla literature accompanied by a thorough understanding of Kisāʾī’s text. His mastery lies in the translatorial devices he selects to tie multiple narrative traditions together, allowing him to create a new, yet coherent, account of prophetology for Bengal. The trope of the earth’s plea is pivotal, allowing Sultān to loop the narrative from Kisāʾī’s account into the purāṇic accounts of the avatāras, and then back again with Sītā’s disappearance into the earth. Such interlacing of mythologies from distinct religious traditions is further facilitated by Sultān’s careful choice of translational codes that bridge one religious world with another:  the translations of sura and asura for jinn and jann, respectively, are a significant case in point. 77. NV 1:65. 78. NV 1:64–​65.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


Through the framing refrain of the earth’s plea, Sultān creates an Indo-​ Islamic salvation history which can aptly be described as a “purāṇa-​korān” tradition, to use an expression of Śāh Muhammad Sagīr, an early contemporary of Sultān.79 In his new prophetology, Sultān creates a whole new line of pre-​Ādamic prophets while demolishing deific conceptions of the avatāra. Śiva and the Vaiṣṇava avatāras are appropriated to augment the prophetic lineage of Muhammad, while Hindu sacred books are made to foretell his advent. This at once acknowledges the Hindus as the oldest People of the Book, while branding Islam with the imprimatur of the ancient Vedas. Yet this inclusion of Hindu gods is also their demotion: those who were once worshiped as divine “descents” (avatāra), now become Muslim mahājana, “eminent persons.” Grudgingly admitted for polemical ends into the genealogy of the traditional prophets, they are, as a result, reduced to human status. While the NV makes no mention of the Buddha or Kalki avatāras, Sultān’s treatment of Śiva and select avatāras of Viṣṇu, particularly Hari/​Kr̥ṣṇa, as we shall later see, follows an approach that orthodox brahmanism itself took vis-​à-​vis the Buddha in the mahāpurāṇas and the Bengal upapurāṇas. Much as the latter include the Buddha among the Vaiṣṇava avatāras, yet present him as one who “delude[s]‌people and encourage[s] them to embrace false beliefs,”80 the NV highlights the villainy of Śiva and the avatāras of Viṣṇu while subsuming them within an Islamic prophetology. The NV’s narrative, moreover, is replete with ambiguities left to the auditor to resolve. While the suras and the asuras have been identified as the jinn and the jann, respectively—​tribes of semi-​divine beings—​when purāṇic accounts loop back into Islamic prophetology, the status of the naras remains ambivalent. Are these semi-​divine tribes that inhabit the earth? Do the naras and the winged horses (aśva) reference legends of

79. purāṇa korāna madhye dekhilum̐ viśeṣa | ichupha jalikhā vāṇī amr̥ta aśeṣa || Iusuph-​Jalikhā of Śāh Muhammad Sagīr, 116. Here, the expression “purāṇa korān,” can be construed either as a noun pair, where the “Purāṇa-​Korān” traditions are referred to or as an adjective-​noun pair where purāṇa qualifies korān, and the expression can, thus, be translated as “the ancient Korān.” 80. Chakrabarti 2001, 154.



certain “rational species (al-​ṣinf al-​ʿāqil)” that inhabited the earth before humankind, as reported in early ḥadīth?81 M. J. Kister reports numerous early ḥadīth traditions on the various warring inhabitants of the earth before the advent of Ādam, among whom are also the ḥinn, a class of beings separate from the jinn.82 Juwayrī speaks of how the Lord appoints the jān (Ar. jann) to live on the earth, where they could worship him. He also creates angels from four-​legged animals, and beasts and birds. And over all of these he establishes the authority of ʿAzāzīl (Iblīs’s name before his fall to earth) as the first king of the earth.83 Ultimately, the Lord destroys all of these species made of fire because they disobeyed him, as well as Iblīs for his arrogance, replacing them with Ādam, his steward (khalīfah) on earth.84 Whether or not the specific referents in the source language can be located—​and Kisāʾī is of no use here—​as a translation, the term nara would baffle a Bengali auditor, since this is interchangeably used, in common Bangla parlance, for manuṣya (man/​human). Also, while the naras were chosen to receive the sacred Vedas, they appear to be distinct from humans and are evacuated from the earth before God’s creation of Ādam, the first man. And if the status of the naras remains unclear, what then of the “eminent persons” (mahājana), who are sent down as their saviors? Are these Hindu messiahs equivalent in rank, or even higher than the traditional pre-​Ādamic beings attested in Islamic sources, because they were created before them? And what is their moral standing? The traditional pre-​Ādamic beings, considered in the Qurʾān to “belong to the highest rank among . . . virtuous . . . human beings,”85 will soon rub shoulders, within the narrative, with ineffectual (even immoral) Hindu gods, now turned into mahājana, with premodern auditors and modern readers alike having to evaluate the venerability of these so-​called “eminent

81. Schöck 2011. 82. Kister 1993, 119–​122. 83. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Juwayrī, 26. 84. Ibid., 26–​27. 85. Rubin 2011b.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


persons.” As the narrative progresses, moreover, auditors discover that the word mahājana is employed not only for Hindu gods, but also for villains: the evil Iblis dissimulates as a mahājana to the peacock and the serpent; and later, the peacock, indirectly responsible for Ādam’s fall, is also likened to a mahājana.86 In inventing these genealogies and seeking appropriate target-​cultural terms, this pioneering text is itself negotiating the ambiguities thrown up by its experimental translation, leaving many such enigmas for auditors to ponder over.87


Sītā’s disappearance into the earth provides an ideal segue back into the earth’s refrain, coiling the narrative arc back from purāṇic tales into the qiṣaṣ tradition once again. The Lord, dissatisfied with the naras, explains to the angels that he will dispatch these sinful beings to hell (naraka) and create the human being (manuṣya). When the Lord decides to create primal Ādam—​the first man—​paradise, the constellations, hell, fire, wind, and ether all vie for God to create Ādam out of their materiality. But God chooses to create Ādam instead from the earth’s clay, for the humble earth, considered herself too unworthy to petition God for such an honor. Much like Juwayrī’s account of Ādam, Saiyad Sultān’s Ādam cycle is profoundly indebted to Kisāʾī. Themes the NV draws from Kisāʾī include:  the creation of Ādam from the earth’s clay; Iblis’s disobedience, namely his refusal to prostrate before Ādam; the creation of Hāoyā (Eve, Ar. Ḥawwāʾ); Iblis’s plotting, with the help of the peacock and serpent, to

86. Concerning Iblis, see the peacock’s words to the serpent: mora sane dekhā haila eka mahājana | svargera duyāre basi karae rodana || NV 1:74, and the serpent’s words to Hāoyā: sāpinī bolae sakhī eka mahājana | vr̥kṣera taleta āsi rahiche ekhana || NV 1:75. For the description of the peacock as a mahājana, see ki kāraṇe duḥkha pāiche yena mahājana | kona apakarma kaila prabhura caraṇa || NV 1:86. 87. Cf. how the representation of the Vaiṣṇava Buddha in the purāṇas was also riddled with ambiguities. Chakrabarti 2001, 152–​154.



enter paradise and trick Hāoyā and Ādam into partaking of the forbidden wheat plant (gandum); the expulsion of Ādam and Hāoyā from paradise, to Sarandvīpa (Serendip) in Hindustān and to Jiddāh, respectively; the repentance of Ādam and Hāoyā; Ādam’s pilgrimage to Mecca and Mt. Araphat; Ādam’s construction of the “house of God” at Mecca; Ādam’s bearing witness to the covenant (kabūl patra); Jibrāil’s teaching Ādam agriculture and the processing of wheat into flour; Jibrāil’s bringing fire, and teaching the couple how to bake bread; Hābil and Kābil, the progeny of Ādam and Hāoyā; and the death of the first couple. Sultān follows Kisāʾī’s emphasis on Ādam as the father of agriculture, and as the original pilgrim to Mecca and builder of the Kāʿba, thereby retaining the characteristics that make such salvation histories specifically “Islamic.” Indeed, the NV’s assertion of Ādam as the first tiller of the soil should not be treated as “a uniquely Bengali variant,” as has been misleadingly argued,88 but rather as a continuation of the qiṣaṣ’s emphasis that transforms the fallen biblical prophet Ādam into an Islamic prophet, who redeems himself after his fall by adopting a civilizing mission. There are nonetheless “uniquely Bengali variants” in the NV’s Ādam cycle. While Sultān follows the broad narrative outlines set in place by Kisāʾī, and sometimes captures his locutions, expressions, and peculiarities of description precisely, these are shaded in with topoi distinctive to Bengal. Thus, echoing Bengali Sufi literature, the description of Ādam’s creation makes liberal use of esoteric terminology associated with the body in tantric yoga: The priceless lotus blooms in the heart along with the sounds of the ā, u, and ma. The throne rests upon an upward-​facing jujube flower (badali puṣpa);89 there are thirty-​two lotus petals with fine rays.90

88. Eaton 1993, n. 6, 308. 89. The reference is to the station of the heart, which in Bengali Islamic yoga practice becomes the supreme station—​the locus of the Lord’s throne—​more important than the cranial sahasrāra of Nātha practice. See Hatley 2007, 357–​358. 90. I have emended sarasa kiraṇa to saresa kiraṇa.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


The downward-​flowing Śiva-​Śakti remain in the penis (liṅga).91 And in the navel region, the five winds are born together. Ten gates are placed in the ten gateways,92 and at each of these ghats, the guards stand at their outposts. Once all the limbs were crafted, one by one, the Lord placed a tiny portion (aṃśa) of himself within each. In the thousand-​petalled one arose the sun’s effulgence. And the moon waxed within the hundred-​petalled one. So that the five unstruck sounds (anāhata pañca śabda) may resound he planted these [lotuses] deep inside. Having pulled together three hundred and sixty veins (śirā), he drew them into the region of the navel’s well. Within the [channel of the] suṣumnā stood a large checkpoint through which could pass the ebb and flow [of energy]. To spruce him up, he was made to wear all kinds of adornments, one by one.93 Nirañjana, having shaped Ādam’s head with his own hands, bestows him with the faculties of sight, hearing, and speech comprehension. The first sound that reverberates in Ādam’s chest is the cosmic syllable om̐, tying the creation of the microcosm to the beginnings of the cosmos. This should be read in the context of the Islamic cosmogony of the om̐, delineated in Chapter  1. He endows Ādam with a soul (jīvātmā), characterized by the presence of Śiva and Śakti (consciousness and power). When the soul entered the cage of the body it thrashed about like a bird (yena khāmcā madhye pakṣī . . . pharakae nirantara . . .), and 91. The “downward-​flowing (adhaḥreta) Śiva-​Śakti” is a variation on the kuṇḍalinī śakti, which in tantric literature is characterized as residing in a coil within the tail-​bone. The accomplished yogi controls the flow of semen, related to the kuṇḍalinī śakti, so as to reverse its natural “downward” flow upwards, creating the possibility of the union of Śakti with Śiva, who is said to dwell in the cranial sahasrāra cakra. 92. The ten doors are a reference to the daśa indriyas, the five sense organs and five motor organs, that guard the gateways of the senses. 93. NV 1:57. This passage uses the terminology of haṭha yoga also found in some of the esoteric songs ascribed to Saiyad Sultān, discussed in Irani 2020.



attempts to escape through the apertures of the nostrils. We may notice here a characteristic theme of later Bāul poetry:  the elusive soul-​ bird, trapped within the rib-​cage of the chest, ever desires to escape from the bondage of the body, to merge with the true, infinite self.94 Smelling the fragrance of paradise, the soul sneezes.95 Then, as in Kisāʾī, it enters through the hollows of the eyes and sees the Lord’s name, the “great mantra” (mahāmantra) of the kalimā, written upon God’s throne, attesting the unity of Nirañjana.96 Ādam’s soul then circulates through his inanimate form, bringing his body to life. Once his tongue is activated, he begins to chant the ajapā mahāmantra, the “unuttered” mystic formula of yoga. Pleased, the Lord showers him with grace (kr̥pā).97 In Kisāʾī, Ādam’s first words are, “Praise be to God Who Is Now and Ever Shall Be.”98 When Ādam desired to sit down, he crumpled into a heap. Then the Lord asked his angels to tour the heavens, carrying Ādam upon

94. For such Bāul images, which can also be found in the poetry of the renowned Ḥāfiẓ of Shīrāz, see Dasgupta (1946) 1969, 181–​182. 95. svargera sugandhi pāi hām̐cilā turita | nirañjana nāma lailā hām̐cira sahita || NV 1:59. Cf. “Then the spirit reached Adam’s nose and he sneezed. The sneeze opened the blocked passages, and Adam said, ‘Praise be to God Who Is Now and Ever Shall Be’.” Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 26. 96. nāsā honte cakṣuta āilā tatakṣaṇa | siṃhāsana dekhe prabhu nāma se likhana || mahāmantra kalimā dekhiyā mahāśae | eka nirañjana hena mānilā niścae || NV: 1:60. Cf. “So the spirit entered from the cranium into the eyes. Adam then opened his eyes and . . . saw inscribed on the pavilion of the Throne: ‘There is no god but God. Muhammad is the apostle of God in truth’.” Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 26. In the NV, the soul first enters the nostrils, and then the eyes, reversing the order found in Kisāʾī’s narrative. 97. tohora upare mora kr̥pā hoka ati | muñi chāṛi tohora nā hoka āna gati || NV 1:60. Cf. “Then the Majestic One called to him, saying, ‘Thy Lord has compassion upon thee, O Adam . . . My mercy is everlasting for thee . . .’.” Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 26. It is unclear what precise mystic formula Saiyad Sultān refers to by the ajapā mahāmantra here. In the NV, the kalimā is often referred to as the mahāmantra, and it could well be the kalimā that is referred to here as the “unchanted” (ajapā) mahāmantra. See, for instance, NV 2:58 and 300. In the Jñāna Pradīpa ascribed to Saiyad Sultān, there is mention of the haṃsa as “the two syllables that are the essence of yoga,” that is recited when the mind is focused upon the principle of the parama haṃsa situated between the eyes. Jñāna Pradīpa ascribed to Saiyad Sultān, 626. It is possible that the ajapā refers to this mantra. 98. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 26.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


their shoulders.99 They taught him all the esoteric lore (mantra-​tantra) that they had previously received from the Lord. Similarly domesticating the deeds of Arabian prophets to Bengal, the first food item Hāoyā prepares is sandeśa, a delicious Bengali milk sweet. Ākimā, Hābil’s wife, grieves for her murdered husband through an elaborate cautiśā, a lament written as an acrostic. Hāoyā’s lament for her deceased husband, for its part, takes the form of a bāramāsyā, an account of the twelve months of a heroine’s separation from her beloved. This is translated here in its entirety: In the month of caitra, my husband set out for a faraway land. My body is scorched by the cuckoo’s call. “My husband, my soul’s companion, you have shunned me. Never shall you and I meet again. How should I hold on to life? Who will tell me the means?” In separation from Ādam, it is impossible to cling to life. Vaiśākha came, flowers of every kind were in bloom; bees joyfully sipped honey. I am that unlucky flower unfurled for Ādam, whose black-​bee-​lord is not around. Wayward jyeṣṭha arrived in a torrid swelter; [even cooling] musk and saffron seared the limbs. To me, the southern breeze was like Śamana, the god of death. Becoming an inferno, it continually set my heart ablaze. In āṣāḍha, water flooded the world. The piu piu sounds of the birds were so delightful! But my cātaka-​beloved had gone off into the distance. And I became the rain-​bearing cloud, forsaken, alone.

99. Sultān’s account changes the sequence of Kisāʾī’s narrative. In the latter account, God asks the angels to raise Ādam on their shoulders, after he has taught Ādam “the names of all things.” Ibid., 28.



In śrāvaṇa, when the heavy rains unleash their watery torrents, peacocks dance in delight on hilltops. But for me, sinful peacock, the waters had been diverted. I lingered, isolated in a smoldering sea. In the month of bhādra, it rains very heavily. My dark nights are this empty dwelling. I feel fearful when I hear the drone of insects. Alone in bed, my mind ever trembles. In aśvina, the sun is gentle, the skies are bright. Yet when I see the bleached earth I feel sad. I apply musk and sandal-​paste to my limbs, yet the moonlight scalds me. In the month of kārtika, winter is newly manifest. I see flowers blooming in the four quarters. Seeing this, my body quakes with fear. Remembering my husband’s love, my heart is inconsolable. In agrāna, the dense new crops emerge. My mind does not appreciate these gifts. Without my husband, these are like poison to me. I am hapless, by nature; I shall abandon life. We entered into pauṣa; the nights are long. How shall I survive now that I’m all alone? The wretched darkness is terribly fearsome. How often should I lie awake in bed! In māgha, the cold is numbing and bitterly fierce. When I feel it, I am filled with dread. At such a time, if I were to see my lord, I would want to cling to him, bosom to bosom. In phālguna, the worthless, wretched winds blow. The best of elephants, intoxicated, trumpets incessantly.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


Hearing this, my mind shudders in terror. Without a husband, my body has become sullied with dust. When the wind began to blow strongly, she spoke [thus], addressing it, “Convey to my husband’s feet, O Wind, that I remember him unfailingly.” Once she spoke thus to the wind, the lady fell senseless for a while. When she regained consciousness, she summoned all her sons and daughters. Addressing her sons, she reassured them. Thinking of her love, the lady released her breath. Taking the name of the lord of her life, she left her body with that breath, remembering her lord.100 Nothing like this plaintive lament, with its vignettes that evoke the female protagonists (nāyikās) of Rāgamālā and other paintings so popular in the courts of seventeenth-​and eighteenth-​century India, is to be found anywhere in Kisāʾī or in the Persian literary tradition on Hāoyā. Sultān harnesses the classical tropes of Sanskrit love poetry to describe Hāoyā’s longing in separation (viraha) from her beloved Ādam. The images of the lonely lover as she tracks each season and its effect upon Bengal’s landscape and herself are summoned up by the familiar flower and the honeybee of summer gardens, and the Indic images of the cātaka-​bird and the raincloud or the peacock’s rain-​dance in the monsoon. Akin to Kālidāsa’s cloud-​messenger, the wind is here pressed into service to carry missives to her departed beloved, but in vain. Nature’s exuberance—​its verdurous lushness, its sounds and fragrances, its terrifying power, and its variegated beauty—​all seem to mock the Arab-​turned-​Bengali heroine’s empty nights and barren days. Her body burns with a fever that cannot be soothed even 100. NV 1:174–​176.



by the southerly breeze, sandal-​paste, saffron, or musk, all of which are celebrated in classical Sanskrit poetry for their cooling properties. As a rule, Sultān excises even the limited bio-​bibliographic information provided by Kisāʾī, sources presumably of little relevance to Bengalis and to contemporaneous oral traditions (riwāya) on the prophets, whose presentation would potentially hamper the narrative flow. Emphasis is instead placed upon performative, descriptive, and pedagogical elements of the plot. In keeping with these aims, characteristic of the Bangla pāñcālī genre, Sultān consolidates the narrative action of Kisāʾī, drawing materials from separate sections into a single narrative unit. This, for instance, is the case with Sultān’s account of the earthly reunion of Ādam and Hāoyā, which joins together Kisāʾī’s more scattered narrative into a coherent account. Sultān innovates in other ways too, bringing us to a second important feature of his narratalogical style: he capitalizes on the performative potential of plot elements in Kisāʾī’s slender narrative, expanding these to incorporate descriptive, dramatic modes appropriate to oral performance, whether by way of the pathos (karuṇa rasa) of Hāoyā’s longing for Ādam, or the eroticism of their happy reunion. Sultān, here and in the Kābil-​ Ākimā sequence, exhibits mastery of middle Bangla poetic forms and the topoi and imagery it inherits from Sanskrit literature. Descriptions of the delight sacred figures take in love’s pleasures pervade Sanskrit and Bangla literature, but were unprecedented in medieval Islamic depictions of Muslim prophets, whom Sultān now ensconces in a South Asian mythos of love. Throughout the NV, Sultān seeks to enhance pedagogy through entertainment. He rarely misses an opportunity to depict erotic love, even that between the parents of Prophet Muhammad himself. Similarly, he provides elaborate descriptions of the conjugal life of Ādam and Hāoyā. The scene is set by the descent of a cot (khāṭa) from paradise, upon which Ādam and Hāoya are seated. Jibrāil discretely draws a curtain around them. Upon the cot are layered large and smaller carpets, and a mattress for the two to recline upon. Spending days and nights in each other’s proximity, Ādam and Hāoyā are stirred by desire. “Inwardly afflicted by the pangs of love (madana kheda),” says Sultān, “their faces betrayed extreme

A New Prophetology for Bengal


abashment.” Invoking tropes of classical Sanskrit literature to describe the love-​struck couple, Sultān continues: In Ādam’s mind lies the hope of enjoying sexual pleasure. Ādam with Hāoyā, in the middle of the bed, was like the king of bees beside a budding lotus. As the cakora bird lingers in hope of the moon, as the day-​lotus expands when it sees the sun, as the cuckoo becomes restless when it sees fallen blossoms, so does Ādam long to unite with Hāoyā’s body. Aware of Ādam’s desire, the Formless Lord bid him to make love to the lady. Jibrāil duly informed Ādam; he directed him to take his pleasure in her. Once Ādam is thus enjoined, he takes Hāoyā onto his lap. In the hope of making love, he made her sit upon his lap. With this long-​held anticipation of delight in his heart, he drew the young woman in and held her on his lap. When the lady transfixed, sat with her head bowed, Ādam began to speak sweet words: “Come, sweetheart, with a face like the moon, and gaze upon my face. Melt away the anguish of separation (viraha). Seeing your moon-​like face, my eyes thirst, like the cakora bird, for nectar to descend, my mind having lost its senses.” Hearing this, joy was born in Hāoyā’s heart. She looked at him through sidelong glances, with a gentle smile. Struck by the arrows of her glances cast from her [bow-​like] brow, Ādam’s mind-​bird was [now] Hāoyā’s captive. Infatuated, he clasps her hands and embraces her, kissing her passionately upon her brow. [You see] one first applies salt to the root of the tongue, and then does one stretch out one’s hand to eat food. Kissing in foreplay is the salt of the food of sexual pleasure;



it heightens the intimacy of the embrace. Even as food, without salt, is not flavorful, so too sex, without kissing, is never beautiful. Only when a drunken bee breathes in a flower’s fragrance does it attempt to drink of its honey. Only when a gem-​trader (maṇiru)101 finds unperforated pearls does he pierce these to thread them. When Ādam spurred his horse to do battle, he was unable to locate the battleground through which to run his horse. Then, like the best of horses who makes his hooves resound, he sweated profusely from the exertion. The father of the world and the world’s mother experienced love’s pleasures, and felt mutually fulfilled.102 They then bathe, in order to wash off the sweat of their exertions, inaugurating and exemplifying the Muslim practice of ghuṣl, bathing, a practice that is specifically enjoined after intercourse. Beyond their value for drawing the listener in, the NV’s eroticized representations of loving couples103 have a polemical purpose as well, for they connect the Muslim prophets to a long genealogy of celebrated divine lovers of Hindu epic and purāṇic fame. Thus, though the association of the prophets with sexual desire humanizes them, encouraging the premodern Bengali auditor to more readily enter into their world, the seeming profanities of the prophets simultaneously, and perhaps more importantly, serve to deify them. For when the prophets emulate the erotic pastimes of 101. Maṇiru is unattested in any dictionary. I have used Haq’s (1957, 55) translation of this word, which seems to be a dialectal word used in Chittagong. 102. NV 1:112–​114. 103. Other than Ādam and Hāoyā, the NV provides highly sensuous representations of Kābil and Ākimā’s romance (NV 1:154–​157) as well as the love between the Prophet Muhammad’s parents, Ābdullā and Āminā (NV 1:26–​27). Hari’s affairs are also recounted in some detail, as we will see in Chapter 5. Ibrāhīm-​Sārā, Solemān-​Bilkīs, Jākāriyā-​Mariyām are other celebrated pairs in the NV, whose relationships, however, are not eroticized.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


Hindu gods, Sultān draws them into their august assembly, consecrating the prophets with the mantle of godliness. Epithets for Hāoyā reify her divine stature: she is described as “mother” (mātā) or “queen” (īśvarī) of the world, like any number of Hindu goddesses.104 She is also vāmā, since she is created from Ādam’s left bone (vāma asthi). Sultān thus gives an etymological twist to an epithet of women and goddesses—​for in Indic iconography, the beautiful female consort stands to the left of a male deity.105 To aid the memory of his auditors, Sultān periodically places brief summaries of the plot—​a third feature of Sultān’s narratology—​in the mouths of his protagonists. Hāoyā, for instance, provides Ādam, upon their reunion on earth, her account of her fall from paradise (svarga vārtā) and her travails on earth.106 Lengthy pedagogical sections tailored to teach Bengali auditors about Islamic ethics and eschatology—​a fourth feature of Sultān’s prophetological accounts—​are also introduced into the Ādam cycle. For example, an excursus on the eschatological functions of the four archangels appears as a preamble to the tale of their bringing clay from the earth for Ādam’s creation.107 Another account at the end of this section explains the role of Ājrāil, the angel of Death.108 Other divergences between the NV’s account of Ādam and that of Kisāʾī involve subtle changes in inflection, accomplished through omissions or changes in emphasis. These differences have important consequences for the way in which Sultān redefines salvation history through and beyond the Ādam cycle. The creation of Hāoyā is a case in point. When Hāoyā first appears before Ādam, he cannot tear his eyes away from this moon-​faced beauty, who pierced his heart with Kāma’s arrows.

104. ādame puchilā yabe phiristāe kahe tabe jagatera mātā ehi nārī | tomhāra kāraṇe nārī sr̥jilā gaurava dhari ehi jāna jagata īśvarī || NV 1:68. 105. NV 1:68. Concerning the themes of God’s creation of Ḥawwāʾ from Ādam’s left rib and Ādam’s prior dream of her before their meeting, see Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston,  31–​32. 106. NV 1:100–​101. 107. NV 1:47–​49. 108. NV 1:53–​55.



Absorbed in love (premabhāva), when Ādam prostrates to the Lord, begging him to bequeath the woman to him, he is told that he would be blessed with her only if he chants the name of Nūr Muhammad unceasingly. While Kisāʾī uses the trope of Ādam’s request to God to proclaim the significance of marriage as God’s gift to human society, Sultān takes this as an occasion to connect Ādam to the Nūr Muhammad and Muhammad.109 Here he is more in line with Thaʿlabī, who remarks that the angels demand a dowry for Ḥawwāʾ (Eve) in the form of Ādam’s recitation of Muḥammad’s name three times, since were it not for Muḥammad, Ādam would not have been created.110 In the NV, the Lord explains: This principle is the essence of the triple world. He and I  are not separate. We are identified by a single portion (aṃśa). I have great love for him. All the prophets will be born from his line—​one lakh and forty thousand. One after another, they will take birth after him, and then he shall become manifest. A certain Ābdullā by name, whose residence is Mecca, shall become his father. My companion, from my own portion (aṃśa), shall become manifest in his [Ābdullā’s] line, taking birth in his own [Nūr Muhammad’s] womb.111 After Ādam chants the name one hundred times, he is blessed with Hāoyā.112

109. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 32–​33. 110. ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī, 49. 111. NV 1:69. 112. A summary of NV 1:67–​69.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


Departing from Kisāʾī, Sultān presents Ādam as the genealogical mediator between the Nūr Muhammad and the corporeal prophet. This, as mentioned earlier, is an important reason to believe that Sultān worked from Persian models, since authors such as Juwayrī emphasize the Muḥammadan Light far more than the Arabic traditions of the qiṣaṣ. While the doctrine of light did enter into Sunnī circles, its primary base was Shīʿī.113 Drawing upon Zoroastrian and Manichean soteriologies of light, the Nūr Muḥammad was fundamental to the construction of authority in Shīʿī imāmī ideology.114 Sultān places greater emphasis than Kisāʾī on the “genealogical legitimation”115 of Muhammad via Ādam, and vice versa, and upon Ādam’s vice-​regency before the angels (through God’s insistence on their prostration before Ādam). However, he places less value on Ādam as a prophet sent down with a scripture, although God honors his dying request for the title of prophet. Sultān thus does not include Kisāʾī’s account of God teaching Ādam the names of all things, and his subsequent preaching to the angels from a pulpit demonstrating this knowledge to them.116 Also omitted is the account of God’s revelation to Ādam of “the twenty-​eight letters which are in the Torah, the Gospel, the Psalms and the Koran.”117 Some of the weight of Ādam’s role in Kisāʾī is instead shifted onto Śiś in the NV, as I demonstrate in the next section. The connection between Nūr Muhammad and Ādam is further strengthened in Book Two of the NV, where, while ostensibly recapitulating Ādam’s creation, even stronger emphasis is placed upon the primordial principle of Light:

113. Concerning its use in Sunnī circles, see Katz 2007. 114. Gluck 1968, 86. 115. This is Donner’s (1998, 104) term for one among many styles of legitimation used by the early community of Muslims in evaluating claims to privilege, which I find useful in discussing prophetology. For more on Donner’s styles of legitimation, see Chapter 6. 116. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 28–​31. 117. Ibid., 73–​77, at 74.



When the Lord wished to create Ādam, he installed a portion (aṃśa) of himself within Ādam. Taking light (nūr) from his companion, Nūr Muhammad, Nirañjana ensconced it within Ādam’s body. A small portion of Nūr Muhammad became an adornment (avataṃsa) upon Ādam’s forehead. In order to propagate Nūr Muhammad upon the earth, the Lord bestowed on Ādam such riches. Having emanated from Nūr Muhammad, this portion alighted upon Ādam’s back, arising like the full moon. From his back, it arose upon his forehead, and spread its great radiance across his forehead. When the angels saw this light, they noticed Ādam and saluted him. When he saw this, Ādam was alarmed; he was astounded by the angels’ salutations. In consternation, Ādam, the sincere friend (saphī),118 asks the formless Lord, the treasure-​house without beginning, “Why do these angels make obeisance to me, an insignificant sinner?” Knowing that Ādam was embarrassed, the Lord reassured him, “A certain Nūr Muhammad is that chaste, best of companions. Because they saw his aṃśa upon your forehead the angels prostrated before you. Why do you feel fear at heart? Even as the sun shines clearly upon the water contained within a clay pot, so too has the form of Nūr Muhammad arisen,

118. Ādam is known as ṣafī Allāh. Steingass [1892] 1992, s.v. “ṣafī.” Ṣafī in Arabic can mean “pure; sincere friend, best friend, bosom friend.” Wehr 1994, s.v. “ṣafī. In Kisāʾī, Ādam is known as ṣafwa Allāh, the “Chosen of God,” see Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 65.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


spreading upon your forehead.” Hearing this Ādam, the sincere friend, fell prostrate, and entreated the Lord that he may see that light (nūr). Then the Lord commanded the light upon Ādam’s forehead to illuminate two fingernails. Alighting upon Ādam’s twin thumbs, the nūr arose like the full moon. Seeing the nūr, Ādam was greatly overjoyed, and he [reverentially] applied the light of those nails to his eyes. Then when Ādam arrived upon the earth, he enjoyed conjugal bliss with Hāoyā. Many sons and daughters were born of Ādam; a tiny portion of that light (aṃśu) was infused within each of his sons. Again when the lady conceived, the illustrious Śiś was born within this womb. The nūr of the unit soul (jīvāttamā) entered into Śiś’s body, and waxed radiant, spreading its effulgence.119 Through Śiś, the Nūr Muhammad passed from one prophet to another, as we may recall from Chapter 1, through Ibrāhim’s son, Ismāil (Ar. Ismāʿīl), and through him to the Arab ancestors of Muhammad, reaching Ābdullā, Muhammad’s father, through whom it entered the historical Muhammad. In this manner, Sultān reifies the medieval Islamic tradition that Ādam was surnamed Ābū Muḥammad, the father of Muḥammad.120 Other narrative tropes in the NV further support the theme of “genealogical legitimation,” and the close relationship between Ādam and Muhammad. Like Muhammad, Ādam is often referred to as the Lord’s sakhā, companion.121 As

119. NV 2:9–​10. 120. Kister 1993, 128. 121. Regarding Ādam, note tomhā sakhā hena yabe bulila uttara | kenhe kr̥pā nā karimu tāhāra upara || and mohora sakhāra ’pare kr̥pā kailā ati | mora kr̥pā tomhā’ pare hauka pratiniti || NV 1:81; and tomhāre sr̥jiche prabhu tribhuvana sāra | tomhā sama prabhura sakhā nāhi āra || NV 1:169. For Muhammad as the Lord’s companion (sakhā), see in Chapter 1 and Chapter 6.



shown in the next chapter, Ādam plays an important role at Muhammad’s birth, kissing the baby’s forehead to recognize him as his successor. While in this chapter I have placed attention upon the Indic aspects of Sultān’s salvation history—​all that makes Sultān’s hierohistorical scheme unique—​one should not lose sight of the fact that Sultān’s translation perpetuates features of the qiṣaṣ traditions that make the tales of “biblical” prophets “Islamic.” These Islamic features are often drowned out in Kisāʾī’s Qiṣaṣ by isrāʾīliyyāt, traces of rabbinic and Christian legends that were also incorporated into these tales. While Sultān often follows Kisāʾī closely in incorporating these, he foregrounds the Islamic elements, as we see in the Ādam cycle. Although these are not distinctive to Sultān’s project, they present significant continuities with the medieval Islamic qiṣaṣ tradition, which has been examined extensively by scholars such as Tilman Nagel and Gordon Darnell Newby.122 A fine example of how Sultān carries forward the medieval Islamic tradition is provided by the trope of the House of God at Mecca, which begins with the Ādam cycle and runs through the cycles of Śiś and Ibrāhim. Sultān continues Kisāʾī’s emphasis on Ādam’s association with Mecca; this theme, as Newby points out, is part of “a larger literary movement that sought to replace Jerusalem by Mecca.”123 Sultān’s Ādam, like Kisāʾī’s, journeys from Sarandvīp, where he first landed, to Mecca,124 thereby making him the first pilgrim to this site.125 He subsequently builds the House of Mecca at God’s command, and circumambulates it.126 After Ādam, it is Śiś, in the NV (unlike in Kisāʾī), who rids the holy house of its idols and upholds the pilgrimage practice of circumambulation, foreshadowing Muhammad’s own deeds. Again, the NV’s tale-​cycle of Ibrāhim continues Kisāʾī’s emphasis on his renewal of this ancient site by settling his wife, Hājar, and their son, Ismāʿīl, in its vicinity.127 The tale of their quest

122. Nagel 1967 and 2017; Newby 1989. 123. Newby 1989, 33. 124. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 55; NV 1:88. 125. Newby 1989, 33. 126. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 61; NV 1:103–​104. 127. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 151–​154; NV 1:449–​462.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


for water, as retold both in Kisāʾī and the NV, memorializes the mountains of Ṣafā and Marwa and the spring of Zamzam, making these destinations integral to Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. As Tilman Nagel has noted, the tales of the prophets related in the Qurʾān should be read as a “mirror reflecting the biography of Muḥammad.”128 These stories are retold not for the sake of recounting the lives of Muḥammad’s prophetic predecessors but for their bearing upon Muḥammad’s own life situation—​as pedagogical tales for his Meccan adversaries and community of believers. It is for this reason that Alfred-​Louis de Prémare has spoken of the “monoprophetism” of the Qurʾān and of Islam.129 In sum, the tale of Ādam is a story of many “firsts.” In this respect, the NV follows in the qiṣaṣ tradition to contribute to the Islamic awāʾil literature on “firsts.”130 As the protoplast of man and the progenitor of the human race, Ādam is the first of God’s stewards (khalīfah) upon earth. He is also the first to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness for his errors; the first to perform the Ḥajj and to construct the House of God at Mecca; the first to learn agriculture; the first to share a marital bond, to be a caring husband and father, and to set up a household; the first to perform ablutions; the first to lament over the loss of his family member; and the first to pass down his last will and testament (waṣy), his seed, and, along with it, the Nūr Muḥammad, to his prophetic successors. Even in death he continues to teach, for he is the first to receive a proper Islamic burial, a process taught to Śiś by Jibrāil and other angels. Thus, the NV represents Ādam as the true ādi manuṣya, the primal man who lays the foundation for human life and proper Islamic conduct. In his enjoyment of deep and passionate bonds of love between his wife and his children—​the first family—​he is also the ideal pious and caring Muslim householder.

128. Nagel 2017, 3. 129. de Prémare 1996, 158–​162. 130. Gluck 1968, 49.




Śiś is born to the grieving Hāoyā as God’s compensation for the loss of Hābil (Abel) at the hands of his brother Kābil (Cain). She is consoled with the divine words, “Weep not, noble lady (mahā devī), weep no more. You shall receive anew a son to replace the other. You shall have a son, the spitting image of Hābil. Endowed with beauty and virtue, accomplished in all the arts, he shall be a great scholar (paṇḍita), renowned in all the world. Outstanding in virtue, he shall be learned in the śāstras. With knowledge of the past and future, erudite in many branches of learning, he shall take birth on earth.”131 As Saiyad Sultān explains, Śiś is “prabhura prasāda,” “God’s grace/​bestowal,” a reference to the Arabic, Shīth, from the Hebrew Sheth, which Thaʿlabī translates as “gift of God.” Kisāʾī uses the Arabic epithet “Hibat Allāh” for Śiś, a translation of the Aramaic term “God gave me.”132 Sultān provides a second account of the birth of Śiś that supplies a distinctly Persianate Bangla etymology for his name. Ādam and Hāoyā have a dispute about which of them is more sexually restrained, and which more passionate. Ādam accuses Hāoyā of being more sensual, since she ate nine-​ tenths of the heavenly fruit, and gloats that he was more virtuous, eating only a tenth of it. To test his theory, they decide to each put a bit of their own sexual fluid (r̥tu) into separate glass bowls, and set these aside for a while. While we are left to wonder what happened in Ādam’s crucible, we

131. NV 1:132. 132. Ibid.; ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī, 79; Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 84. For a detailed account of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic meanings of this name, Gluck 1968, 20–​27.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


are told that when Hāoyā returns to hers, she lets out a shriek of disgust, for the bowl is swarming with all sorts of crawling insects. Her powerful outburst, however, makes them congeal into an infant (śiśu), or perhaps rather an embryo. Seeing the little śiśu in the sisā (glass) bowl, she names it Śiś.133 Through this marvelous tale of Śiś’s birth, Sultān provides us not only with a Bangla etymology for this Arab prophet, but a description of perhaps the first-​ever immaculate test-​tube baby. While translation of specific source-​ cultural terms into target-​cultural idioms and the relocation of Arab sacred figures within the Bengali imaginaire provide two avenues by which Islam is domesticated to Bengal, such local etymologies for Islamic proper names, I contend, are yet another way in which domestication operates. In the NV, as in Kisāʾī, Śiś is elected by the Lord to right the wrongs of Kābil and his progeny. Soon after Ādam’s death, Śiś captures Kābil and imprisons him, pleading with him to become a Musalmān. But Kābil steadfastly refuses, and ultimately dies in captivity as an infidel. His body is flung to the vultures, herons, and jackals.134 Next, Śiś turns his attention to Kābil’s progeny, hoping to bring them to the path of virtue. He does so, at first, through dialogue and diplomacy (a Sultānesque touch), and when all else fails, by declaring war. Indeed, Kisāʾī makes Shīth the first crusader for religious change: “the first to gird himself with a sword” in his battle against Kābil’s progeny.135 Misguided by the evil Iblis, Kājib, the eldest of Kābil’s sons, leads his brothers in constructing and worshiping brass and copper idols of Ādam, his grandfather, and his father, Kābil. Having installed these idols in the sacred House of Mecca, which Ādam had established, they regularly sacrifice animals in their honor.136 When Śiś hears of this, he makes an eloquent plea to his nephews to dissuade them from such fallacious actions: 133. This tale is summarized from NV 1:133. 134. This detail is perhaps a carryover of the polemic of the Persian qiṣaṣ traditions that critiques the barbarism of ancient Zoroastrians in the disposal of their dead via exposure to the environment. 135. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 85. 136. NV 1:180.



Why do you dispute Nirañjana? Other than the Lord, who can construct an image? Even if one were to construct it, one could not bequeath it with life. Having been constructed, it cannot stand up; it has two legs, but still cannot walk. Why do you not worship him who has made you? Having yourself created the idol, why do you worship it? For the welfare of human beings the Lord created copper and such like. Having constructed images out of this copper and brass, why do you lie prostrate [before these], becoming bereft of intelligence? The mute, the deaf, and the blind are highly despised on earth. Then why do you have such regard for these idols, feeling confused in mind? The idols neither see, nor hear, nor speak. Why do you worship them, becoming bereft of intelligence? You will receive no fruit through worshipping them. Although unsuccessful, why, in vain, do you [still] worship them? No good will accrue to you through them; [rather], having worshipped them, great sin shall befall you. If Āllā’s servants worship others the Maker (karatāra) becomes extremely irate with them. He has created you from a drop of water. Not worshipping him, why do you worship others?... Abandoning the worship of the one who creates you beautifully by giving you life, you worship others.137 Śiś’s arguments are to be understood in the context of the Lord being the only one who can bequeath life to an image of clay, as he did in the case of Ādam. When Śiś’s repeated pleas fall on deaf ears, Śiś goes to Kājib’s home,

137. NV 1:180–​181.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


where he meets with his elder sister Ākimā, the mother of Kājib, whom he implores to instill sense into Kājib. Śiś asks her to bring out the idols of Ādam, Hāoyā, and Kābil, and he smashes these to smithereens. Ākimā pleads with him not to wage war against her sons, who are but naïve children. Enraged by his actions, and instigated by Iblis, Kājib decides to do battle with Śiś. Iblis promises to be Kājib’s charioteer (sārathi) in battle, and his assistant, just as Hanumān is to Rāma.138 Iblis teaches Kājib the arts of war. He gathers weapons from the time of the battles between the suras and the asuras, between Rāma and Rāvaṇa, and assembles them before Kājib.139 To the utter delight of Kājib, with his genie (jinnī) magic, Iblis conjures up a vast army in a trice, with elephants and riders, chariots and charioteers, cavalry, and infantry.140 He then advises Kājib to construct new idols of his ancestors and begin worshiping these. Once built, Kājib places these on high ground for all to see. Gathering his army around, he begins worshiping the images, sounding drums and horns to attract Śiś’s attention. In the manner of Kr̥ṣṇa’s counsel to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukṣetra, Jibrāil instructs Śiś to set aside illusory emotional attachment (manera māyā) to his nephews and destroy them all in order to uphold the rule of virtue. Iblis’s role as Kājib’s charioteer and mastermind of this epic battle with Śiś also parallels Kr̥ṣṇa’s role in the Mahābhārata, while it foreshadows the NV’s recasting of Kr̥ṣṇa as a villainous figure like Iblis, a subject taken up in Chapter 5. Before taking to arms, Śiś dispatches his brother, Ābdul Karim, as envoy to Kājib’s camp to explain why idolatry is untenable, providing them with a final opportunity to repent. Ābdul Karim makes an impassioned address to Kājib’s assembly: Rather than worshiping that Lord who has created the three worlds you baselessly serve idols. Mixing sunlight, water, and wind with clay 138. NV 1:192. 139. NV 1:185. 140. NV 1:193–​194.



the Lord has made the bodies of all. Taking the form of living beings, the Lord resides in all places. Embodying exquisite forms, he makes likenesses (upāma) of himself, much like the vines, leaves, and flowers of gold inlaid within crystal are visible from the outside. You do not know yourself; you know not who you are. Within your body is seated the Lord Nirañjana. When you are able to recognize your self within yourself then shall you see and be seen by the Lord. All the Lord’s attributes of seeing, hearing, and the rest, as well as his omniscience are also possessed by your body. The seven heavens, the seven spheres of the earth, each of these is present in all bodies. Śiva and Śakti in the [foundational locus of the] mūlādhāra take hold of the navel region. In your thousand-​petalled lotus sits the Creator (karatāra). In the locus of the heart (anāhata) resounds the ceaseless dumadumi drum.141 Within it lies the enchanting golden lotus. At the base of the palate (tālu) arises the hundred-​petalled lotus, and around it all kinds of flowers are in bloom. Finding there a celestial place, the honey bees ever drink their nectar with relish. Even if one of these attributes were to be found in an idol one could gain salvation (nistāra) by meditating upon the idol. Serve the Lord’s creation, his human creations, for Nirañjana is not pleased by such actions [of the worship of idols]. Know that all your creations issue forth from the Lord. By serving your creations, you perform misdeeds.142

141. anāhate dumadumi rājae nirantara. NV 1:200. I have emended rājae here to bājae. 142. NV 1:200–​201.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


According to Ābdul Karim’s reasoning, which echoes the making of Ādam’s yogic body in the NV, the microcosm, which is created by the Lord Nirañjana and in which the Lord himself resides, is more worthy of worship than the empty idols created by men. On the day of reckoning, continues the envoy, when the Lord raises the dead, all sin and virtue shall be accounted for. It is told in the śāstras, says Karim, that the Lord does not forgive four sins. First is the sin of constructing idols; next is the sin of not satisfying one’s parents; the third is that of being deceived into becoming the disciple (dāsa) of someone other than one’s guru; and the fourth is the sin of criticizing the guru, and not following his commands (guruvākya).143 For these four sins one burns in hellfire. Ābdul Karim’s words of wisdom, however, are in vain. For Kājib goes on to defend his cause:  “How can I  live without seeing my father?” he asks.144 Śiś’s killing of his father, reasons Kājib, left him with no choice but to worship his idol. Refusing to stop this practice, he seals his fate. Śiś now prepares for war. Echoing the locutions of the epics and the purāṇas, the NV portrays this ceaseless struggle of the prophets with idolators as the battle of righteousness (dharma) with unrighteousness (adharma). Śiś’s representation in the NV finds a ready likeness in Lord Rāma, exemplar of dharma in the Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa and its Bangla translations, whose battle with the demon Rāvaṇa and his demonic army is explicitly invoked in this section of the NV. Śiś’s portrayal also follows in the model of Yudhiṣṭhira, the eldest of the five Paṇḍavas, in the great epic, the Mahābhārata. Known in Kavīndra’s Parameśvaradāsa Bangla rendition as the righteous ruler (dharma rāja), or the son of dharma (dharmera nandana), he is the sagely hero commanded by Lord Krishna to declare war against his immoral Kaurava cousins.145 At God’s command, Śiś likewise takes up arms against his own relatives, his brother’s children, who have fallen from the path of dharma. In Ābdul

143. NV 1:201. 144. NV 1:203. 145. Mahābhārata of Kavīndra Parameśvaradāsa, 1: 810.



Karim’s mission, discerning auditors might draw a parallel with Krishna’s diplomatic mission to Hastināpur, the city of the Kauravas, in order to make one final attempt at dialogue, a final effort to evade war.146 Like Duryodhana, the war-​mongering eldest of the Kauravas, Kājib too could not accept the messenger’s advice. Like Duryodhana, who was guided by the wicked Śakuṇi, Kājib was guided by the evil Iblis. Like Duryodhana, Kājib is doomed to lose the war in the inevitable victory of good over evil. In true bardic style, Sultān describes the five days of fierce combat between the righteous Śiś’s and Kājib’s armies, providing details of the battle array (raṇa sajjā), the names of the important warriors on both sides, the weapons they used, the instruments sounded to commence the day’s battle, and duels between various heroic warriors. He uses the typical diction and expressions used in Bangla to describe battle scenes, such as those of the Bhīṣmaparva of Kavīndra’s Mahābhārata.147 As Kājib’s great warriors fall one by one, Iblis comforts him in his grief, and strategizes about winning battle formations (vyūhas). On the last day of the battle, he forms a great vyūha of fire to protect the idols. But Śiś’s valiant warriors, the invincible brothers Nāsir and Najir, penetrate the battle formation, destroying the idols. Predictably, at the end of the war, Kājib and all his progeny lie slain. As the noble Śiś grieves over the loss of his kin, Jibrāila brings him God’s comfort and enjoins him to slay every pregnant woman in Kājib’s camp.148 Between Kisāʾī, Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī, Kisāʾī presents the most extensive treatment of Shīth. Yet even this is not nearly as elaborate as the NV’s account. In his polemical emphases, Sultān likely draws upon the Persian authors. As I show below, he draws out subtle elements in these authors’ accounts of Śiś to consolidate his own vision of salvation history. In his unblemished virtue, in his religious and political role of commanding the good and forbidding the bad,149 in his being the legatee of Ādam’s will and 146. Ibid., 701–​702. 147. Ibid., 743–​886. 148. Summarized from NV 1:232–​240. 149. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 86.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


last testament, and the carrier of his seed and prophetic light, Persian Shīʿī authors, as Theodor Gluck observes, saw in Shīth a proto-​imām.150 In the NV, thus, Śiś’s role is that of the first warrior king to rule the earth with the scepter of Islamic law. His role in the NV implicitly fulfills Ādam’s last words to him, as related in Kisāʾī’s Qiṣaṣ: “My son, know that God will give you the reward of the warriors of God, for you will wage war against your brother Cain and God will grant you victory over him.”151 Yet to a Bengali audience, Sultān’s recasting of Śiś as a warrior ready to take up arms against immoral forces implicitly evokes the epic heroes, Rāma and Yudhiṣṭhira, whose mission it was to establish dharma on earth. The NV represents him as the true father of all the earth’s moralists, the Musalmān patriarch of patriarchs who invites Kābil’s people to the true faith. The cornerstone of his mission is dealing with those who practice shirk, associating others with God, and, accordingly, the abolition of idolatry, a theme not found in Kisāʾī but rather in the Persian qiṣaṣ, wherein it is coupled with polemical accounts of fire-​worshipers. Both Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī have independent sections dedicated to the origins of idol worship and fire-​worship on earth, which provide various and differing accounts of the origins of these practices.152 Whereas in Islamic Persia, such accounts of fire-​worship and idolatry constituted a warning to Zoroastrians, in the 150. Gluck 1968, 58–​61, 78–​91. 151. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 82. 152. Juwayrī’s account of the beginnings of idol-​worship speaks of how Mahlāʾīl, the descendant of Shīs̱ (Ar. Shīth), was so extraordinarily handsome that people came from far and near to catch a glimpse of his beauty. After his passing, Iblīs, appearing in disguise, instructed his children to create an image of him so that those people who still flocked to see Mahlāʾīl would not return disappointed. The children of Mahlāʾīl did so, and were eventually instructed to worship and serve the image. It was Idrīs, in Juwayrī’s account, who put an end to this and other practices such as fire-​worship, wine-​drinking, gambling, and divination by arrows. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Juwayrī, 45–​47. Nīshābūrī provides three other accounts. According to him, some say that idol-​ worship began after Idrīs was lifted up to heaven by God, leaving his grieving followers behind. More in keeping with Sultān’s version, a second account attributes the practice to the children of Qābil, who grieved for their father’s death at the hands of Ādam. As in Juwayrī, in both these Nīshābūrī accounts it is Iblīs who comes disguised as an old man, teaching the community to construct and worship images as a consolation for the loss of a beloved, departed leader. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 393. A third account, in Nīshābūrī, suggests that it was Ādam’s daughters who began this practice in their longing for their father after his death; this practice continued until Idrīs prohibited it. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 29.



context of Islamic Bengal, Sultān’s account offered cautionary advice to the iconophilic Hindu. It is in this intertextual and polemical light that one must read the construction of Śiś as an extraordinary prophetic exemplum who has moral authority over Kābil’s idolatrous line, a line which implicitly draws the iconophilic hinduāni peoples into Sultān’s polemic. As in the Arabo-Persian tradition, Sultān represents Śiś as a law-​giver, as one who teaches proper musalmāni ethics. He lives for nine hundred years. Having exterminated his evil kin and thus establishing the rule of dharma, Śiś is sent down a scripture of thirty folios, which he teaches to his peoples and to his son, Mayāil/​Mahlāil (Pers. Mahlāʾīl), who carries on his tradition.153 This book of revelation encodes within it thirty principles, many of which can be identified as basic tenets of Islamic practice.154 The NV’s fixing thirty as the number of pages revealed to Śiś comes down through the medieval Islamic ṣuḥuf tradition of “folios” or “sheets” of revelation sent down by God to his prophets, a term related to muṣḥaf, “book” or “copy of the Qurʾān.”155 153. NV 1:119–​249. Concerning Kisāʾī’s relatively terse account of this section, see Qiṣaṣ al-​ anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 77–​87. 154. This document proclaims the following thirty statements (NV 1:246): 1. Conduct an observance (vrata) for six months. 2.  Fast on a daily basis during this period. 3.  Chant only the ajapā mystic formula. 4. Circumambulate the House of Mecca. 5. Give in alms when possible. 6. Wash your face, hands, and feet. 7. Worship the Formless Lord. 8. Constantly salute him, day and night. 9. Know that Nirañjana is one. 10. Believe in the truth of the angels. 11. Know that my revelation is unchangeable. 12. All that is written here should be followed. 13. Know that all the prophets who have come to earth are truthful. 14. All that you need to comprehend you shall one day. 15. You shall learn the difference between sin and virtue. 16. Know that this day of reckoning exists in truth. 17. The sinners’ place is in hell, while the place of the virtuous shall be in paradise. 18. Know that good and evil are both the Lord’s creation. 19. Good action brings contentment, whereas wrong-​doing leads to misery. 20. When you have been created out of clay, know that you will return to it in death. 21. After death, you will gain life again on the day of reckoning. 22. You will come into the presence of your Lord, where you will recount the good and bad deeds you have done. 23. When you see a suffering person, donate food and clothing in charity. 24. Do not bear false witness. 25. Do not speak falsehood. 26. Refrain from anger. 27. Refrain from duplicity. 28. Do not steal another man’s wealth. 29. Do not steal another man’s wife. 30. Please the venerable by your devoted service. 155. Gluck 1968, 37. Note also that Ibn Hishām records: God revealed two sheets, being two books, to Adam . . . ; fifty sheets to Seth, the son of Adam; thirty sheets to Enoch, who is Idrīs; two sheets to Noah . . . ; four sheets to Hūd; two sheets to Ṣāliḥ; twenty sheets to Abraham; fifty sheets, which were the tablets, to Moses . . . He

A New Prophetology for Bengal


Although the works of Kisāʾī, Nīshābūrī, and Juwayrī provide little detail on what precisely the Book of Shīth or his so-​called sharīʿa (Pers. sharīʿat) contained, the NV provides an extensive account of his teachings, drawing on various traditions. While Kisāʾī refers to a Book of Shīth, we are told little else; it is Idrīs (Enoch) in his account, moreover, who receives thirty revealed pages.156 Nīshābūrī mentions that “most say that he [Shīs̱] was a rasūl and a ṣāḥib-​i sharīʿat, the possessor of a sharīʿat” and one who “continued to work on Ādam’s sharʿīyat.” Furthermore, he was bestowed the office of prophethood (nabūwat).157 Juwayrī states unequivocally that Shīs̱ was bestowed the office of prophethood and a book from which to teach the sharīʿat.158 As in the NV, Juwayrī casts Shīs̱ as one who “lived his life by the pure religion (dīn-​i revealed the Psalms to David; the New Testament to Jesus; and the Qurʾān to Muḥammad. (Ibn Hishām, Kitāb al-​tījān, 20, Hyderabad 1347/​1928 cited in Gluck 1968, 38). While Shīth is more commonly known, in the Islamic tradition, to have received fifty folios, another tradition records that he received twenty-​nine sheets, a figure closer to that in the NV. Gluck 1968, 45. Twenty-​six sayings attributed to Shīth are recorded in Mukhtār al-​ḥikam, a book of sayings of the philosophers of old, by the eleventh-​century author Mubashshir ibn Fātik, so popular in the medieval period that it was translated into Latin, Spanish, French, and English. With the exception of the first saying in the Mukhtār, these also enter the Persian tradition through the Rauz̤at al-​ṣafāʾ, the universal history of the fifteenth-​century Persian author Mīrkhvānd. Gluck 1968, 100–​107. It is the first saying, however, that bears the closest resemblance to some of Śiś’s revelations in the NV: It is obligatory for the believer and devotee to have sixteen virtues. The first: Knowledge of God, of those obedient to Him, of His Holy Ones, the heavenly ones, the spiritual angels and the Bearers of the Throne. The second: Knowledge of good and knowledge of evil. As for the good, let him desire it; and as for the evil, let him be wary of doing it. The third:  Listening to and obeying the merciful king who God has appointed on earth and has given him dominion over human affairs. The fourth: Respect for parents. The fifth: To do as much good as possible. The sixth: Generosity towards the poor. The Seventh: Taking the side of the stranger. The eight: Fortitude in obeying the Master of the worlds. The ninth: Abstention from immorality. The tenth: Perseverance in faith and certainty. The eleventh: Truth in speech. The twelfth: Justice. The thirteenth:  Contentment in this world. The fourteenth:  Burnt-​offerings and sacrifices as an expression of gratitude to God for the benefits He has conferred upon His creatures. The fifteenth: Forbearance and praising God (i.e., resignation or the like) in the face of the knocks of the world without fretfulness. The sixteenth: Modesty and scant rebelliousness. (Gluck 1968, 101–​102) 156. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 87. 157. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 29. 158. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Juwayrī, 45.



pāk), and invited his brothers to Islam, and supervised their musalmānī behavior, such that there was neither an hypocrite (munāfiq) nor an infidel (musharrik) among them.”159 In many medieval Muslim sources, Shīth is remembered as the father of humankind because, unlike Ādam, he was born as all humans are from a mother’s womb, and medieval accounts assert that the descendants of his elder sibling, Qābil, perished in the flood.160 Indeed, in the NV’s tale of Śiś, as we have learnt so far, he exterminates Qābil and all of Qābil’s idolatrous progeny, becoming king of the earth. But Iblis, ever the mischief-​monger in the NV, upsets prophetic plans and abruptly changes the settled course of religious history.


The Lord commands the angels to teach Ādam the Lord’s names, but they resist, anticipating the sins Ādam and his offspring would commit on earth.161 In response to their protestations, the Lord asks them to prostrate before Ādam. In this section, Sultān follows Kisāʾī’s account. All the angels do his bidding except for Ājājil (Ar. ʿAzāzīl, Iblis’s name before his fall), who refuses because he considers himself to be many times Ādam’s superior. Ājājil claimed that he was superior to Ādam because God created him from fire, a noble substance, while Ādam was created from mere clay.162 God then questions his impudence for not prostrating before “one I created with my two hands” (āmhi yāre dui kare karichi sr̥jana).163 159 . Ibid. 160. Gluck 1968, 49–​50. 161. NV 1:61. Cf. the qurʾānic account of God’s teaching Ādam the names, Schöck 2011. 162. Cf. also the similarity with the account of Iblīs’s revolt in the Qurʾān. Wensinck 2011. See also Schöck 2011. There is disagreement in the medieval Islamic tradition on whether Iblis is an angel—​a creature of light—​or a jinn, a creature of fire. Sultān conflates both traditions by referring to Iblis as an angel who was created from fire. 163. NV 1:62. Cf. “Iblis, however, refused to prostrate himself before Adam out of pride and jealousy. God said to him, ‘What hindereth thee from worshipping that which I have created with

A New Prophetology for Bengal


For his disobedience, God shoves Ājājil into hell, to burn in the infernal fires of his wrath. Diverging here onward from Kisāʾī’s narrative, but in keeping with the qurʾānic account, Sultān tells of how Ājājil weeps, entreating the Lord to give him some consideration for all his devotion and service.164 The ever-​gracious Lord asks him what boon he would have, whereupon Ājājil asks for two: first, that he may always quarrel with Ādam and corrupt his children, thus being able to pack hell with these sinners; and second, that he may live eternally. God grants him these boons, stating that he will live until doomsday (pralaya), when all things cease to be.165 About Ājājil Sultān says, When, by the Lord’s curse, he was rendered without hope, his name became known as Iblis.166 Sultān’s translation here carefully follows the etymology of Iblis in the Arabic tradition, which associates this epithet with “the verbal sense of ublisa meaning ‘he was rendered without hope’ ” of God’s mercy, as Thaʿlabī explains.167 In keeping with Kisāʾī’s emphasis, Iblis plays a pivotal role in the NV’s tale of Ādam and Hāoyā’s expulsion from Paradise. Broadly speaking, in Kisāʾī’s tale-​cycles as a whole, Iblīs has a less significant role than in the Persian tradition of Nīshābūrī and especially Juwayrī, where he serves as an important foil for all the prophetic figures.168 In its stronger emphasis on Iblis, which effects a polarization between the forces of light and darkness, my hands?’ . . . Iblis said, ‘I am more excellent than he: thou hast created me of fire, and thou hast created him of clay.’ Fire consumes clay . . .” Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 27. 164. We do not find this section in Kisāʾī. For the qurʾānic account, see Wensinck 2011; Rippin 2011. 165. In the Qurʾān, “at his own request, the punishment promised to Iblīs is . . . deferred until the Day of Judgement, and he is given power to lead astray all those who are not faithful servants of God.” Wensinck 2011. See also Rippin 2011. 166. NV 1:63. prabhura śāpeta yadi haila nairāśa | iblisa kariyā nāma haïla prakāśa || ibid. 167. Rippin 2011. Cf. ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī, 56. 168. Milstein 1999, 12.



the NV is indebted to the Persian qiṣaṣ traditions. Iblis’s heightened role in the NV’s Śiś cycle merits further exploration in this light. In the NV, Iblis is the ādya guru, the primal teacher of Kābil’s clan; beguiled by his charming ways, to them he becomes a veritable wishing-​tree (kalpataru) of favor and grace,169 the savior of a dying clan. When Śiś carries out the Lord’s final command to kill the pregnant women in Kājib’s camp, according to the NV, Iblis secrets away some of these women into a remote forest. There he nurtures them until they give birth to their infants, thus ensuring the survival of Kābil’s line. They eventually proliferate through incest and sexual savagery, allowing Iblis to continue his God-​given legacy of corrupting the children of Ādam.170 Unknown to Śiś and his progeny, Iblis next plays a formative role in expounding a new śāstra and teaching his chosen people a code of conduct all his own. We learn that Iblis was a secret witness to the angels who submerged the Vedas into the ocean, at God’s command. Keen to provide Kābil’s hidden progeny with an authoritative scripture of their own, he conceives of a plan to retrieve the Vedas from the ocean floor. In a tale that recalls the Fish avatāra’s rescue of the stolen Vedas from the ocean, Iblis enlists a monkey to dive deep into the ocean and recover the Vedas.171 At Iblis’s touch, the Vedas lose their potency (teja); their mantras no longer carry the magical force they did when the Lord first revealed the books to brahmins of the pre-​Ādamic, Vedic age. Iblis now rewrites the Veda, providing his own code of conduct to Kābil’s children in the retrieved, but washed-​out, books of the Veda. Iblis encodes into his Veda various “impure” practices, such that the angels shall shun Kābil’s clan.172 For the NV states that angels dislike impure places where idols are worshiped, where the hair of dogs has fallen, or abodes that are smeared with cow-​dung (a practice

169. ādya guru iblisa ye sei tāra guru | kābila bihane haiche sei kalpataru || NV 1:184. 170. NV 1:240. 171. Mani 1975a, 78–​83, particularly 79. 172. Summarized from NV 1:242–​243.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


ubiquitous in rural Bengal). Angels do not frequent peoples who do not cover their heads, or who apply oil on their bodies, since they can never be cleansed with water.173 Finally, Iblis explains how the dead of Kābil’s line should be disposed of. He suggests that being “his” race, Kābil’s children were created out of fire, like Iblis himself. Just as Ādam’s line is created out of the earth’s clay and returned to the earth in death, so too should Kābil’s children be returned to fire when they die. For, as the NV asserts: One dissolves into that from which one was created. Cremation (dahana) and burial (daphana) both share this [pragmatic principle].174 In his God-​given role as “spokesperson for the people of the Fire,” as Thaʿlabī remarked, Iblis distinguishes between Ādam’s race, which upholds the burial of the dead, and his race, which values cremation of the dead.175 As should be readily apparent, this is, of course, a polemical argument by which Saiyad Sultān casts the iconophilic hinduāni communities of Bengal into Iblis’s clan, suggesting that they practice cremation based upon Iblis’s falsification of their original scriptures, the Vedas. This, as I shall demonstrate in Chapter 5, has direct polemical import for the tale-​cycle of Hari. The NV’s representation of Iblis’s role as the savior of Kābil’s line draws from the Perso-​Arabic tradition several discursive patterns that associate Iblis with various pyro-​practices that he now uses to accentuate the musalmāni-​hinduāni polemic. Iblis, as a creature of fire, and the primal guru of Kābil’s clan, becomes a spokesperson for his clan, which he introduces to the practice of cremation by fire. Without ever naming his addressees, Sultān gives us an account of the origins of this Hindu practice, which, coupled with his account of the origins of idol-​worship, associates Hindus with the infidel clan of Kābil. In the Persian qiṣaṣ traditions, the 173. NV 1:243–​244. 174. yā honte utpatti hae tāta hae līna | dahana daphana dui ei parācina || NV 1:244. 175. ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī, 56.



narrative surrounding Iblīs and Qābil is different, as are its addressees, the Zoroastrians, but the polemical design is similar. There Iblīs is associated with the beginnings of fire-​worship. Thus, in Juwayrī, the story goes that after Qābil killed Hābil, Iblīs insinuated that Hābil’s sacrifice was burnt by fire (a sign that God accepted it), because he worshiped fire. From this time onward, Qābil and his children began this practice.176 Nīshābūrī’s account tells of how the practice began during the time of Ibrāhīm. When people saw that he was not burnt in Nimrod’s fire pit, they came to the conclusion that this was because he was a fire-​worshiper.177 It is this association of Iblis with pyro-​practices and the religious polemics around it that the NV draws from the Persian tradition, while pressing it into the service of another kind of polemics. Lengthy sections in the NV provide details of Iblis’s “nāradāmi,” his mischief,178 and indeed, Iblis is often called Iblis-​Nārada, Nārada-​Iblis, or even simply Nārada, in the NV.179 In the Vaiṣṇava purāṇas, Nārada is a heavenly, yet conniving, sage who functions as mediator and messenger between the heavenly and mortal worlds, often mischievously complicating the affairs of both. As Asim Roy recognized, Sultān’s “Iblis-​Nārada” is a translational choice built upon a key shared attribute of two otherwise incongruous figures from separate religious traditions, namely mischief-​ mongering.180 Though they are both trickster figures, Nārada’s naughtiness is several shades more innocent. Iblis’s character and machinations in the NV are undoubtedly darker and more malevolent than those of both his lively and lovable counterpart in Arab folklore, and Nārada in the purāṇas and the biographies of Caitanya. As Saiyad Sultān warns, Iblis’s schemes are difficult to detect because he appears to good people in the guise of a friend, pretending to provide good advice (hita upadeśa). Yet once he

176. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Juwayrī, 47. 177. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 394. 178. See, for instance, NV 1:469 and 717. 179. Concerning Iblis-​Nārada, NV 1:468 and 499; concerning Nārada, NV 1:195. 180. Roy 1983, 93–​94.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


wins a victim’s confidence, he leads the person astray.181 He is depicted as constantly plotting to make the virtuous fall. If he cannot beguile a person with his original form, he morphs into a more pleasing form. He appears as an old man, a confidant, or a little child, and charms unsuspecting persons with his sweet talk, hypocrisy, and flattery, ultimately taking them down the path of evil.182 He also has a network of minions (caras) whom he enlists in his evil activities. Saiyad Sultān provides a vivid description of Iblis in the section on the Prophet’s ascension. Upon the Prophet’s ascension, we are told that he meets with Iblis in the ocean that fills the void between the heaven and the earth. There on the head of a black sea serpent lay a cot, upon which sat a monstrous old man—​his head larger than a mountain; his hair disheveled; his tongue hanging out to reach down to his neck; his eyes, ears, and mouth streaming fire; his body excessively hirsute, bearing hands and legs that were twisted out of shape.183 He prostrates before the Prophet, who asks him how he acquired such a ghastly form. Iblis explains that this is so because he disobeyed Āllā’s commands. “My head is extremely long,” said he, “because I sang my own praises. As a result of this, I was banished to the netherworld. An iron club was used to pound my head into this shape . . . My hands and neck are tied together because the Jews heard my hypocritical statements . . . My tongue hangs out because I did not take Āllā’s name . . . My eyes, ears, and mouth stream fire because I did not obey Āllā’s command.”184 When the Prophet suggests that the Lord would surely forgive him were he to pledge to abstain from sinful action, Iblis says, “It is not in my fate to ask for forgiveness because the Lord cursed me when he created me.” On the Prophet’s request he lists all the awful things he makes men do:  “it is my business to ensure that humans ever continue to sin. I am constantly conspiring to cause ill to humans, to make them commit

181. NV 1:253. 182. NV 1:255. 183. NV 2:214. 184. NV 2:214–​215.



adultery, drink wine, envy others, engage in gossip, speak lies, provide false testimony, and behave indecorously.”185 When the Prophet asks him why he was cursed, Iblis begins to stutter in fear, his heart trembling. He lets out a frightful howl, which shatters his cot, and he dives deep into the ocean.186 These eidetic images of Iblis leave a lasting impression. Though he is the anathema of prophets throughout the NV, fully capable of leading their communities astray, Iblis is utterly inconsolable when his spies bring him news of Muhammad’s advent. He beats his head against a rock and sobs loudly, making an uhu uhu sound, weeping incessantly. When his minions ask him what indeed has brought on such a miserable state, He responds, “I have now been rendered without hope. My scheming ways will soon come to naught. The messenger has been born as this Ābdullā’s son. I am well acquainted with his glorious reputation. The two of us, he and I, are the Lord’s lieges, though hardly am I his equal. Within his purview, do good works prevail, while all sinful actions occur under mine. Paradise and hell have both been created. Each of us work by the Lord Nirañjana’s decree. Whereas the Lord has commanded him to lead folks to paradise, the Lord has enjoined me to pack them into hell. While he sits to the Lord’s right, I sit to his left. When he is close by, I always disappear. His mental efforts are ever to inspire to the path of purity, while my mind strives to make people sin. Whereas he has command over the seven heavens, know that the seven hells are under my sway. 185. NV 2:216. 186 . Ibid.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


Under no circumstance can he and I ever be united. Know for certain that he is the Lord’s supreme companion. It is this messenger who has [now] come to earth. I shall not be able to deceive [a single individual in] his entire community. It is this master of paradise who has come to earth. I shall not be able to make his acquaintance. He is not Ādam that I may make him eat wheat [and fall from paradise]. He is not Musā that I may make his community worship the [golden] calf. He is not Īsā that I can proclaim him to be the son of God [and thus commit blasphemy]. He is not Dāud that I may seduce him by parading beautiful women before him. He is not Solemān that I may tempt him by the allurements of women. He is verily the Prophet Muhammad, the essence of the three worlds, from whose sweat all of creation was born. Every individual who shall join his community shall be extremely wise and shall protect the earth. I shall not be able to deceive his community by developing intimacy with them.”187 Saiyad Sultān thus sets up Muhammad as Iblis’s nemesis. Unlike earlier prophets and messengers, the Prophet of Islam is completely incorruptible. He is the Prophet who foils all of Iblis’s evil schemes. The gangs of criminals and spies of Kābil’s clan, whom Iblis has so carefully assembled and nurtured over the centuries, the various strategies he has perfected to lure humans from the path of good, all come to naught with the advent of the Prophet. What is here confirmed by Iblis himself was earlier foretold by the prophets in the NV, who had gathered around to bless the baby Muhammad at his birth.188 Not only is the final Messenger himself immune to perversion, but so is his remarkable community (ummat),

187. NV 2:64–​65. 188. NV 2:54. Concerning the Prophet’s birth, see Chapter 5.



which is endowed with great wisdom. Thus, salvation history meets its religious telos and ultimate fulfillment in the birth, example, stewardship, and scriptural teachings of Muhammad. Indeed, the soothsayer Iusuph predicts, in the NV, that a Prophet shall be born to Ābdullā and Āminā whose equal cannot be found in the fourteen worlds,189 a Prophet who shall cause all other scriptures, such as the Torah, the Psalms, and the Bible, to be swept away by his own.190


To assess Sultān’s hierohistorical scheme, Sultān’s cosmogony and prophetology need to be examined holistically as the unfolding of an overarching cosmic plan. Sultān’s salvation history begins with the first messenger (ādi rasul), Nūr Muhammad, and culminates in the last messenger (antera rasul), the historical Muhammad. Though Sultān’s conception of Nūr Muhammad, as shown in Chapter 1, draws upon a range of medieval Islamic sources, it acquires new brilliance in the mirror of Bengali cosmogonical conceptions. Representing the light of Muhammad as continuous with indigenous cosmogonical myths both universalizes and localizes Islamic cosmogony:  acknowledging local peoples’ prior knowledge of Islam, this provides them a new and “better” conceptualization of their own cosmogonies and sacred ontologies. Likewise, Sultān reconstitutes Islamic prophetology to include Hindu divinities and sacred texts, tacitly enlarging the qurʾānic category of People of the Book to embrace the Hindus of Bengal. After the creation of Nūr Muhammad, a series of Hindu deities make their advent to eradicate evil from the earth. It is their abysmal failures that necessitates the creation of Ādam and the more traditional line of prophets after him, culminating in the Prophet of Islam.

189. NV 2:35. 190. NV 2:29–​30.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


In one of the numerous authorial colophons (bhaṇitā) that punctuate the NV’s narrative, Saiyad Sultān proclaims: Listen, people! Listen with complete attention to these teachings (vacana) of the Korān. When you have heard the treatise on sacred law (dharmaśāstra), all lawlessness (adharma) shall disappear. All things from the beginning to the end of time shall verily be purified (śuddhi).191 Sultān represents his teachings as “the teachings of the Korān,” and indeed, the qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ is a para-​qurʾānic genre that elaborates upon the qurʾānic tales of the prophets. But he also presents the Qurʾān as a salvific scripture that teaches the principles of dharma, understood here as Islamic law (sharīʿa). It is a text whose very recitation and aural reception destroys adharma, lawlessness. It is a revelation that corrects the erroneous teachings of past prophets, laying down the path of rectitude. Sultān thus seeks through prophetic tales to emulate the pattern of historiographical rectification and rectitude (śuddhi) that he reads in the Korān, while renewing its sacred law (dharmaśāstra) on a new Islamic frontier. In many ways, the NV’s lengthy Ādam cycle exemplifies the tensions that animate this piece of frontier literature. As the first of the traditional line of prophets accepted by Islam, Saiyad Sultān’s Ādam continues the older qiṣaṣ emphasis on his civilizing mission, thereby setting into motion sacred Islamic law through personal example. Simultaneously, the narrative pays great attention to naturalizing Ādam and his wife Hāoyā to the Bengali landscape, making them approachable models for emulation by hinduāni peoples. Even as the Hindu epics and the purāṇas proclaim, the NV presents the battle between the polarized forces of dharma and adharma as ancient,

191. NV 1:129.



inexorable, and unceasing. The peoples of India have participated in it since the time of the Vedas, the NV implies, collectively through the cycles of world ages (yuga). In the kali yuga—​the yuga in which moral degeneracy reaches its nadir—​Saiyad Sultān suggests that the ancient teachings of the Vedas have become obsolete, in need of new exegesis and renewal. This is the task he sets himself. In the age before Ādam’s advent, the Vedas, as the NV points out, had already become defunct. The Hindu avatāras all made their advent in vain; none of them could guide their followers to the path of truth. So ineffectual were these ancient texts that, before the time of Ādam, the Lord commanded the angels to toss them into the ocean. When the washed-​out books of the Vedas were recovered by the satanic Iblis, he rewrote them, and passed them on to Kābil’s clan as scriptural truth. This is why, the NV argues, some people burn their dead, even when the children of Ādam should all be burying their dead. Being among those who cremate their dead, the Hindus, have unknowingly been misguided by Iblis, their primordial guru. This is the faulty scripture that the NV aims to set right, for the truth needs to be told to the hinduāni peoples about their futile struggle for redemption. The NV is prospective, in orientation, and optimistic, in tone. Despite their false scriptures all is not lost for the hinduāni peoples, for the Lord, in his mercy, sent down Ādam and the great prophets who succeed him. Their salvific efforts are complicated by the other prophet of the kali age, the misguided hinduāni prophet Hari (i.e., Kr̥ṣṇa), a prophet in Kābil’s satanic line. Indo-​Islamic salvation history, thus, is a relentless struggle between musalmāni dharma and hinduāni adharma, whose interminable cycles of conflict are brought to an end only by the descent of Muhammad, the final prophet and avatāra of the kali age.192 The NV assumes the qurʾānic role as Furqān—​ the Criterion that accomplishes rectification and rectitude—​through the semantic work of translation, whose incremental scaffolding and expansion of semantic

192. For the final passage in the NV that declares Muhammad as the apostle (paygāmbar) of the age of kali (kalikāla), see Chapter  5. Cf. also the prologue of NV 1, discussed earlier, in Chapter 1, where Muhammad is praised as the avatāra of the Immaculate Lord.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


meaning depend on the cumulative argument built by the NV’s historiographic narrative. The charts below map this translatorial scaffolding, the expanding semantics of codes, and the polemical work it accomplishes at various stages in the narrative. They highlight how the renewal of Islamic salvation history as a purāṇa-​korān tradition is made possible by the work that translation accomplishes through key elements that thread together musalmāni doctrine with hinduāni meaning. But how precisely does Sultān accomplish this incremental scaffolding and expansion of semantic meaning? Here the role of intertextuality is crucial, and to understand how intertextuality accomplishes this, let us examine what we have thus far learnt from the NV in the light of Jonathan Culler’s observations about presuppositions and intertextuality, introduced in the final section of Chapter 3. In the pre-​Ādamic/​Vedic reaches of the NV’s historical discourse, translation identifies key source-​cultural terms with target-​cultural equivalents:  Māric with Śiva; jann with asuras; jinn with suras. Here, the work of the interpreter of the intertextual nature of the NV is not merely to pinpoint the precise relationship of the translated text to a specific source text, but rather, as Culler argues, it is important to “cast its net wider to include the anonymous discursive practices, codes whose origins are lost, which are the conditions of possibility for later texts.”193 In order to identify such subtle and evasive patterns of intertextuality, Culler, as we may recall, explains how intertextuality is engendered by logical and pragmatic presuppositions.194 To examine the semantic work that intertextuality accomplishes through the NV’s prophetology, let us begin by considering Sultān’s assertion, “Māric and Mārijāt are what the Hindus call Śiva and Pārvatī.” Through such an affirmation Sultān not merely sets up word-​for-​word Bangla translations of two key Arabo-Persian entities, but also introduces a “logical presupposition,” endorsed by nothing more than an authorial assertion.195 What is significant here is that translation

193. Culler 1976, 1383. 194. Ibid., 1380–​1396. 195. Ibid., 1390.



is a mode of establishing such Culleresque “logical presuppositions” and their implied corollaries, such as, for instance, “Māric and Mārijāt are not Brahmā and Sarasvatī.” In effect, these presuppositions become a form of what he calls “a modest intertextuality,” although its original source remains anonymous.196 Beyond the surface structure of such “logical presuppositions,” the self-​ same assertion also makes implicit intertextual connections via “pragmatic presuppositions.” The latter, to quote Culler, is a “literary utterance . . . a special kind of speech act . . . placed in a discursive series of other members of a literary genre, so that . . . it is appropriately read according to [the] conventions” of a particular genre.197 By extension, when one is dealing with a doctrinal text such as the NV, Śiva and Pārvatī are members of “a discursive series” of Hindu deities, whom some auditors would expect to find in Sanskrit tantras and purāṇas, or Bengali maṅgalakāvya literature, while others may know of Māric and Mārijāt from the para-​qurʾānic literature of the tales of the prophets, even if the hypotext is not cited or remains imprecisely known. Śiva-​Pārvatī is an appropriate translation for Māric-​Mārijāt because of their shared characteristic of being generative principles. Moreover, translation does the work of domesticating and including foreign entities into a familiar series of Hindu gods and goddesses. Thus, each of these source-​cultural and target-​cultural epithets and the translatorial strategies that link them together set up a hermeneutics that presupposes knowledge of the conventions of a genre of religious literature or sacred historiography and/​or doctrinal world. As we move through the charts, we may observe how other specific acts of translation, their presuppositions, and the forms of intertextuality that these engender, work together to increase the semantic fields of particular codes, especially the jinn. Translation does the work of manipulating the ontological and epistemological self of its hinduāni and Hindu auditors precisely because intertextuality is essentially within the reader’s mind as “the already read.” By extension, in the case of the audience of performed texts, 196. Culler 1976, 1389. 197. Ibid., 1393.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


it is “the already learnt.” Thus, each of these source-​cultural and target-​ cultural epithets and the authorial assertion that links them together set up a field of associations that work together to increase the semantic fields of particular translational codes built up through cumulative and teleological diegesis. In the case of the jann and the jinn, it is significant that Sultān does not provide an explicit gloss for each, such as he does for Māric and Mārijāt. He adopts a subtler strategy, slipping into his narrative the terms sura and asura, leaving the auditors to infer their appropriate connections with the Perso-​Arabic terms through narrative context. By such a sophisticated translational strategy, the NV is able to expand the narrow meaning of jinn in the qiṣaṣ tradition as creatures of fire to include Hindus within its semantic arena. This process is best described as one of “semantic stacking,” wherein the semantic domain of a word expands via narrative argument and intertextuality to produce a stack of meanings sequentially layered, smaller to larger, one over another.198 Manipulating the ontological and epistemological structures of its Hindu audience, translation thus works to persuade auditors to reject their spurious Vedas, and instead adopt the “real” scripture and the prophet of Islam. The two tables below, one on the pre-​Ādamic/​Vedic age (Table 4.1), and the second on the post-​Ādamic/​ post-​Vedic age (Table 4.2), show the work of translation in shaping salvation history. At each stage in this diegetic process, it is possible to observe the psychological work of translation in producing the ideal hinduāni auditor.199 Through the identification of the Arabo-Persian topos of the earth’s plea with that of the purāṇas and Bengali Vaiṣṇava hagiographic traditions, Sultān pulls together the encoded ciphers of jann/​asura and jinn/​sura 198. I am inspired here by Jane Mikkelson, who coins this term to describe the sabk-​i hindī style. Personal correspondence (May 11, 2018), on her unpublished paper, “Lyric as Infinite Translation: A Sustained Reimagining of Indic and Islamic Ideas in the Persian Poetry of Bīdel of Delhi (d. 1721),” presented at the workshop “Translation in Early Modern South Asia,” Yale University, May 3–​4, 2018. 199. Implicit in this conception of the ideal hinduāni auditor is Umberto Eco’s understanding of the model reader. See Chapter 3, n. 120.

Stage 2

Stage 1


pre-​Islamic Persian:

tradition; as div,

void: qiṣaṣ

fire; inhabitant of

called div)

jann and jinn


Jann creature of

generative pair for

Mārijāt /​

jann (also

Kisāʾī’s Qiṣaṣ: 

Implicit Intertextuality and Pragmatic Presuppositions:  Islamic sources


AraboPersian Elements

daitya): “demon”

asura (or


Māric-​Mārijāt  =

Bangla Translation:  Logical Presupposition)


wreak havoc upon

and demons

battles with gods

historiography of




Opposed to suras;



Tantras and

Pragmatic Presup positions:  hinduāni sources

the generative


Primal puruṣa and

Hinduāni elements that set up implicit Intertextuality with hinduāni sources

Table 4.1  Pre-​Ādamic/​Vedic  Age


with Islam


Psychological Work of Translation on ideal Hindu auditor


a “universal”

with Islam

building toward identification



The Work of Translation in Shaping Salvation History

earth’s plea

and Hari to reform


Viṣṇu, Maheśa,

pre-​Ādamic time.

kṣitira gohāri

the dvijas

down with Brahmā,

ʿAzāzīl = Iblis in

Trope of the Kisāʾī’s Qiṣaṣ

their prior

associated with

Vedas are sent

the heavens.

Stage 4

history and

śruti, scriptural

suras. The Four

of the earth and


Trope of the earth’s


known as dvijavaras

An Indo-​

of ontological and epistemological

korān tradition of salvation history



Islamic purāṇa-​ and subversion Bengali Vaiṣṇava



literate naras are

in salvation

given to them

knowledge of

Purāṇas and


for priority

even superior,

the naras. The




toward a

feel respected,

(avatāra); of


sent to reform the

divine descent

of fire; inhabitant

Feel included;

become prophets


tradition, a creature known as nara

Doctrine of

Vaiṣṇava avatāras

sura, god; also

In the qiṣaṣ


Stage 3

Hindu gods


Qiṣaṣ Literature

of the male

Hāoyā =



practices of



and their

of hinduāni Yudhiṣṭhira and


like idol-​worship,


Islamic practices

the folly of non-​

brethren; like

seeds for the

Begins to see


deities into Hindu

to include Islamic

of ontological self

Islam; expansion

Identification with

The work of Translation for an ideal Hindu auditor



epic battle

Sows the


The Work of Translation in Shaping Salvation History

with immoral


female consort

male god with

Fights an

female consorts


and qiṣaṣ


jagatīśvarī; vāmā

Pragmatic Presuppositions: hinduāni sources

Hāoyā is like the Iconography of

Hinduāni elements that set up implicit Intertextuality with hinduāni sources

Ādam = ādi

Bangla Translation: Logical Presuppositions)


Implicit Intertextuality and Pragmatic Presuppositions: Islamic sources


Stage 2 Shīth

Stage 1

AraboPersian Elements

Table 4.2  Post-​Ādamic/​Post-​Vedic  Age

Stage 4 Yūsuf



ʿAzāzīl in the

Qiṣaṣ tradition

qiṣaṣ traditions

Stage 3 Iblis (the jinn Qurʾānic and

Kābil’s line

Hari, a prophet in

Kābil’s line

kalpataru of

Ādya-​guru and

Exploits of Hari

their dead

cremation of

idolatry and

history but is

Bhāgavata Purāṇa


its teleological

displaced by

in salvation

of Kr̥ṣṇa in the


folly of Vaiṣṇava

Hari is included Begins to see the

and its corrective

Islamic practices

the folly of non-​

Begins to see

Parody of tales

jinn and to Iblis.

teaches them

fire, and via

associated with

All hinduān are

“nara” to the


of idolatry and

Hindu practices

Kābil’s clan; he

teaches them to

the Vedas, and

Iblis rewrites



into a continuous narrative. By setting up this prior identification and using the shared narrative element of the earth’s plea, he is able to insert a hinduāni line of god-​turned-​prophets into the traditional Islamic prophetology, allowing his translation to embody what Muslim Bengali poets called the tradition of the purāṇa-​korān—​purāṇic and qurʾānic traditions—​bound into one continuous Indo-​Islamic salvation history. This polemical strategy is similar to the Qurʾān’s reification of Judaic and biblical traditions of prophethood (as the NV itself recalls), which confirm the prior covenantal bond of Jews and Christians with God, while proclaiming the Qurʾān’s renewal of the covenant for a new time and a new people, Muḥammad’s Arabia.200 The NV’s rhetoric parallels the circularity of the qurʾānic argument asserting that “the scriptures (zubur) of those of old” (Q 26:192–​196) predicted God’s revelation to Muḥammad. Two key moments in Sultān’s translation of salvation history, as highlighted in the charts above, are his representations of Śiś as the first warrior for the battle of dharma, and of Iblis as the primal guru of Kābil’s clan. The tale of Śiś sets up polemical contestations between peoples who live by musalmāni ethical standards and those who practice idolatry—​the greatest sin from this Islamic perspective—​implicitly drawing Hindu image worship into the polemical arena without explicitly linking hinduāni practice with idolatry. The next phase of the narrative, on Iblis’s role as guru of Kābil’s clan, represents him as retrieving and rewriting the Vedas and teaching crematory and other non-​Muslim practices to his iconophilic disciples. Up to this point in the narrative, the cumulative work of translating salvation history is to associate all of Kābil’s idolatrous clans of the post-​ Ādamic age with fire. Peoples associated with the worship of fire, such as the Zoroastrians, were targeted by Persian authors of the qiṣaṣ, and Sultān continues the same polemical strategy to attack Hindu pyro-​practices. The NV’s cipher nara—​which seemed like a superfluous synonym earlier, for sura/​jinn (provided much earlier in the narrative)—​now, through its use in common parlance as a synonym for manuṣya, human being, implicitly 200. Lumbard 2015. taurāta iñjile yatha parastāva āche | sei saba parastāva phorakāne lekhiche || NV 2:169.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


links Kābil’s post-​Ādamic children (who are termed as manuṣya) with the pre-​Ādamic naras or suras/​jinn—​creatures of fire. They are further connected with fire by association with their guru Iblis, a creature of fire and teacher of fire rituals. Thus, it seems that two kinds of human beings live on earth: the manuṣya—​the righteous descendants in Hābil and Śiś’s line, and the nara, the unrighteous descendants of Kābil. Via this semantic stacking forged by translation, the semantic field of jinn expands to include hinduāni peoples. Sultān, by this point in the narrative, manages to comprehensively paint hinduāni peoples with the tar of evil based upon their association with idolatry and pyro-​practices. As pagan naras, moreover, intimately linked to fire, the most appropriate place for them in the afterlife are the fires of hell (naraka), to which their species is now etymologically also suitably linked.201 Translation, thus, sharpens the polemics between musalmāni and hinduāni peoples and their practices, demoting the latter by subverting and manipulating the Hindu ontological and epistemological self. The NV may draw upon the dualism set in place by the Persian tradition, a struggle between light and darkness, good prophets versus the evil Satan. Yet the polemics of salvation history in the NV are sharpened by a frontier ideology that pits the House of Islam (dār al-​Islām) against the House of War (dār al-​ḥarb), the battle of musalmānī dharma against hinduānī adharma. Hence the importance placed in the NV on Śiś’s great battle with Kābil’s line, and the role Śiś continues to play as advisor to the fallen Hari, a thematic thread we pick up in the next chapter. With the advent of the Prophet Muhammad this cycle is forever broken. He is the fulfillment of salvation history. He alone is a prophet immune to corruption, whose leadership of his community is infallible. Nonetheless, even in the NV’s Muhammad cycle the polemical rhetoric continues, for Ābu Jehel, Muhammad’s evil uncle who refused to convert to Islam, as we shall see in Chapter 5, is depicted as a Hindu.

201. See the discussion in Chapter 6 about the inability of the Prophet to save his own pagan parents from hell.



To highlight Muhammad’s ascendancy over his prophetic ancestors, the role of Iblis-​Nārada becomes extremely significant in the NV. For it is through this prophetic foil that the supersessory power of Muhammad is fully realized:  while all other prophets are deceived by Iblis, and fail to lead their peoples to the path of moral rectitude, Muhammad, Iblis’s final nemesis, meets with supreme success. Even Śiś, the great hero of the battle with Kābil’s wayward progeny, is finally hoodwinked by this roguish figure. It is through Iblis’s teachings and his adoption of Kābil’s clan that humankind is thenceforward polarized, separated into the hinduāni and musalmāni clans. Thus, while in Kisāʾī, Idris, the next major prophet after Śiś, is sent to the children of Cain (Kābil) to rectify them, the NV completely ignores this point. The implication is that Idris, and all prophets after him, except Hari, belong to Śiś’s line and work for the welfare of Śiś’s descendants. Kābil’s descendants are, on the other hand, forever guided by Iblis.202 Iblis is, thus, the key figure linking the NV’s purāṇic history with its korānic history. Sultān invokes the purāṇic concept of the four yugas, which progress from the satya or kr̥ta yuga, the golden age of moral virtue, to the kali yuga, the age of moral decrepitude. The purāṇic conception of the yugas posits a declining social and moral order, prior to its renewal in a new satya yuga. While adopting the concept of the yugas, Sultān discards the purāṇic notion of cyclical time, within which the yugas are traditionally embedded, mapping these instead onto the presumed rectilinear conception of Islamic history. Yet the imbrication of the yugas onto Islamic salvation history is a polemical strategy that provides Sultān with a certain inter-​confessional leverage.203 It empowers him to implicitly proclaim that when humankind has reached the nadir of moral decrepitude in the kali yuga, only the redemptive might of the most perfect of apostles/​avatāras can save humans from complete catastrophe. This play with conceptions

202. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī, trans. Thackston, 88. 203. Traditionally, the metaphor of dharma as a cow is used to depict the decline in morality through the four yugas. Dharma stands on four feet in the kr̥ta/​satya yuga, on three in the treta, on two in the dvāpara, and on one foot in the kali age. González-​Reimann 2009, 417.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


of time, then, is one polemical device among many by which Sultān asserts Islam’s supersessionist ideology. Translation, thus, becomes the means by which salvation history and its cultic myths are reimagined for Bengalis. Since the translation becomes the “original” in the target culture, translation can sidestep key elements of the original text to produce a “sub-​version,” a text that is both an offshoot of the original and a subversion of musalmāni and hinduāni prior texts.204 Especially in the case of musalmāni source materials, the auditor would likely be oblivious to this sleight of hand. Since the original source remained, for the most part, unknown to the auditor, the translated text can be perceived as neither a diminution nor a distortion of original materials. Moreover, translation claims the generic, vague authority of a putative original (the qurʾānic word or the Vedas, in Sultān’s case) in order to subvert, undermine, and displace local prior texts and deities from their previous positions of power, replacing them by Islam and its apostolic exemplars. As we have seen, the NV draws upon hinduāni cultural figures and literary forms to legitimate Islam and its Prophet. By representing Islam as hinduāni, translation becomes a means for negotiating the Bengali epistemological and ontological self. The author plays with hinduāni’s slippery semantic range, moving from its ethnic (“Indic”) and linguistic meaning (“Hindi/​Hindavī,” i.e., Bangla) in the pre-​Ādamic reaches of the purāṇic prophets, to its religious meaning (“pertaining to the Hindus”) in the post-​Ādamic age. Thus, the Vedas are made to foreshadow the advent of the prophet Muhammad, and Viṣṇu’s avatāras become ancient forebears of the traditional line of prophets accepted by Islam. This polemical strategy, I  contend, involves a double movement. On the one hand, it acknowledges Hindu Bengalis as having prior knowledge of Islam, granting them, along with their books and their gods, pride of place in salvation history. This ostensibly honorific and inclusive gesture toward the Hindu other aims at making its auditors receptive to further

204. Ray 2007, 1.



narratological persuasion. Via such persuasion, “conversion” becomes not an abrupt act of cutting oneself off from one’s previous religious affiliations, but a process of comprehending the “real” truth of one’s past, of enlarging one’s imagination, expanding one’s story, to bear witness to Islam—​an interpretation of the Islamic shahāda that is both valid and viable.205 On the other hand, the historiographical structure of the text, in fact, does something quite different. By the very nature of historiographical diegetic discourse, Islamic salvation history is cumulative and teleological, asserting a sacred hierarchy that implies that the first is primeval and barbaric (jāhilī), and the last, most recent of Āllā’s prophets the best, the apogee of an evolutionary series of prophets. Thus, the NV’s historiographic process, in fact, encompasses and subsumes Hindu bibliology, cosmogony, and mythology into an Islamic history. The move to implicate Hindus as jāhilī barbarians, moreover, turns on its head Hindu polemics about Muslims as mleccha barbarians. Texts like the Bhaviṣya Purāṇa, for instance, engage in a polemics against Islam which parodies Muhammad and his peoples (Muslim mlecchas) while appropriating them into Hindu salvation history.206 Ultimately, the NV makes Muhammad the nabī-​avatāra for the kali age, subsuming and superseding all non-​Islamic deities and pre-​Islamic prophets. Thus represented, Muhammad not only explicitly displaces Kr̥ṣṇa, the supreme deity of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas, but also, implicitly, Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya, their charismatic leader, who was presented in Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava biographies as the avatāra for the kali yuga. Though Kisāʾī’s tales place some emphasis on the Islamic prohibition of idolatry, its censure becomes the single most important task of the NV’s prophetic mission. Proscription of shirk (“associating others with God”) becomes the central means of a community’s redemption.207 In his reimagination of the past, Sultān thus reveals his aspirations for his own present-​day community. By reconstructing the political agenda of Islamic

205. The seed of this idea owes much to a discussion I had with Tony K. Stewart on the subject. 206. Hiltebeitel 1999, 263–​296. I am grateful to Phyllis Granoff for this reference. 207. Hagen 2017.

A New Prophetology for Bengal


salvation history in such terms Sultān makes prophetology into a pedagogical tool for the “befuddled intellects” (bhora buddhi or jāhiliyā) of an iconophilic people, who are, to his mind, deluded by the ways of Iblis. The condemnation of idolatry is the salient feature of the tale-​cycles of Śiś and Ibrāhim, and to a lesser extent that of Nūh, three major tale-​cycles which prepare the ground for the advent of the new prophet Hari, Sultān’s most extraordinary translatorial and preacherly intervention.208 As T.  Nagel points out with regard to the qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ, From the Muslim point of view, the lives of the pre-​Islamic prophets are awful examples (ʿibar) warning against the evil fate of those who are disobedient to God and His messengers. Thus the Qiṣaṣ al-​ anbiyāʾ became part of universal history, as history in general was often considered as a series of ʿibar.209 As the Qurʾān (35:24) asserts, “there never was a people, without a warner.”210 Indeed, for the people of seventeenth-​century Bengal, swept away in the surging tide of Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava fervor, Sultān could not have chosen a better warner211 than Hari, a figure who will be the singular focus of the next chapter.

208. The NV here follows Kisāʾī’s emphasis in the tale-​cycles of Nūh and Ibrāhīm, also carried through into the Persian qiṣaṣ tradition, but draws upon the Persian qiṣaṣ tradition in its heightened emphasis on Śiś as one who condemns idolatry. 209. Nagel 2011b. 210. The Qurʾān, ed. and trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 1160. 211. Concerning the role of prophets as warners in the Qurʾān, see Robinson 2011.


Hari the Fallen Prophet An Avata¯ ra’s Descent into Disgrace

One who hears the Bhāgavata and has no love for the rāsa [dance] is excluded from the path of Viṣṇu and the Vaiṣṇavas. One who does not believe in the Bhāgavata is equal to a Muslim (yavana). Lord Yama, the God of Death, is their punisher in birth after birth. —​Vr̥ n dāvanadāsa1

[Hari says to Arjuna:] “They make images [of me], and worship these incessantly. All consider me to be the Supreme Being. I am not the Supreme Being, but rather am I subject to destruction. Know that the Immaculate One alone is indestructible, by nature.” —​Saiyad Sultān2

1. bhāgavata śuni yāra rāse nahe prīta | viṣṇu-​vaiṣṇavera pathe se jana varjita || bhāgavata ye nā māne se yavana sama | tāra śāstā āche janme janme prabhu yama || Caitanya Bhāgavata of Vr̥ndāvanadāsa, I, 1, p. 2. 2. mūrati gaṭhiyā sabe pūje anukṣaṇa | moke paramātmā buli bhāve sarvajana || paramātmā nahi āmhi haïe vināśa | sahaje avināśa jāna nirañjana pāśa || NV 1:492

The Muhammad Avata¯ra. Ayesha A. Irani, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190089221.003.0005.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


Saiyad Sultān singles out Hari (better known as Kr̥ṣṇa) as the one Hindu god to punctuate the line of the traditional prophets after Ādam. Interposed between the weighty tale-​cycles of Ibrāhim and Musā, the two most lauded prophets of the Islamic prophetological tradition, this narrative unit on Hari—​one of the most popular deities of medieval Bengal—​ effects the appropriation and subsumption of a native arch-​rival. The inclusion of Hari, recast as a morally suspect and utterly unsuccessful prophet, exemplifies Sultān’s endeavor to minimize local competition to the Prophet of Islam. The author’s tendentious account of this erstwhile god and newly turned prophet displays keen insight into the Vaiṣṇava tradition and its key textual sources, such as the Harivaṃśa and the tenth book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, whose stories he retells to suit his ends. While Vaiṣṇavism had longstanding traditions in Bengal, in the sixteenth century it had been newly galvanized by the charismatic saint, Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya. By the seventeenth century, the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava movement was at the height of its missionary activities. While the NV does not display the author’s intimate knowledge of Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava philosophy, it does reveal a generic knowledge of their traditions, beliefs, and practices. Hence, wherever it is possible to read Sultān’s account against Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographies, I  have sought to convey how the NV may have been specifically targeting the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas. This is easy to overlook because the text nowhere names the sect or its founder, even though it makes clear that its practices and traditions were public knowledge. Indeed, precisely by leaving the opponent unnamed, Sultān perhaps hoped to draw all Vaiṣṇavas of Bengal, indeed all hinduāni peoples, into the text’s embrace. To recognize that the author may have been implicitly, but primarily, targeting the Gauṛīyas, Sultān’s powerful invective against Hari has to be read within the context, presented later in this chapter, of the internal evidence of the NV’s criticism of key Gauṛīya practices: the public performance of kīrtana and the widespread worship of the yugalamūrti, the paired images of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa. Such internal evidence is borne out by the socio-​historical developments in contemporaneous Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava organizational activities that started in western Bengal but had



reverberations that critically impacted the eastern regions of Bengal, including Caṭṭagrāma.


The late-​sixteenth to early-​seventeenth centuries was a crucial period in the consolidation and spread of Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism.3 Separated by geography from the learned Gauṛīya teachers of Vr̥ndāvana in north India, Caitanya’s devotees in Bengal had up to this point emphasized the primacy of Caitanya himself in their worship (gaurapāramyavāda). The Gosvāmī intellectuals of Vr̥ndāvana, whose writings adumbrate the doctrinal foundations of the faith, instead stressed the supremacy of Kr̥ṣṇa in Gauṛīya praxis (kr̥ṣṇap āramyavāda).4 Recognizing in the Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta (1615), Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja’s biography of Caitanya, the doctrinal consolidations necessary to unite disparate groups by a unified theology and ritual practice, charismatic second-​generational leaders such as Śrīnivāsa Ācārya of Yājīgrāma (Bīrbhūm) and Narottamadāsa Datta of Kheturi organized its copying and dissemination under the patronage of the newly converted Malla king, Vīra Hamvīra, the rajah of Viṣṇupur.5 With a view to community building, they, along with Jāhnavā Devī of Khaṛadaha (the second wife of Nityānanda Ṭhākura), also instituted an annual festival at Kheturi (or Khetari) at some point after 1580, possibly between 1610 and 1620.6 Near modern-​day Rajshahi, Bangladesh, Kheturi, the natal village of Narottamadāsa, had been deliberately selected by the organizers in order to enable devotees from north and east Bengal to 3. Concerning the movement’s growth and spread during this period, see Stewart 2010a; see also Bhatia 2017, 23–​27. 4. Kunal Chakrabarti 1991, 450–​452. 5. While scholars have debated the exact dates of Vīra Hamvīra’s rule, the general consensus seems to be that he reigned between 1590 to 1620. See Pika Ghosh 2005, n. 19, 205. 6. Details of the festival are provided in Premavilāsa of Nityānandadāsa, 147–​176; Stewart 2010a, especially Chapter Seven. For the possible dating of the Kheturi festival, see Chakrabarty 1985, 175–​176, and n. 1, 231.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


attend, thereby facilitating the spread of the movement to these areas.7 The Kheturi festival organized by Śrīnivāsa, well after he had ensured the Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta’s dissemination, had a key role in consolidating Bengal’s disparate Vaiṣṇava sects into a unified community that accepted the theology of the Vr̥ndāvana Gosvāmīs as its doctrinal basis.8 In particular, the festival facilitated widespread acceptance of Kr̥ṣṇadāsa’s doctrine of Caitanya as the androgynous incarnation of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa.9 By all accounts, the inaugural festival was a stupendous success, and in years to come the festival annually galvanized the community into a potent force. Its effects would most likely have reached Caṭṭagrāma rapidly, unsettling local Muslim leaders, such as Saiyad Sultān. Additionally, many prominent Gauṛīyas who settled in Navadvīpa to be in Caitanya’s proximity are known to have come originally from Caṭṭagrāma. Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi, Dhanañjaya Paṇḍita, Mādhava Miśra—​Gadādhara Paṇḍita’s father—​and Vāsudeva and Mukunda Datta, all hailed from Chittagong.10 Indeed, the medieval principality of Cakraśālā was home to the Ambaṣṭha brahmin brothers, Vāsudeva, Mukunda, and Govinda Datta, the former being singled out by the Caitanyabhāgavata as a beloved disciple of Caitanya.11 Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi, a Vārendra brahmin who was the disciple of Mādhavendra Purī and guru of Gadādhara Paṇḍita—​one of the four revered members of Caitanya’s inner circle—​ was a wealthy landlord of Cakraśālā.12 This principality, as we may recall, though reduced today to a village in the Patiya district of Chittagong, is still associated with the memory of Saiyad Sultān. The Gauṛīya hagiographies

7. Chakrabarty 1985, 231. 8. Stewart 2010a, Chapter Seven. 9. Ibid., 195–​196; see also ibid., 296 and 339, and Chakrabarty 1985, 237. 10. Chakrabarty 1985, 278; Majumdar 1939, 615–​616. 11. Premavilāsa of Nityānandadāsa, 186. Caitanyabhāgavata of Vr̥ndāvanadāsa, 6. On Govinda Datta as the brother of Vāsudeva and Mukunda, see Qanungo 1988, 499. For a complete description of these various important Chittagonian devotees of Caitanya, culled from these and other important Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava sources, see Qanungo 1988, 492–​503. 12. Premavilāsa of Nityānandadāsa, 186.



tell us that Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi divided his time between Navadvīpa and Chittagong, providing circumstantial evidence for the ease of circulation of peoples and ideas between the east and the west of Bengal.13 Gadādhara Paṇḍita’s father, Mādhava Ācārya, another Vārendra brahmin and schoolmate of Puṇḍarīka Vidyānidhi, and like him also a disciple of Mādhavendra Purī, hailed from Beleṭi village of Chittagong.14 Given that biographies of prominent devotees from other regions of Bengal emphasize their religious service to their natal regions, it seems likely that these Chittagonian disciples, and numerous others unnamed, would have developed programs of outreach to the villages of their birth. Additionally, Jāhnavā Devī’s stepson, Vīrabhadra, is reported to have played a remarkable role in the spread of Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism in eastern Bengal, especially among the Buddhists. He is said to have converted 1,200 shaven-​headed monks (neṛās) who were prisoners of the ruler of Ḍhākā; these converts later helped in the movement’s further expansion in eastern Bengal.15 Considering that the Buddhist populations of the east were concentrated in Caṭṭagrāma, this would have been the logical area for missionary activity for such neophytes. The limited material evidence, whether anecdotal, art-​historical (the geographical spread of Vaiṣṇava temples),16 or textual (Vaiṣṇava authors and their socio-​textual communities; the provenance of and relative circulation of Vaiṣṇava texts; references to the geographical spread of the movement or the areas of operation of key Caitanya devotees; etc.),17 suggests that the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava faith was propagated widely all over the east. The Gauṛīya emphasis upon Vaiṣṇava poetry (padāvalī) on the love of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa, for instance, had so shaped the popularization of the genre in the seventeenth century that even Muslim poets of southeast

13. Ibid. See also Caitanyabhāgavata of Vr̥ndāvanadāsa, Chapter Two, 6–​7. 14. Premavilāsa of Nityānandadāsa, 187. 15. Chakrabarty 1985, 179–​181. 16. Ibid., 274–​277. 17. Ibid., Chapter Seventeen.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


Bengal were writing padāvalī on this theme. Of the seventy-​nine known Muslim poets whose poems Ahmad Sharif has collected, at least thirty-​six authors came from Chittagong, among whom many wrote on the Rādhā-​ Kr̥ṣṇa theme.18 In matters of outreach and organizational growth, Gauṛīya kīrtana, the chanting of Hari’s name, was a powerful mobilizing force. The centrality of this practice to Caitanya’s devotional life and to Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava praxis is emphasized in Vr̥ndāvanadāsa’s Caitanyabhāgavata—​the first Bengali biography of Caitanya, completed by 1540—​which proclaims: Saṃkīrtana of Hari’s name constitutes dharma in the Kali age. For this reason, the son of Śacī [Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya] made his descent. This is the quintessential teaching of the [Caitanya] Bhāgavata: Gauracandra’s descent (avatāra) was for the sake of kīrtana. In the Kali age, all ritual is saṃkīrtana of Hari’s name. Caitanya, as Nārāyaṇa, revealed all.19 Prior to Caitanya’s time, Vaiṣṇava kīrtana, the chanting of Hari’s name or praise of Hari with musical accompaniment and probably even dance, was a matter of private devotion and temple-​based practice. Caitanya’s distinctive innovation was to bring the communal practice of kīrtana (saṃkīrtana) into the public sphere. This dynamic form of kīrtana was no longer practiced while seated, but, through Caitanya’s own example, took on an ecstatic element through his popularization of dancing with arms upraised. For Caitanya, the collective singing of Hari’s name was the preeminent means of salvation in the kali age.20 And it was Caitanya’s 18. Pariśiṣṭa Ga, “Muslim kavira pada-​sāhitya,” 160–​177. See also Sharif (1983) 2008, 2: 98–​108, and also cf. ibid., 1: 380–​381. For an examination of this literature composed by Bengali Sufis, and the reasons why these authors elected to write on the Rādhā-​Kr̥ṣṇa theme, see Irani 2020. 19. kaliyuge dharma haya harisaṅkīrtana | etadarthe avatīrṇa śrīśacīnandana || ei kahe bhāgavate sarva tattvasāra | kīrtana nimitta gauracandra avatāra || kaliyuge sarva yajña harisaṅkīrtana | sava prakāśilena caitanyanārāyaṇa || Caitanyabhāgavata of Vr̥ndāvanadāsa, 6. 20. nāma-​saṃkīrtana kalau parama upāya. Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta of Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, trans. Dimock, 3:20, 613.



goal to bring such public practice of saṃkīrtana to all social groups, irrespective of caste, gender, religious, and class backgrounds, uniting all under the banner of ecstatic love for Kr̥ṣṇa. This impetus was particularly liberating to the lowest castes (śūdras and caṇḍālas) and women, since it challenged the brahmanical hegemony that had traditionally denied such groups access to salvific practices.21 Bands of kīrtana singers would assemble, sometimes, in a devotee’s home, at other times, in the village centers of Bengal. Often, they would perform nagara kīrtana, dancing and singing in procession through the villages, towns, and rice-​fields of Bengal and Orissa, bringing the name of Hari to the entire region, with the devotees growing in number as they danced from one hamlet to another.22 Charged by Caitanya’s own example, expressions of devotional ecstasy became commonplace within his entourage, making such public assemblies of devotees appear crazily frenzied to the eyes of critics. Just as older Vaiṣṇava practices of private devotional singing did not threaten brahmanical authority, so also these older practices must have posed little or no competition to Islam. Likewise, neither did the heterodox tantric sects, even though these brought women and lower caste groups into their fold, since such sects were peripheral and secretive.23 On the other hand, Caitanya’s innovative saṃkīrtana became a powerful medium for spreading devotional ideals throughout the Bengal countryside, attracting peoples from all walks of life. The Gauṛīyas must have, hence, been perceived as the single greatest threat both to brahmanical authority and to Islam’s expansion in Bengal. Their public expression of devotion had reached its zenith during Sultān’s day and had become a potent organizational force, making the Gauṛīyas the foremost local rival of Islam. Vaiṣṇava hagiographies abound in tales of how the charismatic founder and later Gauṛīya teachers continually expanded their following.

21. For the significance of Caitanya’s distinctive impetus to kīrtana practices, see Sanyāla 1989, Chapter One, 16–​30. 22. This argument is put forward in ibid., Chapter Two, 31–​51. 23. Ibid., 28–​30.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


Initiation into the Gauṛīya faith was a relatively uncomplicated process by which the guru whispered the sacred mystic formula (mahāmantra) of Hari’s name (and sometimes the Rādhā-​Kr̥ṣṇa mantra) into the ear of the would-​be disciple.24 As the utterance of the Islamic kalimā was to conversion to Islam, so was Kr̥ṣṇa’s name to Gauṛīya conversion, an initiation likewise offered freely to all who sincerely desired it, regardless of creed, caste, or gender. Though there is some evidence to the contrary, on the whole, neither did the latter social indicators disqualify one from becoming a reputed Gauṛīya teacher.25 While these hagiographies are by nature laudatory of Gauṛīya leaders and polemical in their castigations of the other, they nevertheless provide glimpses into the magnetic appeal of these remarkable male and female gurus, who deeply believed in the salvific power of Hari’s name and its ability to deliver the “fallen” from sin. The missionary efforts of Gauṛīya teachers were said to have challenged and inadvertently changed those who opposed them, including Muslims (yavanas), dacoits, exploitative rulers (Śākta and Muslim alike), social miscreants, blaspheming brahmins, and learned yogīs whose hearts were empty of devotion.26 These they categorized as sinners or as hypocrites (pāṣaṇḍīs) who hindered the dissemination of Gauṛīya ideals.27 Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism’s function as a social leveler sought to recalibrate traditional varṇa hierarchies by the measure of one’s devotion to Kr̥ṣṇa

24. For instance, see the initiation (dīkṣā) of Vīra Hāmvīra and the Śākta Govinda Kavirāja with both the Hari mantra and the Rādhā-​Kr̥ṣṇa mantra, and Cāndarāya’s initiation with Hari’s name alone, Premavilāsa of Nityānandadāsa, 88–​89, 96, and 140 respectively. 25. Chakrabarty (1985, 320–​345) has argued that tensions with regard to the caste of gurus often did arise, causing the formation of heterodox orders. 26. Chapter Nineteen provides the account of Kutbuddin’s conversion, Premavilāsa of Nityānandadāsa, 162; Chapter Thirteen provides the account of Vīra Hāmvīra’s conversion, ibid., 79–​91; Chapter Eighteen recounts how Narottamadāsa converted the Śākta ruler, Cāndarāya, ibid., 132–​147; Chapter Nineteen tells of Śyāmānanda’s conversion of the local Muslim ruler Śera Khān, ibid., 150. For translations of the well-​known tales of the conversion of the drunkards, Jāgāi and Mādhāi, and the Muslim, Haridāsa, as recounted by the Caitanyabhāgavata of Vr̥ndāvanadāsa, see Stewart 1995a and 1995b. 27. For the use of the term pāṣaṇḍī, see, for instance, Premavilāsa of Nityānandadāsa, 165.



rather than by the exigencies of birth status. As the Premavilāsa asserts, when devotion to Kr̥ṣṇa fills the heart, one becomes superior to a brahmin: The devotee of Kr̥ṣṇa is greater than the brahmin. Devoid of devotion to Kr̥ṣṇa, a brahmin is assuredly inferior to a śūdra.28 Writing in the 1960s, Ralph Nicholas, an anthropologist of rural Bengal, observed how “Vaiṣṇavism legitimates the illegitimate in the microcosm of the village, just as it did for so many members of morally dubious Buddhist sect in the early days of the Caitanya movement.”29 The accessibility of initiation, and the social advantages of group membership, particularly for those of low-​or lost-​caste status, drew the faith into direct competition with Islam. In the anarchic frontier society of the southeastern delta of Bengal, moreover, where the long arm of political governance barely reached, social order up until 1947 was routinely maintained by local Vaiṣṇava maṇḍalīs (circles) and the Muslim millats or samāja, respectively organized around the figures of the Vaiṣṇava gosvāi or guru, or Muslim mullā or pīr. All manner of family and, particularly, land disputes, typical of frontier settlements routinely disrupted by floods, were adjudicated via these religious groups.30 Local festivals and religious gatherings, moreover, were organized by such groups on the basis of community contributions. Thus, it can be surmised that Islam, in Sultān’s time too, saw in the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism of the southeast delta a religious structure that performed many of the “same social functions” that it aimed to fulfill, making Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism the most

28. kr̥ṣṇabhakta haya sei brāhmaṇera baṛa | kr̥ṣṇabhaktihīna vipra śūdrādhama dr̥ḍha || Ibid., 164. 29. Nicholas 1974, 14. 30. Ibid., 15–​16.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


important religious rival of Islam.31 For all these reasons, Sultān’s project to spread Islam in east Bengal should be understood within the context of Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism’s own dynamic expansion in the region.


Whether directly or through the means of Bengali literary intermediaries,32 both written and oral, Sultān’s account of Kr̥ṣṇa draws upon the tenth book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.33 This, focused on tales of Kr̥ṣṇa of Vraja, and the eleventh book, best known for Kr̥ṣṇa’s final discourse (­chapters 7–​ 29),34 addressed to Uddhava, enjoyed immense popularity in Bengal, as is testified by their numerous Bengali adaptations in the kr̥ṣṇamaṅgala genre.35 While Sultān’s narrative demonstrates keen awareness of the broad contours of the popular Bhāgavata stories on Kr̥ṣṇa’s birth, childhood, and youth in Vraja, even if epic characters are not identified specifically by name, he was probably familiar with these tales from regional kr̥ṣṇamaṅgala versions, disseminated through oral recitatives and performances of the kr̥ṣṇalīlā, Kr̥ṣṇa’s divine play.36 Whatever be his sources and inspiration, Saiyad Sultān recasts the Kr̥ṣṇa legends in a parodic re-​narrativization of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, holy book of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas. This counter-​narrative reads almost as a stubborn response to Vr̥ndāvanadāsa’s polemic against Muslims, quoted 31. Ibid., 17. 32. As we have seen, the Kr̥ṣṇa legends of the Bhāgavata were first translated into Bangla as the Śrīkr̥ṣṇavijaya by the mid-​fifteenth century author, Mālādhara Basu. He was bestowed the title Guṇarāja Khān by Ruknuddīn Bārbak Shāh, Sultān of Gauṛa (1459–​1474). For these and other details, see Chakrabarty 1985, 27. 33. For an introduction to the tenth book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and its translation, see Bryant 2003. 34. Rocher 1986, 144. 35. Satkari Mukhopadhyaya 1987. 36. For a complete translation of “The Account of Hari” in the NV, see Irani 2011, Appendix Five.



in the epigram above. The tale-​cycle of Hari/​Kr̥ṣṇa begins with Prabhu Nirañjana, the Immaculate Lord, dispatching him as a prophet in the line of Kābil to save his idol-​worshiping, slander-​mongering, murderous, womanizing descendants from moral degeneracy. Iblis, here named Iblis-​ Nārada, in one of the author’s numerous moves to establish translational equivalence—​grows anxious over the news of the prophet’s conception and the possibility of losing sway over a tribe he had fostered as his own. For he had carefully steered the tribe along the path of vice since the days of Kābil. Hatching a plot to prevent the child’s birth, Iblis, in the guise of an ascetic (muni), visits the child’s maternal uncle, King Kaṃsa. He advises the king to murder the child his sister would soon birth, warning that he would turn out to be Kaṃsa’s nemesis. The king accordingly posts guards to watch over his sister, commanding them to deliver the newborn directly to him. A successful exchange of the newborn Kr̥ṣṇa with an infant girl transpires, and Kaṃsa slays this baby girl, thinking it to be his sister’s child. However, Iblis, in the garb of an ascetic, returns to the king to expose what has actually transpired. When all attempts to eliminate the child prove futile (through a wet-​ nurse who recalls Pūtanā and through Kāliyā-​like river-​serpents), Iblis plots his moral downfall. He convinces the bashful teenager that sexual contact with the Vraja women is not only permissible for him, being none other than the Supreme Lord himself, but, as a consequence of his divine status, spiritually beneficial to the women. Unversed in the ways of love, the teenage Kr̥ṣṇa learns its arts from these married women. Deserting their husbands, the women bathe in the river with Kr̥ṣṇa, who steals their clothes to see them naked. The women frolic with him through the groves of Vr̥ndāvana, making love. When, upon discovering their affairs, their seething husbands lock their wives into their homes, Iblis cajoles the disgruntled men to dispatch them to Kr̥ṣṇa, claiming that service to the Supreme Being, whether direct or indirect, secures both spouses a place in paradise. Next are introduced various admonitory voices. First, a king in the righteous line of Śiś warns Kr̥ṣṇa of dire consequences if he should not cease to exploit married women. When,

Hari the Fallen Prophet


despite this warning, Kr̥ṣṇa allows the hankering women to enact a vernal rāsa dance,37 a sobering heavenly voice reminds him of his mission and reprimands him for leading women astray from the path of God’s unity. Chastened, Kr̥ṣṇa decides to abandon these women and renounce his previous dissolute ways. Thus deserted, the women make images of Kr̥ṣṇa from brass and other materials, which they adoringly worship. Meanwhile, Arjuna comes upon Kr̥ṣṇa in a state of deep consternation over the failure of his mission to teach righteousness and rightful action (dharma karma). He is concerned that the gopīs worship images of him, mistakenly addressing him, a mere mortal, as the Supreme Being. That he would be the cause of their sin, their falling into hell, fills Kr̥ṣṇa with grief and remorse. At this he leaves his city and travels to other lands, accompanied by his faithful companion Arjuna. Together, the two embark on their very own ascension through celestial worlds, albeit an abortive one, on the back of garuḍa, the mythical prince of birds and the traditional mount of Viṣṇu. They visit planets of iron, silver, gold, diamond, and so on. Hand-​in-​hand, Kr̥ṣṇa and Arjuna then stumble through a dark realm, which opens out onto a sumptuous, bejeweled city whose inhabitants are virtuous women of beauty, skilled in the performing arts. Setting eyes on these attractive women, Kr̥ṣṇa’s heart is shot through with the arrows of Kāma, the god of love. However, the celestial nymphs pelt him with bricks and abuse, admonishing him for his unrelenting roving eye and his wretched mortal existence. They advise him to redeem himself by disabusing his devotees of their belief in him, and recommend that he ban worship of the twin idols of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa. On his return, Kr̥ṣṇa recruits Arjuna to help with this task. Arjuna now warns the devotees: . . . If you don’t heed Hari’s words and commit sins,

37. Compared to the depictions of the autumnal rāsalīlā of the Bhāgavata and the Gītagovinda, the NV depicts a vernal dance. Bhāgavata Purāṇa, trans. Bryant 2003, 125; Gītagovinda of Jayadeva, vv. 26–​37: 74–​76. Cf. the vernal rāsa dance enacted in the Bengali upapurāṇa tradition of the Brahmavaivarta, a seventeenth-​century text. Majumdar 1969, 184.



on your account shall Hari be afflicted with grief. That conduct not attested in the Vedas and Purāṇas was propagated by Iblis. He had an enmity with Ādam, and, for this reason, deludes Ādam’s race.  . . .  In those places where such actions occur, soon enough one sees immorality (adharma) arise. It is not my task to tell of how the Yadu dynasty was destroyed. Hari shan’t be able to meet with Nirañjana. At the time of the Reckoning, he shall suffer great torment.38 Kr̥ṣṇa himself explains apologetically to his devotees that his deluded behavior was instigated by Iblis, the age-​old sworn enemy of Ādam and his race.39


A reminder here of the discursive context of the NV is in order, bearing in mind its distinct relationships to the Arabo-Persian qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ literary tradition and the Bengali carita genre. Sultān’s narrative positioning of the account of Hari in the NV is strategic. Placed between the two longest tale-​cycles, dedicated to Ibrāhim and Musā, the most important pre-​Islamic prophets after Ādam, the position of the Kr̥ṣṇa cycle reveals its centrality to the author’s concerns. At the same time, this positioning allows the account of Kr̥ṣṇa to be overshadowed by the weighty tale-​cycles of the hoary prophets that engulf it. The account of Kr̥ṣṇa, as mentioned earlier, replaces the tale-​cycle of Yūsuf in Kisāʾī’s Qiṣaṣ. In the latter, the tale-​cycle of Yūsuf is one of several that fall between the tale-​cycles of Ibrāhīm and Mūsá: accounts of Lūṭ, Isḥāq, and Yaʿqūb immediately 38. NV 1:498–​499. 39. NV 1:468–​500.

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precede it, and those of Ayyūb and Shuʿayb follow. Kr̥ṣṇa is an apt translation for Yūsuf, since both figures are known in their own traditions for their physical beauty and adulation by women. Additionally, Sultān asserts that he is justified in excluding the tale of Iusuph because it is already well-​ known: “Everyone has heard about all these subjects,” says Sultān; “for this reason, I do not put it into verse.”40 This suggests that the Iusuph-​Jalikhā tale was popular in contemporaneous east Bengal, and indeed at least two east Bengali authors, Śāh Muhammad Sagīr (who probably wrote in the late sixteenth century) and Ābdul Hākim, probably a junior contemporary of Sultān, retold ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān Jāmī’s Yūsuf u Zulaykhā in Bangla.41 If we take a broader view of Sultān’s biographic enterprise, we may discern that, despite his opposition to the Vaiṣṇavas, Sultān perhaps did not hesitate to learn from the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographic tradition. While the qiṣaṣ and sīra literature undoubtedly provided time-​ honored, readymade Islamic narrative templates for Sultān, and the epic and purāṇic traditions of Bengal proffered their literary imaginaire, the ground was perhaps better laid for his choice of genre by the pioneering efforts of Caitanya’s hagiographers, who used religious biography as “a new Bengali medium of theological discourse.”42 As mentioned in Chapter 3, Sultān’s NV could be read as his adoption of the carita genre, which he hones into a weapon and turns back upon the Gauṛīyas as a rejoinder to the contempt with which Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographies treat Muslims and their faith.43 Sultān’s narratological strategies, as we have seen, operate within the intertextual arena of the Kr̥ṣṇa tales so familiar to his audience. While subverting well-​ known mythic patterns, the audience is gradually introduced to key characters and tropes from Islamic mythology. One 40. NV 1:697 41. On Iusuph-​Jalikhā of Śāh Muhammad Sagīr, see Irani 2018b, and on Iusuph-​Jalikhā of Ābdul Hākim, see d’Hubert 2006–​2007. 42. Stewart 2010a, 6. 43. For more instances of contemptuous remarks about Muslims in Vaiṣṇava hagiographies, see Raychaudhuri [1953] 1966, 133.



of Sultān’s challenges in writing a sacred biography was to marshal the charisma of the avatāra to Muhammad’s advantage while nonetheless establishing the Prophet’s supremacy. This end is achieved through the calculated narratological, discursive, and rhetorical strategies, in addition to some peculiar lexical choices, which will be discussed briefly later. All of these strategies serve to re-​present familiar characters and themes in novel ways, affirming the politics at the heart of Sultān’s poetics.

Kr̥ṣṇa’s Flawed Lineage (Vaṃs´ a)

By re​casting Hari/​Kr̥ṣṇa as a prophet in Kābil’s dubious lineage, Sultān dooms him to failure by the very stigma of birth. Hari’s genealogy seems doubly suspect when read in the context, discussed in the previous chapter, of the enmity and internecine wars between the virtuous line of Śiś and the line of Kābil, whose descendants Iblis groomed in idolatry and vice. A descendant of Śiś, moreover, plays a role in admonishing Kr̥ṣṇa in this tale; and the impact of his intervention has to be understood in the context of these earlier tale-​cycles that foreground the tale-​cycle of Hari. Any claims to eminence via the title of nabī, or through the fellowship of the traditional prophets who came before and after him, is instantly diminished by this sleight of genealogical construction, which demotes and thereby sidelines a powerful rival to the Prophet of Islam. Furthermore, the tale boldly insinuates that Bengalis, as idolatrous peoples, are not merely implicated in vice, but are drawn in with their popular god into this degenerate lineage of Kābil. It is in this context that one should also read Sultān’s proleptic prelude to his account of Hari, addressed to respected members of his audience (mahājana), which runs as follows: The messengers were born to save sinners, [and] to prohibit the worship of all idols. When the prophets had all passed on Iblis comes to delude men. He propagates the worship of idols in the world.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


The sugary words of this wicked one beguile all. He pledges to make people perform those acts that would lead them to hell. When he encounters such acts, he feels elated. Such depravity lies in his heart! [Even] if a drop of cow urine falls into a great quantity of milk, that smidgen can completely ruin all of it. Sultān pleads with the worthy (mahājana), “Do not take offence to me. Do not complain that your own birth-​groups (jāti) were deemed wrong. For they have accused me of lying, and criticized me. Assess carefully all that I have said, having evaluated both right and wrong. If I were to speak such lies out of enmity I would fail to be my own person, in my own estimation. Isn’t it proper for all humans to understand the significance of examining these two—​sin and virtue? Your Hari was then created so that you would receive knowledge of doctrine. By Hari’s side, however, remains the wicked sinner Iblis, taking the guise of a sage. The sinner Iblis-​Nārada, along with Hari, ever teaches deeds that are good and evil. Listen, I will tell of how that wicked fellow took up with Hari that you may assess what happened and what didn’t.”44 Iblis-​Naˉ rada, Kr̥ṣṇa’s Friend or Foe?

In addition to his use of the alias Nārada for Iblis, as shown earlier, Sultān substitutes Iblis in the Hari tale-​cycle for roles Nārada traditionally played 44. NV 1:467–​468.



in the Vaiṣṇava tales of Hari. Thus, Iblis replaces Nārada in warning Kaṃsa of Kr̥ṣṇa’s birth.45 What is more, he visits Kaṃsa masquerading as a muni, a sage, evoking Nārada’s traditional depiction as an itinerant ascetic. However, once this translational and eidetic device has been set into motion, the gulf between Nārada’s role in the Bhāgavata and Iblis’s in this section of the NV begins to widen. While Kr̥ṣṇa is initially portrayed as Kaṃsa’s archenemy in both accounts, Kr̥ṣṇa’s mission to kill Kaṃsa and rid the land of evil is not (for obvious reasons) brought up in the NV,46 while Iblis instead comes to the fore as Kr̥ṣṇa’s nemesis. The psychological effect of partnering Iblis with Nārada, I would argue, irrevocably changes a Bengali auditor’s appreciation of Nārada. Having heard the NV’s account of Hari, an auditor would return to kr̥ṣṇalīlā performances with an understanding of Nārada newly cast in Iblis’s penumbra, much in the same way as a film viewer’s reception of Helena Bonham Carter’s role as a housewifely scientist in The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet is shadowed by her more well-​known portrayal of the dark Belatrix in Harry Potter films. Translatorially pairing Iblis with Nārada might have had profound psychological effects upon the NV’s ideal auditors, contributing to a gradual reappraisal of Kr̥ṣṇa’s acts. When Kr̥ṣṇa remains physically invincible to the attacks of all of Iblis and Kaṃsa’s demonic minions—​the wet-​nurse, the snakes, Mahākāla (Yama, the God of Death),47 and others—​Iblis decides to bring about his moral downfall. Initially, he befriends Kr̥ṣṇa by glorifying his divinity, alluding to his earlier divine descents (avatāra):

45. Cf. Bhāgavata Purāṇa, trans. Bryant, 10.1.64:  14. Nārada is also Kaṃsa’s warner in the kr̥ṣṇamaṅgalas; see, for instance, Śrīkr̥ṣṇakīrtana of Baṛu Caṇḍidāsa, 24. However, he is not always disguised as a monk. See, for instance, ibid. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that in the latter text Nārada also warns Vasudeva that his eighth child is none other than Nārāyaṇa, who would save them from Kaṃsa’s clutches. Ibid., 25. 46. In fact, it is noteworthy that Sultān’s account makes no allusion whatsoever to the Bhāgavata tales that pertain to Kr̥ṣṇa’s adult life, after his departure from Vraja. 47. Mendies 1877, s.v. “Mahākāla,” 300.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


You are Hari Janārdana, the essence of the world. By remembering you, sinners shall be saved. You protected the world by assuming the Fish form. In the Boar form you spread the earth upon your tusks. Taking the form of the Man-​Lion, you killed the demons. One by one you destroyed a multitude of ogres. You yourself prevented the earth from sinking into the netherworld, by remaining there in the Tortoise form. Assuming the Dwarf form, you deceived Bali; taking the form of Rāma, you killed Rāvaṇa. Once again, you have now become the Kr̥ṣṇa avatāra—​ and have destroyed all the wicked. I am the sinner, at your feet, who engaged in vile behavior in order to test you. I wished to test you, through one [awful deed] after another, and I directly witnessed your every move. I realized, without doubt, that you are essentially the Supreme Being (paramātmā). You have made your descent, assuming human form.48 This short list of avatāras would be readily familiar to a Bengali audience through the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and its abridged Bengali translations, which focus upon the tale-​cycle of Kr̥ṣṇa. These are also recounted by the biographer Vr̥ndāvanadāsa in the Caitanyabhāgavata as the prelude to Caitanya’s advent.49 Iblis’s argument, moreover, echoes the ways in which Kr̥ṣṇa has been described in Kāśīrāmadāsa’s Bangla Mahābhārata as the pūrṇabrahma, the “fullness of Brahma in human form” (nararūpe pūrṇabrahma).50

48. NV 1:474. 49. See, for instance, Śrīkr̥ṣṇavijaya of Mālādhara Basu, vv. 19–​37, 4–​11. Caitanyabhāgavata of Vr̥ndāvanadāsa, 10. 50. nararūpe pūrṇabrahma ādi nārāyaṇa | sāvadhān haye tāre pūjibe rājana || Māhābhārata of Kāśīrāmadāsa, 628. This is the advice of Vidura to Dhr̥tarāṣṭra, the father of the Kauravas.



With many a doctrinal and moral argument, Iblis cajoles the shy boy Kr̥ṣṇa to succumb to the cowherd women’s amorous advances: . . . you are compassionate of heart, the Lord (deva) as Supreme Being—​what need you fear? You yourself are man, yourself woman: to savor love’s pleasures, you have become twin-​bodied. Why then does doubt plague your mind? Why do you not delight in sex with these young women? These women of respectable families (kulavatī) wish to end their lives due to mental torment. If you were not to sport with them, why did you make these young women so crazed? If these women drop dead because of you, the sin of murdering women will taint you. By nature, you’re only a boy, of juvenile behavior; do not think about good and evil so single-​mindedly! Those women who surrender their bodies to you, do not stray into sin.51 This is why these women ever nurse, in their hearts, a desire to serve you. For you, it is possible to transcend sin—​ do you not know whose creation is virtue and vice? You shall bestow great virtue upon all those women you touch. Were some fetid odor to seep into the ocean, the entire body of water would not become polluted. When burnt by fire even feces becomes pure! Why then do you constantly fear sin? When you are the Supreme Being, why do you become despondent? For what reason do you contemplate virtue and vice?52 51. “Women followers” is a translation for nārī aṅga. Cf. Dimock and Stewart 1999, 1010. 52. NV 1:477–​478.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


This passage shows Sultān’s keen awareness of Vaiṣṇava literature and its tropes. Iblis’s plea on behalf of the married women so besotted by Kr̥ṣṇa that they would end their lives, with Kr̥ṣṇa thence accused of their murder, echoes the very entreaties women make in texts such as Mālādhara Basu’s Śrīkr̥ṣṇavijaya: None of us cowherd women shall return home. Revive us with the nectar of your lips, O Śrī Hari! Or else, we will blame you for the murder of women. You will be known in this world as a murderer of women. Only then will this torment of ours cease. We have become tainted women for your sake, yet you turn away from us.53 In this manner, Sultān first begins to deride Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava doctrine through the character of Iblis, picking on a contentious Vaiṣṇava theological issue to unhinge the tale at its weakest point. He takes advantage of the Bhāgavata’s slippage between the sacred and the profane nature of Kr̥ṣṇa’s acts, which even its own theologians were at pains to defend, flipping emic, Gauṛīya conceptions of Kr̥ṣṇa’s salvific acts into etic, Islamic claims of their blasphemous nature. Iblis’s exhortations hinge upon the moral justification the Bhāgavata Purāṇa itself provides for Kr̥ṣṇa’s affairs, a view defended centuries later by the greatest of orthodox Vaiṣṇava exegetes, Rūpa Gosvāmī, in the Ujjvalanīlamaṇi: Kr̥ṣṇa, as Supreme Being, cannot be judged by the standards of conventional morality, for he lies beyond the mundane world.54 His līlās, as Tony Stewart elucidates in the context of Caitanya’s hagiographies, “denote a play that answers only to itself.”55 Yet through such heresiographic and polemical intertextuality, Sultān critiques the religious traditions of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas through the

53. Śrīkr̥ṣṇavijaya of Mālādhara Basu, vv. 1063–​1065, 149. 54. Dimock 1966, 56. See also Bhāgavata Purāṇa, trans. Bryant 2003, 10.33.26–​39: 142–​143. 55. Stewart 2010a, 68.



twin lenses of conventional morality and Islamic ethics on zināʾ, adultery. In doing so, Sultān provides a new definition of “Hari”: one who “steals other’s wives” (para nārī hari), parodying Vaiṣṇava exegesis of the holy name.56 “Hari” formed from the Sanskrit verbal root “hr̥,” “to steal,” is explained thus in the Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta: The word “Hari” has many meanings, and two are chief: that which steals away inauspiciousness, and that which steals the mind by prema [pure love]. He who remembers him in any way whatsoever, he steals away his four kinds of sin. . . . So he does to avidyā, and karma, which obstructs bhakti, and reveals prema as the fruit of listening and the rest. So by his own qualities he steals mind, senses, and body; such is Kr̥ṣṇa full of mercy, such are his qualities. He causes one to abandon the four ends of man, and by his qualities steals the hearts of all. Thus are the signs of the principal meanings of the word “Hari.”57 Sultān’s nuanced formulation of Kr̥ṣṇa’s divinity, which Iblis “teaches” the boy Kr̥ṣṇa, completely unaware of his own divine nature,58 is crafted with sophistication. While it continues the purāṇic daśāvatāra conceptions of

56. eke hari mahājana āra para nāri | kibā yukta āche nitya para nāri hari || NV 1:491. 57. This is Dimock and Stewart’s translation, in Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta of Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, 2.24: 44–​48, p. 726. hari śabde nānā artha dui mukhyatama | sarvva amaṅgala hare prema diyā hare mana || haiche taiche yoi koi karaye smaraṇa | cārividha tāpa tāra kare saṃharaṇa || . . .  tabe kare bhakti-​ bādhaka karma avidyā nāśa | śravaṇādyera phala premā karaye prakāśa || nijaguṇe tabe hare dehendriyamana | eiche kr̥pālu kr̥ṣṇa eiche tām̐ra guṇa || cāri puruṣārtha chāṛāya hare sabāra mana | hari śabdera ei mukhya kahila lakṣaṇa || Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta of Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, abridged and edited by Sukumar Sen, 394–​395. 58. Sultān carves out a role for Iblis to pose as teacher to Kr̥ṣṇa of his own divinity. This fits well, as Stewart (ibid., 76)  has shown, with depictions, in the Bhāgavata and its commentaries, of Kr̥ṣṇa being unaware of his own godliness, and thereby having “to ‘learn’ his own nature.”

Hari the Fallen Prophet


divine descent,59 it breaks with tradition in a daring new way. Dramatically inverting the hagiographers’ rhetorical strategy to model Caitanya’s image on Kr̥ṣṇa, Sultān describes Kr̥ṣṇa’s divinity in a manner that alludes to Caitanya. In this context, Iblis’s statement is worthy of careful scrutiny: You yourself are man, yourself woman: to savor love’s pleasures, you have become twin-​bodied.60 At the primary level of meaning, this statement could be read as expressing the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava theological principle of acintyabhedābheda:  the kr̥ṣṇāvatāra, as Supreme Being (paramātmādeva), while transcending all worldly categories is simultaneously immanent in every aspect of creation. In these transcendent and immanent ways, he is, simultaneously and inconceivably, both male and female. As the Supreme Creator, he has created gendered pairs to savor love’s pleasures through them. The secondary level of meaning is wrapped up with the idea that the kr̥ṣṇāvatāra, as incarnate in human form, embodies both male and female aspects. And it is in this way that these lines allude to a key theological construct of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas. By the 1600s, the theory circulated, especially through its crystallization in Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja’s Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta, that Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya was the androgynous dual avatāra of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa.61 According to Kr̥ṣṇadāsa, Kr̥ṣṇa decided to 59. NV 1:474. 60. āpane puruṣa tumhi āpane yuvatī | dui ghaṭe haïcha tumhi bhuñjite sūrati || NV 1:474 Literally, “you have become a dual receptacle.” “Receptacle,” here, is a translation of ghaṭa, which primarily is a pitcher, a container, or receptacle, and is often used to refer to the body or the mind as the “receptacle” for the soul. Bandyopādhyāya 1996, s.v. “ghaṭa.” This is clearly an allusion to Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya’s androgynous dual incarnation. See below. 61. According to Stewart (personal correspondence, January 16, 2008), though this theory “was probably known to a few as early as 1520,” it did “not circulate widely (at least textually) until about 1600.” Stewart mentioned that this theory was formally unveiled in Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta of Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, 2.8. “Until that time,” Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya, says Stewart, “was popularly known as the yugāvatāra of the Kali Age.” For the development of this theory in the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographical tradition, and its final explicit formulation in Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja’s Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta, trans. Dimock, 2.8, see Stewart 2010a, 166–​188. For Kr̥ṣṇa’s separate pairing with Balarāma and Arjuna respectively, see Miller 1982, 25–​26.



descend to earth in the form of Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya for the secondary and “external reason” of re-​establishing dharma in the kali age. However, he specifically assumes the form of an androgyne for the “internal reason”—​the primary one for his descent—​of experiencing more fully Rādhā’s sweet bliss in loving him.62 Thus, in Caitanya’s form, Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa remain in “the embrace of eternal union, making their experience one, yet separate to allow Kr̥ṣṇa mysteriously to taste this love both as himself and, most importantly, as Rādhā.”63 In the context of Sultān’s larger polemic, this verse, as recognized by France Bhattacharya,64 could be read as an allusion to Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya’s biographical image as androgynous avatāra, here retrospectively superimposed on the god Kr̥ṣṇa. This particular androgynous construction of Caitanya’s divinity had barely emerged around 1580 in Kavikarṇapura’s Caitanyacandrodaya Nāṭaka,65 and was further developed, as Tony K.  Stewart demonstrates, by Locanadāsa in his Caitanyamaṅgala (1600). However, the concept was doctrinally consolidated in Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja’s Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta, completed in 1615 c.e.66 This allusion to Kr̥ṣṇa as Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya allows Sultān to castigate Caitanya without once naming him. By conflating the two figures, not only does he link the affairs of Kr̥ṣṇa as nāgara, the urbane lover-​hero of classical poetry, to the figure of Iblis, thus sullying the supreme deity of Bengal’s Vaiṣṇavas, but he also invites his audience to connect Iblis with Caitanya, who was well-​known by Sultān’s time as the nadiyā nāgara (the beloved hero of Nadiyā, the birthplace of Caitanya).67

62. Dimock and Stewart 1999, 99–​106. 63. Ibid., 103. 64. France Bhattacharya 1999, 200. 65. Concerning this approximate date, see Manring 2005, 30. 66. Concerning the development of this doctrine in the hagiographical literature, see Stewart 2010a, 163–​188. The year 1615 c.e. is the date of the oldest extant manuscript of the Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta. See ibid., 297. 67. Ibid., 58, 151–​157.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


Arjuna as Kr̥ṣṇa’s Counsellor: A Reversal of Roles

The introduction of Arjuna is another distinctive feature of Sultān’s account of Kr̥ṣṇa. Notably, Arjuna, a key figure in the Mahābhārata and the addressee of the Bhagavad Gītā, makes rare appearances in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. His role in the NV, however, is that of Kr̥ṣṇa’s confidant, who is sent with a message to the cowherd women of Vraja. In this role of emissary between Kr̥ṣṇa and the Vraja women, Arjuna’s character overlaps with that of Uddhava in the Bhāgavata, whom Kr̥ṣṇa sends to the cowherd women with good tidings from Mathurā after his triumph over Kaṃsa. The content of the Bhāgavata’s message, of course, differs entirely from that of the NV. In the Bhāgavata, Kr̥ṣṇa sends a message of love and hope to Vraja’s pining gopīs; Uddhava appreciates the gopīs’ devotion as the highest kind of bhakti.68 The NV’s Arjuna, instead, is entrusted with appealing to the cowherd women’s love for Kr̥ṣṇa to cease worshiping him—​ a false god—​if they desire his salvation and theirs. He entreats them to turn, instead, to the singular Lord of all, Prabhu Nirañjana. Another parallel between Arjuna and Uddhava is also noteworthy. Thirteen chapters of the eleventh book of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa constitute what is popularly known as the Uddhava Gītā, a text that has been called “a second Bhagavad Gītā.”69 The sermon Kr̥ṣṇa delivers to his beloved devotee, Uddhava, unable to bear Kr̥ṣṇa’s decision to depart from the world, has been compared to the discourse he gave Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukṣetra, in terms of the range of metaphysical and practical social issues covered.70 Despite these parallels, the question arises as to why Sultān chooses to substitute Arjuna for Uddhava, given that his models rarely mention Arjuna. One possible reason may concern Sultān’s audience, which may potentially have included east Bengal’s courts:  Arjuna was probably more easily recognizable to such patrons. Evidence

68. Bryant 2003, 10.46–​47: 190–​202. 69. Ibid., 406. 70. See, for instance, ibid.



suggests that the stories of the Mahābhārata were much appreciated at the courts of Muslim rulers of Bengal.71 As noted in Chapter 1, Kavīndra Parameśvaradāsa’s abridged version, the earliest Bengali adaptation of the Mahābhārata, was written for Parāgal Khān, the governor of Chittagong, appointed by ʿAlāʾ al-​Dīn Ḥusayn Shāh, ruler of Bengal between 1493 and 1519.72 Sañjaya’s Mahābhārata too was popular in east Bengal. Perhaps the most important reason for Sultān’s replacement of Uddhava, however, was that this serves a dramatic purpose. Indeed, Kr̥ṣṇa’s ultimate toppling in the final episode is a narrative tour de force. In a reversal of roles, a crestfallen Kr̥ṣṇa is counseled by none other than Arjuna, well known for being the despondent disciple whom Kr̥ṣṇa exhorts, in the Bhagavad Gītā, to martial and spiritual victory. In Sultān’s account, Arjuna emerges as Kr̥ṣṇa’s moral superior: it is he who lends a sympathetic ear to Kr̥ṣṇa’s remorse; it is he who witnesses his abortive ascension into paradise and repudiation by female celestials; it is he who is deputed to convince devotees that the very Lord whom they worshiped had led them astray. This volte-​face signals the god’s ultimate defeat, his failing of the Vaiṣṇavas who looked upon him as Bhagavān, their personal god.

Kr̥ṣṇa’s Disastrous Ascension and Fall from Grace

Sultān’s novel account of Kr̥ṣṇa’s disastrous ascension seals his dramatic fate as a doomed anti-​hero. The tale uses the “ascent to paradise” (svargārohaṇa) motif generic to South Asian hagiographies,73 though

71. Ibid., 23–​24. 72. For the passage in which Saiyad Sultān states that he draws inspiration from the “Parāgalī Mahābhārata,” referring to the afore-​mentioned work composed by Kavīndra Parameśvaradāsa, under the patronage of Parāgal Khān, see Chapter 1, and n. 76. Cf. Mahābhārata of Kavīndra Parameśvaradāsa, 1: 12. For dates of Ḥusayn Shāh’s rule, see Eaton 1993, 325. Concerning east Bengali adaptations of the Mahābhārata, see Satkari Mukhopadhyaya 1987, 23. 73. Concerning svargārohaṇa (ascent into paradise) as a generic motif of North Indian hagiographies, see W. L. Smith 2000, Chapter 15. Concerning this motif in the oral epic Canainī, see Pandey 1982, 606.

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cast in the mold of an Islamic ascension tale,74 drawing Kr̥ṣṇa into stark comparison with Muhammad’s successful miʿrāj. The episode also invites comparison with the myth of Kr̥ṣṇa’s final ascension into Vaikuṇṭha in his chariot drawn by the legendary bird garuḍa—​a myth of the Mahābhārata and the Bhāgavata, on which at least one of the many death narratives of Caitanya was also patterned.75 Echoing the qurʾānic nadhīr, “admonisher,”76 the critical voices of three Islamic or Islamicate figures reprimand the truant Kr̥ṣṇa:  an unnamed king of Śiś’s lineage, a heavenly voice, and the celestial women. All three serve to remind him of his mission on earth—​the reinstatement of righteous action (dharma karma)—​and the degree to which he has strayed from his appointed path. They chide him for his depraved mortal existence and disabuse him of his erroneous sense of divinity. It is pertinent that the King of Śiś’s lineage is brought in here, once again recalling the polarized clans peculiar to the NV, discussed in Chapter 4, clans of the virtuous Śiś and that of the fallen Kābil to which Hari belongs. The celestial women, who invite comparison with the houris of Islamic tradition, administer Kr̥ṣṇa Sultān’s coup de grace:  with brickbats and abuse they dispatch him back to earth forthwith, and seek to dispossess him of his devotees. To redeem himself, they require him to reveal his “true,” mortal nature to his followers, and insist that they give up worshiping idols of him and his consort Rādhā, and cease to sing his name.

74. By this, I specifically refer to the various metallic and gem-​studded spheres, and the realms of darkness, that Kr̥ṣṇa and Arjuna traverse to reach paradise. The pair travel through spheres constituted of iron, silver, pearl, coral, gold, diamond, and darkness. NV 1:493–​494. This series is different from the mineral constitution of the spheres in other sections of the NV. Cf. the earth’s plea, NV 1:27, discussed in Chapter 4, n. 79, and the narrative of the Prophet’s ascension, NV 2:279, discussed in Chapter 6; and the Ibn ʿAbbās acension narrative, Colby 2008, Table 1, 138–​141. 75. Concerning Jayānanda Miśrā’s narrative in his Caitanyamaṅgala of Caitanya’s death and ascension to Vaikuṇṭha in Viṣṇu’s chariot which bore a garuḍa banner, and its clear patterning on the myth of Kr̥ṣṇa’s final departure and ascent in the Bhāgavata and the Mahābhārata, see Stewart 1991, 245. 76. This term, along with bashīr, “announcer,” is used widely in the Qurʾān as synonyms for rasūl, “messenger.” For more details, see Tottoli 2002, n. 8, 77.



Sultān scathingly attacks the doctrine of divine descent (avatāravāda) through these celestial women’s admonitions. The nymphs strive to correct the misguided Kr̥ṣṇa thus: Nirañjana bid you to take a human form so that you may nurture human beings in manifest form. Of the many forms that Nirañjana has created, you are [but] one. Just as the Lord is immanent in all people, so too is He within you. You are told that you have ten avatāras, as though you could have taken birth time and again! A single being (jīva) cannot transmigrate through two bodies; it dwells in the same body within which it was born. Why would a person the Lord created at a particular moment return after death? Why would the Lord create the same kind [of being] again? Why would He send down the same one again and again? If we were to enjoy the fruits of sin and virtue here [on earth], then the meeting with the Lord [on the Day of Reckoning] would be revoked! If we enjoyed the fruits of sin and virtue here, why then did the Lord create heaven and hell?77 The women describe the doctrine of rebirth, on which the concept of the daśāvatāras is partially based, as theologically untenable. The eschatological principles of classical Islam stipulate that every human soul be attached to a single body, and that each must meet its final judgment on the Day of Reckoning, yaum al-​ḥisāb; this requires that each soul be accountable for the actions committed during its earthly sojourn. The women rule out the possibility of a single soul transmigrating through two or more

77. NV 1:495–​496.

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bodies; presumably this would complicate matters of individual accountability and divine bookkeeping (ḥisāb) for individual souls. The women, thus, speak out against the doctrine of karma, since, from their point of view, this throws into redundancy both a just God and his system of reward and punishment.


Sultān thus employs the Kr̥ṣṇa tale-​cycle to dismiss the supreme deity of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas, evaluating the theological and salvific doctrines of the sect from the perspectives of orthodox Islamic soteriology and praxis. The content of Sultān’s attack can be indexed according to the Vaiṣṇava doctrines and practices that he questions: first, the devotional practice of kīrtana, singing and dancing to Kr̥ṣṇa’s name; second, worship of the idols of Kr̥ṣṇa and Rādhā, his consort; third, the affairs of married women with Kr̥ṣṇa as a salvific necessity; and finally, the nature of the Supreme Being and doctrine of divine descent (avatāravāda). Worshiping the image of Kr̥ṣṇa and singing his name are recognized in the Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta as two of the five most important forms of Vaiṣṇava ritual practice.78 Furthermore, the Bhāgavata stresses the importance of hearing the tales of Kr̥ṣṇa, to increase devotion and overcome both ignorance and desire.79 While the NV nowhere names the Gauṛīyas as the arch-​rivals of Islam, it makes reference to specific Vaiṣṇava practices pioneered by the Gauṛīyas: Everyone believed that this practice was beneficial. It was said that one accrues virtue by thus contemplating Kr̥ṣṇa, the cowherd (gopāla). This is why they made idols of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa (kānāi), and ever meditated [upon them] by purifying their thoughts. 78. Dimock and Stewart 1999, 113. 79. Bryant 2003, xxx.



They played the mr̥daṅga drum, the kānnāla/​karṇāla wind instrument, and the conch, proclaiming Hari’s sport with the married women. While playing, they sang, stamping their feet. They pronounced [the names of] Hari’s mistresses. When he heard this, Iblis-​Nārada’s mind thrilled, [while] the earth wept from the assault of their feet.80 We find here reference to the public performance of kīrtana, which, as discussed earlier, is a uniquely Gauṛīya practice.81 While the text does not specifically mention outdoor performance, it clearly refers to dance, and presents kīrtana as if it were commonplace and publicly observable. More specifically, singing kīrtana while “enunciating the play of Hari with the married women” suggests līlākīrtana, the practice of singing songs associated with the play of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa during a public kīrtana. At the inaugural festival at Kheturi, Narottamadāsa instituted the convention that such līlākīrtana would follow gauracandrikā, songs on the life of Caitanya, which opened the kīrtana—​conventions that continue to be a part of Bengal kīrtana even today.82 The reference to the earth being injured by the trampling feet of Kr̥ṣṇa’s dancing devotees underscores the widespread nature of public kīrtana. Moreover, this is a parodic twist on the purāṇic trope of the earth’s tearful entreaties to Viṣṇu, discussed in Chapter  4, entreaties to alleviate her burden of sinful beings. This could also be read as a pointed reference to a trope in the biographical literature around Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya. In the Caitanyamaṅgala of Jayānanda (composed at the latest by 1550),83 the earth, plagued by the atrocities of demons and mlecchas (foreign barbarians, i.e., Muslims) in the kali age pleads for a savior, and is rewarded with the 80. NV 1:498–​499. See also NV 1:497. 81. This argument is put forward by Sanyāla 1989, Chapter Two. 82. For details on Narottamadāsa’s innovations to kīrtana, including līlākīrtana, see ibid., 182–​183. 83. For this dating, see Majumdar and Mukhopadhyay [1971] 2006, viii.

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descent of Kr̥ṣṇa in the form of Caitanya. Jayānanda describes the latter as “the abode of kīrtana” (kīrtana dhāma), giver of the precious “wish-​ fulfilling gem of Hari’s name,” which counteracts the tenacious grip of the kali age.84 When the NV casts the clamorous mob of Hari’s dancing devotees as sinners who made the earth wail in agony from the assault of their feet, he seems to parody the praise of kīrtana’s salvific effect on the earth in Vr̥ndāvanadāsa’s Caitanyabhāgavata, an earlier biography of Caitanya, written, at the earliest, in 1538:85 Taking the form of the Lord (Bhāgavata) in this [Caitanya] avatāra, he shall practice kīrtana, the repeated chanting of Hari’s name, irradiating, thereby, all his divine powers. The entire world shall be filled with saṃkīrtana, the communal practice of singing kīrtana. Devotional love shall be spread to every home. How can I describe the earth’s expressions of joy? You shall dance together with all of Hari’s servants (dāsa). All misfortune is dispelled as a result of those who dance while meditating upon the [Lord’s] lotus feet. Striking the ground with the feet [in dance] destroys the earth’s misfortunes. A mere glance, and the ten directions become felicitous. Dancing with arms upraised destroys the obstacles to paradise. Such glory! Such dancing! Such are your servants!86 Notably, the NV passage quoted above refers to the making and worship of twin images (yugalamūrti) of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa—​a practice, as suggested by texts such as the Premavilāsa, which was initiated in the second half of the sixteenth century by Jāhnavā Devī, the second wife of Nityānanda

84. Caitanyamaṅgala of Jayānanda, 8–​9. 85. For this dating, see Majumdar and Mukhopadhyay [1971] 2006, viii. 86. Caitanyabhāgavata of Vr̥ndāvanadāsa, 10.



Ṭhākura, one of Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya’s intimate circle of four male companions (pañcatattva).87 The Kheturi festival created a public forum for the consecration of five icons of the twin images of Kr̥ṣṇa and Rādhā (and a sixth of Caitanya and Viṣṇupriyā), after which time worship of the yugalamūrti became commonplace across Bengal.88 Jīva Gosvāmī later instructed the community to place an image of Rādhā beside that of Kr̥ṣṇa for the purposes of worship.89 From this time onward, opines Sukumar Sen, “a solitary image of Kr̥ṣṇa is not worshipped in Bengal, unless it is an ancient image of Viṣṇu or Vāsudeva or an image of Kr̥ṣṇa as a crawling infant.”90 Before engaging with the Islamic conception of godhead and the Vaiṣṇava doctrine of avatāravāda, it would be useful to compare the soteriological system of Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism with that of Islam. Salvation in Islamic eschatology means emancipation from sin and eternal damnation. Though Sultān uses the Sanskrit-​Bengali word pāpa for “sin” in the Islamic sense of transgressing God’s law, the word conveys a different meaning to a Vaiṣṇava. Pāpa, in Vaiṣṇava parlance, involves a life without devotion to God, a “divergence from dharma” or God’s will as it is conveyed through his cosmic order.91 As Dimock and Stewart observe: the term means a kind of intellectual blindness, an inability, or a lack of desire, to see what exists as the true relationship between the self and God, reciprocal love. If sin is blindness, salvation is light; and indeed, this is one of the images which the Vaiṣṇavas commonly use. The soul, the individual creature, the jīva, is stumbling about in the darkness of the material world, deluded in the darkness of the material world, deluded in the darkness into thinking that what is not real

87. Regarding Jāhnavā Devī’s desire to install an image of Rādhā beside the image of Madanamohana in Vr̥ndāvana, see Premavilāsa of Nityānandadāsa, 110. 88. Premavilāsa of Nityānandadāsa, 153–​160. Kunal Chakrabarti 1991, 452. 89. Sukumar Sen 1935, 481. 90 . Ibid. 91. Stewart 1995a, 375.

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is real, that the rope is a snake, that the things of the world and of the flesh are man’s true ends.92 According to the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas, it is Kr̥ṣṇa, the supreme godhead, in the form of either his avatāras or the guru, who holds out the light—​ the light of truth that breaks such delusion, the delusion of māyā.93 And bhakti, devotion to Bhagavān, “the personal aspect of the absolute”94—​ Kr̥ṣṇa himself—​is the best, most efficacious path to truth.95 Salvation, the liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth (saṃsāra), to abide eternally in Kr̥ṣṇa’s transcendent realm of Goloka,96 occurs when the devotee “leav[es] himself open to Kr̥ṣṇa, becomes possessed by Kr̥ṣṇa.”97 This is the behavior of the ideal devotee, which the married cowherd women of Vraja unwittingly enact, without any desire for salvation. In point of fact, the Bhāgavata, in contrast to other Indian philosophical systems, downplays the importance of liberation, the desire to savor the sweetness of Kr̥ṣṇa eternally being more attractive to a devotee than liberation itself.98 Breaking with contemporary social convention, the Bhāgavata immortalizes these humble cowherd women as the greatest of bhaktas, presenting them as forsaking their all for Kr̥ṣṇa—​not only their egos, but their dharma toward their husbands and children, and with these their social prestige, leaving themselves vulnerable to dire societal condemnation.99 92. Dimock and Stewart 1999, 107–​108. 93. Bryant (2003, xxvi) translates māyā as “divine illusion,” with a further helpful paraphrase from the Bhāgavata’s 10.40.23: “the illusory power that keeps the jīva souls bewildered by the sense objects of this world and ensnared in saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death, by their karma, or reactions to their previous actions.” 94. Ibid., xlvii. 95. Dimock and Stewart 1999, 108–​109. 96. Concerning Goloka, see Bryant 2003, xxxviii. 97. Dimock and Stewart 1999, 115. 98. Bryant 2003, xlvii. 99. Through their very act of taking refuge in Kr̥ṣṇa alone, these women draw his absolute protection. Thus, as they nightly, through the autumnal month, participate in the rāsa dance, Kr̥ṣṇa ensures by his illusory power that their sleeping husbands do not miss their wives. He



“The Bhāgavata,” as Bryant suggests, “gives a novel meaning to the traditional concept of dharma, normally understood as social and familial duty, by constructing it in the context of bhakti as denoting unalloyed devotion and service to Kr̥ṣṇa . . .”100 Sultān’s metatext of the legends of Kr̥ṣṇa’s childhood and youth constitutes a biting polemic of the Bhāgavata’s theology and seeks to measure its radical interpretation of dharma, duty and righteous action, by appealing to both conventional Indian standards of morality and Islamic law, as laid down in the Qurʾān (17:32) and the sunna. The Qurʾān (17:32) considers adultery (zināʾ) to be fāḥisha, “an obscene act of transgression against God from which a Muslim should refrain.”101 A  transgression, punishable by hell, of what in the Qurʾān is called ḥudūd Allāh, “God’s boundaries,”102 adultery stands alongside the transgressions of homicide and shirk, associating others with God103—​by far the worst kind of violation, for which, according to the Qurʾān, there is no forgiveness.104 By claiming to be a god, moreover, Hari commits the greatest sin in Islam. For as the Qurʾān (21:29) states: “If any of them should say, ‘I am a god besides Him,’ such a one We should reward with Hell: thus do We reward those who do wrong.”105 Sultān’s rhetorical strategies are multi-​layered and involve textual choices that often appear doctrinally inconsistent, yet nonetheless inhere in an Islamic framework of theological coherence.106 The first rhetorical strategy Sultān employs is to de​valorize Kr̥ṣṇa’s supreme divinity, which centuries guarantees that these women escape any form of social slander. Bhāgavata Purāṇa, trans. Bryant, 10.33.37: 143. 100. Ibid., liii. 101. Abu-​Zahra 2011. 102. Kimber 2011. 103. Abu-​Zahra 2011. 104. Mustansir 2011b. 105. The Qurʾān, ed. and trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 827. 106. I derive this idea from Stewart (2010a, n. 31: 21) who alerted me to “the idea of ‘coherent but not necessarily consistent’,” which he derives from Lakoff and Johnson 1980.

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of Vaiṣṇava literati before him had striven to magnify,107 demoting him to a nabī, a prophet. This is in keeping with the tendency among medieval South Asian Muslim authors to rechristen Hindu deities as pre-​Islamic prophets,108 a feature that inheres within the Islamic world-​view, which emphasizes the supreme omnipotence of a God who creates all things, including prophets. This demotion to human status was also not difficult for Sultān to accomplish, for the Vaiṣṇava doctrine of descent allows for the avatāra to take human birth when circumstances of moral decline demand it. This single move shears Kr̥ṣṇa of his absolute power, making him instead a human agent of the godhead. Simultaneously it includes him in a prophetic hierarchy, whose traditional prophets share this common humanity, though they may be bestowed with traits more noble than Sultān’s Hari. Indeed, with the prophet Hari, Sultān presses further:  he presents him as being born in the line of Kābil, as we have seen, bringing into question his very spiritual pedigree. Unlike other failed pre-​Islamic prophets in the NV, Sultān’s Kr̥ṣṇa shows not the least spark of prophetic virtue. In point of fact, he is first infantilized as a vulnerable, giddy boy, a creature of his senses incapable of right judgment and an easy target for Iblis. Later, he is caricatured as a vile and wretched man who preys upon other men’s wives. To be a false god, and consequently Sultān’s derelict “prophet,” he strips Kr̥ṣṇa of every trace of divinity, and divests him of his devotees by presenting him as a loathsome mortal, with no moral, what to speak of spiritual, authority, calling into question the very status of prophethood Sultān grudgingly, albeit strategically, confers upon him. 107. Concerning doctrinal differences in the Vaiṣṇava sects regarding the supremedeity godhead, see Bryant 2003, xix and xxi. Sultān’s reference to Kr̥ṣṇa as mahājana, moreover, is particularly sardonic, since in the Vaiṣṇava context the term is used for Kr̥ṣṇa’s exemplary devotees who establish the path of dharma. See, for instance, Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta of Kr̥ṣṇaadāsa Kavirāja, trans. Dimock, 2.17.174–175: 592 as explanation for the relevant verse in the Vanaparvan of the Mahābhārata (3.13.117). 108. The move to re-​christen Hindu gods as prophets is not uncommon in premodern Indo-​ Islamic literature. See, for instance, the Sirr-​i Akbar (“The Greatest Secret”) of Dārā Shukūh (1615–​1659); this ecumenical work names Hindu gods as ancient prophets, Brahmā here being identical to Ādam. Friedmann 2003, 56. In Bangla literature, see also brahma haila mahāmad biṣṇu haila pekāmbara ādamph haila sulapāni | ganeśa haila gājī kātika haila kāji phakir hailyā jata muni, quoted from Nirañjanera Uṣmā, in Ferrari 2004, 256.



The second set of contradictory rhetorical moves that Sultān makes is to castigate the doctrine of descent, while explicitly co-​opting the concept of the aṃśāvatāra (“descent from a part”) and, implicitly, that of the yugāvatāra (“the avatāra for the age”). I contend that this opens up a liminal space for Muhammad’s ultimate displacement of Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya as messiah for the kali age. Sultān’s appropriation of the term avatāra and its cognates, in the face of this outright dismissal of avatāravāda, shows his acknowledgment of the ponderous semantic load of such terms, as well as his attempt to profit from both the mantle of authority these confer upon his religious ideal and the religious imaginaire these conjure for his auditors. Sultān’s play with language codes and theological crossovers is made plausible by a foundational rhetorical move that makes all others possible: to establish translational equivalence between avatāra and nabī. In a significant translatorial note provided early on in the text, long before the tale-​cycle of Hari begins, he glosses the word nabī thus: That which we call avatāra, we [also] call nabī: the nabī was created to impart goodness and well-​being.109 Following in the footsteps of medieval Muslim discourse in South Asia, Sultān identifies the Islamic nabī, prophet, with the Vaiṣṇava concept of the avatāra. As early as 1208, Māḥmūd of Ghazna had minted silver coins with the shahāda in Arabic on the obverse, translated into Sanskrit on the reverse via the formula avyaktam eka (“The Singular Unmanifest,” for lā ilāha illā-​llāh) muhammada avatāra (“Muhammad is his avatāra,” for muḥammad rasūl allāh).110 109. avatāra yāre buli nabī buli tāre | nabīka sr̥jila bhālāi jānāibāre || NV 1:48. 110. Sircar 1968, 19. The image of the coin (Registration number: OR.2395; Object Reference Number: COC35286; Additional IDs: HSBC.1484) can be found on the British Museum website, accessed here:  http://​​research/​collection_​online/​collection_​object_​details.aspx?searchText=Mahmud%20of%20Ghazna&ILINK%7C34484,%7CassetId=448 733001&objectId=896294&partId=1. Also see Muzaffar Alam’s (1996, 174; 1989, 40)  comments on ʿAbd al-​Wāḥid Bilgrāmī’s Haqāʾiq-​i  Hindī.

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Sultān’s translatorial note, however, reveals his agenda:  he imports the concept of the nabī to demolish the avatāra, for it is the nabī, after all, who “imparts goodness and well-​being.” In the following section we explore certain characteristics, germane to yet shared by the independent semantic fields of the nabī and the avatāra, which make such code-​switching and doctrinal cavorting seamless for the author and his socio-​textual community.


General Observations

In order to fully comprehend the semantic field of the term nabī in Sultān’s usage, and how it compares to the classical Islamic conception of nubuwwa, prophethood, I have studied the word’s numerous occurrences in the NV, and the meanings that can be derived from the literary contexts in which these are embedded. The Qurʾān’s “conception of prophecy,” as Tottoli observes, is neither “cohesive or complete,” but “constitutes the essential starting points for later speculation.”111 “The rasūl,” according to the Qurʾān, is “a man who receives revelations from God and who has the obligation to communicate them to his people.”112 Accordingly, he is “intimately related to the people to whom he is sent, being one of them and speaking their language.”113 Muḥammad is also referred to as a nabī in the Qurʾān (indeed he is the “seal of the prophets,” khātam al-​nabīyyīn, Q 33:40), like the biblical prophets Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Idrīs, Job, Jonah, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Jesus, Elijah, Elisha, and Lot. The only “prophets” other than Muḥammad to be designated in the Qurʾān as “messengers” are Noah, Ishmael, Moses, Lot, Jesus, and the Arabians Hūd, Ṣāliḥ, and Shuʿayb.114 111. Tottoli 2002, 71. 112. Ibid., 72. 113 . Ibid. 114. Ibid., 72–​73.



The Qurʾān (6:89) specifically associates the list of “prophets” from Noah to Lot provided above with scripture (al-​kitāb), asserting that the revelation of scripture is one of the characteristics of prophethood.115 The term rasūl is used in the Qurʾān in connection with stories of punishment, wherein God exterminates those peoples who reject the teachings of their messengers.116 Moreover, rasūl is the term used for Muḥammad in the Meccan sūras of the Qurʾān, revealed at a time when he was “rejected” as a messenger, whereas nabī is the term used for him in the Medinan period, when he became “prophet and patriarch.”117 As Tottoli argues, “the prerogative of a nabī was to guide his own people in the name of a sacred book which was revealed to him and this function was performed by Muḥammad only after his transfer to Medina.”118 Though the Qurʾān was not concerned with ranking the status of rasūl and nabī,119 Muslim commentarial traditions ranked the rasūl as superior to the nabī. Pace Q 6:89, commentators have proposed that a rasūl is a prophet who bears a message, a scripture, whereas a nabī does not bear any such message; others specify that a rasūl is a prophet who gives a new sharīʿa, religious law, whereas a nabī continues the old one.120 Muslim scholars like Ibn Saʿd (d. A.H. 230) maintain that Muhammad was one of 315 rasūl, whereas there have been 1,000 prophets; other sources allude to 124,000 prophets.121 For commentators like Baydāwī, the rarity of rasūl compared to prophets suggest that they are superior to prophets.122 The Persian qiṣaṣ tradition uses the term payghāmbar, which technically translates as “one who bears a message” but, in fact, bears a technical

115. Ibid., 73. 116. Ibid., 75–​76. 117. Ibid., 76. 118. Ibid., 75. 119. Ibid., 74. 120. Rubin 2006, 241. 121. Thackston 1997, n. 20, xxxiii. 122. Rubin 2006, 241.

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definition in these texts that sets it apart from both nabī and rasūl. Thus, Nīshābūrī observes that there was no rasūl who was sent between the times of the messengers Ṣāliḥ and Ibrāhīm, ranking the rasūl as higher than the payghāmbar, since the latter are “those who see it [revelation] in dream, but no scripture (waḥī) is given them, nor are they possessors of a sharīʿat.”123 Nabī is the term most widely used in the NV when referring to pre-​ Islamic prophets, and while it is also used to indicate Muhammad, the designation rasūl (B. rasul) is used far more frequently in reference to him. Sultān is not consistent, however, in maintaining a strict difference between nabī and rasul. In addition, he uses the Persian term, “payghāmbar” (B. paygāmbar) for pre-​Islamic prophets as well as the Prophet Muhammad almost as frequently as he uses the term nabī.124 Thus, when speaking of Muhammad, the soothsayer Iusuph predicts, . . . “this child has been born with three attributes. No other paygāmbar will be born after him. First, he shall be a nabī, protecting the world. Second, he shall achieve the beatific office of paygāmbarī. Third, he shall be a rasul who shall receive a book. In that book, the past and future are revealed. None has received a title such as this. Know that he is the last rasul.”125

123. Va miyān-​i ū [Ṣāliḥ] va Ibrāhīm... hīc rasūl nabūd, ammā payghāmbar ān būdand cunānkah dar khvāb dīdandī līkan vaḥī nayāmad va ṣāḥib-​i sharīʿat nabūdand. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī,  42–​43. 124. The words nabī and paygāmbar, in reference to pre-​Islamic prophets and Muhammad, occur with approximately the same frequency in Books 1 and 2 of the NV. There are 660 and 310 occurrences of the word nabī in Books 1 and 2 respectively, and 531 and 263 occurrences of the word paygāmbar in Books 1 and 2 respectively. The word rasul occurs 531 times in Book 1, and 1269 times in Book 2, showing that the author favors this term over all others for the Prophet Muhammad. 125. NV 2:59.



Islamic tradition holds that there was a pause, fatra, of three years separating the Prophet’s first apperceptions of divine revelation and his assumption of public preaching.126 The NV reveals an awareness of this tradition by presenting Muhammad as receiving his first revelations at the age of thirty-​seven,127 and beginning his public preaching when he was forty.128 This was also the period, according to tradition, when Muhammad is said to have experienced his ascension. While it is not entirely clear what exactly Sultān means by this third category of paygāmbar, it may allude to the Prophet’s experience of the ascension, through which he was beatified by the presence of God, and given divine injunctions for prayer that he then relayed to his community. In general, however, Sultān tends to blur the distinctions between the terms nabī, rasul, and paygāmbar—​using these interchangeably.129 The word avatāra occurs but once in connection with the Prophet as the Nūr Muhammad in NV 1:2, and is never used again in either Book 1 or 2 in connection to the Prophet once the translatorial gloss for the avatāra being equivalent to the nabī is provided in NV 1:48. The term dūta, in the NV, indicates both an ordinary human messenger,130 as well as the Lord’s angelic emissaries, especially Jibrāil and the other archangels, and is used at least on one occasion in the sense of a divine messenger who bears a message to two groups of sinners, the suras/​jinn and the asuras/​jann.131 He also

126. Buhl et al. 2011. 127. NV 2:98. 128. A monk predicts that he would become a rasul at the age of forty, NV 2:87. See also, calliśa varṣa haï pāilā payagāmbarī | tabe se janama haila phātemā kumārī || NV 2:136. 129. Regarding blurring the distinction between nabī, rasul, and paygāmbar see, for instance, NV 2:477–​478. 130. NV 2:57. 131. Concerning the latter, see NV 1:18–​19. Rubin (2011b) points out that while in the Qurʾān, angelic beings such as Gabriel who bear prophetic revelation are also called rasūls, they are distinguished from prophets, who must necessarily be human in order to bear God’s message directly to the people. The dūta, in this account in the NV, is both a divine emissary and the bearer of a message directly to two groups of sinners; however, since the recipients of the message are also divine beings, the case is slightly different.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


uses several Islamicate Bangla words derived from nabī, such as nabīgaṇa, the Bangla plural for the Arabic loan word, nabī; mahānabī, great prophet; the pair word, nabī-​avatāra;132 and the title Nabīvaṃśa, for that matter, a few of the many ways in which he stretches the lexical and semantic possibilities of Bangla. In so doing, he transforms a language stigmatized by the elite as inappropriate for expression of Islamic teachings into the one most suitable for transmission of Islamic lore to local peoples.

Saviors and Their Earthly Mission

According to the NV, as we have seen, prophets are first created by Prabhu Nirañjana, the Immaculate Lord, and sent down to earth upon her repeated pleas to alleviate her burden of sinners.133 We have also observed how Sultān appropriates the trope of the earth’s plea for the removal of the burden (bhārāvataraṇa) of demons and warriors who oppress her, first elaborated upon in the Mahābhārata and the Harivaṃśa,134 and echoed in the purāṇas, including the Bhāgavata, and in Vaiṣṇava hagiographical literature. In addition, Sultān’s cosmogony/​prophetology directly includes several recognizable avatāras of Viṣṇu who are created by the Lord to restore righteousness on earth. The Vaiṣṇava avatāra and the qurʾānic nabī thus share a common mission of re-establishing the rule of righteousness and benevolence, and purging the earth of sin.135 While uneasily acknowledging this parallel in his gloss of nabī as avatāra, Sultān elsewhere underscores a fundamental difference between the two. In the NV, God creates prophets, including the prophet Kr̥ṣṇa; the Bangla verb, sr̥jana karā, to create, and its derivatives, 132. ehi rūpe eka lakṣa calliśa hājāra | tāna vāma pāśe dekhe nabī avatāra || NV 1:105. 133. See, for instance, NV 1:12, 19–​20, 24, 26, etc. 134. Couture 2001, 314–​315. Note the use of this trope by Caitanya’s hagiographers, starting with Murārī Gupta, in conceiving Caitanya’s advent. Stewart 2010a, 61, 175, etc. 135. Concerning the mission of the prophets, see Rubin 2011b. Cf. jñānapantha draśāite prabhu karatāra | pāpa nāśa hetu mahāmmada avatāra || Sayphul Muluk Badiujjāmāl of Ālāol, 454.



are used in the text to emphasize their mortal condition. This new ephemerality of the great gods of the Hindu pantheon whom Sultān appropriates in his universal genealogy of the prophets is, furthermore, reflected in the word, mahājana, eminent individual,136 which he deploys when referring to the triad—​Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Maheśa—​and to Hari, and the avatāra Rāma as well.137 Unlike Viṣṇu, who, from age to age, becomes manifest as avatāra by his own resolve, with the occasional logistical support of Brahmā,138 the prophets are created by God, and needs must, according to the Qurʾān, be fully human.139 This distinction is crucial, as Sultān’s critique of the avatāra and his subsumption of Kr̥ṣṇa rests upon it. Wrapped within the concept of avatāra is the conception of yugāvatāra, the Lord particular manifestation in a specific age (yuga). Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya was proclaimed by the Gauṛīyas to be the avatāra for the age of kali.140 While the term yugāvatāra is nowhere explicitly used in the NV with reference to Muhammad, it is implicit in the author’s portrayal of the Prophet as the new messiah for the turbulent kali era (kāla). The NV relates how towards the end of his life, the Prophet had conquered forty cities, making their inhabitants Muslims. Muhammad praised the Lord for his successes, while expressing his fears for the future of his community: “In your holy house, idols had been placed. All such malpractices were eradicated.

136. In the author’s usage, this term, at least in one place, is associated with the baṛa (baṛaloka/​ baṛamānuṣa), a respected community leader, elder, or aristocrat. kahite ucita nahe baṛara akarma | ekarma pracāra kaile haïba adharma || eke hari mahājana āra para nārī | kibā yukta āche nitya para nārī hari || NV 1:491. These verses should be read in the context of the Vaiṣṇava understanding of mahājana provided in n. 107 above. 137. nara sabe pāibāre pāpa puṇya bheda | cāri mahājane pāṭhāila cāri veda || NV 1:24. Concerning Rāma, see NV 1:35, and his sons, NV 1:36. 138. Couture 2001, 318. 139. The Qurʾān is careful to emphasize the distinction between God’s heavenly and human messengers, explaining in Q 17:95 that a prophet must necessarily be human, because the physical presence of heavenly beings cannot be apprehended by ordinary humans. Rubin 2011b. 140. Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta of Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, trans. Dimock, for instance, 1.1.4: 150.

Hari the Fallen Prophet

You made me the last messenger (paygāmbar). Every day, I am tormented by the fear that my community will engage in sinful deeds in this kali era. Neither would they reflect [upon their misdeeds] nor would they engage in righteous action. On the Day of Judgment (pralae), Āllā’s commands shall issue forth to lead them to the throne so as to take account of their deeds. If my community continues to sin they shall there be reprimanded by the Lord in the presence of all. Because of my community, I shall suffer ignominy. I shall not be able to fulfill my mission for my community. How shall I keep my Musalmān followers honest in this kali era? Every day, this fear, in my mind, burns up my body with worry to the point of emaciation. If the Lord does not uphold my honor, I shall be shamed before all.” Having spoken thus, the messenger prostrated before the Lord praising him, and weeping bitterly. Then, at the Lord’s command, Jibrāil appeared before the messenger, and began to speak: “Your Companion has blessed you thus: ‘Out of concern for your community, you do not wish to partake of God’s favor [alone]. For your sake, I shall not shame those of your community who recite the kalimā. That community that knows faith and submission shall never suffer humiliation. For your sake, I shall forgive them. Rather I shall bestow honor upon them.’ ” Hearing this, the messenger rolled on the ground in prostration, paying homage to Āllā.141

141. NV 2:473–​475.




In Saiyad Sultān’s vision, the Prophet is thus savior of the kali age, outshining the unnamed imposter to this status, Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya. It is the kalimā, rather than kīrtana, through which one gains access to paradise, while Muhammad’s intimacy with God (tawassul) and constant attentiveness to his flock make him the true intercessor.

The Savior’s Holy Birth, Auspicious Marks, and Portents

Muhammad’s birth, in Sultān’s telling, was presided over by an august assembly of heavenly hosts: the prophets, their wives, and other revered women, accompanied by houris who brought gifts of divine perfumes. Ādam and Hāoyā; Śīś; Ibrāhim along with his wives, Sārā and Hājerā (Ar. Hājar); the daughter of Musā, and the virgin Mary; Saphurā, the daughter of Śoeb (Ar. Shuʿayb); and Musā and his wife all arrived at Āminā’s home to rejoice over the messenger’s birth. They encircled her protectively as she gave birth, constructing, with their holy presence, a talismanic fence around her. The baby emerged into the arms of houris, who washed him in a bejeweled vessel of gold filled with the waters of the heavenly Kaosar. Hāoyā then took the infant into her lap and swaddled him in a soft wrap, while all recited the darud (Ar. durūd) together, prayers of praise for the Prophet, upon seeing the baby.142 Ādam came forward and took him into his arms, planting a tender kiss on the forehead of one whom he recognized as heir to his line.143 All the prophets joyously declared the baby to be “the first and last prophet (ādi-​antera rasula), the light of their eyes, one who would magnify their glory, the one whom Iblis would not dispute, the one

142. The durūd or ṣalawāt sharīfa is the blessing formula for the Prophet, mentioned in Qurʾān 33:56. In popular Muslim piety, it is recited by believers to secure the Prophet’s intercession. Used also as a dhikr formula, it takes its place in popular piety as the most important formula other than the shahāda and the basmala. Buhl et al. 2011. Cf. also Marion Holmes Katz’s discussion (2007, 76–​80) of the durūd in the context of mawlid texts and celebrations of the Prophet’s birth. 143. This is a summary of NV 2:53. For such a tradition in al-​Saffūrī’s Nuzhat al-​majālis wa muntakhab al-​nafāʾis, see Kister 1988, 97.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


who would preach the path of purity, the one who would bring about the upliftment of all.”144 The prophets collectively endorse Muhammad’s immunity to Iblis, and his infallibility as a leader of his umma. When he first set his eyes on the baby Muhammad, the NV tells, the soothsayer Iusuph found on his body all the seals of prophethood (nabuyata mohar). Written all over the infant’s tiny frame he saw the “great mantra” (mahāmantra), the great mystic formula of the kalimā.145 Though this tale recalls the anecdote of the monk Baḥīrá in Ibn Isḥāq’s sīra,146 and is echoed in Nīshābūrī’s brief mention of the kalimā being stamped between the Prophet’s shoulders,147 it also echoes the story of Kr̥ṣṇa’s birth in the Bhāgavata: Vasudeva saw that amazing, lotus-​eyed child, his four arms wielding the weapons of the conch, club, lotus and disc. He bore the mark of śrīvatsa, and the Kaustubha jewel was radiant on his neck. Clad in a yellow garment, he appeared as beautiful as a dark rain-​cloud. He was resplendent with a magnificent belt, and arm and wrist bracelets, and his profuse locks were encircled with a lustrous helmet and earrings made of valuable vaidūrya gems.148 The infant Kr̥ṣṇa’s effulgent body bore all the divine marks of the avatāra, recognizable from the detailed iconography of Viṣṇu presented here. Elsewhere in the Bhāgavata, upon Kr̥ṣṇa’s disappearance, the gopīs recognize his footprints due to these bearing the auspicious marks of “the flag, the lotus flower, the thunderbolt, the goad and the barley.”149

144. NV 2:54–​55. 145. NV 2:58. 146. Sīrat Rasūl Allāh of Ibn Isḥāq, 79–​82. Later, when Muhammad grows into adulthood, Sultān marshals all the trademark tropes of classical Sanskrit poetry to bring these to bear upon a sarāpā, a “head-to-foot description” of the Prophet’s exquisite form. NV 2:78–​81. 147. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 403. 148. Bhāgavata Purāṇa, trans. Bryant, 10.3.9–​10: 21–​22. 149. Ibid., 10.30.25: 132.



The savior’s advent is predicted by various portents that spell the destruction of forces considered to be inimical to him and his mission. In Kr̥ttivāsa’s popular Bengali adaptation of the Rāmāyaṇa, Rāvaṇa’s throne trembles and his crown falls to the ground at the birth of Rāma, another aṃśāvatāra, provoking the righteous Vibhīṣaṇa to proclaim that Rāvaṇa’s destroyer had taken birth.150 Echoing Kr̥ttivāsa’s account, Sultān relates a story of the great Naośeroyān, the late Sāsānid King Khusraw I Anūsharavān (531–​579 c.e.), who is said to topple from his golden throne at the birth of Muhammad, his bejeweled crown rolling in the dust. Simultaneously, all throughout his land, the holy fires of his “fire-​worshiping” peoples were extinguished. The king’s wise minister, Bujursameher (Pers. Buzurgmihr), reads this as a sign of the Prophet’s birth.151 Here, Sultān seems to be drawing on the Persian tradition of Balʿamī and Nīshābūrī. Balʿamī states that, at the Prophet’s birth, the idols of the Kaʿba toppled over, “the fire-​temples of ʿAjam and the Magians were extinguished”; and Anūsharavān saw in a dream that the turrets of his palaces fell to the ground.152 Buzurg, his high-​priest (mūʾbad), saw in a dream that large and well-​built camels were assaulting small Arab camels, which nevertheless managed to vanquish the former, and enter the land of ʿAjam. The next morning he heard the news that the great fire of Persia had died out in the fire-​temple, a fire that had burnt for a thousand years. The soothsayer who interpreted the dreams of the king and his priest foretold that a prophet had taken birth among the Arabs who would spread his religion over forty countries, one of them being the land of ʿAjam.153 Nīshābūrī simply states that at the Prophet’s birth, the two-​thousand-​ year-​old fires of the fire-​temples of Pārs died out, idols were toppled, steeples fell off churches, and all soothsaying and magic perished.154 These 150. Rāmāyaṇa of Kr̥ttivāsa, 54. 151. NV 2:55–​57. Massé 2011. 152. Tārīkhnāmah of Balʿamī, 734. 153. Summarized from ibid., 734–​735. 154. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Nīshābūrī, 403–​404. Cf. also similar tropes in Būṣīrī’s Burdah, in Stetkevych 2010, 112.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


portents, as borne out by early Islamic history, spell the conquest of the mighty Sāsānid empire by the forces of Islam. Khusraw Anūsharavān, along with Khusraw Aparvīz (591–​628 c.e.), who were known to the Arabs as Kisrá, dominated the late Sāsānid period, and were remembered with mixed feelings by the Muslim Arabs:  they envied the Sāsānid court for its opulent splendor, but derided their kings for their arrogance in not accepting Islam.155 Muslim historiographical sources suggest that a certain Kisrá tore up the Prophet’s letter of invitation to Islam. Ḥadīth sources predict the destruction of Kisrá, and even describe him as the archenemy of Islam.156 Despite this tradition, Sultān prefers to assimilate the Sāsānid king by depicting him as a righteous, cultured monarch of noble blood (dharme karme mahāvīra kula śīla ati).157 He has him send gifts and a conciliatory message to Ābdul Muttālib, the child’s grandfather, glorifying the new Prophet, and instructing his uncles, Hāmjā, Ābbās, and Ābu Tālib, to look after the orphan as their own son, protecting him from the enemy.158

Genealogy, Divine Light, and the Agency of Descent

Although the presence of heavenly women is traditional in birth narratives of the Prophet, the attendance of male prophets is unusual.159 This innovation in the NV’s account of the Prophet’s birth indicates the author’s anxiety to authenticate Muhammad’s prophetic genealogy and present him as the last prophet, the hope of his glorious predecessors. In simultaneously presenting Muhammad as “the first prophet,” Sultān also alludes

155. Morony 2011. 156 . Ibid. 157. NV 2:55. 158. NV 2:57. 159. For instance, Sharaf al-​ʿālamayn, a mawlid attributed to Nūr al-​Dīn ʿAlī ibn Nāṣir al-​Shāfiʿī al-​Ashʿarī al-​Makkī (d. 915/​1509), tells of the presence of Sarah and Hagar, of Mary, and Āsiya, the wife of Pharaoh, at Muḥammad’s birth. Katz 2007, 36. A pseudo-​Wāqidī narrative tells of the presence of four houris to aid in the birth of Āmina’s baby. Ibid., 37.



to his status as the Nūr Muhammad, Āllā’s first creation, whose light passes through Ādam and his prophetic successors through Ibrāhim and Ismāil, through the line of Quraysh, to the historical Muhammad, a topos discussed in previous chapters.160 Related to the shared concern with charismatic pedigree found in both Islamic and Vaiṣṇava sources, the avatāra and the nabī have in common a strikingly similar agency of descent. In the doctrinal contexts of the Mahābhārata and the Harivaṃśa, the process of aṃśāvataraṇa, descent from a divine part or fragment, is closely linked to the emission of tejas, defined by André Couture as “a procreative substance which higher beings (such as gods and ascetics) possess and which gives them the capacity of occupying a womb in order to create a duplicate of themselves.”161 It was earlier noted that Sultān appropriates the Vaiṣṇava concept of the aṃśāvatāra into his Islamic cosmogony. Recall that the aṃśāvatāra’s tejas, a word whose semantic field also includes the idea of divine effulgence, finds a close parallel in the Islamic principle of the Nūr Muḥammad, the Muḥammadan Light, as laid out in early ḥadīth literature. Both are associated with divine light and procreative substance,162 and it is through the agency of tejas and the Nūr Muḥammad that the aṃśāvatāra and the nabī, respectively, partake of the very substance of the godhead. When Sultān states that Muhammad is the Lord’s “own aṃśa,” he thus arrives at the perfect translational equivalent for the Nūr Muḥammad in the target language. Additionally, by playing into the parallels between Indic and Islamicate processes of messianic descent, he enables his Bengali audience to view Muhammad as a divine avatāra, and thereby to corroborate the Islamic understanding of his primordial sacred stature.

160. An account in the medieval Islamic tradition that bears some similarity to Sultān’s desire to legitimate the Prophet via his prophetic predecessors is Abū Nuʿaym al-​Iṣfahānī’s normative version of Muḥammad’s birth, which tells of how a heavenly voice bestows upon the baby a key moral virtue of each of the following prophets: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph, David, Job, John, and Jesus. Ibid., 34. 161. Couture 2001, 318. 162. Concerning the Nūr Muḥammad, see Rubin 2011a and 2011b: 62–​119.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


From their respective connections to the notions of tejas and the Nūr Muḥammad—​both of which are associated with spermatic substance and divine light—​the progenitors of avatāras and nabīs also come to be associated with this fecund light. As seen in Chapter 1, Sultān draws upon Islamic ideas of prophetic light and its primordiality to supply a detailed account of how the Lord, while creating Ādam, deposited a part of himself (nija aṃśa)—​light from his companion Nūr Muhammad—​into him, as a result of which his forehead shone. This light passed down from Ādam to his son Śiś, from whom it passed through a long line of prophets via Ismāil and his descendants, individually listed by Sultān, to Ābdullā, who transmitted it to his son Muhammad. The chain of transmission, provided by Sultān, of the Nūr Muhammad, from Ādam to Muhammad, runs thus:  Ādam–​Śiś–​Anusa–​Mahlāil–​Samāil–​Vārad–​Idris–​Māsar Salākh–​ Malak–​ Kālut–​ Nūh–​ Sām–​ Āyam–​Āraphach–​C hālek–​Phālek–​ Uday–​Savāroh–​Nāthun–​Ājar–​Ibrāhim–​Ismāil–​Kālab–​Kijār–​Tabbut–​ Hābus–​B askav–​Ābdullā–​Ārad–​Ādiyān–​Māruh–​Kijir–​Ilyās–​Hāman–​ Majar– ​ Kanāk–​ K hajimat–​ Kinān–​ Najar–​ Kijār–​ Phihir–​ G ālib–​ Mālik–​ Labai–​Kāyāb–​Majan–​Kānāb–​Kays–​Hāsim–​Ābdul Munāph–​Ābdul Muttālib–​Ābdullā–​Muhammad.163 This list, with the exception of the group of six prophets who follow Ismāil, is remarkably close to the genealogy of Muḥammad provided by Ibn Hishām: Muhammad was the son of ʿAbdullah, b. ʿAbdu’l Muṭṭalib (whose name was Shayba), b.  Hāshim (whose name was ʿAmr), b.  ʿAbdu Manāf (whose name was al-​Mughīra), b. Quṣayy (whose name was Zayd), b. Kilāb, b. Murra, b. Kaʿb, b. Lu’ayy, b. Ghālib, b. Fihr, b. Mālik, b. al-​Naḍr, b. Kināna, b. Khuzayma, b. Mudrika (whose name was ʿĀmir), b. Ilyās, b. Muḍar, b. Nizār, b. Maʿadd, b. ʿAdnān, b. Udd (or Udad), b.  Muqawwam, b.  Nāḥūr, b.  Tayraḥ, b.  Yaʿrub, b.  Yashjub, b.  Nābit, b.  Ismāʿīl, b.  Ibrāhīm, the friend of the Compassionate, b.  Tāriḥ (who is Āzar), b.  Nāḥūr, b.  Sārūgh, b.  Rāʿū, b.  Fālikh,

163. NV 2:11–​14.



b.  ʿAybar, b.  Shālikh, b.  Arfakhshadh, b.  Sām, b.  Nūḥ, b.  Lamk, b. Mattūshalakh, b. Akhnūkh, who is the prophet Idrīs . . ., b. Yard, b. Mahlīl, b. Qaynan, b. Yānish, b. Shīth, b. Adam.”164 In Ābdullā’s case, the NV relates, the Lord instructed Jibrāil to take a flower from the Rabbānura tree and caress Ābdullā’s body with it. Seeing this, the Nūr Muhammad entered his body, as a result of which it became radiant, and fragrant like musk.165 Sultān also follows the hagiographical tradition in depicting the male progenitors of prophets as possessing a prophetic blaze on their foreheads, which transfers to their female partners when the new prophet of the age is conceived.166 A similar phenomenon finds mention in the Bhāgavata, in the account of Devakī’s conception of Kr̥ṣṇa: Then the Lord, the Soul of the universe and bestower of fearlessness on his devotees, entered the mind of Vasudeva with his aṃśa . . . Shining like the sun, Vasudeva carried the splendour of the supreme person. He became invincible and unapproachable by all living entities. In due time, queen Devakī bore the manifestation of the infallible Lord, the source of auspiciousness for the whole world, and the soul of everything, who was contained within her. He had been deposited there by Vasudeva, the son of Śūra, by mental transmission. Devakī looked like the [eastern] quarter which bears the pleasure-​giving moon. Devakī became the abode of the one who is the abode of all living creatures. But she could not shine with her full potency in the house of Kaṃsa, and remained like a flame which

164. Sīrat Rasūl Allāh of Ibn Isḥāq, 3. In Ibn Hishām’s list Muḥammad is the fiftieth prophet after Ādam, whereas in Sultān’s he is the fifty-​third. 165. NV 2:9–​15. 166. See, for instance, in the case of Ābdullā, Muhammad’s father, NV 2:16–​27; and in the case of Ibrāhim, NV 1:444. Cf. Sīrat Rasūl Allāh of Ibn Isḥāq, 68–​69. For more direct associations in the NV of prophetic light transferred through spermatic substance see, for instance, hāmanera virye janma haila majara | kāñcana jiniyā dīpti tāna kalevara || NV 2:13.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


is contained [by a pot], or like Sarasvatī, the goddess of learning, contained by one miserly with his knowledge. Kaṃsa saw Devakī, who was bearing the invincible Lord within her, smiling radiantly and illuminating the house with her effulgence. He said: “The one who is to deprive me of life, Hari [Kr̥ṣṇa], has surely taken refuge in her womb, because Devakī was not previously like this.167 Here the Lord descends with his aṃśa into Vasudeva, Kr̥ṣṇa’s father; with Devakī’s conception of the aṃśa, the divine light migrates to her from Vasudeva. Though the word, tejas, does not feature here, the word aṃśa can be interpreted as both the divine manifestation as well as the speck of procreative substance itself.168 In the aṃśāvatāra, thus, Sultān has found the perfect Indic analog for the Nūr Muḥammad.

Scripture and the People of the Book

As is well known, the qurʾānic sūra 33:40 depicts Muḥammad as the “seal of the prophets,” the final bearer of the word of God in a long chain of prophetic revelation.169 Furthermore, through the covenant God makes with the prophets, alluded to in Qurʾān 3:81, the Prophet comes to occupy the position of universal messiah, around whom all prophets and their communities should rally.170 The Qurʾān suggests that Jesus predicts the coming of the Prophet; in like vein, Hari in the NV is made one of the conveyors of a revelation that heralds the future Prophet. As the de facto stand-​in for the Qurʾān in early modern Bengal, the NV takes up the “reminding” and “warning” roles of qurʾānic prophets. Thus the acts of Kr̥ṣṇa (kr̥ṣṇacarita) in the NV become both a reminder of the importance 167. Bhāgavata Purāṇa, trans. Bryant, 10.2.16–​20: 15–​16. 168. Concerning tejas as a feature of saints in South Asian hagiographical literature, see W. L. Smith 2000, 82–​84. 169. Rubin 2011b. 170. Buhl et al. 2011.



of staying on the straight and narrow, and a warning that cautions people against idolatry (shirk) and the hellish consequences of straying from the path of Islamic dharma. Furthermore, the Qurʾān confirms earlier scriptures, such as the Torah and the Gospels, addressing the Jews and the Christians, as ahl al-​kitāb, “People of the Book.”171 Sultān tacitly expands this qurʾānic category to include the Hindus, whose Vedas constitute, in Sultān’s account, the earliest form of God’s revelation to humankind, a revelation that confirms the future manifestation of Prophet Muhammad.172 Each of the four Vedas—​the Sāmaveda, Yajurveda, R̥gveda, and Atharvaveda—​as seen in Chapter  4, are respectively revealed, in the NV, to hinduāni peoples through the agency of the celebrated triad of the Hindu pantheon—​Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Maheśa—​and Hari, the fourth bearer of its message, all of whom are described in this context as “eminent individuals” (mahājana).173 Sultān thus re-​presents Hindu Bengalis to themselves as the prehistoric ancestors of the Muslims with foreknowledge of the inevitable advent of Islam. Not only are they aware of Islam’s presence as a historical fact of life in contemporary Bengal, but they are now told that Islam’s inexorable destiny in Bengal had been predicted by their very own books. The antiquity of the Vedas undoubtedly imparts to the last Prophet and his Book the weight and wisdom of immemorial time, while by appropriating their authority, Sultān expands the community of believers to include Hindus. Here he adopts the standard strategy used in South Asia, one endorsed by the Ḥanafī school of law, to subsume Hindus under Islamic rule.174

171 . Ibid. 172. Cf. the section from the Prophet’s ascension when God promises Muhammad, before he departs from the divine presence, to broadcast his name in the four Vedas and the fourteen Hindu scriptures (śāstra), in the Torah, the Gospels (injīl), the Book of Psalms (zabūr) and the Furqān (Qurʾān). NV 2:272–​273. See Chapter 6 below; see also the discussion of Donner’s “theocratic legitimation” therein. 173. NV 1:24–​25. 174. Friedmann 2003, 52–​53. On the views of some medieval Muslim intellectuals on the relationship between the Vedas and the Qurʾān, see a comparison between the views of Dārā Shukūh and Mirzā Mazhar Jān-​i Jānān, in ibid., 84–​86.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


Additionally, such strategies were not uncommon to other Indian Islamic literary traditions. Thus, for instance, Islamic Tamil literature provides a variant of such a politics of scriptural inclusion. Playing upon number and meaning, the Tamil word marai, usually used for the Vedas, is interchangeably used to refer to the four scriptures significant to Muslims: the Torah, the Gospels, the Psalms, and finally, the Qurʾān.175

A¯ bu Jehel, the Arab Kaṃsa: Chastising a Barbaric Hindu Ruler

Sultān tells a curious tale in which the baby Muhammad is exchanged with another infant in order to save him from the evil ruler Ābu Jehel (Ar. Abū Jahl), known in the Islamic tradition as the Prophet’s lifelong foe.176 In many important ways, the NV’s tale seems to be modeled on the Bhāgavata legends surrounding Kr̥ṣṇa’s birth and the enmity of his maternal uncle, Kaṃsa. To this end, Ābu Jehel is here made the paternal uncle of the Prophet—​an Arab Kaṃsa—​even though the medieval Islamic tradition does not consider him to be related to the Prophet Muḥammad by blood.177 In the NV’s tale of Muḥammad’s birth, Ābu Jehel is alerted by a soothsayer, named Iusuph (the NV’s counterpart to Nārada in the Bhāgavata tale), to Āminā’s conception of a child who would destroy him. Accordingly, Ābu Jehel sends a midwife to abort Āminā’s fetus. When poison leaves the fetus unharmed, the midwife takes more radical measures, trying to force the fetus out with her bare hands. But, even as a tiny fetus, Muhammad is a formidable match for the midwife. When her hand first touches him, he complains out loud that she is impure. Hearing 175. Ricci 2011, 124–125. 176. NV 2:52. According to early Islamic sources, Abū Jahl, properly known as Abū al-​Ḥakam ʿAmr ibn Hishām ibn al-​Mughīra (b. c. 570), succeeded al-​Walīd ibn al-​Mughīra to the leadership of the Makhzūn clans. He is said to have attempted to assassinate Muḥammad, and to have persecuted Muḥammad and his followers in the Meccan period. Watt 2012. 177. This is deduced from the following passage in the NV:  Ābu Jehel addresses the infant, Muhammad, as his brother’s son (bhrātr̥suta) (NV 2:42).



the unborn baby’s voice, the frightened woman quickly withdraws her hand. Having mustered some courage, when she re-​inserts her hand into Āminā’s womb, the fetus grips it tightly with his own, refusing to release it till she has uttered the kalimā with due faith. The mother, by now in terrible agony, is comforted by her unborn child, who instructs her to continuously recite the kalimā to alleviate her pain.178 Hearing the midwife’s conversion story, Ābu Jehel and his advisors lure Ābdullā, Muhammad’s father, with the promise of the allurements of women if he would kill Āminā and her baby. Echoing Vasudeva’s conciliatory words to Kaṃsa, in the Bhāgavata, in his attempts to save Devakī’s life, Ābdullā tells Ābu Jehel that killing Āminā would bring the latter shame, and promises, instead, to bring the newborn to the king himself.179 In order to quicken the baby’s birth, the kāhan Iusuph instructs Ābu Jehel to surround the child with Muslims. Āllā promptly sends down the four archangels who appear before the king as Muslim men; they are deputed by the king to speak to the baby about its birth plans. The angels comfort the baby and let it know that it is God’s wish for it to exit its mother’s womb. Hearing this, the fetus makes clear its intention of taking birth that very night. When the king finds out through Jibrāil that the child was to be born that night, he sends two midwives, one of whom is the newly converted Muslim midwife, to be present at the birth, and entrusts them with delivering the infant to him the next morning. When the Muslim midwife sees the baby Muhammad she wishes to exchange her own two-​day old baby with him, in the hope that saving her savior would be rewarded with forgiveness of sin and a place in paradise. Accordingly, she hides the infant Muhammad in a safe place and places her own child beside Āminā.180 However, the other midwife, named

178. The fetus’s comforting instruction to his mother is reminiscent of the unborn Kr̥ṣṇa’s advice to Devakī, in the NV’s account of Hari in the NV. See my translation of the NV’s account of Hari in Irani 2011, Appendix Five. 179. Concerning the Bhāgavata, see Bhāgavata Purāṇa, trans. Bryant, 10.1.54: 13. 180. This exchange of infants is reminiscent of Vasudeva’s exchange of his infant Kr̥ṣṇa with Nanda’s daughter. Cf. Bhāgavata Purāṇa, trans. Bryant, 10.3.47–​53, 24–​25.

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Hālimā (Ar. Ḥalīma),181 who had lost her own child, happens to set eyes on the hidden baby Muhammad, and kidnaps him.182 Meanwhile, Jibrāil comes to the midwife’s baby, now beside Āminā, bringing him glad tidings of his incipient martyrdom—​the very first in Islam. In return for his saving the life of the Prophet, Jibrāil confers on him all the attributes of Muhammad, the redemption of the sins of his entire clan, and death by resolve (icchā sukhe mr̥tyu)183 rather than at the hands of the evil ruler. In a manner reminiscent of the speaking infant who issues a warning to Kaṃsa, this infant chides Ābu Jehel for serving idols rather than the Creator.184 The ruler, though astonished at being reprimanded by a mere infant, nevertheless threatens: Though the son of a Hindu, you criticize all that is hinduāni. You are attempting to preach musalmāni practices! First and foremost, I shall make you a Hindu—​ only then shall you acquire virtue upon death. If you follow the practices of your lineage, you shall prosper well in the hereafter. First, I shall inscribe an idol upon your forehead. Second, I shall place a sacred thread (paitā) on your shoulder. Third, I shall teach you all our practices—​ one by one, I shall inform you of their various types. Fourth, I shall give you a ceremonial bath. Fifth, I shall cremate you in fire.

181. According to the Muslim hagiographical sources, Ḥalīma was the name of Muḥammad’s wet-​nurse. Cf. Sīrat Rasūl Allāh of Ibn Isḥāq, 70. See also Watt 2011. 182. NV 2:39. 183. NV 2:41. This attribute, characteristic of great Muslim martyrs, like Ḥusayn, is celebrated in the mars̱iya literature of South Asia. Mars̱iya of Mīr Babbar ʿAlī Anīs. 184. The trope of the speaking infant recalls Devakī’s exchanged infant in the Bhāgavata, who rises up as Viṣṇu’s Yogamāyā, issuing a warning to Kaṃsa when he dashes her to death. See Bhāgavata Purāṇa, trans. Bryant, 10.4.8–​12: 25.



If you wish to prosper in the other world, promptly banish from your mind these musalmāni beliefs.185 Whereas Ābu Jehel has thus far been implicitly modeled on the cruel Indian king Kaṃsa, in the passage above Sultān explicitly, and remarkably, identifies this Arab figure as a “Hindu.” As incongruous as this may seem to the modern reader, this carefully chosen label ties together pre-​ Islamic Arabs with hinduāni peoples based upon two key characteristics that connect the Arab ruler with the Hindu king. First, as an Arab who rejected Islam, and continued to worship his tribal deities, Ābu Jehel is likened to the iconophilic Hindu. Second, for his villainy, treachery, tyranny, and other forms of savagery that inform the portrayal of his character in medieval Islamic sources, Ābu Jehel parallels the depictions of Kaṃsa in purāṇic sources. In these two ways, Ābu Jehel personifies the age of ignorance (jāhilīyya), the barbaric past of pre-​Islamic Arabia, that his very nickname Abū Jahl (“The Father of Ignorance”) invokes. Through this religious code-​switching, Saiyad Sultān makes Ābu Jehel an instantly recognizable figure to the Bengalis, proposing that inasmuch as Kaṃsa is reprehensible to hinduāni Bengalis, particularly, Vaiṣṇavas, so too is Ābu Jehel to Muslims. Inasmuch as the Bengali audience would take joy in Kr̥ṣṇa’s miraculous foiling of Kaṃsa’s plans to get rid of him, so too would the audience now appreciate the astounding nature of Muhammad’s escape from Ābu Jehel’s evil clutches. Simultaneously, when the narrative voices contempt for this “Hindu” Ābu Jehel, it also condemns all hinduāni Bengalis for their idol-​worshiping, barbaric ways. Sultān thus deploys the standard discursive strategy that Muslim writers used to speak of the pre-​Islamic Arabs, while tacitly including the Hindus in this age of ignorance. This narrative, moreover, gives further depth to our understanding of Sultān’s references in his translation statement, examined in Chapter 3, to the Korān as an axial text that helps its believers break away from the ignorance of their past.

185. NV 2:42–​43.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


The Hindu chief Ābu Jehel, like Kr̥ṣṇa, is another “warner” to the hinduāni peoples of the folly of their ways. The narrative continues with Ābu Jehel commanding an idol to be drawn on the baby’s forehead.186 The hand of the deputy, ordered to carry out this task, catches fire. When another attempts to place a sacred thread upon his shoulder, the thread turns into a vicious serpent. When they attempt to burn the infant, the fire is extinguished by Āllā’s command, and instead the evil ruler’s long beard gets singed. When they try to kill him with numerous weapons, the child’s body remains unscarred. Ultimately, Iusuph, having praised Āllā and denigrated idol worship, reminds the child of the benefits of becoming a martyr. The infant thus resolves to meet his death: a Muslim hypocrite (munāphik) is finally able to slay him by the sword. The infant’s victory over death by the divine gift of being able to choose the hour of his death (icchā sukhe mr̥tyu), and his entry into the wondrous world of paradise, spell the triumph of Islam over a heartless and barbaric Hindu king. This astounding translation of the narrative on Muhammad’s early days not only foreshadows the momentous nature of the Prophet’s life that this history will continue to tell, but showcases the subtle interplay of innovation, appropriation, and competition characteristic of the NV.

Pastoral Divinities as Shepherds of their Flock

Sultān tells another tale of Muhammad’s childhood that situates the Prophet firmly on Bengali terrain. As a young boy, Muhammad tended goats, apparently following in the footsteps of his prophetic ancestors. The author extols the excellence of goat-​herding as the perfect apprenticeship for prophets: as he attempts to keep his animals away from thieves and tigers, the young prophet learns how to guide his human flock away from Iblis’s grasp. Thus the boy daily grows in wisdom as he tends his 186. This perhaps alludes to the sectarian marks (tilaka) worn by members of various Hindu sects on their foreheads.



goats.187 In his Sīra, Ibn Isḥāq speaks of the Prophet tending lambs as a child when he lived with his wet-​nurse and foster-​mother, Ḥalīma.188 He also provides a saying of the Prophet, on the authority of Thaur ibn Yazīd, in which the Prophet testifies to having been a shepherd, stating, “There is no prophet but has shepherded a flock.”189 While the NV’s choice of this “mythomorphic type” of depicting Muhammad as a pastoral hero has continuity with Islamic traditions,190 it simultaneously casts him in the mold of Bengal’s beloved Kr̥ṣṇa, who as leader of the cowherds in the lowly pastoral community of Vraja, protected their cattle from various destructive forces. The reference to the Prophet protecting his flock from tigers also conjures up the image of the Muslim tiger-​charmer (bawliya) who protects the forest-​dwelling people of South Bengal from attacks by the dreaded Bengal tiger, especially when they participate in honey-​collecting expeditions in the Sundarbans.191


The account of Hari, as we have seen, replaces the tale-​cycle of Yūsuf in Kisāʾī’s Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ. In terms of translation, then, Hari, it has been argued, is an apt translatorial equivalent of Yūsuf. Both figures, in their respective traditions, are sacralized as the very epitome of beauty; and both are figures whom women find themselves irresistibly drawn to. The difference lies in the dialogic relations that these two equivalent figures independently share with Iblis in the Yūsuf tale-​cycle and the account of Hari respectively—​a relationship that lies at the heart of both narratives, 187. NV 2:72–​73. 188. Sīrat Rasūl Allāh of Ibn Isḥāq, 72. 189. Ibid. 190. Scholars have used the term “mythomorphic” to refer to “a combination of . . . myth and history,” germane to the biographic depiction of Muhammad “in terms of already existing ideal types.” Newby 1989, 17. 191. Jalais 2010, 75–​80.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


whether explicitly, as in the case of Hari, or implicitly, as in the Yūsuf tale-​ cycle. While Yūsuf manages to escape Iblis’s thrall, Hari succumbs to it. As a translation, however, the account of Hari bears a metatextual relationship not only with the qiṣaṣ’s account of Yūsuf but with the Bhāgavata stories of Kr̥ṣṇa’s youth. The account of Hari could be read as a “symbolic translation” of the story of Kr̥ṣṇa in the Bhāgavat. In such translations, as A. K. Ramanujan explains, “Text 2 uses the plot and characters and names of Text 1 minimally and uses them to say entirely new things, often in an effort to subvert the predecessor by producing a countertext . . . The word translation itself acquires a somewhat mathematical sense, of mapping a structure of relations onto another plane or another symbolic system.”192 In such a case, the original “can say one thing” and the translated text “something else, even the exact opposite.”193 Structurally, then, we may observe that the account of Hari is a symbolic translation of the Bhāgavata tales embedded within another symbolic translation—​the account of Yūsuf. The two translations are held together by the character of Iblis-​Nārada that operates as a semiotic suture between these two disparate religious traditions. Structural issues such as this raise broader questions of text and context, which can be further examined in light of Tim Murphy’s semiotic theory of religion, especially its fourth principle concerning the “addressivity” of religious discourse. To what does the account of Hari respond? Islam in east Bengal, as seen earlier, was competing with multiple hinduāni religious traditions to establish its superiority; it had many “others” to contend with. Yet what this tale of contestation and subsumption of Kr̥ṣṇa reveals is that the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas were perceived as the most powerful other, the greatest provocation to Islam in Bengal. In terms of the semiotic square of alterity discussed earlier, the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas are the śe, the extreme other, the excluded other, entirely absent from authorial address, never named. They are, however, what Murphy calls the “constitutive

192. Ramanujan 1991, 45. 193 . Ibid.



other.”194 Sultān’s agonistic retelling of the Kr̥ṣṇa stories of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa exemplifies the ways in which “new” religions, or, as in our case, religions in the process of establishing themselves in new places with multiple, older religious traditions, differentiate themselves from the other, via the other. The second vector of addressivity is, of course, Haidu’s “you”—​ the Musalmāns of Baṅgadeśa, the specific, named addressees of the NV, for whom the text was ostensibly written. Yet as a preacher-​translator, Sultān was not content with constructing an identity for local Muslims; he was keen to expand his flock, to invite local people to Islam via a process of identification with Islam. Thus, the account of Hari exemplifies processes of “differentiating” Islam from Vaiṣṇavism by incorporating Vaiṣṇava discourse on the avatāra into his tales of the Prophets, while simultaneously creating an asymmetrical structure that constructs the Prophet of Islam as absolute ontologically, and superior sociologically, to Vaiṣṇavism.195 Though Sultān must perforce position Islam as superior to other religious traditions, the challenge lies in constructing Islam in a way that hinduāni and musalmāni neophytes find appealing enough to identify with. This functional tension within the NV results in an almost schizophrenic approach to the other, which pivots around the acculturative translation of nabī as avatāra. Recalling the hermeneutic model of “translation as entextualizing conversion” that I  used to explain Sultān’s approach to translating sacred biography, we see here how the supreme deity of the Vaiṣṇavas, the Kr̥ṣṇa avatāra, undergoes a wholesale incorporation into Sultān’s new prophetology, becoming the centerpiece of tale-​cycles on the traditional line of prophets accepted by Islam. This central narrative positioning between the lengthy tale-​cycles of Ibrāhim and Moses—​the most important prophets in the Qurʾān after Muhammad—​is as much a grudging acknowledgment and appropriation of Kr̥ṣṇa’s local power as it is a strategy to drown it out by the combined power of weighty opponents. By including Kr̥ṣṇa as a prophet in Muhammad’s lineage, Bengal’s reigning

194. Murphy [2007] 2014, 158. 195. Ibid., 137–​155.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


deity is reduced to the stature of an ordinary, human prophet. This narratological tactic vanquishes a native rival via an ostensible conversion to Islam. In laying out his semiotic theory of religion, Murphy argues that “the internal structure of the elements of a canon will be formed by the various relations each element has, or can have, with the others. It is in this respect we can say that religion is a ‘system.’ ”196 In the Saussurian understanding, any sign, any single element of a linguistic structure (la langue), when taken out of its associative field suffers from either “a surplus of meaning,” its overdetermination, or mutatis mutandi, a deficiency of meaning, its underdetermination. Likewise, any single element of a canon, or religious system, Murphy contends, is tributary to this basic characteristic of a sign, known as its “play.”197 By appropriating the Vaiṣṇava signifier avatāra to translate the Islamic signifier nabī, Sultān singles out one element of the Vaiṣṇava canon. He divorces it from the assemblage of Vaiṣṇava signifiers that produce doctrinal meaning for Vaiṣṇavas, and transplants it into the Islamic canon of doctrinal signifiers, thereby reconfiguring its meaning. As a translator, Sultān is best positioned to manipulate his audience’s identity and ability to identify with Islam by harnessing the “play” of the shifting semiotic valence of avatāra as signifier for nabī in the new contexts in which he uses it. While the anisomorphic features of languages, and the overdetermination and underdetermination of meaning of a sign in a source text and receptor context, are the quiddities of language that all translators have to struggle with, equivalence that a religious translator sets up between key theological terms, I argue, becomes a site of contestation, manipulation, and, ultimately, supersession, a site for the specific ideological interventions of the translator as an agent of religious change.198 Through the nabī-​avatāra equivalence, Sultān is able to construct Muhammad as the avatāra of the kali age while demolishing the

196. Ibid., 160. 197. Ibid., 160–​161. 198. Cf. Tymoczko [2007] 2010, 297–​298.



Kr̥ṣṇa avatāra. In doing so, he also implicitly displaces Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya, the kali avatāra for the Gauṛīyas. Sultān’s narratological and rhetorical strategies, on the one hand, seek to undermine the Kr̥ṣṇa avatāra by first, recasting his acts as sinful, and then, imposing on the avatāra the Islamic valence of nabī as a morally upright human figure, guided by God’s command. On the other, these very strategies are tasked with putting the significant semantic weight of the avatāra, as savior of the pious, behind the Prophet of Islam. Hence, Muhammad as nabī is repeatedly drawn into comparison with Kr̥ṣṇa as avatāra on a sliding scale of alterity, ranging from uneasy recognition of commonalities to reification of stark difference. On the one hand, Sultān is keen to confiscate the Vaiṣṇava theory of the avatāra; he is eager to construct an Islamic ethical framework by emphasizing all that the Prophet of Islam is not. In helping Kr̥ṣṇa’s disciples see the avatāra as debauched, he positions Islam and its Prophet as morally superior, and implies that salvation can be achieved through the upright example of the Prophet of Islam alone. On the other hand, in underscoring commonalities between the Kr̥ṣṇa avatāra and Nabī Muhammad through their respective narratives and missions, he downplays difference. This deliberate rhetorical opacity, which draws Kr̥ṣṇa into undulating patterns of positive and negative comparison with Muhammad, serves two related purposes:  the positive comparisons, by undermining the otherness of Islam’s Prophet, render his figure familiar, authentic, and legitimate while simultaneously imbuing it with the charisma of the avatāra; the negative comparisons subvert Kr̥ṣṇa and subordinate him to Muhammad. The Hari episode thus dramatically highlights a stylistic feature of Sultān’s NV: the dynamic interplay of shifting emphases on difference that exemplifies the author’s attempt to open out the text to a multi-​religious audience with varied horizons of expectation. Sultān’s talent lies in making seemingly inconsistent and contradictory rhetorical tendencies work in concert to serve his grand polemical vision: the establishment of the supremacy of the Prophet of Islam in east Bengal. In addition to reading the NV’s “Account of Hari” against the tales of Kr̥ṣṇa in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which it re-​narrativizes and parodies,

Hari the Fallen Prophet


this iconoclastic account should also be read in light of Śāh Muhammad Sagīr’s late sixteenth-​century translation of Jāmī’s Yūsuf u Zulaykhā. The latter provides a direct precedent in Islamic Bangla literature for drawing the prophet Yūsuf into comparison with Kr̥ṣṇa.199 As I  maintain elsewhere, I  find Finbarr Flood’s reassessment of iconoclasm in the visual context of the Indo-​Ghurid mosque useful in analyzing Sagīr’s aesthetic choices in translating Jāmī’s characterization of Yūsuf into the Bengali literary imaginaire.200 The Indo-​Ghurid mosque is characterized by its re-​ deployment of pillars from ruined Jain temples found at the site into its construction of the mosque; most of the figural images on these beautifully carved pillars are defaced, though a small number remain intact. Adopting the term from Andrew Gregory, who makes a distinction between “instrumental” and “expressive” behavioral responses to images, Flood presents this mosque as a form of “instrumental iconoclasm,” “in which a particular action is executed in order to achieve a greater goal.”201 Flood notes that: the acts of iconoclasm to which Indo-​Ghurid mosques bear witness were not the driving force in the production of a work that might be entitled “The Indo-​Ghurid Mosque.” They were instead contingent upon a decision to reuse pre-​existing architectural materials, which may have constituted an attack on the religio-​political symbols of the ancien regime, but also reflects . . . the positive aesthetic value that Afghan patrons placed on Indic art and architecture. In a significant episode in Sagīr’s text, we see how the translated image of the prophet Iusuph is set in the legendary context of Kr̥ṣṇa’s Vr̥ndāvana līlās with the gopīs, effectively demolishing Kr̥ṣṇa’s image by replacing it 199. As previously mentioned in Chapter  5, Sultān was probably aware of Śāh Muhammad Sagīr’s text, and its wide circulation in the Chittagong of his day. 200. Irani 2018. 201. Flood 2008, 154; Gregory 1994, 89.



by that of the virtuous Iusuph, represented as the “implicit antonym” of Kr̥ṣṇa.202 Yet this discursive iconoclasm is an outcome “contingent upon” his aesthetic “decision to reuse” certain elements from the Bengali environment and is not driven by an iconoclastic motive per se. The case of Sultān’s representation of Kr̥ṣṇa, however, I would argue, is one of “expressive iconoclasm,” a behavioral response to an image “in which the desire to express one’s beliefs or give vent to one’s feelings is achieved by the act itself.”203 While Sultān undoubtedly derives inspiration from Sagīr’s comparison of a pre-​Islamic prophet with the Kr̥ṣṇa avatāra, he takes such comparison into deeply agonistic directions. Even in the case of such “expressive iconoclasm,” however, it is important to note that it is a form of “creative iconoclasm,” a term that Flood also uses to describe the Indo-​Ghurid mosque.204 The act of destroying an image is also an act that creatively transforms the image into something new. While it recodes old meanings, this new image retains vestiges of the old, indexing a history of the original image as it is reworked in the present.205 In light of the discussion in Chapter 3 of the text’s title parodying the Harivaṃśa, the title given to the appendix of the Mahābhārata, we can appreciate how Sultān’s choice of title is itself a form of “creative iconoclasm.” He obliterates “Hari” in the original title, replacing his potent name by “Nabī,” referring to the Prophet, while indexing a literary and religious history of the title itself. This and other speech acts of iconoclasm that we observe throughout the account of Hari reaffirm the valence and power of the original image to the iconoclast. Pertinent to our understanding of the Muhammad avatāra is the salience to Sultān of the original meanings of the image of the

202. This is a term that Davis (1997, 111–​112) has used in his discussion of the Indo-​Islamic narratives of iconoclasm centering around Māḥmūd Ghaznī’s destruction of Somanātha. D’Hubert (2006–​7, 133)  has used the term “anti-​Kr̥ṣṇa” for Ābdul Hākim’s representation of Yūsuf in his own seventeenth-​century translation of Jāmī’s text, which imitates Sagīr’s in important ways. 203. Flood 2008, 154, here too is relying upon Gregory’s dichotomy, Gregory 1994, 89. 204. Flood 2008, 161. 205. Ibid., 160.

Hari the Fallen Prophet


Kr̥ṣṇa avatāra that he is simultaneously working toward co-​opting and demolishing. The contradictory rhetorical tendencies we see at work in the construction of Sultān’s Muhammad are indexical of his attempt to recode the nabī according to new Indic aesthetic, literary, and religious conventions that are used to depict one of Bengal’s most well-​known sacred icons. After demolishing the idol of Kr̥ṣṇa, by converting him into a humble Muslim prophet, the NV installs the new image of Muhammad upon the pedestal of the avatāra, paradoxically underscoring both the significance of the icon in Bengal’s predominantly iconophilic culture and the “myth of aniconism” in Islamic society at large.206

206. This phrase is David Freedberg’s (1989, 54). An art historian, Freedberg (ibid.) has argued from his study of material culture that aniconism is “wholly untenable” because one form of iconicity is invariably replaced by another.


Ascension and Ascendancy Constructing the Prophet for Bengal

Through the night you ascended until you reached a station two bows’ length from Allāh, A station that no one else had ever attained or even dared desire. To it the other Prophets and Messengers bade you precede them, Like servants giving deference to him they serve, As you, passing by them, pierced the seven levels of heaven, In a procession of angels of which you were the standard-​bearer, Until you left no goal that any rival could approach Nor any height that a competitor could scale. —​Sharaf al-​D īn Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-​Būṣīrī1

Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and his ascension took place toward the end of the Prophet’s time in Mecca, probably in 619 c.e. Occurring three years before his emigration to Medina, this pivotal experience came just after the passing of the Prophet’s closest confidants, protectors, and mentors: his beloved wife, Khadīja, and his uncle and guardian, Abū Ṭālib. It is understood as a defining moment in the Prophet’s life, which brought him hope for

1. Qaṣīdat al-​Burdah of al-​Būṣīrī, vv. 108–​111, trans. Stetkevych 2010, 127–​128.

The Muhammad Avata¯ra. Ayesha A. Irani, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190089221.003.0006.

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his struggling mission, and confidence in his God-​given role as prophet and preacher. As is well known, the significance of the ascension to Muslims around the world is its establishment of the central Islamic practice of ṣalāh, God’s injunction to pray five times a day. It also established Muḥammad as the last prophet in the line of pre-​Islamic prophets, many of whom play significant roles in aiding and guiding the Prophet as he ascends through the seven heavens to meet with Allāh. Geo-​politically, it established Jerusalem’s ancient religious site of the Dome of the Rock as a sacred site for Muslims, and indeed, until the direction of prayer was changed to that of Mecca in 624 c.e., Jerusalem was the direction of prayer for the fledgling Muslim community.2 In his account of the ascension, the focus of this chapter, Saiyad Sultān elevates the Prophet Muhammad above all other sacred figures by presenting him as God’s very own beloved. Depicted as the perfect phakir, he is spiritual role model for Sufi and layperson alike, one whose powers as intercessor with God make him the pragmatic choice for members of his own and other faiths. The Prophet’s compassionate figure, much like that of the guru in Bengali culture, bridges the formidable nature of God’s abstraction. Particularly when read in the context of Chapter 2’s discussion of the role of the spiritual master as presented by the NV, Sultān’s merāj (Ar. miʿrāj) serves three interlinked purposes, each one enriching the other:  first, to compose a supersessionist narrative that exalts the Prophet’s holy stature and establishes his spiritual ascendancy over all other prophets; second, to provide an ethical template for individual and communal Islamic practice, serving to construct a community identity aligned around the axis of pīr, Prophet, and God; and third, to invite others to the faith by presenting the Prophet as intercessor, an attractive figure of charisma and compassion who secures God’s generous favor for his community. While the NV comprises numerous narrative sections, each of which serves one or more of the above ideological purposes, the ascension story is perhaps the only discrete narrative unit that simultaneously serves all three. 2. This section has been summarized from The Qurʾān, trans. Nasr et al., 693.




The first references to the Prophet’s night journey (isrāʾ) from Mecca to Jerusalem, and his ascension through the seven heavens, are found in Chapters 17 (verses 1 and 60) and 53 (verses 6–​18) of the Qurʾān. Though the earliest biographers of the Prophet record these as separate events, with the ascension taking place from Mecca, by the ʿAbbasid period (750–​1258) the events come to be strung together into a single narrative, with the Prophet now making his ascent from Jerusalem upon alighting there from Mecca.3 The earliest and most popular of these narratives on the Prophet’s ascension was ascribed to Ibn ʿAbbās (d. 69/​688), whose stories were transmitted in written form by an anonymous thirteenth-​ century figure writing under the authorial persona of Abū al-​Ḥasan Bakrī.4 By the ninth century, the Prophet’s miʿrāj had emerged out of the biographical-​ historical mode as an independent narrative genre:  the “Book of Ascension,” kitāb al-​miʿrāj in Arabic, and the Persian and Turkish miʿrājnāmah.5 The “Book of Ascension” in Persian and Chaghatay Turkish of the eleventh to twelfth centuries c.e. were noteworthy for their deployment of pre-​Islamic Zoroastrian and Buddhist motifs, thus creating “powerful, and familiar, narratives that could be used for entertainment, education, and conversion to Islam in eastern lands.”6 The anonymous Persian Miʿrājnāmah produced at the Ilkhānid court in the thirteenth century notably retold the in isrāʾ-​in miʿrāj events as a single continuous narrative.7 As this narrative later developed across time and space, it came to be referred to simply as the miʿrāj. Sufi authors, such as al-​Ṣulamī (d. 412/​1021) and al-​Qushayrī (d. 465/​1073), produced their own

3 Gruber 2010, 2. 4 Colby 2008, 127. 5. Amir-​Moezzi 2010. 6. Gruber 2010,12–​13. 7. Ibid., 9.

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works on the miʿrāj traditions—​a book of sayings on the miʿrāj, Laṭāʾif al-​ miʿrāj (Subtleties of the Ascension) and Kitāb al-​miʿrāj, respectively.8 The Ilkhānid Miʿrājnāmah, as Christiane Gruber notes, follows in the Arabic Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī traditions of the miʿrāj narrative while introducing Sufi elements from Qushayrī and Ṣulamī, thus creating a Sufi-​Sunnī devotional tale.9 The first Turkish Book of Ascension was written by Ḥakīm Ata, a disciple of the Turkish Sufi Shaykh Aḥmad Yasavī (d. 562/​1166) of Central Asia.10 From the twelfth to the sixteenth century, the miʿrājnāmah was distilled into the encomiums to the Prophet (miʿrāj naʿt) of Persian classical poetry.11 A simultaneous trend to insert the miʿrāj into the biographical cycle of the Prophet Muḥammad (sīra) included in universal histories of rulers is evident in Arabic and Persian literature of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as well as in the west under the Ottomans in the late sixteenth century.12 Roughly contemporaneous to the Ottoman trend, but on the new Islamic frontier in the east, Saiyad Sultān inserts the miʿrāj narrative in his universal history of the Prophet.13 As the volume of essays edited by Gruber and Colby on cross-​cultural miʿrāj accounts exemplify, this narrative was deployed time and time again across the Islamic world for pietistic and proselytizing ends, as well as for inter-​and intra-​faith debate and contestation.14 The miʿrāj narrative, by Sultān’s time, came to acquire a 8. Ibid., 11–​12. 9. Ibid., 17. 10. Ibid., 13. 11. Classical Persian literary works usually open with a ḥamd, a lyrical invocation praising God, followed by the naʿt, in praise of the Prophet Muḥammad. Concerning illustrations of the miʿrāj naʿt, see Gruber 2009. 12. Rashīd al-​ Dīn’s Jāmiʿ al-​tawārīkh (Compendium of Chronicles) in Arabic; Balʿamī’s Tārīkhnāmah and Mīrkhvānd’s Rawz̤at al-​ṣafāʾ (Garden of Purity) in Persian; and Sayyid Luqmān’s Zubdat al-tawārīkh (Quintessence of Histories) from Ottoman Turkey are examples of such universal histories. Gruber 2018, 84, 200, 261–​262. 13. It is also worth noting that while many medieval authors eschew the sīra in their qiṣaṣ, the thirteenth-​century Turkish author Rabghūzī incorporates it, including as well the ascension narrative. Cf. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Rabghūzī. 14. Gruber and Colby 2010.



recognizable plot, cast of suprahuman characters, and core narremes that were reshaped, elided, and expanded to include new elements and shifting points of emphases, so as to address the needs of diverse audiences. Sultān’s palimpsestic narrative thus used a time-​honored template enriched by Islamic scholars, historians, Sufis, and mystical and popular poets alike, tested for suasion over several centuries, to establish the supremacy of the Prophet of Islam and spread the faith. As I shall point out over the course of this chapter, numerous narrative elements and suprahuman characters of Sultān’s meʿrāj continue the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī discourse with a Sufi emphasis on mystical elements. An episode unique to Ḥakīm Ata’s Miʿrājnāmah also make its way into Sultān’s meʿrāj. Furthermore, as I  demonstrate at various points in this chapter, Sultān draws on the concepts, language, and imagery of yoga and Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism in his account of the meʿrāj, thus producing a uniquely Bengali narrative to honor the sacred figure of the Prophet. As we may recall, Book Two of the NV, designated by Ahmad Sharif as “Rasul Carita” (The Acts of God’s Messenger), covers the Prophet’s life in three parts. The first part begins with a recapitulation of cosmogony, elaborating upon the bare principles delineated in the beginning of the NV while deepening the Sufi theological landscape of the Nūr Muhammad. Then follows a description of Muhammad’s birth and his early life as a prophet in Mecca, before his emigration to Medina. Part two, Śab-​i merāj, “The Night of the Ascension,” begins with the Prophet’s night journey (isrāʾ) and ascension (miʿrāj) (which constitutes 854 verses), and continues beyond it to present episodes from the Prophet’s Medinan period.15 Part three, Ophāt-​i Rasul, “The Prophet’s Death,” concerns his last days and death, ending with a brief description of the conquests of the first three caliphs. As mentioned in Chapters 2 and 4, the inclusion of the Prophet’s biography after the traditional tale-​cycles of the pre-​Islamic prophets is a structural feature of the Persian qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ, whose narratological pattern the NV follows. The Persian qiṣaṣ traditions of Nīshābūrī and Juwayrī, however, do not narrate an account of the Prophet’s night journey and 15. The reader is referred to Chapter 2 in order to understand what precisely constitutes the “ascension narrative” in my discussion in the present chapter.

Ascension and Ascendancy


ascension, though an extensive narrative is present in Būshanjī’s Arabic Qiṣaṣ al-​Qurʾān and in the Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of the thirteenth-​century Turkish author, Rabghūzī.16 Sultān’s Śab-​i merāj does not draw upon any Perso-​Arabic qiṣaṣ model that I  am aware of, but rather, as mentioned above, follows more closely in the narrative patterns set by the Ibn ʿAbbās/​ Bakrī text, while adding distinctively Sufi overtones. This makes Sultān’s merāj unique among qiṣaṣ texts circulating in the Persianate sphere. In her study of the narrative tradition of the miʿrāj, as it was shaped between the eighth and fourteenth centuries by the medieval scholarly elite, Brooke Olson Vuckovic provides a useful taxonomy of narrative motifs.17 In what follows I  present a mnemohistorical discourse analysis of Sultān’s merāj in the context of this historiographic tradition. Although introducing new elements, Sultān employs in his telling many of the standard medieval motifs identified by Vuckovic. These include: first, “readying events,” such as, in this case, receiving instruction from the angel Jibrāil, washing in the waters of Zamzam, the trial of the people (similar to Vuckovic’s “trial of the voices”) and the trial of drinks, and visiting sacred sites such as Jerusalem and Mount Sinai (kuhatur giri);18 second, ascending into the heavens on the mythical beast, Borāk (Ar. Burāq);19 third, the Prophet’s meetings with “heavenly beings,” such as, in this case, Iblis and the King of Hell;20 fourth, his meeting with the prophets, including Musā;21 fifth, reward and punishment in the afterlife;22 and finally, the reaction of the Prophet’s community to his ascension.23 Key themes that align Sultān’s work with the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī 16. Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of Rabghūzī. On Būshanjī’s text, see Chapter  2 of this book, n.  35, and Chapter 4, n. 6. 17 .Vuckovic 2005. 18. Ibid., 17–​35. 19. Ibid., 44–​45, 47–​50. 20. Ibid., 34–​39. 21. Ibid., 51–​72. 22. Ibid., 97. 23. Ibid., 75.



intertext are: first, praying at Mount Sinai; second, meeting with the celestial rooster, whose crowing makes the roosters of the earth crow in response; third, meeting with Mālik, the guardian of hell and being given a tour of hell; fourth, meeting with Ājrāil, the angel of death and learning of his methods; fifth, Gabriel’s halt at the Lote Tree and instructing Muhammad to proceed onwards alone; sixth, colloquy with the Lord; and seventh, an extensive tour of paradise. Indeed the degree of dependence of Sultāns’s merāj narrative on the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī intertext can be judged by the number of major narrative themes the NV includes from it:  as many as twenty-​one of the twenty-​eight narrative features that Frederick Colby outlines for the Ibn Bakrī discourse (most of which are also to be found in the Ibn ʿAbbās “base narrative”).24 This chapter also pinpoints other more minor themes of this discourse that Sultān includes in his writing. Two themes fairly unique to Sultān’s version are the Prophet’s descent through the planetary spheres, and his elaboration upon mystical love. Within this latter theme, discussed in the next section, Sultān introduces yogic and Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava concepts and imagery, which contribute to the uniquely Bengali flavor of his merāj. But before examining these themes, let me first provide a brief outline of Sultān’s merāj. Sultān’s account of the mysterious night of the Prophet’s ascension, the twenty-​seventh night of the Rajab moon,25 begins with God’s command to his angels to bring his “friend, the Prophet Muhammad”26 to him, so that they could sit as two companions on one throne and commune with each other. Jibrāil, accompanied by his fellow-​archangels, Ājrāil, Mikāil, and 24. Colby 2008, Table 4, 161–​162. The only seven features of the Bakrī versions unattested in the NV are: one, “Muḥammad initially attracted by the woman”; two, “encounter with youth near Jerusalem”; three, “miʿrāj -​ladder and steps described in detail”; four, “material and/​or names of heavens”; five, “meets immense angels, e.g., Cherubim,” etc.; six, “passes seas of different colors,” etc.; and seven, “vision of God in heart.” The NV’s section on the “intimate colloquy” with God is different from the Bakrī versions, though it does share the features of “greetings,” “favor of the prophets,” and the “intercession” that are a part of Bakrī narratives. Ibid. 25. NV 2:200. Ibn Saʿd relates that Muḥammad’s ascent took place “on the night of Saturday, 27 Ramaḍān, eighteen months before the Hijra.” Buhl et al. 2011; see also Schimmel 1985, 161. 26. NV 2:200.

Ascension and Ascendancy


Isrāphil, each with a band of seventy thousand angels, is dispatched on this mission. At the Prophet’s doorstep, Jibrāil allays Muhammad’s fears of a nocturnal attack by Arabs—​the multitudes of angels gathered around his dwelling were confused for the enemy—​and advises him to mount Borāk and journey through the seven heavens to have a glimpse of God, thereby honoring God’s wish. In order to further reassure Muhammad, Jibrāil, as eternal messenger of God’s word to the prophets, presents an account of his spiritual credentials.27 Before allowing the Prophet to mount, Borāk advises him to secure a guarantee from Jibrāil that his community too would one day be able to ride him. At the very last minute, before the Prophet mounts Borāk, the beast shies away when it smells the Prophet’s hand.28 Once Jibrāil steadies the beast, the Prophet finally is able to mount Borāk and flies on his steed escorted by the angels to the masjid of Mecca. There, having washed at the Zamzam well, he enters the mosque and prays together with all the angels. On the instruction of Jibrāil, Muhammad ignores calls from Christians and Jews to tarry awhile. Traveling onward, the Prophet discovers two large bejeweled vessels (kūpa), one of honey and one of wine. He selects the vat of honey, and is informed by Jibrāil that his choice has saved his community from destruction. Visiting Mount Sinai soon after, the Prophet once again prays in unison with all the angels.29 Next, the Prophet meets with Iblis; in hell he sees the sufferings of Jews and Christians, and of women who have sinned.30 After a brief meeting with the angel Ismāil,31 he travels to the bāyatul mokāddes (Ar. bayt al-​ muqaddas, or Jerusalem); when he prays on the Holy Rock, his feet 27. NV 2:201–​203. 28. On this theme in medieval sources, see below. 29. NV 2:206–​212. 30. NV 2:213–​217. Concerning tours of hell in miʿrāj narratives, see Tottoli 2010. Cf. Felek 2010, 287. 31. NV 2:217–​218. Concerning the angel, Ismāʾīl, in medieval miʿrāj accounts, see Vuckovic 2005,  46–​47.



leave their sacred impression upon it.32 After a short interview with the personified form of the Holy Rock, the Prophet rides a second Borāk to ascend into the seven heavens. In the first two heavens the Prophet meets with Ādam and a gigantic white rooster and its master, the angel Samāil/​ Ismāil.33 In the third, he encounters Musā, and sees Mary the mother of Jesus, the wife of Pharaoh (here named Āsmā, though known as Āsiyā in medieval sources), Khadijā the wife of Muhammad, and Phātemā daughter of Muhammad.34 In the fourth he meets with Īsā, and briefly, with Idris (Enoch) and Iusuph (Yūsuf); and in the fifth, the angel of death, Ājrāil (Ar. ʿAzrāʾīl).35 The sixth heaven is in fact hell, ruled by the “King of Hell”—​a character distinct from Iblis—​who hesitantly shows him his realm.36 In the seventh heaven the Prophet meets with Ibrāhim in his masjid, where Ibrāhim as khalīl (“friend [of God]”) leads the angels in prayer.37 He also meets with the archangel Mikāil and the martyrs of paradise, who enjoy the delicious fruit of the jujube (badarī) tree whose branches reach the throne of God.38 At this tree Ājrāil appears once more, and then the Prophet encounters Isrāphil; he sees the Pen and the Tablet, as also the angels who guard God’s throne.39 Beyond the seven heavens, 32. NV 2:219. Cf. Gruber 2013, 299; ibid. 2018, 269–​285. Concerning Qadam Rasul shrines dedicated to the veneration of the Prophet’s footprint in South Asia and Bengal, see Hasan 1993. 33. Concerning this rooster angel in the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī tradition, see Colby 2008, 32, and Table 1, 138–​141, and Miʿrājnāmah, 46. 34. NV 2:225–​226. On the Prophet’s seeing these four women, see Colby 2008, 119–​120. 35. On the angel of death, ʿAzrāʾīl, in medieval Islamic sources, see, for instance, ibid., 49–​51; and Felek 2010, 287, 290–​91. 36. “King of Hell,” Naraka Nr̥pati, appears to refer to Mālik, whom Vuckovic describes as “the guardian of hell, the word meaning both lord and possessor.” Mālik is also “the character . . . who shows Muḥammad hell.” Vuckovic 2005, 36–​37. 37. NV 2:243. There seems to be a conflation here between the masjid—​for which Sultān again uses the term bāyatul mukāddes (bayt al-​muqaddas)—​and bayt al-​maʿmūr, the heavenly prototype of the masjid al-​ḥarām, the Holy Mosque of Mecca. Ibn Isḥāq describes Abraham “as a man sitting on a throne at the gate of the immortal mansion (bayt al-​maʿmūr).” Sīrat Rasūl Allāh of Ibn Isḥāq, 183. For this feature in the Bakrī narrative, see Colby 2008, 218–​219. Cf. also Miʿrājnāmah, 59. 38. NV 2:244–​247. 39. NV 2:248–​249. Concerning the Prophet’s meetings with the archangels in medieval sources, see, for instance, see Miʿrājnāmah, 65–​66; and Felek 2010, 284, 286–​287, 291. The description

Ascension and Ascendancy


Muhammad visits paradise; finally left alone by Jibrāil at the Lote Tree of the Limit (sidrat al-​muntahá),40 Muhammad traverses seventy thousand veils of dense darkness to reach God’s throne,41 in a chariot drawn by a horse named Raphraph.42 God and his beloved companion eventually meet, an encounter Sultān describes in rich detail. The meeting between God and Muhammad consists of a number of discrete episodes, many of which are typical of the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī intertext: first, the incident of the removal of sandals before God’s throne; second, God’s invitation to Muhammad to sit beside him on the throne and Muhammad’s final acceptance, which includes a depiction of mystical love; third, bargaining between Muhammad and God as a consequence of Muhammad’s entreaty to God to forgive his community of its sins; fourth, God’s initiating the Prophet into ninety thousand mysteries; fifth, Muhammad’s declining of God’s invitation to remain with Him, and instead returning to earth for the sake of his community;

of Isrāphil in the NV closely follows that of the Bakrī narrative, which describes him as sitting with “one leg forward and the other back behind” and bearing a trumpet, which had “holes in it that numbered as many as the souls of creation.” Colby 2008, 223. Cf. isrāphila nāma tāna balavanta ati | śiṅgā hāte kari basi āchae mahāmati || pr̥thivīta janma hae yatha jīva gaṇa | se śiṅgāta tatha randhra haïche sr̥jana || . . . basichanta isrāphila śiṅgā hāte kari | eka uru uṭhāiyā āra uru pāṛi || NV 2: 40. This is a trope that was elaborated upon, as Frederick Colby (2010, 155 n. 20) notes, “in the Ibn ʿAbbās ascension discourse and later Sufi texts, namely that Muḥammad was forced to leave Gabriel behind during the highest stages of the night journey. In some of these versions, Gabriel explains that he would burn up were he to continue the shortest distance beyond his ‘known station’ near the Lote Tree in the seventh heaven.” The NV mentions precisely this: jibarile bole ehi vr̥kṣa tala hante | mora śakti nāhi eka pada bāṛāite || anudina ehi sthāne mohora nivāsa | ethā honte āgu haite nāpāi prākāśa || ethā honte eka kāñi āgubāṛi yabe | prabhura aṅgera jote aṅga dahe tabe || NV 2:261–​262. 41. For the reference to seventy thousand veils, see NV 2:264. For this motif in medieval Islamic sources, see, for instance, Schimmel 1993, 133; and Laṭāʾif al-​miʿrāj of al-​Sulamī, 66–​68; and Miʿrājnāmah,  65–​66. 42. Sharif (NV 2:  n. 2, 263)  reads “Pharad,” but the manuscripts also attest “Pharphar” and “Raphar.” I conjecture that Sultān wrote “Raphraph,” conflating the horse with “the fluttering cloth”—​a flying carpet—​or the flying cushion (rafraf), which, in some miʿrāj accounts, is exchanged for Burāq at the Lote Tree of the Limit. See Schimmel 1985, 171. For this theme in the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī tradition, see Colby 2008, 33–​34, 141, and Miʿrājnāmah, 39, 65.



sixth, Muhammad’s entreaties to God to be made the model phakir; seventh; God’s praise of Muhammad, stating that He would spread the Prophet’s glory in various scriptures; finally, a description of God’s throne studded with the planets and constellations, studying which empowered Muhammad with knowledge of prognostication.43 Before he leaves, God asks Muhammad to convey to his community that they should pray sixty times a day, fast for six months during the year, and perform ablutions seven times after enjoying conjugal relations.44 Hearing this, Musā sends Muhammad back repeatedly until God reduces the number of daily prayers to five, fasting to one month of the year, and performing ablutions to once after sexual intercourse.45 The Prophet then begins his descent through the seven spheres, with the planets of each sphere prostrating before him. When he returns to his still-​warm bed his wives Āyeśā and Khadijā are sleeping.46 Later he informs each of them about his journey, and then, at the time of collective morning prayers, speaks of it to his community.47 Pursuing Brooke Olson Vuckovic’s path of dissecting narrative technique to reveal ideological motive, I now turn to the narrative devices that Sultān employs to exalt the Prophet over other prophets, and his community over those of other prophets. Since Vuckovic carefully deals with the manner in which the more typical miʿrāj motifs are used in “constructing

43. NV 2:263–​274. 44. NV 2:275. Medieval accounts of the miʿrāj give the original number of daily prayers prescribed by God as fifty. No mention is made in these accounts of God fixing the requirement for fasting or ritual ablutions. Vuckovic 2005, 65–​72. However, the Bakrī narratives state that the Prophet received instructions for his community to pray fifty times a day, and fast for six months. Colby 2008, Table 4, 161. 45. NV 2:276–​278. 46. The NV is inconsistent in its depiction of Khadijā. First, Muhammad is said to have seen Khadijā with other sacred women in heaven, suggesting that she had passed on before Muhammad’s ascension, as has been put forward by the medieval Islamic tradition. Yet upon his return to Mecca, Muhammad, as the NV relates, meets with her along with Āyeśā. This latter mention may well be a scribal interpolation. 47. NV 2:279–​284.

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the Prophet of God,”48 I turn to Sultān’s more unusual motifs, foremost of which is the theme of mystical love.49


Sultān sets the tone for his merāj with God’s command to his angels to cast a veil of deep and contented slumber over the world. Humans resting in their beds and the dead in their graves should not be disturbed. The fires of hell must be doused, and sweet fragrances spewed along the pathways. The houris of paradise are to adorn themselves while the skies are to be lit with row upon row of lamps.50 The scene is thus set at none other than God’s command: the night is specially prepared for Muhammad’s secret ascent, ensconced in darkness, into the intimacy of God’s presence. The Prophet thus seems to be transported through the heavens on the wings of God’s desire to be together with his long-​lost friend; God urges Jibrāil to set forth, with these words: That companion of mine, the Prophet Muhammad—​ every moment I contemplate my love for him. Thus from the mortal world shall I bring him here; in person shall I give him audience. We shall sit as two companions on a single throne; we shall commune with each other, he and I. As many of the angels who can go forth should fetch him; let them explain my message to him. Today is the twenty-​seventh night of the Rajab moon—​ 48. This is quoted from Vuckovic’s (2005) title for her Chapter One. 49. While esoteric themes have been employed by prominent Sufis, such as Abū Yazīd al-​ Bisṭāmī, Ibn ʿArabī, and Muḥammad Ghaws̱ Gwāliyūrī, in elaborations of their own personal ascension narratives, the theme of mystical love is not typical in medieval accounts of the Prophet’s miʿrāj. See Gruber 2010, 11–​12; see also Kugle 2003, 16. In the Bakrī narrative, during Muḥammad’s meeting with God, the Lord addresses him as his beloved. Colby 2008, 228. 50. NV 2:199–​200.



instruct him to arrive swiftly on this very night. Let all the angels join together to bring him. I shall be seated together with him on this very night.51 The one who is “beyond need” has need for his beloved companion, a theme celebrated in Sufi poetry across the Islamic world.52 Separated from His supreme friend at the beginning of creation, God pines to be united with him once more.53 Here God is presented as the needy Sufi lover, who desires to enter into deep communion, ṣuḥba, with the beloved. Traditional roles are reversed, hierarchies broken down: Beloved (maʿshūq) becomes lover (ʿāshiq), and lover, beloved—​a transformation that immediately signals the central role of God’s love in bringing about Muhammad’s ascent.54 Despite being accorded the welcome due a long-​ awaited beloved, Muhammad approaches haltingly into God’s presence, accepting his cordial invitation to sit beside him on his throne with trepidation and bewilderment. God then reminds him: I created you from a part (aṃśa) of myself. You and I were always united: you have been separated from me for days and days!55

51. NV 2:200. 52. See, in the case of Rumi, for instance, Chittick 1983, 197. 53. Sultān’s cosmogonic ideas are discussed below. 54. Qurʾān 17:1 depicts God as being the one who caused Muḥammad’s night journey. Furthermore, the idea that Muḥammad is “sent for” occurs in Qurtubī’s thirteenth-​century work, Aḥkām al-​Qurʾān. Vuckovic 2005, 47. See also the fourteenth-​century Turkish mystic Yūnus Emre’s poem, in which God sent Gabriel to bring Muḥammad to him. Schimmel [1982] 2001, 183. For the idea of God becoming the lover of the Muḥammadan Light, see Schimmel’s (1985, 127)  translation of an excerpt from Meḥmed Bey Khāqānī’s Turkish Ḥilya-​i sharīf: God (ḥaqq) loved this light and said: “My beloved friend (ḥabībī)!” And became enamored (ʿāshiq) of this light . . . 55. NV 2:266.

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Sultān’s idea that God is one,56 as well as his understanding that God and Muhammad are essentially one but separated should be read in the light of the discussion of the similarities between Islamic cosmogony and the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava philosophy of acintya bhedābheda, and the letter mysticism associated with the Arabic mīm, discussed in Chapter 1. Sultān makes Muhammad the object of God’s desire, with the creation itself taking place due to God’s love for his beloved. God reprimands the King of Hell, who initially turns down the Prophet’s request to view his realm, and informs the king that no person in the three worlds could equal Muhammad, his “pure friend,” for the love of whom he created the three worlds.57 Again, when Muhammad bids God farewell before his return to earth, Muhammad is reminded: But for you, I have no companion. My mind immersed in the juice of love (pirīti rasa) for you, I created these three worlds. I created the heavens and the earth because of you. Without you, all this would not have been created.58 The impact of these lines in praise of “the lord of lawlāka,”59 which draw upon the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava locutions of prema rasa, is greatly magnified when read in the context of God’s pining for his time of prior oneness with Muhammad, best appreciated in the cosmogonical context in which they have been explained in Chapter 1. We may recall that Sultān states that creation—​the supreme soul (paramāttamā), the individual souls (jīvāttamā), the Throne, the Pen, the Tablet, the great mystic formulae (mahāmantra), and so on—​emerged from the sweat produced when God’s gaze fell upon his beloved companion, Nūr Muhammad, himself an 56. Cf. NV 1:1 and 2:3. 57. ehi muhammada nabī śuddha sakhā mora | tribhubane eka nāhi tāna samasara || tāna preme sr̥jiyāchi e tina bhuvana | dekhāo tāhāne niyā naraka ekhana || NV 2:233. 58. NV 2:274. 59. Schimmel 1985, 130.



emanation from God.60 We see also that the Muhammad of Sultān’s merāj, thus, is not merely the last prophet, but also the first, the ādi-​antera rasul, a theme discussed earlier. To continue with God’s entreaty to Muhammad to sit beside him on his throne: You have been separated from me for an eternity. Come and look at me with the visible eye. With the hidden eye while meditating in dhyāna do you see me. Come and see your friend with the visible eye.61 Here, the author depicts the Prophet as a yogi who has a vision of God through the yogic process of dhyāna, a form of meditation requiring sustained contemplation of the deity. The “secret” or “hidden eye” is suggestive of the yogic ājñā cakra, or “third” eye, one of the subtle centers for mental concentration in dhyāna. Furthermore, Sultān reifies the Sufi belief that the Prophet’s ascension took place in the body, rather than merely in spirit, and that his vision of God took place in a state of sober awareness rather than in a condition of mystical annihilation:62 God asks Muhammad to look upon him with his “manifest” or “visible” eyes, to perceive God externally, as opposed to the inner vision the Prophet has of him.63 God, then, beseeches his beloved: Come, come, Muhammad, sit with me; become a sea of grace on the waves of love. . . . You are my beloved friend, of one body. 60. Cf. NV 1:4–​6 and 2:3–​9. 61. NV 2:266. 62. Cf. Schimmel 1985, 162–​163. 63. On his return to earth, when asked about his vision of God first by his wife, Āyeśā, then Khadijā, and finally by his community, the Prophet emphasizes each time that he had seen God both with the inner as well as the outer eye. NV 2:281–​284.

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Sit close to me; let there be no distance. One to the other, eye to eye, let us gaze. One to the other, let us commune, forgetting ourselves. Saying this, he drew the Messenger close to himself—​ as though the moon’s radiance was in the sun’s lap. Two mirrors remained face to face,64 light merged into light, belying form. When those two lights became united, the two lights merged in one body. When the two brows arch and knit together, like two snakes intertwined, lover (bhāvaka) and beloved (bhāvinī) become one in ecstasy—​65 between two bows a single string.66 Sultān skillfully weaves esoteric and exoteric imagery in depicting Muhammad’s meeting with God as a reenactment of their time of primordial togetherness, an affirmation of the Prophetic saying, “I have a time with God.”67 The qurʾānic expression “two bows’ length” (qāb qawsayn), elaborated upon in Chapter  1 and also referenced in the epigrammatic verses of Būṣīrī above, was interpreted by Sufis, including Sultān, to mean two drawn bows, their strings touching to make a circle signifying union.68 The image of the mirror recalls Sultān’s depiction of the primordial moment of creation, which comes about through Āllā’s recognition of his own

64. The translation and interpretation of this complex passage owe much to suggestions by Tony K. Stewart. In fact, I directly quote his beautiful translation of the two lines: “When the two brows . . . intertwined, . . .” Personal correspondence, January 16, 2008. 65. Bhāvaka and bhāvinī are common terms in Vaiṣṇava literature. Bhāvaka can mean all of the following: thinker, creator, meditator, and connoisseur (rasika, rasajña). Bandyopādhyāya 1996, s.v. “bhāvaka.” Bhāvinī, its paired term in the feminine gender, used here to describe Muhammad, is often used to describe Rādhā, the lover of Kr̥ṣṇa. Biswas 1994, s.v. “bhāvinī.” For more on this pair, see Irani 2018b. 66. NV 2:266–​267. 67. Schimmel 1975, 220–​221. 68. The Qurʾān, ed. and trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, 53:9, n. 5089, 1444.



face, Nūr Muhammad, in the mirror of his own self. The parallelism of the first moment of separation and the moment of reunion between God and his beloved here in Sultān’s ascension narrative illuminates the circularity between God and his creation as expressed in the well-​known ḥadīth, “He who recognizes himself recognizes his Lord.”69 The cycle of God’s manifestation in creation set into motion, in the NV, through the Creator’s recognition of his first creation, Nūr Muhammad, comes full circle when Muhammad returns into the presence of Āllā. This episode has to be read in light of the cosmogony of love, delineated in Chapter 1, as the return of the beloved to the lover. It is a return to the originary moment from which all separation stems, the moment that Jalāl al-​Dīn Rūmī’s proverbial reed laments when it is torn from its reedbed. The Prophet’s coming into the presence of Āllā is the desideratum of the Sufi’s “quest to recognize God’s Face” (wajh).70 “Indeed, so important is this notion of ‘recognition’,” emphasizes William Chittick, “that Sufism is often called maʿarifah or ʿirfān, both of which are verbal nouns from the verb ʿarafa” (to recognize).71 Thus, in the Divine Saying “I was a Hidden Treasure,” creation comes about due to God’s longing for the hidden treasure of his being to be recognized by his creation. And all created beings return to that supreme self when they recognize it within themselves. The image of the two facing mirrors is a particularly fertile one in the light of Vaiṣṇava thought. God and Muhammad see each other in these mirrors, eye-​to-​eye and face-​to-​face, their reflected forms reproducing themselves without beginning or end—​a play on the idea that all created things emanate from God’s love for Muhammad, all forms here shown to be created in their conjoined image. Muhammad himself, moreover, is presented as being created in God’s own image, as an aṃśa avatāra would be. Additionally, echoing the Vaiṣṇava literary terms bhāvaka (lover) and bhāvinī (beloved), which he uses in his cosmogonical prologue,

69. Asrār al-​tawḥīd fī maqāmāt al-​Shaykh Abī Saʿīd of al-​Munawwar, cited in Chittick 2015, 1743. 70. Chittick 2015, 1743. 71 . Ibid.

Ascension and Ascendancy


Sultān frames Muhammad’s meeting with God in terms of the passionate Rādhā-​Kr̥ṣṇa encounter. In this context, the trope of the multiplying mirror-​images draws upon the idea that the love of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa is like a hall of mirrors: Kr̥ṣṇa’s love is reflected back to him by Rādhā, who ever magnifies it—​and so their love grows in an endless spiral.72 Thus, in his construction of the Prophet as God’s beloved, Sultān employs Sufi imagery and ideas while embracing the language and concepts of yoga and Vaiṣṇavism. Sultān’s Prophet is made that much more glorious for being enriched and legitimized by religious and cultural images rooted in Bengal. The Prophet’s special status as God’s friend leads him to be exalted by the heavenly beings and prophets he meets on his celestial journey. Typically, the Prophet has an encounter with the master(s) of each heaven and one or both of two narrative possibilities unfold. First, the Prophet is accorded a privileged position by his counterpart, for one or more reasons: doctrinal (as in the case of Īsā),73 on account of his status as God’s friend and Īsā’s own untenable theological status as the “son of God”; his intercessory powers (Ādam, or the guards of hell)74 or the superior nature of his community (Musā, Īsā, and the archangel, Mikāil).75 Second, in encounters such as those with the archangels Ājrāil and Isrāphil, and the King of Hell, the Prophet is empowered with special knowledge of 72. I am grateful to Tony K. Stewart for his suggestions on the interpretation of this passage, and for directing my attention to the “hall of mirrors” image in Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava theology. Personal correspondence, January 16, 2008. Cf. Dimock and Stewart 1999, 101–​102, 199–​200. 73. NV 2:228. 74. For Ādam, see tomhāra pirīti ati āllāra sahita | nirbodha pāpera bhāra khaṇdāo turita || NV 2:223. For the guards of hell, cf. tumhi se āllāra sakhā apāpa śarīra | karibā uddhāra tumhi yatha nārakīra ||āmhi pāpī saba prati kara avadhāna | khaṇḍāo āmhāra pāpa māgi prabhu sthāna || naraka yantraṇā honte rakṣā pāibāra | ghucāo āmhāra duḥkha prasāde tomhāra || NV 2:233. 75. For Musā, see āmhā honte lākha guṇa mahimā tomhāra | tumhita parama priya rasula āllāra || NV 2:225. For Īsā, see mohora ummata honte tomhāra ummata | rākhiyāche bahula mahimā yatha sat ||. . . mātr̥ mora mariyāma tāne sarvakṣaṇa | prabhura vaṇitā hena bole pāpīgaṇa || pāpī sabe bole more prabhura tanae | kadācita e sakala vacana nā hae || NV 2:228. For Mikāil, see rasule bulilā tabe ki kāje tomhārā sabe ethā rahi thāka anukṣaṇa | bulilā tomhāra lāgi prabhu pade vara māgi ethā rahi tomhāra kāraṇa || tomhāra ummata sabe daruda kahila yabe laila tomhāra yadi nāma | ehi samudrera jala hae ati sunirmala taraṅga uṭhae aviśrāma || NV 2:245.



God’s eschatological plan. The deployment of these two narrative patterns establishes the Prophet’s superior knowledge and spiritual mastery over all other prophets. A third narrative technique Sultān adopts lies in his depiction of the Prophet’s ascent from one heaven to the other: the Prophet departs for the next heaven usually having led, as their imām, all the angels in prayer, a trope that literally and figuratively brings the Prophet to the fore.76 Not only do the prophets and other heavenly beings exalt Muhammad’s position, but Sultān puts into God’s mouth praise of his holy stature, elevating him over all other prophets. While approaching the throne, the Prophet wished to remove his sandals; God objects, but Muhammad defends his position, citing the example of Musā, who was instructed to remove his sandals when he ascended Mount Sinai. God refutes him, explaining that the purpose of this injunction was to have the holy dust of Mount Sinai wash away Musā’s sins; in the case of Muhammad, his beloved companion “whose body is without sin,” God’s throne would gain stability from the holy dust of his sandals.77 While Sultān invokes the authority of the prophets, and even God, to establish the Prophet’s ascendancy over all other religious figures, he also employs the testimony of non-​Islamic scriptures to seal his position as the last prophet God sends to earth with his final word. Before Muhammad leaves God’s proximity in order to begin his descent through the seven spheres, God promises to broadcast his name in the four Vedas and the fourteen Hindu scriptures (śāstra), in the Torah, the Gospels, the Book of Psalms, and the Phorkān (Ar. Furqān, the Qurʾān as “The Criterion”).78 As in all other such cases in the NV, this serves a dual function: first, it places Muhammad’s own revealed scripture, the Qurʾān, on a continuum

76. NV 2:224, 226, etc. This feature is to be found in the Bakrī texts. Colby 2008, Table 4, 161. 77. NV 2:264–​265; see also 205. Concerning this theme in the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī intertext, see Colby 2008 142, 226–​227. On traditions that describe the role that Muḥammad’s name plays in stabilizing God’s throne, see Rubin 1975a, 106. 78. NV 2:272–​273. See also NV 1:24–​25. This idea seems to be a version of the “favor of the prophets” theme in the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī narratives. Colby 2008

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of revealed scriptures, one more ancient than the other, giving the last Prophet and his Book a legitimacy derived from scriptural genealogy; second, it places the Bengali Hindus, who also rely on revealed scripture, within the Islamic category of People of the Book. These remarks should be read in the context of Chapters 4 and 5. Another unusual theme that Sultān employs to exalt the Prophet’s holy stature is that of his descent through the spheres. On his return journey Muhammad meets with the personified forms of the presiding planets of each sphere, who prostrate themselves before him. The Prophet meets with Saturn in the seventh heaven, then Jupiter, Mars, the sun (and moon), Mercury, Venus, and, lastly, the moon as he descends through the heavens.79 This narrative element serves as confirmation of his divine stature, one that has been consecrated by his ascension into the presence of God. To conclude, Sultān employs a spectrum of narrative themes, both old and new, in the construction of the Prophet as God’s beloved. While fleshing out these themes, he draws on diverse esoteric and devotional systems—​ Sufism, yoga, and Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism—​each one complementing the other to further exalt the Prophet’s elevated stature. By invoking the authority of the prophets, God, and scripture, the author legitimizes the Prophet’s status, and accords him preeminence over all other religious leaders.

79. NV 2:279. Cf. the earth’s description of the seven heavens, in NV 1:27, discussed in Chapter 4, n. 47. Intriguingly, the order of the planets mentioned is precisely the reverse of those provided in Sultān’s ascension narrative, though this could simply be a question of the earth numbering the highest heaven as the first rather than the seventh. The fourth heaven in the earth’s account is the sphere of the sun and the constellations, unlike here where the corresponding sphere is that of the sun and the moon which anachronistically appear in the same heaven. Each of the heavens, in the earth’s account, is also made up of a particular precious stone or mineral, whereas these minerals are not specified in the Śab-​i merāj for each of the spheres. It is noteworthy that one of the key features of the Ibn ʿAbbās-​Bakrī narratives is that each of the spheres is constituted by a particular mineral. Colby 2008, Table  1, 138–​141, and Table  4, 161. Many Prophetic encomia (naʿt) of Persian classical poetry that appropriate, in their praise of him, the theme of the Prophet’s ascension describe the Prophet’s meeting with the presiding planet of each sphere, endowing, as he ascends, each of these planets with one of his special attributes. See, for instance, Haft Paykar of Niẓāmī, 8, vv. 41–​47, and Yūsuf u Zulaykhā of Nūr al-​Dīn ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān ibn Aḥmad Jāmī, 2:26–​29. Sultān presents a variation on this trope in his description of the Prophet’s descent.




While Sultān’s merāj indeed includes Sufi and other devotional elements, it does not seem conceived as a mystical text per se:  given Sultān’s interest in esoteric disciplines, as possibly revealed by the Jñāna Pradīpa, it is striking that his narrative is not composed, for instance, as a mystical progression through the various stations and/​or planetary spheres.80 Rather it has been shaped primarily as a didactic treatise that sets the codes of Islamic practice. The treatment of the Prophet’s experiences in the hereafter appears predicated entirely upon the author’s preacherly engagement with his disciples in the here and now. Much like medieval miʿrāj accounts, Sultān’s descriptions of the afterworld and his reinforcement of the qurʾānic promise of paradise and the threat of hell remind the believer of the consequences of moral choice and the accountability of action, within the overarching scheme of God’s justice, while providing a coherent link to the teachings of the Qurʾān.81 So as not to repeat the descriptions found in the Qurʾān, medieval accounts eschew descriptions of paradise per se, and focus rather on its inhabitants.82 In contrast, Sultān’s merāj—​perhaps precisely because the Qurʾān was inaccessible to the local Bengali—​includes the detailed descriptions of paradise (bhihist/​svarga) and hell (naraka), along with an account of those who are punished, found in the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī discourse.83 Other than the martyrs, those who are rewarded with paradise are not specifically listed and become the default category—​members of the Prophet’s community who do not commit the sins punishable by hell, and instead enjoy the sensual delights of paradise. 80. Cf. the account of Bisṭāmī’s personal ascension, Sells 1996, 244–​250. 81. Cf. Vuckovic 2005, 120. 82. Cf. ibid., 98. 83. The King of Hell, whom he meets in the sixth heaven, introduces the Prophet to the seven hells, set up as a sliding scale starting with the worst, which has seventy thousand types of torments (duḥkha), to the seventh, which has ten thousand; the latter is specially designed for Muhammad’s followers, who are described as weaker in physique than the robust heroes of yore. NV 2:235.

Ascension and Ascendancy


As we encounter elsewhere in his merāj, Sultān, in his depictions of heaven and hell, was creatively adapting the whole spectrum of Arabo-​ Persian Islamic civilization to the Bengali cultural world.84 The author uses powerful visual imagery in portraying the glories and beauty of paradise, in which exquisitely adorned houris, depicted according to the conventions of classical Indian poetry, entreat God to bestow on them husbands from among the Prophet’s community, reminding Him that they have been practicing austerities and mantra-​recitation (tapa japa) to be so blessed.85 These images are sharply contrasted with the revolting nature of hell, whose swampy areas infested with mosquitos, worms, scorpions, pythons, snakes, and fearsome aquatic denizens conjure up the fetid ponds and mangroves of Bengal.86 With this juxtaposition the author confronts his audience with the pragmatic importance of making the right choices. Though Sultān does not provide in his merāj a categorization of the virtuous who inhabit paradise nor names exemplary Muslims who live there,87 he does supply an ideal model for emulation in the form of the Prophet himself—​the “beautiful model,” uswa ḥasana, of the Qurʾān.88 In his colloquy with the Prophet upon his ascent, God presses Muhammad a second time to ask for a boon.89 This time Muhammad makes several entreaties to him: Let my body always burn with hunger and thirst. Do not grant me a stomach-​full of food; 84. Cf. Eaton 1993, 276–​277. 85. NV 2:260. 86. NV 2:236. 87. As mentioned earlier, Sultān does grant a place of honor to four exemplary women: the Pharaoh’s wife (whom he names Āsmā), Mary, Khadīja, and Fātima. These chaste women, satī nārī, have each been reserved a bejeweled pavilion in the third heaven. Ibid., 2:226. Cf. Vuckovic 2005, 106–​112. 88. The Qurʾān 33:21, 1109. I provide here Schimmel’s ([1982] 2001, 172) translation. 89. The first time Muhammad asks the Lord to forgive his community for their sins. See below. For the “ ‘ask and be given’ trope” in Sufi sayings on Muḥammad’s conversation with God during his ascent, cf. Laṭāʾif al-​miʿrāj of al-​Sulamī, 132–​133.



give me the daily means to eat for the day. . . . The moment men ask [something] of me, I ask that I can give [it] away immediately. Order that my hands be great givers; let them swiftly donate whatever someone asks. Also command that my body ever remain in Your service . . . and that I may be known in the three worlds as the phakir who continually takes the Lord’s name (nāma dhari phakir).90 In effect, the Prophet asks to be made the quintessential spiritual aspirant—​ a desire that, according to this account, greatly pleases God.91 This depiction of the Prophet as first phakir recalls the most famous praise poem to the Messenger written in classical Arabic by Sharaf al-​Dīn Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Saʿīd al-​Būṣīrī (d. 694–​96/​1294–​97), who declares: I have profaned the Path of him whose night prayers brought the darkness to life Until his feet complained of pain and swelling, Who tied a stone to his belly to blunt the hunger pangs, Concealing beneath the stone his tender flank. Haughty mountains of pure gold sought to tempt him, But, oh, with what disdain he turned them down! His need served only to strengthen his renunciation, For necessity cannot prevail against the sinless. How could need tempt with this world’s vanities one who, but for him, The world would never have emerged from nothingness?

90. NV 2:272. 91. Several ḥadīth reveal the Prophet as one who insisted on poverty so as to be closer to God. Cf. Schimmel 1985, 48. See also the ḥadīth that depict Muḥammad as the first Sufi, in Khalidi 2009, 164.

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Muḥammad, the master of all who dwell in both the seen and unseen worlds, Of both corporeal species, men and jinn, of the two races, ʿArab and ʿAjam. Our Prophet, the commander of good and forbidder of evil; No one was more just than he when he said “yes” or “no.” He is the beloved of God whose intercession is hoped for In the face of every dread and unexpected horror.92 The Prophet’s strength in renunciation, his life of prayer and self-​denial that Būṣīrī praises are themes that Sultān too inscribes in his representation of the Prophet as one beyond worldly needs. Much as the culmination of the Jñāna Pradīpa, ascribed to Sultān, is the presentation of a process of visualizing the Immaculate Lord, Nirañjana, in the heart-​lotus,93 it seems clear that the high point of Sultān’s ethical teachings in his merāj lies here. In his presentation of the “life as model” ideal for emulation, in his representation of the Prophet as cultural role model—​an ascetic, munificent, ẕikr-​absorbed phakir—​Sultān is also sketching a Sufi self-​portrait for his Bengali audience. In superposing the Prophet’s image on his own and vice versa, Sultān telescopes time, place, and person to make the Prophet a familiar, approachable figure, and to cast the Bengali pīr in the Prophet’s likeness. As do medieval accounts, Sultān lists specific categories of sinners punishable in hell, providing an exhaustive, if mostly normative,94 categorization of sin that includes lack of belief in the basic tenets of Islamic piety; non-​abidance by the pillars of Islam; financial sins; sins against what is lawfully appropriate in terms of diet or sexual relations; 92. From the qaṣīdat al-​madḥ of Būṣīrī’s Qaṣīdat al-​Burdah, vv. 29–​36, trans. Stetkevych 2010, 97. 93. Jñāna Pradīpa attributed to Saiyad Sultān, 645–​646. 94. By normative, I refer to the categorizations of sin found in medieval miʿrāj accounts. See Vuckovic 2005, 112–​120. Concerning the tours of hell in medieval miʿrāj accounts, and the polemical purposes of eschatology in these accounts, see Tottoli 2010.



sins associated with ritual purity; and a wide variety of social sins including those that relate to a lack of respect for the authority of father and mother, guru, phakirs and dervishes, and learned men—​ālims and maulānās. Proper behavior between the genders is laid down in some detail, while Sultān speaks out against violating lawful sexual relationships.95 The author thus compiles a minimal obligatory code of conduct for the Muslim, following which the upright believer would be assured a place in paradise. In Sultān’s worldview, however, the disbeliever, no matter how virtuous, finds no place in paradise; instead the other People of the Book—​Christians and Jews—​associated as they are with the basic “evil” of giving false testimony, are automatically dispatched to hell.96 Going against the grain of medieval miʿrāj descriptions, which confirm the qurʾānic view in depicting the virtuous members of various communities gathered around their respective prophets in paradise, Sultān here presents a bleaker future for the Christian and the Jew.97 What, then, does Sultān have to say about the Hindu disbeliever?98 There is no explicit reference to Hindus and the punishments they may receive in hell. Yet the broader narrative argument of the NV has led us to believe that their fate is truly damned. As we have seen, the author places Hindu gods and scripture in his universal history at the service of an Islamic teleology, tacitly acknowledging Hindus as being People of the Book. But then so were Christians and Jews, and this, in Sultān’s understanding, does not seem to have redeemed them in the afterlife. Throughout the NV, as we have seen in Chapter 4, the author emphasizes

95. NV 2:237–​239. Vuckovic’s (2005, 120) perceptive remark on the sexual sins laid out in medieval accounts applies here as well: “the women are punished for what they do to the men of their family, not for what they do against God’s decrees.” 96. NV 2:216–​217. 97. Cf. Vuckovic 2005, 99. See also Rubin 2011b. 98. Sultān does not use the term “Hindu” in this particular section, though he does elsewhere in the NV—​yet it is clear from the context that the “idolaters” and “kāfirs” he speaks of are members of local Bengali religious sects.

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the evils of idol worship. Through sophisticated strategies of translation, we may recall that he groups hinduāni naras with the pagan Arabs of the age of ignorance, whose only fitting destination in the afterlife are the fires of hell (naraka). In accounts of pre-​Islamic prophets, the author weaves elaborate tales of the destruction of idols and idolaters, suggesting that his audience included new converts for whom he feared wavering and backsliding into their previously idolatrous ways.99 Sultān narrates how people in Ibrāhim’s time, for instance, bought idols, named them “Brahmā” or “Viṣṇu,” and sacrificed goats before them.100 Through such episodes, Sultān comments on the idolatrous practices of hinduāni peoples of his own day. Moreover, the account of the prophet Hari/​Kr̥ṣṇa, as we have seen in the previous chapter, holds up this popular deity as a warning to Bengali idolaters. Sultān’s polemical presentation of Kr̥ṣṇa’s exploits—​the manner in which he seeks to humiliate this popular deity at every narrative turn, and in particular, setting up Kr̥ṣṇa’s failed ascension as a foil to the Prophet Muhammad’s vastly successful one—​suggests that the Vaiṣṇavas, especially the Gauṛīyas, would surely be denied a place in paradise. In the author’s understanding, as we have seen in Chapter  2, a large part of unbelief and impiety is idolatory: the unbeliever (kāphir) is defined as one of animal nature, who does not worship the unitary Lord, who, not knowing the essence of the Islamic faith, commits every sort of irreligious act, and ever worships idols.101 In his merāj narrative, Sultān retells a striking anecdote alluded to above about the mythical beast, Borāk—​an episode reminiscent of the Bakrī narrative. Waiting outside the Prophet’s abode in order to bear him through the heavens, Borāk flees when he smells the Prophet’s hands. Muhammad’s hands are apparently tainted as a consequence of slapping the idol in Mecca across the head, in a fit of moral outrage—​though the author is quick to clarify that Borāk fled only as a

99. See, for instance, Śiś (NV 1:180), Nūh (NV 1:317), and Ibrāhim (NV 1:347–​353). 100. NV 1:380. 101. NV 2:47.



reminder to human beings of the evils of idol-​worship, for no stench could ever cling to the Prophet’s hands.102 Thus while there is no direct mention of the fate of the idolater in Sultān’s descriptions of hell, by introducing this sobering incident about Borāk’s initial encounter with the Prophet in the first section of the merāj, he provides unambiguous warning to his hinduāni audience at the very outset. In the colophon that closes the opening section of the merāj, in which the above incident of Borāk is related, Sultān issues a stern warning to idolaters, perhaps softened by the alternative he provides: “Those who worship idols in the hope of gaining paradise, will be utterly destroyed when they fall into hell. Listen, O men,” says Saiyad Sultān, “remain in refuge at the Prophet’s feet.”103 Here, the author offers the hitherto idol-​worshiping neophyte with an attractive exchange:  the Prophet’s feet for an idol of stone. The Prophet’s anthropomorphism, much like the figure of the tantric guru, becomes a conduit for negotiating the formidable nature of God’s abstraction.104


This brings us to another related issue:  while Sultān is concerned with strengthening the Islamic community by establishing a moral code of conduct for individual practice and communal interaction, he is also 102. NV 2:207–​208. On a similar theme in the Bakrī narrative, see Colby 2008, 198. Cf. Laṭāʾif al-​miʿrāj of al-​Sulamī, 136. 103. mūrti pūji se sakale svarge yāite āśa | narake paṛiyā haiba samūle vināśa || kahe saiyada sulatāne śuna naragaṇa | rasulera padayuge rahuka śaraṇa || NV 2:208. Also, see the colophons on 212 and 221. 104. Placed in the context of Sultān’s praise for his own guru, this serves to reinforce the axial alignment of guru and Prophet. Additionally, regarding the similarity in roles played by Muslim and Vaiṣṇava masters in the Bengali socio-​cultural world, cf. Nicholas 1974, 10–​12.

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interested to invite others to the faith. Given the array of religious options available within the Bengali sociocultural milieu of the late sixteenth century, how does Sultān manage to project Islam as the most expedient and desirable? The answer partly lies in an examination of the techniques Sultān uses to accord preeminence to the Prophet in his biography—​ an issue that has been explored earlier. What follows is a discussion of images, in the merāj, of the Prophet as intercessor for his community, images that seem to be closely related to Sultān’s desire to spread the Islamic faith. In his discussion of the literature of Satya Pīr, Tony Stewart emphasizes that the importance of Satya Pīr as a religious and cultural, albeit mythical, figure lies in his dealing with “pragmatic concerns of survival—​not overt ideology, theology or ritual”; devotees simply “accept that he has the power to make their lives better.”105 While Satya Pīr is worshiped for his power to make life on earth “better,” Sultān presents the Prophet as one who has the power to make the afterlife experience of his disciples better. In the colophon above, the Prophet is depicted as the pragmatic choice for the Hindu idolater concerned with enjoying the pleasures of paradise, since he alone can win this most sinful of sinners a place in paradise—​ once such a one has sought shelter at the Prophet’s feet. In keeping with legends of the Prophet in popular piety across the Islamic world, Sultān portrays Muhammad as one who truly cares for his flock, a negotiator and intercessor for his community even at great personal cost.106 His Muhammad is one who ensures the maximum leniency permissible to the worst of his followers, and for the best among them he brokers privileges often rivaling his own. The Prophet, thus, makes sure to inspect the seventh hell, reserved for sinners of his community, in order to gain intimate knowledge of the sufferings some of his people might face.

105. Stewart 2004, 23. 106. Cf. Schimmel 1994, 202. See also the representation of the Prophet as intercessor in the miʿrāj motifs of classical Persian poetry, such as in ʿAṭṭār’s Ilāhīnāma. Schimmel 1985, 166–​168. For Sufi sayings on the Prophet’s ascent with special reference to his role as intercessor, see Laṭāʾif al-​miʿrāj of al-​Sulamī, 123–​124, 132–​133.



Guided through this formidable hell by its king, the Prophet fears for the members of his community and entreats God to save them from hell. God tests him by asking him to choose between saving his parents or his community from hell. Since the Prophet’s parents died before the founding of Islam, they died as pagans, and, hence, suffer the punishments all idol-​ worshippers receive: consignment to hell fire.107 The Prophet elects to save his community over his own parents, a predictable but nonetheless significant choice.108 It is remarkable that Sultān elects to include this episode in his miʿrāj despite there being agreement in the Muslim tradition that the Prophet’s parents found a place in paradise.109 The only other source that we are aware of to contain such an episode is the Turkish-​language Miʿrājnāmah of Ḥakīm Ata (d. ca. 582/​1186), a Yasawī dervish of Central Asia. In her discussion of Ata’s work, Gruber emphasizes that this episode “provides a didactic model for members of Ḥakīm Ata’s target audience: here, they are encouraged to embrace Islam despite their parents’ adherence to another faith (Buddhism, for example).”110 Sultān’s inclusion of this trope in his narrative also indicates his desire to urge local hinduāni people to accept Islam. Additionally, it is included here as dire warning to parents of new converts who do not accept the faith of their children. For if the Prophet cannot save his own parents, there is no hope of redemption for the parents of new entrants to his community, parents who stubbornly cling to their old ways. As Max Scherberger has observed about Ata’s text, the addressees of the NV too seem to be “in the midst of intergenerational upheaval” brought about by the Islamization of the region.111 Before he allows the Prophet to mount him, Borāk, as we may recall, makes him extract a promise from Jibrāil to allow his community

107. Scherberger 2010, 89. 108. janaka jananī kibā ummata tomhāra | kāhāre naraka honte karibā uddhāra || . . . rasule bolae āmhi māgie tomhāe | uddhārite ummata māgie sarvathāe || NV 2:242. 109. Scherberger 2010, 90. 110. Gruber 2010, 13. 111. Scherberger 2010, 91.

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members to eventually ride him into the heavens. Before mounting Borāk the Prophet, accordingly, gains Jibrāil’s assurance in this matter.112 When Muhammad comes into the presence of God, the Lord offers him anything he desires in the universe, including His throne and footstool, and even paradise. The Prophet instead begs that his community be forgiven its sins. At first God forgives a third of the Prophet’s community. But the Prophet continues to plead with him until he forgives another third. Not entirely satisfied, the Prophet continues to press God, who finally grants that all those who recite the kalimā will be completely forgiven of sin.113 Furthermore, when God tells him to stay on with him if he wishes, the Prophet expresses his sense of obligation to return to earth for the sake of his community.114 He worries that his people might go astray, like those of Idris and Īsā, who, according to the Islamic tradition, left their followers in order to live in paradise.115 Here Sultān not only portrays the Prophet as God’s friend, superior to all other prophets, but also presents him as the unfailing friend and protector of his people, making him thus an attractive figure for love and veneration. Even more than through the rewards of paradise, Sultān intends to win people to this new religion of Bengal through the figure of the Prophet of Islam, in whom the qualities of jamāl are justly matched by jalāl: he whose compassion, self-​sacrifice, and attentiveness to his people rival his glory, majesty, and most importantly, influence with God.


In his study of the early Muslim community, Fred Donner identifies four styles of legitimation employed to bolster claims to privilege, authority,

112. NV 2:206. 113. NV 2:269–​270. 114. Cf. Schimmel 1985, 164. 115. NV 2:269–​271.



and leadership.116 The first was “moral legitimation,” based upon the perceived piety and moral standing of an individual. In the case of “genealogical legitimation,” the second, “being of the ‘right’ family or ethnic group” served to establish an individual’s status within the community.117 Despite the Qurʾān’s efforts to break away from such forms of legitimation, the pre-​Islamic Arabian emphasis on kinship and tribal ties continued to shape the contours of the new Islamic community. The third was “theocratic legitimation”: “the assertion that one occupies a superior position because God wants it that way.”118 And the fourth, “historicizing legitimation,” was exemplified by the developing Islamic historiographical tradition, which, as Donner points out, often interacted with the first three forms of legitimation to produce “hybrid accounts, but also in ways that sometimes transformed the very nature of those forms of legitimation.”119 Donner’s observations about the legitimizing function of the Islamic historiographical tradition, moreover, are best understood in the wider context of all premodern historiography. As Aleida Assmann argues, all history writing in the premodern period was characterized by “the identity between history and memory” such that “the legitimizing function was intertwined with the memorial function.”120 Of particular relevance to the foregoing discussion on Donner’s typologies is her proposition that “the identity between history and memory was guaranteed by the reference to a collective identity enforced by a specific power structure that was itself confirmed, legitimated, and perpetuated in the process. The identity between history and memory is grounded in a quadrangular relationship between memory, history, identity, and power.”121 This study of Saiyad Sultān and his NV in Bengal enables us to observe Donner’s patterns of legitimation, and the ways in which identity and 116. Donner 1998, Chapter Three. 117. Ibid., 104. 118. Ibid., 111. 119. Ibid., 119. 120. A. Assmann 2008, 57–​58. 121 . Ibid.

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power are constituted by and constitutive of the historiographic process. These patterns of legitimation unfold through and beyond the textual historiographic process, over a subject-​author-​text-​community continuum that spans almost four centuries. Donner’s principles of legitimation, somewhat modified and augmented, can be seen at work at various levels of interaction within this continuum. A few examples drawn from earlier discussions should suffice to make the point. At the level of text, the author employs all four forms of legitimation to establish the preeminence of the Prophet of Islam. In the Prophet Muhammad’s case, genealogical legitimation is established through his prophetological ancestry, while the pre-​Islamic prophets are themselves legitimated by the primordial principle of the Nūr Muhammad. Theocratic legitimation in the NV is closely associated with scriptural revelation—​the manner in which Sultān uses the authority of sacred books, such as the Vedas, the Korān, and the purāṇas, both explicitly and implicitly, for the purpose of legitimating self and Prophet. But it is also seen in the ascension narrative in the theme of the Prophet as God’s beloved. For it is through the leitmotif of mystical love, a form of “theocratic legitimation,” that Sultān accomplishes his foremost task: the consolidation of the Prophet’s supremacy over all other religious figures. By reading Sultān’s ascension narrative in the context of the NV’s historiographic process, and through an analysis of the miʿrāj’s mnemohistorical discourse—​the continuities and discontinuities of Sultān’s narrative with medieval miʿrāj discourse—​we deepen our understanding of the religious constituencies of the author’s addressees. Such discourse analysis also lays bare the author’s primary agenda of deploying the merāj narrative as it was often used in the medieval Islamic context: as a powerful medium for strengthening community identity and inviting new peoples to the faith. We also see how historiographer and subject are entwined in a relationship of mutual legitimation, a theme introduced in Chapter 2 but further developed here. At the level of subject-​author interaction, Saiyad Sultān, the preacher-​translator-​historiographer, himself a local guru/​pīr, sets into motion processes of Islamic legitimation wherein genealogy plays a significant role in establishing authority and authenticity. Sultān’s moral and



genealogical authority as a Saiyad (descendant of the Prophet Muhammad) and as a local pīr, himself authorized by his guru to take on the mantle of charisma, matter. These genealogies initially serve to legitimize Islam and his religious ideal, the Prophet Muhammad. The latter, in turn, serves to reinforce and extend the charismatic axis of murid-​pīr-​rasul-​Āllā. Although he is the exalted subject of Saiyad Sultān’s historiography, the Prophet of Islam initially derives credibility from the charismatic authority that the author wields as pīr over his community. Later, however, Sultān’s own office is sanctified by the manner in which he constructs the Prophet of Islam. All the models of the Prophet that Sultān presents—​God’s beloved, the exemplary phakir, and the intercessor—​coalesce in the image of the Prophet as paradigmatic Sufi pīr, who embodies all three roles. In this manner, Sultān tacitly affirms his own office of pīr and elongates the existing spiritual axis of disciple-​master to the Prophet and God. It is around this axis, strengthened by such processes of “genealogical legitimation,” that he wishes to orient and strengthen his community. The politics of identity and power, as Assmann argues, are thus intimately intertwined with memorializing and legitimizing the past through such historiography. Through his merāj tale, Sultān provides an ethical framework to strengthen community identity and differentiate believers from disbelievers, issues that had been previously introduced in Chapter  2. While a minimal obligatory code of conduct is laid down for the ordinary Muslim, the Prophet as ideal phakir is held up as the perfect cultural model for emulation. In his attempt to invite others to the faith, Sultān uses imagery of the Prophet as intercessor for his community: likened to the figure of the guru in Bengali culture, Sultān’s Prophet is an exemplary guide and guardian of his disciples. In his charismatic persona reside the twin qualities of grace and power that present him as the most pragmatic choice for the people of Bengal. Saiyad Sultān’s ascension narrative on the Prophet Muhammad is a significant chapter in his larger project, the NV—​a literary attempt to gain wider acceptance for the Prophet Muhammad and his religion in the

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Bengali sociocultural world. “To be widely accepted,” as Richard Eaton points out, a deity “had to be perceived not only as powerful and efficacious, but as genuinely local.”122 Sultān knew well that the success of his mission lay in how effectively he could make the Prophet a truly Bengali figure. In reformulating the Arabic miʿrāj genre for a Bengali audience, he translates Perso-​Arabic Islamic literary and aesthetic sensibilities into a Bengali cultural and literary idiom, a principle of cultural literization and continuity we have seen applied to his delineations of cosmogony and pre-​Muhammadan prophetology. Introducing the little-​known figure of the Prophet, he presents new Islamic teachings in terms of the familiar, the authentically local. Thus, in his various depictions of the Prophet and in his eidetic images of otherworldly regions, the author invokes Bengal’s literary, religious, and cultural vocabulary. While the author uses many motifs of the medieval miʿrāj traditions in his ascension narrative, particularly the Ibn ʿAbbās/​Bakrī intertext, in his ascension narrative and effectively employs the language and imagery of Sufism, his construction of the Prophet as God’s beloved simultaneously draws upon the ascetic and devotional systems of Bengal—​yoga and Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism. This and other related chapters of this book demonstrate that Sultān chooses to establish the Prophet of Islam in Bengal via an additional form of legitimation—​ “cultural legitimation”—​whereby I refer specifically to how local forms of culture, as we have seen, are used to paint an Arab prophet as a familiar Bengali figure. Once the salvation history is completed, the image of the sacred subject that Saiyad Sultān reimagined for Bengal takes on new life, consolidating Sultān’s position within literary and religious circles that extend well beyond his time.123


122. Eaton 1993, 303. 123. Concerning the present-​day regional negotiations over the author and his work, see Irani 2019 and Irani forthcoming a.

Conclusion Historiography, Translation, and Conversion

On the morning of December 16, 2014, I  visited Baṛaliyā village in the Patiya district of Chittagong, Bangladesh. I skirted the village pond where a lone villager was performing his ablutions and entered the vacant village mosque accompanied by its custodian, Saiyad Maolānā Āmīn. He was the eighth-​generational descendant of a well-​known seventeenth-​century Sufi pīr of the area, Hajrat Saiyad Śāh Gadī.1 This new mosque, the Pīr Mīr Hajrat Saiyad Śāh Māolānā Ābducchālām Miñā Jāme Masjid, constructed in the memory of Saiyad Āmīn’s grandfather, was an unostentatious rectangular brick and cement flat-​roofed structure, painted in white. We entered a sheltered portico and took off our footwear, then passed into its single room, large enough to house the local villagers for their Friday prayers. The inner walls were painted white with some walls and pillars in a parrot green. The cool floors were tiled in white ceramic, with intermittent bands of black tiles marking prayer rows. Heavy wooden doors at the mosque’s entrance and windows on either side let in light and air. To the front of the sunlit room that stretched before me, tucked into the left corner, lay an unlikely but treasured object, enclosed in a heavy case of

1. I  remain indebted to Muhammad Ishāk Caudhurī, the now-​retired librarian of the Rare Books Library of the Chittagong University, who alerted me to this site and accompanied me on this visit in December 2014, and on prior visits to the area in 2009. The Muhammad Avata¯ra. Ayesha A. Irani, Oxford University Press (2021). © Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190089221.003.0007.



hard transparent plastic for all to see, but not to touch. The object within was a full-​sized cot: a plank of weathered wood resting on four roughly hewn legs. I hovered around, excitedly examining it from every possible angle. At the end of a long quest, here I was in front of the fabled cot of Saiyad Sultān, the pīr-​poet I had been studying for several years. Locals consider him to be a relative of Hajrat Saiyad Śāh Gadī. The sun shone brightly, reflecting off the hard transparent plastic case protecting the cot. After exhausting every angle from which I might attempt a clear photograph, I requested Saiyad Āmīn to recount the legend of the cot, an account well preserved in family memory. He replied that his ancestor, the pīr Saiyad Sultān, had once been captured by Arakanese forces in this little village in Patiya. He remained prisoner in the Buddhist state of Arakan for several years and eventually died there. As he lay on his deathbed in a foreign land, estranged from his descendants in Baṛaliyā, he desired to send them his most precious possessions. He addressed a letter to his relatives and placed it upon this cot with his personal Qurʾān, his wooden clogs (pādukā), and two gold riyāls. Floating the cot on the Naf River, he commanded it to travel upstream by riverine networks to his family village of Baṛaliyā. The cot dutifully obeyed its master’s command, conveying its treasure to Saiyad Āmīn’s ancestors. For generations, the cot was housed in their family home, and was last slept on by Māolānā Ābducchālām Miñā, whose name was associated with the village mosque. Since the cot was believed to possess magical powers that could only be controlled by those of high spiritual stature, after the venerable Māolānā Ābducchālām Miñā’s lifetime, it needed to be contained, quarantined, lest it harm an unsuspecting sleeper. Accordingly, it was removed from the family home and preserved in the mosque, where villagers could regularly seek its baraka (spiritual grace). Saiyad Āmīn’s account fit with the history of the region that I had studied: it spoke to the close geographic and political connections between the Theravāda Buddhist rulers of Arakan and the region of Chittagong. Isolated from Burma by an impassable mountain range, the Buddhist kings of Arakan had historically maintained closer associations with Bengal via inland riverine routes and maritime connections through the Bay of Bengal.

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Looking back upon this visit to the Baṛaliyā mosque in 2017, when I first began to compose these final thoughts that wrapped up several years of research, my memories were tinted by a peculiar poignancy. Since August, reports of the astonishing atrocities heaped upon Rohingya villagers of the Rakhine State of Myanmar had been filtering in on an almost daily basis. As Rakhine’s desperate Muslim refugees were washed up in their crescent-​ shaped boats onto Chittagong’s shores, stricken by thirst, hunger, terror, and sea-​sickness, I  recognized, with no small measure of horror, that history had turned its back on the Muslims of erstwhile Arakan (today’s Rakhine State). Precisely seven decades after the Partition of India and the tragic violence it had unleashed in Bengal and the Punjab, the Muslims of Rakhine were drawn into a new genocide, the latest horrific consequence of Britain’s colonial legacy in the Indo-​Burmese region.2 I observed with dismay that the very river whose waters Saiyad Sultān’s cot had navigated with miraculous ease, the Naf, which once connected the Bengali Muslims of Chittagong with the cosmopolitan and multicultural state of Arakan through ties of kinship, governance, and trade, had become a river of tears, a symbol of division, death, and despair. By a paradox of history, the Naf, which once participated in the vast reticulate network of Bengal’s estuaries that connected great swathes of this deltaic region with Bengal’s west, and its southernmost reaches to the Theravāda Buddhist kingdom of Arakan, was now, by the grace of the nation-​state, transformed into a river that divides rather than joins. Not only does it separate Bangladesh from Myanmar, but it forges a rift deeper than that in modern geo-​ political consciousness by cordoning off the nations of modern South Asia from those of Southeast Asia. As international observers had noted, the fleeing Rohingya were initially prohibited by Bangladeshi border guards from making the hour-​long crossing into Bangladesh via this river, forcing them instead to make the more perilous seven-​hour journey to Bangladeshi shores by sea in makeshift country craft. At least in the early stages as this human tragedy unfolded, this was a border duly enforced

2. For a detailed account of the history of this crisis, see Ibrahim 2016.



by Bangladesh until the government could no longer stem the surging tide of desperate peoples fleeing violence, rape, and starvation. Today, of course, Bangladesh, cannot be praised highly enough for sheltering one of the largest population of refugees anywhere in the world. Made by a struggling nation, its gesture of generosity is exemplary. It puts to shame the hypocrisy of rich nations rapidly raising borders and walls, sealing themselves off from the disinherited and dispossessed, turning away from the plight of refugees forced by war, poverty, and pestilence to scour the earth for the most basic of human wants—​food, shelter, and safety. To me, the Naf is at once a river of buoyed memories and obliterated histories. The history of the multicultural region of Arakan and its centuries-​old connections with Bengal has not been sufficiently told; many of the Rohingya are the descendants of the Muslims of East Bengal, especially Chittagong. Nor has the history of the Islamization of Bengal, deeply intertwined as it was with the history of Chittagong and Arakan, been adequately accounted for. This book has attempted to recover aspects of the history of Islam’s spread in this multicultural region through examining the impact of vernacular translation on processes of Islamization. As a salvation history, the NV, I have argued, emerges directly out of the encounter of Islam in Bengal with Vaiṣṇavism. Sultān’s self-​confessed literary motive was to compose a competitive narrative that would turn the attention of Bengalis away from the figures of Rāma and Kr̥ṣṇa to the attractive figure of the Prophet of Islam. But he succeeds, through his astute translatorial interventions, in accomplishing something of far greater consequence than this: he succeeds in establishing Islam and its Prophet as authentically Indic and Bengali (hinduāni), and in doing so, expands the ontological and epistemological structures of the Bengali imagination. This enables hinduāni peoples to see themselves as the original forebears of Islam, as part of an Indo-​Islamic salvation history, wherein their scriptures predict the advent of the Muhammad avatāra, the avatāra of the kali age. By such manipulation of the hinduāni imagination, Sultān effectively enables a conversion of its peoples to Islam. Sultān thus succeeds in achieving the very goal he believes all scriptural translation should accomplish.

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I have argued that Sultān met such a goal through a practice of translation that entextualizes processes of conversion within the discourse of salvation history. As he recasts an ​Arabio-Persian salvation history as hinduāni, he includes Hindu avatāras in a new Islamic prophetological dispensation for Bengal. This process of inclusion, however, at once demotes gods to the status of prophets, and converts them to Islam—​a speech act that is meant to persuade Hindu devotees of these deities to follow suit. A sustained site of inquiry has been the particular mechanisms of translation via which Sultān accomplishes such a conversion of the gods. A hermeneutic model that explains the workings of translation as conversion is at the heart of this analysis. I have shown how the NV’s search for equivalence is architextually pervasive, percolating from language into form, and from form into transcultural domains of meaning. I have demonstrated how intertextuality is harnessed to expand the semantic domain of key theological terms so as to subtly manipulate and subvert the structures of Hindu belief. I have analyzed various processes of translation that seek to displace hinduāni deities, doctrines, and texts, replacing these with new Islamic ones. By the teleological and cumulative features of salvation history, moreover, the last prophet also becomes the greatest, superseding all who went before him, including the Hindu avatāras. Thus, just as “Nabī” displaces “Hari” of the title Harivaṃśa, the text accomplishes a complete displacement and demolition of Kr̥ṣṇa, the supreme deity of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas. Sultān upholds Hari as a warning to the idolatrous people of Bengal to give up the worship of their false gods, their empty images of brass, and turn to the singular Nirañjana alone. Conversion of a people, however, involves not merely the displacement of their gods by new ones, but their sacred texts as well. Through the composition of the NV, Sultān aims to create a new prior text, an axial text that did indeed acquire canonical status among the Bengali Muslims of Chittagong. As a “teleological activity par excellence,” translation assumes an original that went before it.3 Accordingly, though my historical attention has largely been focused upon the target culture, moving from translation 3. Toury 1985, 19.



product to process, the descriptive approach that I have adopted has involved a certain looking back. It has involved an analysis of the translated text vis-​ à-​ vis the “original”—​ howsoever this was understood by the translator—​not so much to determine “faithfulness” to it but the kind of “faithfulness” that the author valued, and why. Since translation within both the Islamic and Bengali context have long and distinct histories, this looking back inevitably situated the NV in these independent genealogies of translation, rewriting, story-​telling, and performance. This mnemohistorical discourse analysis allowed me to determine that the NV was continuing the grammar and polemic of translation practiced by medieval Muslim intellectuals in the salvation histories that circulated in the Persianate sphere. It also provides an understanding of why translation, in general, became the primary form of literary endeavor for Bengali Muslim intellectuals, and allows us to hypothesize why specific texts and genres were chosen for translation at particular historical junctures in the development of the Bangla literary polysystem. As a missionary and polemical work, Sultān’s biography is pointedly political. His biography of the Prophet, notwithstanding the plethora of well-​ established Islamic hagiographic genres available to Sultān, could be read as an adoption of the Bangla carita genre, newly pioneered in Bengal by the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas as a theological and political tool. Having ideologically sharpened this tool into a trenchant weapon of disputation, Sultān hurls it back upon the Gauṛīyas to humiliate and discredit them. Saiyad Sultān devotes enormous energy to undermining the supreme deity of the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas, while nonetheless co-​opting for Muhammad the cultural capital of the avatāra. The text displays an urgency to construct Muhammad as avatāra of the kali age, thereby implicitly superseding Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya, the founder of Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism. It is significant that Sultān adopts an uncompromising theological stance against the Vaiṣṇava doctrine of divine descent, for, in contrast, certain South Asian Shīʿī groups understood ʿAlī (in the case of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlī Satpanthīs) or Muḥammad (in the case of the Imām Shāhīs) to be the tenth avatāra of Hari (i.e., Viṣṇu).4 4. Khakee 1972, 43; see also n. 112, 59.

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By the same token, we now understand why Buddhism is almost completely absent from the NV. As noted earlier, the Arakanese court, though Theravāda Buddhist in religious orientation, was, culturally speaking, a consciously Islamicizing court. Muslim nobility and learned men were given positions of honor. Indeed, it was a senior Muslim minister, Majlis Navarāja, who conducted the investiture ceremony for Candasudhamma, the last king of Arakan.5 Such was the influence of Persianate culture on Arakan that, unlike their Burmese counterparts, Arakanese women lived in seclusion (purdah).6 For an author who probably lived in Cakraśālā—​ “Abode of the Dharma Cakra”—​Chittagong, which to this day is an important seat of Theravāda Buddhism, his total disregard for the religion suggests that the Muslims of Chittagong felt free to practice and proselytize their faith under the Arakanese. For if Buddhism had indeed been a threat, Sultān would most likely have sought in the NV to subvert the tradition, as is evident from his engagement with Vaiṣṇavism. Indeed, he could even have taken his cue from the Vaiṣṇava purāṇas, which had earlier sought to subvert Buddhism by incorporating the Buddha as a dubious avatāra.7 I believe that a close reading of the NV, thus, helps us to better understand the asymmetries of power in the region, and how this might have affected the spread of Islam in Bangla-​speaking communities. The picture of seventeenth-​century Arakanese Chittagong that emerges from the NV is that of a cosmopolitan region where Muslim intellectuals were intent upon establishing Islam in an environment where Islam was jostling with various brahmanical and non-​ brahmanical religious traditions, but was particularly threatened by the burgeoning presence of Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism. The asymmetries of religious power in the region that the NV reveals call for an examination of the possible nexus between the decline of Buddhism in the region and the rise of Islam. This complementary history of the Islamization of the region is yet to be told. 5. Sikāndarnāmā of Ālāol, 26–​27. 6. Qanungo 1988, 292. 7. Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1:3:24.



Issues pertaining to translation in the Indic sphere, and missionary translation in particular, are other important areas of study that the NV gestures toward. A work like the NV compels us to re-evaluate the ways in which translation itself was understood and practiced in the premodern period. This monograph has endeavored to shatter any notions of the flawed “repetitiveness” (paunaḥpunikatā) and lack of originality (maulikatā) that modern literary historians have accused premodern Bengali authors of in their role as translators.8 Saiyad Sultān’s grand nabīra pāñcālī stands as an unprecedented accomplishment. This book has tried to lay bare the daring creativity he brings to the translation of his sources in this tour de force of missionary writing, as well as the particular challenges he faced in establishing the preeminence of the Prophet of Islam in Bengal. One of several reasons why Islamic Bangla literature has been overlooked by Bengali literary historiographers in their nationalist historiographies is because it has been categorized as anuvāda sāhitya, “translation literature.” The term per se is unproblematic because this is a label applied to literature in translation, and the NV, as I have argued, is a translated text. What is troubling is the fact that anuvāda sāhitya is framed in opposition to “original” literature (maulika sāhitya). This is problematic for two reasons. First, such a binary presumes the derivative, tired, and secondary nature of translated literature as compared to “original” literature, ignoring its primacy in the target culture, and undermining its originality and power when it broke upon Bangla’s literary horizon. Translation, moreover, as André Lefevere formulated in his theory of rewritings, takes its place among many forms of rewriting, such as histories, anthologies, summaries, editions, and commentaries.9 That translators, in the manner of other rewriters, are “the people who really construct cultures on the basic level” has indeed been overlooked by literary historians because as a “monumental” yet “simple” fact, it is supposedly “transparent.”10 Yet 8. Sharif [1972] 2006, 270. 9. Lefevere [1985] 2014, 215–​243; and Lefevere 1992. 10. Lefevere and Bassnett 1998, 10. For more on the translator’s invisibility, and the necessary transparency of a good translation, see Venuti [1995] 2008.

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translation, as Lefevere reasons, “opens the way to what can be called both subversion and transformation, depending on where the guardians of the dominant poetics, the dominant ideology stand.”11 It is a mistake therefore to underestimate the exceptional power that the NV as a translation played in the process of religious socialization and identity construction, especially when one considers that most early modern Bengali auditors would scarcely have had any linguistic access to the originals available to the translator. For all practical purposes, the translation, as Derrida notes, “becomes the original.”12 The second reason why such a dichotomy is problematic is that “the concept of the original,” as Susan Bassnett notes, is “a product of Enlightenment thinking  .  .  .  a modern invention.”13 Medieval European authors, she observes, “had a far more open attitude to translation and writers do not seem to have operated with a binary opposition between translation and original”; rather, “the meaning of these terms passe[d]‌ through many different shades.”14 This observation also applies to the context of medieval and early modern India. Yet the modern-​day, Eurocentric assumption that “translations can be identified as such,” that “translation theory has defined the objects of its study,” is precisely why many present-​ day readers might hesitate to apply the category of “translation” to Sultān’s NV;15 they may prefer categories such as “adaptation,” “transcreation,” or “retelling.”16 But the reality is, as Gideon Toury emphasized in 1985, there are “no foolproof criteria” that distinguish a translation from a non-​ translation in the target culture. Rather, translation can best be defined as “any target-​language utterance which is presented or regarded as such 11. Lefevere [1985] 2014, 234–​235. 12. Cited in Bassnett 1998, 25. 13. Ibid., 38. 14 . Ibid. 15. Tymoczko 2014, 20. 16. “Transcreation,” for instance, is a term that the contemporary author P.  Lal used for his English translation of Shakuntala and the Br̥hadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad in 1974, but can be applied, as G. Gopinathan has argued, to “the whole tradition of creative translation of great classics” like the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyaṇa, and the Bhāgavata. Gopinathan [2006] 2014, 236.



within the target culture, on whatever grounds.”17 Toury’s non-​prescriptive a posteriori definition of translation has opened out the possibility of translation to be defined by and for the culture within which it is deployed. Though Saiyad Sultān never names his “original” sources, leaving the literary historian to reconstruct what these might be, he makes clear that he is translating Persian and Arabic text into hinduāni, a language of Hind. While it is partly possible to pinpoint his “originals,” there are points in the narrative, such as the account of Hari, which leave one wondering how one could possibly describe the text as a “translation” of the qiṣaṣ tales. But this anxiety is ours, not that of the early modern Bengali author, who is constantly challenging our own need to cling to an hegemonic original. Hence, as Susan Bassnett proposes, “it is probably more helpful to think of translation not so much as a category in its own right, but rather as a set of textual practices with which the writer and reader collude.”18 Saiyad Sultān recognizes that the translation of sacred history is a powerful tool not only for the communication of Islamic doctrine to Bengalis, but for constructing religious identity and inviting newcomers to the faith. Rather than being conservative, his vibrant translation is profoundly engaged with the renewal and remaking of Islam’s meaning for Bengalis. In order to construct an Islamic identity for Bengalis he harnesses the power of translation to manipulate the original text—​whether this be purāṇic or para-​qurʾānic—​and thereby, his auditors’ views of self and other. Indeed, as Lefevere has brought to our attention, manipulation of the source text is a key function of all forms of rewriting.19 In turn, such manipulation of the source text not only manipulates the position of the author in the literary system, as Lefevere argues, but also the receptor’s response. Because of its focus upon its target audience, Sultān’s translation is decidedly prospective in orientation. Given the particular, local, and culture-​specific nature of my descriptive-​ explanatory study of translation practice as exhibited by a single text, the 17. Toury 1985, 20. 18. Bassnett 1998, 39. 19. Lefevere 1992, 9.

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question may well be asked as to why such isolated descriptions matter. What do they yield beyond the particularities of this study? Here Gideon Toury, one of the key proponents of descriptive translation studies, comes to my rescue. He suggests that such study operates at two levels:  while each descriptive study is an activity bound by locality, it is also “part of an overall endeavour: an attempt to account for the ways function, process and product can and do determine each other,” an endeavour that eventually has significance for refining existing theoretical approaches to translation.20 In examining how Sultān’s translation entextualizes processes of conversion, I have sought to outline a hermeneutic model for how an Islamic missionary translation was designed as a tool for social action, an instrument for conversion. Saiyad Sultān’s belief in the power of translation in conversion and his pursuit of this principle in his own literary practice, coupled with the affirmation of the vernacular by him and his fellow Bengali Sufis as the ideal vehicle for communicating Islamic praxis to Bengalis, urges a re-​ evaluation of the question of the significance of the premodern South Asian Sufi’s use of the vernacular. What was the role of the vernacular in such translation, and what part did Muslim intellectuals and holy men play in conversion to Islam? It is true, as Carl Ernst has pointed out, that the ideological posturing of nationalist historiographers has laid suspect the “received opinion . . . [that] assume[s]‌that the Sufis wrote in Indian languages in order to convert Indians to Islam.”21 Yet the case of Sultān and other Bengali Sufi writers urges us to reopen the issue, to find more nuanced answers to this question. What, indeed, were the reasons for Sufis across South Asia to increasingly use the vernacular in their writings from the time of the establishment of Mughal rule onward? Was this language choice a matter of exercising a mother tongue for Muslims born in the subcontinent; or a pragmatic matter of communication, since they lived and preached in an Indian environment? Was this an aesthetic concern, a possibility that Ernst proposes, a matter of picking “attractive materials” 20. Toury 1991, 182. 21. Ernst 1992, 166.



from the Indian environment;22 or were there, in some cases, deeper political and ideological underpinnings to the choice of the vernacular? To answer this question, every Sufi’s historical circumstance, as Muzaffar Alam has urged, needs evaluation on a case-​by-​case basis.23 To gain a fuller picture of a Sufi’s approach to conversion, his literary works and the intertextual interventions they seek to make, his target audience, the performative context, if any, his circle of disciples and their writings about their master, all become important elements whose study could further such an understanding. Yet only when such a question about the choice of vernacular is directly posed for each separate circumstance can evidence accumulate to piece together the bigger picture. The Avadhi Sufi romances present a case in point. As scholars such as Aditya Behl, Shantanu Phukan, Francesca Orsini, and Heidi Pauwels have shown, these romances were performed at multiple venues, and were designed to communicate with multiple interpretive communities.24 For this reason, they are necessarily multi-​referential and multi-​linguistic, reflecting an “openness” to parallel universes. Does the choice of the vernacular suggest that Sufi authors had begun to recognize its power in drawing local peoples to the message of Sufism and Islam? Had the Sufis begun to comprehend the efficacy of translation in conversion? Had they begun to appreciate the power of presenting Islam through continuities with Hindu thought as being key to conversion? Did the Sufis who composed these romances recognize that laypeople could be drawn to Islam through rasa? Could one of the reasons for the later continuation of the Sufi romance genre in the Deccan and in Bengal have been its proven ability to attract the non-​Muslim layperson to the message of Islam? Or were the Sufis who wrote these romances indifferent to such concerns? It is precisely these difficult questions about Sufi literature in the vernacular that a text like the NV raises.

22. Ibid., 168. 23. Alam 1996. 24. Behl 2012; Phukan 2001; Orsini 2014a and 2014b; Pauwels 2013.

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Perhaps the most productive avenues for future research that this study of the NV signals are the ways in which the re-​writing of salvation history at various moments in the establishment of Islam, from its beginnings in Arabia to its spread across the world, was crucial to making the religion relevant and meaningful to new communities. The historiographic processes laid bare in this examination of an early modern text are relevant to the ways in which the Qurʾān itself recalibrated salvation history for the early Muslim community, and how subsequent medieval Islamic historiographic traditions continued to update the sacred past to keep it meaningful in the present. While medieval Islamic dynastic histories have received significant scholarly attention, since modern-​day historians have considered these to be important sources on the history of Islam, the medieval qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ traditions have been regarded as little more than “tales” of the past, not meriting the serious attention of historians. These histories have rarely been examined for the history of the Islamic past that they reveal nor for the religious and cultural work that they accomplished. Whereas the Arabic qiṣaṣ tradition has been relatively well-​ studied from a literary perspective, and to some extent, for the religious work it does for the spread of Islam, the Persian qiṣaṣ tradition remains a vast and relatively untouched field from both perspectives. The Persian qiṣaṣ tradition presents distinct parallels to the South Asian context in the ways in which Persian, a regional language, was deployed by Muslim intellectuals for spreading their faith. For when Islam first moved into Persian-​speaking lands, Arabs deemed Persian to be a language too lowly for the expression of high Islamic thought and doctrine. Furthermore, my analysis in Chapter 4 of mnemohistorical discourse in the Persian qiṣaṣ tradition, as it applies to the NV, points out how many of Saiyad Sultān’s innovative translational strategies were caulked on the Persian qiṣaṣ tradition. This may suggest that Persian Muslim intellectuals were recognized in Persianate lands, such as South Asia, for developing the qiṣaṣ genre as significant vehicles for conversion. Yet how precisely the authors of the Persian qiṣaṣ sought to persuade their multi-​religious audiences—​what particular tropes and techniques of translation they used to acculturate Arab figures to Persian and Zoroastrian ones, and how, in doing so, they



extended the semantic reach of Persian to incorporate Arabic doctrinal terms and expressions—​remains a chapter in the history of Islamization well worth telling. In this book, a preliminary effort has been made to elucidate the Indo-​ Islamic cosmopolis in which South Asian authors such as Sultān participated at the cross-​regional level. Thus, between the NV and the romance literatures of the North Indian Sufis of Avadh, I have traced common patterns, wherever possible, of Sufi thought and vernacular expression, of terminologies used for Islamic doctrine in vernacular translation. This represents a rich area for future investigation, raising the issue of the links between the vernacular literatures of Avadhi, Dakkhani, and Bangla in the premodern period, and the various modes by which Muslim authors mobilized these languages for the expression of Sufi and Islamic ideas. A few monographs, notably those of M. R. Tarafdar,25 Abu Musa Mohammad Arif Billah,26 and most recently Thibaut d’Hubert,27 have already emerged in the comparative field of Persian and Avadhi romance literature translated into Bangla.28 But opening up such studies to other genres and regions, such as the interactions between the Tamil country and Bengal, between Bengal and the Deccan, and between Bengal, Arakan, and Southeast Asia,29 may provide insights into the interactions between the Sufis of these various regions and networks for the circulation of Islamic ideas in the Bay of Bengal and beyond. It would be instructive to compare and contrast the translation practice used in the NV with other seventeenth-​century works across regions and religious traditions, such as Umaru Pulavar’s Tamil Cīṛāppurāṇam, a biography of Muhammad;30 and the medieval Marathi-​Konkani Kristapurāṇa of the Jesuit missionary Fr. Thomas  Stevens (1549–​1619), a biography of

25. Tarafdar 1971. 26. Billah 2014. 27. D’Hubert 2018. 28. See also Stille 2011. 29. For a recent study in this area, see Wormser and d’Hubert 2008. 30. Narayanan 2000.

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Christ.31 Do other seventeenth-​century authors, such as these from the West and South of India, adopt rhetorical strategies similar to those of the NV, and if so, why and to what effect? It is time now to consider the NV’s reception history through the eighteenth century and into the print era. Being the first universal history of the Prophet Muhammad in Bangla, the NV became a monumental template, a rich model for future writers translating Islamic works into Bangla. Sultān’s innovative assimilation of maṅgala and purāṇic literature, for instance, enabled him to portray Islamic characters in the image of Hindu deities, commanding supernatural forces and enacting divine, often erotic, līlās. This set the tone for the literary treatment of Islamic figures in the middle period. Thus, the Comilla poet Śekh Cānda’s narrative on the Prophet’s birth and childhood, in the Rasul Vijaya (1715), is indebted to Sultān’s treatment of Kr̥ṣṇa’s birth and early life. His representation of the Prophet as phakir also relies on Sultān’s model.32 In Anbiyā Vāṇī (“Tales of the Prophets,” 1757),33 Heyāt Māmud’s depiction of the flirtations of the Prophet’s parents, Ābdullā and Āminā, as also other details of the Prophet’s primordial origins, birth, and ascension, are based upon the NV.34 Sultān’s inventive renewal of Islamic cosmogony in the light of yogic, Dharma cult, and Vaiṣṇava doctrines—​such as the representation of Āllā as śūnya, or the introverted state of ecstatic absorption (bhāva) (prior to creation), in which Āllā and his beloved, Nūr Muhammad, remain ensconced—​influenced later poets such as Ābdul Hākim,35 writing in the nūr nāmā genre, and Āli Rajā, in his Āgama or Jñāna Sāgara.36 The ways in which Sultān’s cosmogonical ideas were carried forward by later writers was delineated in detail 31. Kristapurāṇa of Thomas Stevens. 32. Concerning the date of the Rasul Vijaya, see Khondkār Mujāmmil Hak 1993, 7. On Śekh Cānda’s debt to Sultān, see Muhammad Majiruddīn Miyā 1993, 30–​31. 33. Concerning the date, see Khondkār Mujāmmil Hak 1993, 7. 34. Muhammad Majiruddīn Miyā 1993, 39–​42, 76–​82. For a comparative study of Saiyad Sultān, Śekh Cānda, and Heyāt Māmud, see Khondkār Mujāmmil Hak 1993, Chapter Four. Śekh Cānda’s Rasul Vijaya remains unpublished. For Heyāt Māmud’s works, see Mazharul Islam 1961. 35. Muhammad Majiruddīn Miyā 1993, 35–​36. 36. Āgama/​Jñana Sāgara of Ālī Rajā, trans. Cashin.



in Chapter 1. The degree to which these and other clever appropriations, topoi, and narrative events set forth in the NV were imitated, often slavishly, is testimony to his sway over later generations. The Śab-​i merāj by the aspiring Rangpur poet, Phaijuddin, mimics Sultān’s ascension narrative to such a degree that it reproduces not merely his descriptions but his diction.37 In order to avoid repetition, and perhaps simply failure, more savvy authors chose to refer their audience directly to the NV, refraining from composing their own accounts of the prophets.38 It seems, thus, that by the eighteenth century, the NV had acquired canonical status. While Śekh Cānda’s account of the Prophet’s life displays more invention than Heyāt Māmud’s, which follows Saiyad Sultān’s narrative closely, and while Cānda outpaced Sultān in his incorporation of heterodox elements, and perhaps rivaled him poetically,39 neither could match Sultān’s originality, the grand scale of his work,40 nor the reach of his learning in Islamic and Bangla literary traditions. Sultān’s tales of the prophets remained the guiding light of Islamic Bengal’s hagiographic firmament. For all these reasons, Sultān went down in the annals of premodern Bangla literature and modern Bangladeshi scholarship alike as a great pīr, philosopher (tāttvika), and teacher of poets (kabiguru). His literary and spiritual legacy is noted by several premodern authors,41 medieval poets

37. Muhammad Majiruddīn Miyā 1993, “Upakramaṇikā,” 8–​12; Bhuim̐yā 1980, 1–​80. 38. Thus, for instance, Śekh Muttālib in his Kiphāyatul Musallin writes: “It will not be appropriate to again record all the events [described] in the NV.” (Translation mine. nabīvaṃśe ye sakala prasaṅga āchae | puni tāka likhibāre ucita nā hae ||). And again, “In the Śab-​i Merāj is a description of the battles. There is no need to repeat these here.” (Translation mine. śabe merāje āche yuddha vivaraṇa | puni ethā kahi tāka nāhi prayojana ||). Both passages are quoted in Sharif [1972] 2006, 53. See also the verses of the authors Ābdul Karim Khondkār, Mukīm, and Śerbāj Caudhurī quoted in Sharif (1983) 2008, 2: 356. 39. Sharif (1983) 2008, 2: 378–​379. 40. While Śekh Cānda’s account of the Prophet’s life is more voluminous (ibid.) than that of Sultān’s, his work does not incorporate the accounts of the earlier prophets (Khondkār Mujāmmil Hak 1993, 80–​81). 41. Sharif (1983, 2:  125) lists the following authors, though there is cause for doubt whether all refer to the author of the NV:  Śekh Parāṇa, Hājī Muhammad, Muttālib, Phate Khān,

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eulogizing him as the mythical wishing tree (kalpataru),42 foremost of men (pradhāna puruṣa), and original teacher (ādya guru).43 These epithets are emblematic of his canonical status among the faithful who carried on his literary tradition, much as Muslims of East Bengal came to view his text as a canonical guide to Islamic praxis, pivotal to the formation of their religious identity. Perhaps the most glowing tribute paid to Sultān came from the pen of an eighteenth-​century Chittagonian scribe by the name of Cāmāru, who probably spent numerous long hours copying the NV for his patron Muhammad Rajā Tālukdār of Chittagong. He writes that his patron desired to hear the book of the NV because “the stories of the Tales of the Prophets is equivalent to the Phorkān.”44 In the eyes of local Muslims, the NV was celebrated as the “Criterion” (phorkān) itself, the holy Qurʾān that made evident the distinction between good and evil. Though terse, such statements speak volumes for the far-​reaching accomplishments of the NV, and its place in the history of Bengal’s Islamization. Despite its significance to early modern Islamic Bengali literature, the NV faded in importance in the modern period for a variety of reasons which I  have detailed elsewhere.45 Intriguingly, while contemporary Bangladeshi regional groups continue to wrangle over the pīr-​author’s symbolic capital, each desiring to claim Sultān as their own, the NV itself did not remain meaningful enough to late-​nineteenth century Bengali Muslims to successfully make the leap from manuscript into print. The very literary strategies for rendering Islam hinduāni that made the NV a superlative vehicle for missionizing came to disqualify it in the eyes of colonial-​era Muslims. For modern readers found this salvation history to Maṅgalacānda, Muhammad Mukīm, Muhammad Ālī, Nāsiruddīn, Śekh Manohara, Ābdul Karim Khondkār, Mīr Muhammad Saphī, Śarīph Śāh, Mujaphphar, Śerbāj, and Cuhar. 42. Concerning Muhammad Khān’s use of the epithet kalpataru, see Sharif [1972] 2006, 61–​62. Regarding Muhammad Khān’s descriptions of his master, Saiyad Sultān, see Chapter 1 of this monograph. 43. Concerning Muhammad Cuhar’s description of Saiyad Sultān as ādyaguru kalpataru, see Sharif (1983) 2008, 2: 355. See also Sharif [1972] 2006, 57. 44. NV 2: Pariśiṣṭa Kha, 691. 45. Irani 2018a.



be syncretistic and not properly Islamic—​a jumble of Hindu deities and Islamic figures. Indeed, the text came to be seen as tainted by all things hinduāni, and was considered to propagate an adulterated form of Islam. Bengali Muslims deliberately sought out new strategies of translation, which they applied to the Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ, especially that of Nishābūrī, in ways that were diametrically opposed to the strategies adopted by Sultān.46 For propagating a “pure Islam” meant that strategies of foreignization were now favored over the NV’s textual practice of domestication. The new qiṣaṣ translations that were touted as the “correct” (chohi) or “original” (āsal) texts used a vast Urdu and Persian vocabulary in their Bangla versions. Thus, the NV was sidelined in the modern period on account of the selfsame forms of elite Muslim snobbery that Saiyad Sultān had once spurned by affirming the vernacular. The elite Muslims of colonial Bengal clung to Persian and Urdu as religiolects, and resisted writing religious works in Bangla unless they could use a Bangla that was sufficiently infused with Persian vocabulary. Yet the cultural work that the NV had set out to do through translation was done, and it could now take its final bow on the very literary stage it had forged. It had made its contribution to the Islamization of Bengal. By 1872, when the first census of Bengal was taken, east Bengal recorded a population of Muslims that varied by district from 50 to 90 per cent, with Chittagong’s population being between 70 to 80 per cent Muslim.47 Although twentieth-​century specialists of premodern literature preserved knowledge of the NV, it had no reading public. The text made a brief curtain call in the post-​Independence era, when one East Pakistani scholar hailed it as a “national religious epic,” 48 while it was applauded for its bold affirmations of the mother tongue during the 1952 46. Kāchāchal Anbiyā o Sāhābāgaṇera Khelāphat of Munśī Tājaddin Muhammad. It is noteworthy that Sharif opines that this work is not translated by the purported author, Munśī Tājaddin Muhammad but is, in fact, Muhammad Khāter’s translation of Golām Nabī ibn-​e Ināyatullāh’s Urdu translation of Nīshābūrī’s Qiṣaṣ. This translation shows the continuing salience of Nīshābūrī’s Qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ for the Bengal region well into the colonial period. Sharif (1972) 2006, 123. 47. Eaton 1993, Map 3, 121. 48. Husain 1960, xxiv.

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Language Movement of East Pakistan.49 But this acclaim was fitful and fleeting. By this time one section of the NV had appeared in print.50 It was not until 1978 that the entire NV became available in printed form in the critical edition of Ahmad Sharif. While traveling in the Habiganj district of Sylhet in 2009, I  had an experience of the impact of vernacular translation on Islamization that has stayed with me through the many years of research, of writing and rewriting this book. That hot summer day, as we zipped down the Dhaka-​ Habiganj highway, flanked by lush paddy fields, my eyes were suddenly drawn to an unassuming village structure that forced us to bring the car to a halt. While I had read about and heard of the traditional village mosques that were once ubiquitous in the East Bengali countryside, I had never seen one. Part of the reason for this is that over the last few decades such indigenous mosques have been rapidly replaced by kitschy concrete structures topped by a skinny, little minaret—​a status symbol of the village’s economic success. Yet here, to my delight, was a fast-​disappearing artifact of East Bengal’s religious landscape. It stood before me as though it had jumped right off the pages of Perween Hasan’s well-​documented study of East Bengali village mosques.51 Lying unobtrusively in the middle of green paddy fields, yet close enough to a village hamlet, this mosque blended right into the village. For all practical purposes it looked like just another village hut: it was a single-​room structure approximately twenty feet in length and twelve feet in breadth. Its walls were of bamboo; its sloping tin roof glinted in the afternoon sun. The only feature, visible from the highway, that identified it as a mosque was a square-​shaped alcove of four square feet that jutted out from one of the lengths of the rectangular hut. This niche, the miḥrāb, a feature indicating the qibla (the direction of prayer) in all mosques across the Islamic world, was the only marker of the hut’s Islamic sacred identity. It was this niche that is considered by 49. Ibrahim Khan 2000, 314, cited in Zami 2016, 29. 50. This section was Part  3 of Book 2 on the Prophet’s last days and passing, edited by Ālī Āhmad, and published in 1949. Ophāt-​i rasul of Saiyad Sultān’s Nabīvaṃśa. 51. Hasan 1989, 66–​67.



some to mark the absent presence of the Prophet himself in all mosques across the Islamic world. I recall my exhilaration as I ran through the paddy fields to take a closer look. A sign board announced that this was the village of Haritalā. The mosque was empty of people, and no villagers were around for me to seek permission to enter their sacred space. I gingerly unfastened the bamboo door to enter its clean and cool interior. Air and light filtered through its reed walls. I was delighted to see that this was a mosque in active use: the well-​swept, dung-​smeared, smooth floor was covered with reed mats for sitting. Two or three wooden Qurʾān stands lay on the floor, while well-​thumbed Qurʾāns had been placed on a bamboo shelf high above the ground. People must enter here to pray together, I thought, and village children must come here to study the Qurʾān; this little space must double as mosque and Qurʾān school, even as these village mosques did in times past. I was captivated. For those brief moments, I  was ensconced in what I can only call a transformative space. I sat down on the floor to assimilate the experience. Cradled in this indigenous cau-​cālā-​style hut-​mosque, I looked at the tin roof above thinking that, in earlier times, such mosques must surely have been thatched.52 I marveled at its structural impermanence yet resilience as a traditional form, and the ways in which a seemingly trivial architectural innovation had transformed it into something entirely new. A  Bengali village hut had been converted into an Islamic sacred space via a modest, inexpensive structural adjustment—​the niche. This small, but significant, local accommodation had expanded the real and imagined space of all those Bengalis who would enter its precincts. What is more this single architectural element collapsed time and space, connecting Haritalā’s faithful to Muslims everywhere and across time, whether they prayed in the grand Friday mosques of Ḥusayn Shāh’s Gauṛa and Pāṇduā, Mughal Delhi, or Ottoman Istanbul. In its modesty, this particular articulation of the mosque transported me back in time to the very

52 . Ibid.

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first mosque, the Prophet’s own humble desert abode where he is said to have led his congregation in prayer, standing perhaps beneath a shaded portico thatched with date-​palm leaves. While the vocabulary of traditional Bengali village architecture had expanded to make Islamic space, all its other features kept this hut-​mosque grounded in its intrinsic Bengali-​ness, making it a familiar and familial space for local villagers. Though I did not fully comprehend the significance of this experience then, each time I have returned to the memory of this humble mosque over the intervening years, I began to see more clearly its parallels with the purāṇa-​korān literary tradition that I had begun to piece together in my writing. And each time I went back to it in my mind’s eye, I came to appreciate more fully the extraordinary work of transformation this seemingly ordinary object of translation performed for the Bengali religious landscape. Yet, even then, surrounded in that moment by the vernacular materiality of the aesthetics, structure, media, and design of this hut-​mosque, I immediately registered, in an embodied fashion more potent than the slow realizations of textual study, how Islam had come to be translated into something profoundly and beautifully Bengali.

APPENDIX Distribution of Manuscripts of the NV in Various Bangladeshi Archives1

Title given by Catalogers

Ahmad Sharif Collection in the Dhaka University Archives

Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada Collection in the Dhaka University Archives

Bangla Academy Archives

Chittagong University Archives






Rasul Carita

9 (including one cataloged under the designation Rasul Vijaya)

7 (at least)

9 (at least)


Śab-​i Merāj



7 (at least)


Ophāt-​i Rasul





Total Number of NV Manuscripts





To put these figures into context, manuscripts of Saiyad Sultān’s NV alone constitute roughly eight and one-​half per cent of Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada’s significant collection of Islamic Bangla manuscripts. Additionally, these constitute the highest number of manuscripts available

1. See Irani 2011, Appendix One, for details of these manuscripts, and their provenance

368 A ppendi x

of any single text in this collection, a close second being those of Ālāol’s Padmāvatī. At least three of these manuscripts in various collections have been wrongly cataloged. See Appendix One, Irani 2011, for details. To avoid confusion, however, the figures in the table above reflect the existing catalogs. Only one manuscript of any section of the NV is available outside of Bangladesh, in the British Library.


Primary Sources (including Translations) Ādya Paricaya of Śekh Jāhid. Edited by M. E. Haq. Dhaka: Dhaka University Press, 1979. Āgama of Ālī Rajā. In Bāṅalāra Sūphī sāhitya, edited by Ahmad Sharif, 323–​362. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1969/​1375 B.S. Āgama/​Jñāna Sāgara of Ālī Rajā. Translated by David Cashin. The Ocean of Love: Ali Raja’s Agama/​Jnana Sagara. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1993/​1400 B.S. Ālāol racanāvalī. Edited by Mohāmmad Ābdul Kāium and Rājiyā Sultānā. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 2007/​1414 B.S. Ānbiyā Vāṇī Kāvya of Heyāt Māmud. Edited by Mazharul Islam. In Kavi Heyāt Māmud. Rajshahi: Bāṃlā Vibhāga, Rājaśāhī Viśvavidyālaya, 1961. ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Thaʿlabī. Translated by William M. Brinner. ʿArāʾis al-​majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ, or, “Lives of the Prophets” as recounted by Abū Isḥāq Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-​Thaʿlabī. Studies in Arabic Literature, Supplements to the Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 24. Leiden: Brill, 2002. Asrār al-​tawḥīd fī maqāmāt al-​Shaykh Abī Saʿīd of Moḥammad ibn al-​Munawwar. Edited by M. R. Shafīʿī Kadkanī. Tihrān: Āgāh, 1366 [1987]. Badʾ al-​khalq wa-​qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ of al-​Kisāʾī. Edited by al-​Ṭ B. Sālma. Badʾ al-​khalq wa-​ qiṣaṣ al-​anbiyāʾ li-​l-​Kisāʾī. Tūnis: Dār Nuqūsh ʿArabiyya, 1998. Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Translated by Edwin Bryant. Krishna:  The Beautiful Legend of God, Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Book X with Chapters 1, 6 and 29–​31 from Book XI. London: Penguin Books, 2003. —​—​—​. Edited by Jagadīśa Lāla Śāstrī. Bhāgavata Purāṇa of Kṛṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa, with Sanskrit Commentary Bhāvārthabodhinī of Śrīdhara Svāmin (Containing Introduction in Sanskrit and English and an Alphabetical Index of Verses). Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, (1983) 1999. Caitanyabhāgavata of Vr̥ndāvanadāsa. Edited by Sukumar Sen. Vr̥ndāvanadāsa viracita Caitanyabhāgavata. 2nd reprint. New Delhi: Sahitya Academy, (1982) 1991.


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Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta of Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja. Translated by Edward C. Dimock, Jr. Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja:  A Translation and Commentary by Edward C. Dimock, Jr. With an Introduction by Edward C. Dimock and Tony K. Stewart. Edited by Tony K. Stewart. Harvard Oriental Series, vol. 56. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. —​ —​ —​ . Abridged and edited by Sukumar Sen. Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja viracita Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta:  Laghu saṃskaraṇa. Bhūmikā, ṭippanī o śabdakoṣa saṃvalita. New Delhi: Sāhitya Akādemī, 1963. Caitanyamaṅgala of Jayānanda. Edited by Biman Bihari Majumdar and Sukhamay Mukhopadhyay. Jayānanda viracita Caitanyamaṅgala. Kalikata: The Asiatic Society, (1971) 2006. Chohi Emāmsāgar of Maulvi Ābdul Majid. Calcutta: Gyanollah Press, 1876. Daqāʾiq al-​akhbār fī dhikr al-​janna wa-all-​nār ascribed to Imām ‘Abd al-​Raḥīm ibn Aḥmad al-​Qāḍī. Translated by ʿĀ’isha ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān. Islamic Book of the Dead: A Collection of Hadiths on the Fire & the Garden, by Imām ‘Abd al-​Raḥīm ibn Aḥmad al-​Qāḍī. Wood Dalling and San Francisco: Diwan Press, 1977. Gītagovinda of Jayadeva. Edited and translated by Barbara Stoler Miller. The Gītagovinda of Jayadeva: Love Song of the Dark Lord. 1st Indian ed. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, (1977) 1984. Haft Awrang of Nūr al-​Dīn ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān bin Aḥmad Jāmī-​yi Khurāsānī. Edited by Āqā Mustafá and Mudarris Gilānī. Nūr al-​Dīn ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān bin Aḥmad Jāmī-​yi Khurāsānī’s Mas̱navī-​i Haft Awrang. Tehran: Saʿdī, 1958/​1337 Iranian Solar. Haft Paykar of Niẓāmī. Translated by Julie Scott Meisami. The Haft Paykar: A Medieval Persian Romance. World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Harivaṃśa of Vyāsa. Translated from the Sanskrit by Simon Brodbeck. Krishna’s Lineage: The Harivamsha of Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata. New York: Oxford University Press,  2019. Iusuph-​Jalikhā of Ābdul Hākim. Edited by Rājiyā Sultānā. In Ābdul Hākim racanāvalī, 1–​134. Dhaka: Ḍhākā Viśvavidyālaya, 1989. Iusuph-​Jalikhā of Śāh Muhammad Sagīr. Edited by Muhammad Enamul Haq. Śāh Muhammad Sagīr viracita Iusupha Jolekhā. Dhaka: Mowla Brothers, (1984) 1999. Jaykum Rājāra Laṛāi attributed to Saiyad Sultān. Edited by Ahmad Sharif. “Jaykum Rājāra Laṛāi,” in Saiyad Sulatān viracita Nabīvaṃśa. 2 vols. Vol. 2: 551–​561. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1978. Jñāna Cautiśā attributed to Saiyad Sultān. Edited by Ahmad Sharif. Saiyad Sultān viracita Nabīvaṃśa. Vol. 2: 661–​666. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1978. Jñāna Pradīpa attributed to Saiyad Sultān. Edited by Ahmad Sharif. Saiyad Sultān viracita Nabīvaṃśa. Vol. 2: 573–​660. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1978. Jñāna Sāgara of Ālī Rajā. Edited by Ābdul Karim. Jñāna Sāgara: Ālī Rajā oraphe Kānu Phakir praṇīta. Sāhitya-​Parisạda Granthāvalī 59. Kalikātā:  Baṅgīya Sāhitya Parisạt Mandira, 1324 B.S. Reprinted in Ahmad Sharif (ed.), Bānȧlāra Sūphī sāhitya [ālocanā o nayakhāni grantha samvalita], 401–​532. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1969/​1375 B.S.

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Kāchāchal Anbiyā o Sāhābāgaṇera Khelāphat of Munśī Tājaddin Muhammad. Sarva Br̥hat o Āsal Cār Iyāri Kāchāchal Ānbiyā o Sāhābāgaṇera Khelāphat. Chitpur Road, Calcutta: Siddikiyā Lāibrerī, 1926/​1333 B.Ś. Kiphāyatul Musallin o Kāydānī Kitāb of Śekh Muttālib. Edited by Ahmad Sharif. Kiphāyatul Musallin o Kāydānī Kitāb: Śekh Muttālib viracita. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1978/​1385  B.S. Kristapurāṇa of Thomas Stevens. Translated and edited by Nelson Falcao. Bengaluru: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 2012. Laṭāʾif al-​miʿrāj of Abū ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān al-​Sulamī. Translated and annotated by Frederick S. Colby. The Subtleties of the Ascension:  Early Mystical Sayings on Muḥammad’s Heavenly Journey. Compiled by Abū ʿAbd al-​Raḥmān al-​Sulamī. Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2006. Madhumālatī of Mīr Sayyid Manjhan Shaṭṭārī Rājgīrī. Translated by Aditya Behl and Simon Weightman. Madhumālatī: An Indian Sufi Romance, by Mīr Sayyid Manjhan Shaṭṭārī Rājgīrī. Translated with an introduction and notes by Aditya Behl and Simon Weightman, with Shyam Manohar Pandey. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Mahābhārata of Kāśīrāmadāsa. Edited by Jayagopāla Tarkālaṅkāra. Kolkata:  Dey’s Publishing, (1801–​1803) 2014. Mahābhārata of Kavīndra Parameśvaradāsa. Edited by Kalpana Bhowmik. Kavīndra Mahābhārata:  Lipitāttvika-​bhāṣātāttvika samīkṣā o Sanskrita Mahābhāratera saṅge tulanā. 2 vols. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1999. Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad. In Upaniṣads. Translated by Patrick Olivelle. The World’s Classics. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Mars̱iya of Mīr Babbar ʿAlī Anīs. Edited by Ṣāleh Ābid Ḥasīn. Anīs ke mars̱iye. Karāchī: Kitāb Markez, 1991. Miʿrājnāmah. Edited and translated by Christiane Gruber. The Ilkhanid Book of Ascension: A Persian-​Sunni Devotional Tale, 1–​31. London; New York: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2010. Mirṣād al-​ʿibād min al-​mabdaʾ ilā al-​maʿād of Najm al-​Dīn Rāzī. Translated by Hamid Algar. The Path of God’s Bondsmen from Origin to Return: A Sufi Compendium, by Najm al-​Dīn Rāzī also known as Dāya. Translated, with introduction and annotation. Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1982. “Muslim kavira pada-​sāhitya.” Edited by Ahmad Sharif. Sāhitya patrikā 4 (1) 1960/​1367 B.S.: 1–​195. Nabīvaṃśa of Saiyad Sultān. Edited by Ahmad Sharif. Saiyad Sultān viracita Nabīvaṃśa. 2 vols. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1978. Nūh Sipihr of Amīr Khusraw Dihlavī. Edited by Wahid Mirza. The Nuh Sipihr of Amir Khusraw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950. Nūr Nāmā of Ābdul Hākim. In Ābdul Hākimera racanāvalī, edited by Rājiyā Sultānā, 471–​494. Dhaka: Dhaka University Press, 1989. Nūr Nāmā of Mīr Muhammad Saphī. Edited by Ahmad Sharif. In Bāṅalāra Suphī sāhitya [ālocanā o nayakhāni grantha samvalita], edited by Ahmad Sharif, 210–​234. Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1969.


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Abbreviations: Ar = Arabic; B = Bangla; NV = Nabīvaṃśa; Pers = Persian Tables are indicated by t following the page number Ābdul Hākim, 56, 57n189, 261, 310n202, 360 Ābdul Karim (Śiś’s brother), 217, 219–20 Ābdul Karim Khondkār, 56, 361n38, 362n41 Ābdul Karim Sāhityaviśārada. See Karim Sāhityaviśārada, Ābdul Ābdullā (B)/ʿAbd Allāh (Ar), 177, 208, 230, 295–96 Āminā and, 82, 206n103, 232, 300, 360 Hayāt Māmud’s depiction of, 360 Nūr Muhammad enters, 36n125, 38, 211, 296 in Persian sources, 177 women pine for, 88n64 Abel, See Hābil Abraham, See Ibrāhim Ābu Jehel (B)/Abū Jahl (Ar), 82, 107, 243, 299–303 Ābu Tālib (B)/Abū Ṭālib (Ar), 82, 293, 312 Ādam (Adam), 41, 55, 81, 227, 281n108 as beloved of God, 210n118 conjugal life of, 204–06, 214 creation of, 36, 80, 86, 101, 174, 194, 196, 197–200, 207, 216, 232 fall of, 197, 198, 225, 231 Hāoyā’s separation from, 201–04

Iblis and, 183n32, 197–98, 224, 224–25n163, 225, 231, 260 idols of, 215, 217, 221n152 in Mecca, 198, 212–13 Muhammad and, 37n126, 38, 211–12, 231, 290, 296n164, 320 Nūr Muhammad and, 36, 38, 38n135, 208–11, 294, 295 overview of NV account of, 197–98, 213, 233 Persian traditions about, 177–78, 197–98, 201n99, 204, 207–09, 212, 221, 221n152, 223 as prophet, 198, 209 purāṇic history before, 194 sheets revealed to, 222n155 as steward (khalīfah), 196, 213 yogic body of, 199, 219 adharma, 176, 214, 219, 233–34, 243 in NV quotations, 99, 233, 260 ādi-antera rasul, 36–37, 232, 290, 293, 326 Ādya Paricaya of Śekh Jāhid, 56 Ādyaśakti, 43, 53 Afghanistan, 122 Afghans, 6, 7, 14, 309 Āgama of Ālī Rajā, 51n174, 58, 60–65, 360

396 I N D E X

Āhād (B)/Aḥad (Ar), 49, 50–52, 54n180, 60, 61n206, 63 Aḥbār, Kaʿb ibn, 175 Āhmad (B)/Aḥmad (Ar), 49, 50–52, 60, 62–63 Āhmad, Ālī, 84n47, 87, 364n50 Aḥmad Yasavī, Shaykh, 315 Ahmed, A. B. M. Shamsuddin, 6n6 Ahmed, Syed Jamil, 73n12, 74n16, 74n19, 95–96, 96n82 Ājrāil (B)/ʿAzrāʾīl (Ar), 207, 318, 320, 329 Akbar, Emperor 6, 7, 158 Alam, Muzaffar, 357 al-Bidāya wa-al-nihāya of Abū al-Fidāʾ Ibn Kathīr, 76n30 al-Bukhārī, 76n28, 180n23 Ālī, 55n183, 91n73, 107 Ālī Rajā, 51n174, 58, 58n193, 60–65, 360 ālims, 23, 109, 336 Āllā (B)/Allāh (Ar), 44n151, 46n160, 94–95, 101 in Avadhi literature, 32, 32n112 baby Muhammad and, 300, 303 Bangla and, 123–25 as “butter in cow’s milk,” 2, 32 face of, 327–28 as guru or pīr, 108 hypocrites and, 99 Iblis disobeys, 229 invocatory openings to, 55 master as agent of, 112 messengers sent by, 118, 185 Muhammad as aṃśa of (see Muhammad/Muḥammad: as avatāra or aṃśāvatāra) Muhammad’s distance from, 51, 312 name(s) of, 32, 50, 163, 200, 224, 229, 334 (see also divine epithets) omnipotence of, 28 praise of, 3, 45n152, 86, 110, 303 in Qurʾān, 185, 280 in Śab-i merāj chronogram, 22–23 as śūnya, 360 throne of, 35, 119, 129, 181, 182, 198n89, 200, 289, 318, 320–26, 330, 341 words of, 90

alterity, 140–43, 161, 162, 164, 305, 308 Amaramāṇikya, 9 ambiguity, 144, 150, 151, 164, 195–97 Āmina (Ar)/Āminā (B), 82, 177, 206n103, 232, 290, 293n159, 299–301 Hayāt Māmud on, 360 Amīrhāmjāra Puthi of Phakir Garībullā, 72n5 aṃśāvatāra. See under avatāras Ānbiyā Vāṇī of Heyāt Māmud, 54, 57n189 angels, 183, 197, 312 Ādam and, 200–01, 207–10, 224 in ascension narratives, 318–20, 323–24, 330 baby Muhammad and, 300 creation of, 36, 41–42, 182, 185, 196 faith in, 97, 102, 222n154 Iblīs as (or not), 224n162 impure places disliked by, 226–27 reside on earth, 186, 194 sent to help suras, 186 as teachers, 187, 213, 224 terms used for, 174 Vedas submerged by, 226, 234 See also archangels al-Anṣārī, Jābir ibn ʿAbd Allāh, 35n121, 57n189 Arabia: Muḥammad as prophet from, 68, 109, 118, 135, 155 multireligious environment of, 3, 170 pearl myth of, 58 pre-Islamic, 302, 342 prophets from, 201, 283 spread of Islam or Qurʾān beyond, 3, 115, 120–21, 123, 358 Arabic: Bengalis who don’t know, 14, 22, 23, 96, 103, 115, 123, 131 in Chittagong, 169 conflated with Persian, 116 conversion vocabulary or narratives in, 133, 137 divine epithets in, 32 genres of, 76, 147–48, 152–53, 314–15, 345 Indian languages and, 115–16, 131 letter or Word mysticism in, 50–51 in literary polysystem, 115


loan words from, 35–36, 174, 287 mīm in, 50, 63, 325 names in, 214, 225 NV’s preference for Persian vs., 174–75, 177 NV’s references to, 119–20, 122–23, 131 oral traditions in, 71 qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ genre in, 4, 75–78, 209, 358 as Qurʾān’s language, 128–30 Saiyad Sultān on books in, 22–23 shahāda on coins in, 282 translation from, 115–16, 121–22, 128–30, 184, 214, 355, 359 Arabic script, 15, 50, 91n73, 104 Arabo-Persian literature, xix, 36, 54, 80, 143t, 144, 238t–241t, 282, 333 characters from, 235–36 as discursive arena, 163 doctrinal terms from, xviii, 36, 163 earth’s plea in, 237, 239t genres of, 138, 146, 149, 151t, 163 incorporation of elements from, 165 poetics, 161 qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ genre in, 260 Saiyad Sultān’s knowledge of, 194 Śiś in, 222, 240t See also Perso-Arabic literature; PersoArabic loan-words Arabs, 38, 292–93, 319 in ipseity-alterity pole, 142 jinn of, 185 Khorāsānis and, 120 Persians and, 121, 358 pre-Islamic, 119–20, 302, 337 Saiyad Ālāol mentions, 12 ʿArāʾis al-majālis fī qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ of al-Thaʿlabī, 28n98, 57n189, 75, 183n32 quoted, 41 Arakan, 8–11, 158n128, 359 as Buddhist state, 8, 11, 13, 347, 348, 352 churches in, 10 cosmopolitanism of, 11–12, 14, 67, 348, 349 court titles in, 8, 10, 11 dating system of, 83n44 decline of, 13 European accounts of, 10, 157


extent of kingdom of, 10–11 rulers of, 8–9, 11 Subrahmanyam on, 11 Arakanese (language), 11, 169 Arakanese (people), 8–9 armies or soldiers, 8, 12, 347 Christians and, 158n128 Mughals and, 7, 11, 13 Persianate culture and, 8 Portuguese and, 10–11, 13, 158n128 women, 352 See also Chittagong: Arakanese archangels, 207, 286, 300, 318–20, 329 archives, 53, 127n40 Bangla Academy, 84n47, 85n50, 367 Chittagong University, 92n74, 367 Dhaka University, 21n74, 83–84, 85n50, 91n73, 92n74, 367 Jahangirnagar University, 21n74 Arjuna, 217, 259, 269n61, 271–73 al-Ashʿarī, Abū al-Ḥasan, 47 Assamese, 7n12, 118n10, 148n98 Assmann, Aleida, 342, 344 Assmann, Jan, 16n58, 17 asuras, 183–86, 217, 286 Bali, 190 creation of, 80, 81 earth complains about, 184, 185, 188–89 jann as, 184, 188, 194, 195, 235, 237, 238t prophets killed by, 184, 185 suras fight, 186, 194 al-Aswārī, Mūsá ibn Sayyār, 121 ʿAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn, 50–51, 108n125, 339n106 auliyā. See saints authority, 108n123, 196, 336 authorial, 155 avatāra terminology and, 282 of books or scripture, 298, 331, 343 brahmanical, 254 charismatic, 105, 113, 144, 344 institutional, 127n40 isnād and, 175, 179 moral, 222, 281 NV and qurʾānic, 90, 100–104

398 I N D E X

authority (cont.) of past, 180 of prophets, 330–31 royal, 6, 11 in Shīʿī imāmī ideology, 209 spiritual, 20–21, 93, 112, 281 translation claims, 245 Avadh, 32, 33n117, 117, 359 Avadhi literature, 14, 32–33, 47, 53, 146, 359 aṃśāvatāra in, 40n141 cosmogonies in, 49, 56 romances, 72n5, 357, 359 vocabulary of, 32nn112–13 See also premākhyānas avatāras: aṃśa, 2, 29, 30, 39–40, 155, 208, 282, 292, 294, 297, 328 Boar, 188, 190, 265 Buddha as, 195, 352 Caitanya as, 39–40, 149, 253, 269–70, 277, 282, 288, 308, 351 discredited, 176, 193, 234, 274–75, 283, 288, 308, 311 Dwarf, 188, 190 evil destroyed by, 4, 265, 287 Fish, 188, 190, 226, 265 Islamic parallels to, 40, 294 Kr̥ṣṇa’s, 264–65, 268–69, 274, 279, 281, 306, 308–09, 311 as mahājana, 81, 135, 194, 281n107, 288 Man-Lion, 188, 190, 265 Muhammad as, 2, 29, 31, 39–40, 40n141, 149, 153, 155–56, 234, 244, 246, 262, 282, 288, 307, 311, 328, 349, 351 nabī equated with, 282–83, 286–87, 306–08, 310 Nirañjana creates, 31, 188 polemical purposes of, 195 as prophets, 80, 149, 156, 163, 174, 195, 245, 281, 282, 350 in purāṇas, 29, 40, 268 Saiyad Sultān’s sources on, 79 Turtle, 2, 29, 188, 190 types of, 39–40n139

of Viṣṇu, 2, 29, 30, 80, 81, 155, 174, 176, 188, 188n51, 190–91, 195, 239t, 245, 278, 287–88, 291, 306–08 yugas and, 156, 244, 246, 282, 288 Āyeśā (B)/ʿĀʾisha (Ar), 81, 82, 322, 326n63 Bahāristān-i ghaybī of Mirzā Nathan, 7 Bakrī, Abū al-Ḥasan, 314, 318, 318n24, 320n37, 321n39, 321n42, 322n44, 323n49, 330n76, 338n102. See also Ibn ʿAbbās/Bakrī intertext Balʿamī, Muḥammad ibn Abū ʿAlī, 76–78, 174–75, 178–79, 292, 315n12 Bangladesh, 158 archives in, 367–68 (see also archives) Buddhists in, 27n92 east Bengal and, 6n10 festivals in, 250–51 northwest, 54 NV in modern, 362 performance traditions in, 73–75, 91, 91n68, 95 Rohingya in, 348–49 rural, 95 scholars from, 14n48, 361 See also east Bengal Bangla language: alphabet of, 91 changes in, 153, 162, 168, 170 Chittagonian, 169 loan-words in, 35, 287, 363 middle, 25n84, 88n64, 105n118, 131, 204 number unspecified in, 61n204 pronouns in, 141–43 Saiyad Sultān’s use of, 114–16 scorn for, 125, 287, 363 term (deśī) bhāṣā used for, 116nn8–9 term hindi used for, 116 translations into, 4, 14, 40, 72, 103, 112, 125, 128, 134, 146, 165, 184, 193, 196, 215, 219, 235, 238–41t, 257n32, 351, 353, 359 Bangla literature: Avadhi and, 53, 359 conventions of, 28, 35n120, 86


genres of, 28, 54, 72–74, 74n16, 147–48, 150, 151t, 152, 165, 204, 351 Hindu, 112 Islamic, 14–15, 19, 24–25, 32, 35n120, 42, 47, 48n163, 54–55, 60n203, 74–75, 105n118, 109, 114, 125, 261, 281n108, 309, 353, 359 modern, 48n163 Saiyad Sultān’s knowledge of, 194, 204, 220, 361 Saiyad Sultān’s place in, 20, 47, 58, 86, 360–61 Bangla script or orthography, 15, 25n84, 63, 91, 104, 172n3 Baṛaliyā, 27, 346–48 Bārbak Shāh, Ruknuddīn, 19, 19n70, 257n32 Barber, Karin, 79, 127–28 Baṛu Caṇḍidāsa, 73 Bassnett, Susan, 354–55 Basu, Mālādhara, 72, 257n32, 265n49, 267 Becker, A. L., 112n139, 137, 153 Behl, Aditya, 33n115, 150–51, 151n106, 357 Bengal: acculturation to, 5, 27, 65, 68, 113, 134–35, 146, 155–56, 198, 201, 215, 233, 304, 318, 329, 333, 345, 349 colonial, 84, 348, 362–63 conversion of, 4, 15–16, 156, 157 (see also Islamization) delta area of, 6, 16, 168, 256 economy of, 13–14, 169, 347 epigraphy in, 188n51 gods of, 4, 147, 165, 183, 249, 278, 350 Hindu or hinduāni communities of, 135–36, 227, 232, 245, 247, 249, 298, 302, 305 history of, 4, 5–10, 349 in Islamic world history, 5, 298 Islamization of (see Islamization) language of, 116–17, 363 literacy, semi-literacy, or illiteracy in, 14–15, 121, 127n40 Mughals in, 5–7, 9, 16, 158 northwest, 6


performance traditions in, 72–75, 166 Persian immigrants in, 127 religious landscape of, 16, 25, 27, 57, 67, 95–96, 134–35, 157–58, 183, 247, 249–52, 254, 256, 339, 345, 366 rural, 5, 45, 90, 104n177, 105n118, 112, 121, 131, 148, 169, 226, 254, 256, 364 southeastern, 7, 96, 168, 256 Bengali language. See Bangla language Bengali literature, 1, 11–12, 14, 31, 146, 236 genres of, 72–74, 138, 153, 165 Islamic, 115, 362 Sufi, 198, 253n18 Bengalis: as auditors of NV, 23, 146, 196, 204, 206–07, 221, 245, 262, 264, 265, 294, 298, 302, 332, 335, 349, 354–55 brahmins, 116n9 colonial-era, 362–63 epistemological and ontological self of, 136, 245 idolatrous, 262, 302, 337 imaginaire or imagination of, 43, 48, 215, 309, 349 intellectuals, 18, 351 in ipseity table, 143t Iranian émigrés and, 170–71 in Islamic world history, 5, 156, 245 literary historiographers, 353 Muslim authors, 31–32, 44n151, 54–55, 65, 125–26, 171, 242, 261 Muslim elites, 124–25, 171, 351 non-Muslim, 17–18, 30 NV on birth as, 96 pedagogical sections of NV for, 207 Bhagavad Gītā, 271–72 Bhāgavata Purāṇa, 39, 248, 259n37, 267, 268n58, 273, 275, 280n99, 301n184 Arjuna in, 271 avatāras in, 188n51, 265 Bangla translation of, 112, 257n32, 265 birth or conception of Kr̥ṣṇa in, 291, 296–97, 299 Buddha in, 352n7 earth’s plea in, 187, 287

400 I N D E X

Bhāgavata Purāṇa (cont.) liberation downplayed in, 279 Nārada in, 264, 299 Saiyad Sultān’s reinterpretation of, 149, 241t, 249, 257, 259n37, 264n46, 280, 300, 306, 308 Uddhava Gītā in, 271 Bhagavatī, 74 bhakti, 33, 108n123, 268, 271, 279–80 bhaṇitās, 91n72, 92nn73–74, 233 Bhāṭi, 6–8 Bhattacharya, France, 270 Bhattasali, N. K., 7n12 bhāvaka/bhāvinī, 34, 35, 49, 61n206, 62, 327n65, 328 bhora buddhi, 119, 247 Bible, 159–60, 198, 212, 232, 242, 283 bibliology, 135, 155, 246 Billah, Musa Mohammad Arif, 359 bindus, 42, 57n189, 63–64 biographers, 145–46, 170, 265, 314 biographies, 76, 252 of Caitanya, 149, 228, 246, 250, 253, 261, 265, 270, 276–77 of Christ, 160n132, 359–60 hagiographies vs., 145n88 Indic traditions of, 146, 163 of Muhammad, 76–77, 84, 126, 145–46, 149, 153, 163, 170, 174, 213, 304n190, 314–16, 359 “real” subject of, 145 See also sīra al-Bisṭāmī, Abū Yazīd, 323n49, 332n80 books, 15, 22, 93, 107n122, 173 kitāb, 23, 93, 100, 101, 104nn115–16, 107, 125n31, 126, 175, 182 pustaka, 15, 20, 85, 101, 104 rasul receives, 285 ritual purity and, 103–04 sacred, 195, 226, 245, 298, 343 Borāk (B)/Burāq (Ar), 317, 319–20, 337–38, 340–41 boundaries, 89, 95–97, 169–70 Böwering, Gerhard, 37n130, 39, 52n176 Brahmā, 43, 188n52, 236, 265

creation from sweat of, 42 in NV, 182, 186, 239t, 288, 298, 337 in Sirr-i Akbar, 281n108 Brahman, 108 brahmanical traditions, 67, 125n30, 195, 254, 352 Brahmavaivarta Purāṇa, 189n56, 259n37 brahmins, 191, 255 authority of, 254 Bangla as viewed by, 116n9, 124–25, 125n30 in Cakraśālā or Chittagong, 64, 251–52 dvijavaras, 187, 239t Muslim elites and, 124–25 Premavilāsa on devotee vs., 256 Vedas sent to, 187, 226, 239t Brajabhāṣā, 118n10, 125n30 Buddha, 27n92, 188n51, 195, 197n87, 352 Buddhists, 2, 66, 256, 314, 340 in Arakan, 8, 11, 13, 347, 348, 352 in Bangladesh, 27n92 in Cakraśālā, 27n92 in Caṭṭagrāma/Chittagong, 67, 252, 352 in eastern Bengal, 252 in NV, 3, 352 Theravāda, 13, 27n92, 347, 348, 352 burial, 111, 213, 227 Burma (Myanmar), 9, 12, 13, 347, 348 Burmese, 13, 352 al-Būshanjī, al-Ḥasan al-Hayṣam ibn Muḥammad, 77n35, 174n6 al-Būṣīrī, Sharaf al-Dīn Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Saʿīd, 292n154, 312, 327, 334–35 Byzantines, 12, 122 Cain. See Kābil Caitanya, Kr̥ṣṇa, 25, 96n82, 256, 278, 289 as āvatāra, 39, 251, 265, 269–70, 277, 288, 308, 351 death narratives of, 273 displaced, 149, 153, 246, 282, 308, 351 Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas and, 249–54 hagiographies of, 148–49, 187n49, 261, 267, 287n134


Nārada and, 228 NV’s allusions to, 269–70, 276–77 performance traditions about, 73–74 song or dance in practice of, 253–54, 277 Caitanyabhāgavata, 87–88, 126n36, 251n11, 252n13, 255n27, 257, 265 quoted, 248, 253, 277 Caitanyacandrodaya Nāṭaka of Kavikarṇapura, 270 Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta of Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, 88, 148, 250–51, 253n20, 268–70, 275, 288n140 Caitanyamaṅgala ofJayānanda Miśrā, 273n75, 276–77 Caitanyamaṅgala of Locanadāsa, 270 Cakraśālā, 10, 26–27, 27nn91–92, 251, 352 caliphs, 20, 81, 177n15, 316 Caṇḍa, 188, 188–89n52 Candasudhamma, 10, 352 Cāndāyan of Maulānā Dāʾūd, 32 Caṇḍī, 74 carita, 152, 163, 187, 260–61, 351 history of genre, 148–49 Caryāgīti, 72 Cashin, David, 41, 56–58, 60n203, 61n204, 62n209, 63 Chaghatay Turkish, 314 Chatterji, Suniti Kumar, 94n79, 117–18n10, 141 Chittagong (Caṭṭagrāma), 65, 94n79, 206n101 Arakanese, 9–10, 15, 26, 67, 352 Bārbak Shāhī period, 19, 26 as cosmopolitan region, 64, 67, 169, 352 economy of, 13 European sources on, 5–6, 157 Gauṛīyas in or from, 250–53 history of, 5–10, 13, 67, 349 Ḥusayn Shāhī period, 26–27, 272 Jesuits in, 157 languages spoken in, 169 as literary center or literature from, 14, 48n163, 56–58, 309n199 manuscripts from, 53–54, 83, 84n47, 92n74, 147, 362 mosque in, 346–48


Muslims in, 5–6, 65, 346–50, 352, 363 Rohingyas in, 348–49 rulers or governors of, 8–9, 19, 22, 26, 27, 272, 362 rural, 14, 15 Sufis in, 56 Chittick, William, 29n101, 32n110, 324n52, 328 Chohi Emāmsāgar of Maulvi Ābdul Majid, 96 Christianity, 18, 47n160, 84, 336 in Chittagong, 157–58 conversion to, 65–68, 133 early Islam and, 170, 242, 298 mentioned in NV, 12, 319 prophets in, 71, 212, 242 translation as theorized in, 159–60, 162 Cīṛāppurāṇam of Umaru Pulavar, 359 circulation: of Daqāʾiq, 47 of ideas, 33, 55, 252, 359 of Iusuph-Jalikhā, 24, 309n199 of miracle stories, 177–78 of miʿrāj stories, 147 of NV, 54, 74, 80, 85–86, 147 of people, 33, 33n118, 252 of qiṣaṣ traditions, 75, 77, 174, 317 of salvation histories, 351 of texts, 15, 33, 33n118, 56 of Vaiṣṇava ideas or texts, 87–88, 252, 269 Citrāvalī of ʿUs̱mān, 40n141 Colby, Frederick, 315, 318, 320nn33–35, 321nn39–40 Comilla, 7, 27n91, 53, 73, 83, 84n47, 360 conversion: ascension narratives and, 314 of Bengal to Islam, 5, 15–16, 66n216, 132 of communities, 133 of earliest Muslims, 119, 170 entextualizing, 89, 127, 131, 137, 162, 166, 167t, 306, 350, 356 Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava, 255 mnemohistory of, 16, 123 models or theories of, 15–16, 66 motive for, 161 Nagas to Christianity, 65–67 name changes and, 133–34

402 I N D E X

conversion: ascension narratives and (cont.) NV and, 4–5, 16–17, 68, 121, 127, 132–33, 350, 356 prior texts and, 137–38 as recovery of lost heritage, 4, 68, 135–36, 157, 246, 349 representations of, 16, 131–34 revelation, translation, reception, and, 121 Ricoeur on, 114 terminology of, 132–33 translation’s role in, 66–69, 89, 119–22, 127, 137–38, 140, 157, 162, 166, 306–07, 350, 356–57 conversion hermeneutic, 161–63, 165, 167t, 168 cosmogonies: Ālī Rajā’s, 60–65 Ānbiyā Vāṇī Kāvya’s, 54n181, 57n189 Avadhi Sufi, 32, 47, 56 Bangla or Bengali, 40–42, 47–48, 54–56, 232 Christian, 66 Dharma cult’s, 42–43, 53 genres associated with, 146–48, 151t Hindu, 50, 246 Indic, 2, 53 Islamic, 32, 35, 41–42, 43n150, 47, 50, 53–55, 60, 65, 67, 232, 294, 325 lanterns in, 45, 47n162, 58 NV’s, 2, 28, 30–32, 35–36, 40, 47–48, 53–54, 58, 67–68, 80–81, 84, 86, 136, 146, 165–66, 181, 232, 287, 294, 316, 325, 328, 360 prophetic primordiality in, 38 purāṇic, 4, 28, 42, 135, 148 in qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ tradition, 47n162, 146, 177 Sāṃkhya, 29–30, 53 tantric, 183 translations of, 65, 67, 135 Tree of Life in, 43n150 of the Word, 48–50, 53, 56, 60–65, 199 See also creation cosmologies, 28, 148, 151t, 165 Christian, 66–67 Couture, André, 40, 294

cowherd women (gopīs), 259, 266–67, 271, 279, 291, 309 creation: of Ādam, 80, 86, 174, 196, 197–99 of avatāras, 30, 31 of earth, 36 of fourteen realms, 1, 2, 28–29 Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava view of, 269 of gods and demons, 101 of humankind, 4, 36, 101 Indic notions of, 2, 4 Islamic notions of, 28, 44n15, 46n160 of jinn, 184 from light (see under light) by Lord or Nirañjana, 2–4, 28–31, 33–36, 57, 218, 222n154 mirror image and, 35, 327–28 Nātha notion of, 57 from Nūr Muhammad, 43, 57, 80 Persian authors on, 177, 181–82 in Qurʾān, 31 reason for, 325 Sāṃkhya notions of, 30 of social types, 30 from sweat or water, 41–43, 57–58, 68, 181, 231, 325 tree of, 44n150, 51–52n175 of Vedas, 194 of virtue and vice, 266 from Word, 53, 181–82 See also cosmogonies Creator, 98, 301, 328 in Avadhi literature, 32 in Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavism, 269 karatā/karatāra, 32, 32n112, 99, 122, 124, 132, 187, 218 manifest and unmanifest aspects of, 32 messengers created by, 2, 29 unity of, 31, 60, 98, 122, 132 in Zoroastrianism, 176 cremation, 191, 227, 241t, 242, 301 Culler, Jonathan, 153–54, 163, 235–36 Dakkhani literature, 72n5, 359 dance, 279n99 earth injured by, 276–77


performance genres with, 73 rāsa, 248, 259, 259n37 as Vaiṣṇava practice, 253–54, 275–77 Daqāʾiq al-akhbār fī dhikr al-janna wa-alnār/Daqāʾiq al-ḥaqāʾiq, 44n151, 46–47 dār al-Islām, 128, 133, 169–70, 243 Dārā Shukūh, 281n108, 298n174 daśāvatāras, 188n51, 268, 274 Dāud (B) (David), 80, 82, 174, 231 Dāʾūd Karrānī, 6 Daulat Kāji, 14 al-Daydūzamī, Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan, 77–78, 174n6 Deccan, 12, 117n10, 357, 359 deities: Bengali, 4, 147, 249, 270 creation of, 101 in Dharma cult, 29 as discursive series, 236 displacement of (see under displacement) folk, 72, 74 goddesses, 43, 96, 189n54, 207, 236, 297 Iblis-Nārada corrupts, 136 incorporation of, 165–66, 167t, 306 invocation of, 28 Islamic, 240t Islamic figures as Hindu, 205–06, 240t, 360, 363 jinn and, 80, 81, 185 local, 345 as mahājana, 195–97, 288 in Muhammad’s genealogy, 108 names of (see divine epithets) performance genres for, 72–74 Persian kings replaced by, 78 pre-Ādamic, 232 pre-Islamic, 302 as prophets, 68, 80, 136, 149, 166, 174, 188–89, 195, 206, 232, 239, 249, 281, 281n108, 288, 306, 350 purānic, 148, 238t in salvation histories, 156, 245, 336 translation of names/terms for, 66–68, 236


Vaiṣṇava, 2, 29, 149, 152, 246, 270, 275, 306, 350, 351 Delhi, 117, 117n10, 365 Delhi sultanate, 8, 9 demons, 81, 188–89n52, 238t, 265 creation of, 42, 101 earth oppressed by, 188, 276, 287 Sītā abducted by, 4, 192 terminology for, 80, 174, 184n37 See also asuras DeWeese, Devin, 133–34 Dhaka, 7, 9, 24n81, 11, 73 dharma, 270, 279, 298 adharma vs., 176, 219, 233–34, 243 Bhāgavata on bhakti as, 279–80 as cow, 244n203 Kr̥ṣṇa fails to teach, 259, 273 NV as text on, 233 pāpa as divergence from, 278 saṃkīrtana as, 253 Śiś establishes, 221–22, 242 Dharmacakras, 27n92, 352 Dharma cult, 2, 29–30, 42–43, 53, 68, 360 Dharma Ṭhākura/Dharmarāja, 29, 43, 52 dhikr, 102, 290n142 d’Hubert, Thibaut, 310n202, 359 displacement, 30, 149, 164–67 of avatāras, 153, 282, 308 of deities, 152, 153, 161, 165, 167t, 245–46, 350 in Eaton’s model, 165n146 in Irani’s fivefold model, 162, 165 of tales or prior texts, 30, 112, 112n139, 152, 161, 166, 167t, 245, 350 of target culture, 164 divine epithets, 32 formless (nairākāra, nirākāra, nirūpa), 1, 22, 29, 32, 33, 35, 49, 51–52, 60–62, 186, 205, 210, 222n154 invisible (alakṣya), 32 use of local terms for, 30, 163, 360 See also Creator; Nirañjana Donner, Fred, 209n115, 341–43

404 I N D E X

Dunham, Mary Frances, 74, 91n68 Duryodhana, 220 earth, 98, 214, 216, 221, 222n154, 229, 274 Ādam–Hāoyā reunion on, 204, 207, 211 beings resident on, 183, 185–86, 194–97, 243 creation from clay of, 197, 207, 227, 325 creation of, 28–29, 31, 35–36, 43, 182 dancing’s impact on, 276–77 as element (see elements) flooded, 190, 224 heavens envied by, 183, 187 king of, 223n155, 224 Muhammad comes or returns to, 231, 321, 325, 326n63, 330, 341 pleas from, 81, 184–89, 194–95, 237, 239t, 242, 276–77, 287 purāṇic narratives about, 187–88 in Rāma-Sītā story, 191–93, 194, 197 seven spheres of, 218 sin(ners) on, 40, 80, 173, 174, 184, 186–88, 190, 224, 232, 277, 287 stewards (khalīfah) upon, 213 Vaiṣṇava avatāras come to, 187–88, 265, 270, 273, 287 east Bengal: authors in, 14 Baṅgadeśa and, 94n79 Bangladesh and, 6n10 boundaries of, 6n6 census of, 15, 363 courts of, as NV audience, 271–72 European accounts of, 5–6, 15, 157–58 Iusuph-Jalikhā tale in, 261 military campaigns in, 5–7, 9, 158 NV in colonial or modern, 64, 362–63 performances in, 74–75, 91n68 religious landscape of, 16, 25, 305 Vaiṣṇava devotees from, 250–52, 257 See also Bangladesh East Pakistan, 21, 364 Eaton, Richard M., 6n6, 7, 24n81, 89, 345 on Islamization of Bengal, 15–16, 67, 104n117, 165n146, 169–70 on Nagas, 65–68 elements (fire, water, etc.), 29, 35

elites, 15, 23, 27, 109, 117, 124–25, 170, 287 Emre, Yūnus, 324n54 Enamul Hak, 21, 84–85, 92 English (language), 223n155 English (people), 12, 84, 160n132 Enoch. See Idris/Idrīs entextualization: defined, 127, 127n40, 162 translation as, 89, 127 See also conversion: entextualizing; translation: as entextualizing conversion epics, 71–72 Ernst, Carl, 116n5, 356 ethics, 14, 100, 106, 148, 186, 193, 207, 222, 268 Europeans, 12 Eve. See Hāoyā/Ḥawwāʾ Even-Zohar, Itamar, 115n4 evil: avatāras destroy (or not), 4, 80, 174, 232, 264 God creates good and, 4, 31, 222n154 Iblis encourages, 229, 266 knowing good from, 101–02, 223n155 in Persian literature, 176, 243 Prophet forbids, 335 Qurʾān distinguishes good and, 362 exegesis (vākhān, etc. [B]‌/tafsīr [Ar.]), 121, 122, 130–31, 180 extraction, 160, 162, 165, 167t Faridpur, 12, 73 fasting, 47n160, 322 fate, 229, 272 Federici, Césare, 6, 15 Fernandez, Francis, 5–6, 15, 157–58 Flood, Finbarr, 309–10 folk deities, 72, 74 fools, 3, 22, 30, 46, 187 Freedberg, David, 311n206 French, 12, 141–42, 223n155 frontier literature, 128, 168–70, 233 frontiers, 117, 132 of Arab-speaking world, 129 in Bengal, 6n10, 16, 168–69, 256 boundaries vs., 168–69


of dār al-Islām or Islamic, 169–70, 179, 233, 243, 315 linguistic, 121, 165, 168–70 Gabriel, 41, 286n131, 318, 321n40, 324n54 Gadādhara Paṇḍita, 251–52 Ganeri, Jonardon, 94, 149n100 Gaṇeśa, Rājā, 8 Gauṛa, 5, 6, 8, 11, 94n79, 257n32, 365 Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇavas: Ālī Rajā and, 60; founding or history of, 25, 247, 249–52, 254, 269 initiation of, 255–56 Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya as avatāra for (see avatāras: Caitanya as) literature of, 148–49, 246, 252–54, 257, 261, 351 missionizing by, 25, 255 Muslims in hagiographies of, 261 NV doesn’t name, 249, 305 NV’s merāj and, 316, 318, 331, 337, 345 performance genres of, 73 practices of, 253–54, 275–77 ridiculed, 149, 152, 249, 267 as rivals, 25, 256–57, 305, 352 in semiotic square, 142, 305 social order and, 255–56 soteriology of, 278–79 supreme deity of, 246, 275, 279, 350 theology of, 63n210, 152, 246, 267, 269, 325, 329n72 gender, 35n120 genealogies: authority or legitimation and, 107, 109, 209, 209n115, 211, 342–44 genres including, 148, 151t of Hari, 262 intertextual, 79 of light, 177 literary, 21, 79, 145 mahājanas in, 195, 197, 288 of Muhammad, 38n135, 80, 108, 293, 295, 343 NV’s vs. Kisāʾī’s, 184, 209 prophetological, 31, 165–66, 179, 195, 206, 288, 293, 343


sacred or spiritual, 21, 136 of Saiyad Sultān, 107, 109, 344 scriptural, 330–31 Genette, Gérard, 145 genres: ambiguous, 144–45 Bakhtinian view of, 170 conventions of, 236 cosmopolitan, 143 cross-denominational, 95–96 discourses vs., 76 hypotextual, 145 Islamic Bangla, 54–56 performance, 73–74 Saiyad Sultān’s use of, 136, 138, 147–50, 152, 163, 261, 351 of source and target cultures, 165 table comparing, 151t Gītagovinda, 74n15, 188n51, 259n37 goddesses, 43, 96, 189n54, 236 epithets for Hāoyā and, 207 gods. See deities Gopinathan, G., 354n16 gopīs. See cowherd women Gosvāmīs, 250, 251, 267, 278 Gruber, Christiane, 315, 323n49, 340 Guillaume, Alfred, 23n79, 38n135 guṇas, 3, 30, 34, 43, 45, 48, 60–61, 63 Islamic triad and, 52 guru(s), 32, 91n72, 189, 251 authority of, 105, 107, 109–10, 112–13, 171, 336 in Bengali culture, 113, 313, 344 caste of, 255n25 characteristics of true, 105–07 criticism of, 112, 219 false, 109 feet of, 108 Gauṛīya, 255 Iblis as, 226–27, 234, 241t, 242–43 Kr̥ṣṇa as, 279 parents compared to, 101, 105 pīrs vs., 105n118, 338n104 Prophet as, 338n104, 344 Saiyad Sultān as, 20, 93, 95, 101, 108–09, 171, 343, 361–62

406 I N D E X

guru(s) (cont.) Sufi, 95, 112 tantric, 338 Vaiṣṇava, 255, 256 Varasiyā’s, 110 Habiganj, 364 Hābil (Abel), 80, 81, 198, 214, 228, 243 Ākimā’s lament for, 201 ḥadīth, 50, 76, 293, 328, 334n91 on earth’s pre-Ādamic inhabitants, 196 on Iblīs, 183n32 on islām and imān, 97 on Muḥammad’s preexistence, 37, 37n126 on Nūr Muḥammad, 294 on prophets, 76n28, 180 as source for Saiyad Sultān, 39 Haft Paykar of Niẓāmī, 12, 33n116, 331n79 Hagen, Gottfried, 181 hagiographers, 149, 187n49, 261, 269, 287n134 hagiographies, 143, 152, 301n181, 351, 361 Arabo-Persian, 146, 151t, 296 biographies vs., 145n88 Indic traditions of, 146, 148, 151t, 272, 297n168 of Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya, 39, 148–49, 261, 267, 269n61, 287n134 of Saiyad Sultān, 20 Sufi, 48n163 Vaiṣṇava, 237, 239t, 249, 251, 254–55, 261, 287 vandanās for, 19 Haidu, Peter, 140, 141nn79–80, 142, 306 Hajv (B)/Ḥajj (Ar), 81, 83, 213 Hakala, Walter, 32n112 Ḥakīm Ata, 315, 316, 340 Ḥallāj, 37–38 ḥamd, 27–28, 86, 315, 315n11 Ḥanafī school, 129–30, 298 Hāoyā (B)/Ḥawwāʾ (Ar) (Eve), 197–98 as Bengali, 201, 233 children of, 211, 214–15 conjugal life of, 204–05, 211

creation of, 101, 197, 207–08 dowry for, 208 epithets used for, 207, 240t expelled, 198, 225 idol of, 217 lament (bāramāsyā) of, 201–03 at Muhammad’s birth, 290 in Persian literature, 203–04, 225 reunion of Ādam and, 204, 207 Haq, Muhammad Enamul, 20nn71–72, 21n74, 26, 112n138, 125n31, 206n101 collections of, 21n74, 84n47 on Iblisnāmā, 91–92 Sharif disagrees with, 85, 85n53, 92n74 on Saiyad Sultān’s other works, 91–92 Hari, 25, 68, 80, 82, 188n51 affairs of, 206n103, 259, 266–67, 269, 276 creation of, 4, 30, 187, 263 Devakī’s conception of, 296–97, 300n178 displaced, 153, 241t, 350 Iblis-Nārada and, 263–67, 276, 304–05 images of, 248, 273 in Kābil’s lineage, 273, 281 mahājana, 288, 298 Muhammad displaces, 152–53 name of, 253–55, 268, 277, 310 NV’s treatment of, 195, 206n103, 227, 247, 249, 257–60, 262, 264, 280–81, 306, 308–10, 337, 355 as prophet, 136, 174, 234, 241t, 249, 262, 281, 337 as reminder or warning, 297–98, 350 sent with Veda, 187, 239t, 298 Śiś advises fallen, 243 Yūsuf and, 304–05, 309n199 See also Kr̥ṣṇa Harivaṃśa, 39, 249, 294 earth’s plea in, 187–88, 287 title of, 152–53, 168, 310, 350 Hārut, 82 Hāsān (B)/Ḥasan (Ar) (brother of Imām Hosen), 20, 147–48 Hāsān (B)/Ḥasan (Ar) (Sufi, of Basra), 82, 105–06, 109, 109n128


Hasan, Perween, 320n32, 364 haṭhayoga, 33, 59, 199n93 Ḥawwāʾ. See Hāoyā/Ḥawwāʾ Heyāt Māmud, 54n180, 57n189, 360, 361 heaven, 44, 183, 200, 218, 230, 312, 321n40 creation of, 1, 28, 35–36, 181, 325 creator of, 31, 274 earth envies, 183, 187 jewels of, 187n47, 331n79 Khadijā et al. in, 322n46, 333n87 Muhammad’s ascension to, 313, 314, 317, 319–20, 323, 329–33, 337 Viṣṇu’s, 193 See also paradise hell, 125, 185, 222n154, 323, 332 Ājājil sent to, 183n32, 225 Bali sent to, 190 Bengali version of, 333 creation of, 28, 35, 43, 181–82, 230, 274 duḥkha of, 332n83 four sins leading to, 219 gurus or disciples in, 110, 219, 336 hypocrites in, 97 Iblis leads sinners to, 225, 230, 263 idolaters in, 280, 298, 337–38, 340 Jews and Christians in, 319, 336 king of, 317, 320, 320n36, 325, 329, 332n83, 340 Kr̥ṣṇa worshipers in, 259 Muhammad’s parents in, 340 Muhammad tours, 318–20, 332n83, 339–40 naras in, 197, 243, 337 Qurʾān on, 280 Saiyad Sultān’s categories of sinners in, 335–37 scholars or scribes in, 90, 94 unbelievers in, 97 Ḥilya-i sharīf of Meḥmed Bey Khāqānī, 324n54 Hindavī/Hindvī, 32n112, 117–18, 245 Hindi (language), 118, 148n98 hindi (NV term), 116–17, 245. See also hinduāni


hinduāni, 126, 139–40, 144, 233, 238–40t, 350, 363 as cultural term, 134 as discursive arena, 163 as ethnic term, 126n36, 245 imagination, 18, 349 Islam as, 245, 349, 362 as linguistic term, 115–16, 131, 134, 245, 355 as musalmāni, 67, 134–36, 155, 159, 171, 235 musalmāni distinguished from, 243–44, 301 as NV auditors, 68, 135–36, 181, 236, 237, 338, 340 peoples, 243, 249, 298, 303 polemic against, 176, 222, 227, 243 practices, 242, 302, 337 pre-Islamic Arabs conflated with, 302, 337 as prophetic predecessors, 180, 242 prophets or warners sent to, 234, 303 as religious term, 126n36, 245 translation and (see translation: hindi karā, etc. used for) Hindus: Ābu Jehel linked to, 243, 299, 301–03 in Bangladesh, 91, 96; birth in family of, 46 in Chittagong, 8, 67 Christians and, 158n128 as ethnic group, 116n5, 126n36 fires used by, 242–43 gods of (see deities) in hell, 336–37 Kābil’s clan linked to, 227 as Muslims, 134–36, 157, 171, 245, 298 as NV auditors, 68, 189, 222, 236–37, 238–41t, 245, 298 in NV opening, 22 NV’s selective use of term, 336, 336n98 as “People of the Book,” 336 Saiyad Ālāol mentions, 12 scriptures of, 330 tilaka of, 303n186 Hindustān, 116, 125n31, 198 Hiraṇyakaśipu, 190 historiography, 4, 16–17 authorial motives and, 113

408 I N D E X

historiography (cont.) genres of, 146–47 legitimation and, 342–44 of Muhammad’s early biographies, 145 nationalist, 353, 356 NV as, 171, 179, 235, 246, 344 premodern, 4, 342 purāṇic, 238t sacred, 142, 236 Wansbrough on, 181 Hosen, Imām, 19–20, 147–48 Hosen, Śah. See Śāh Hosen/Śāhā Hosen houris, 273, 290, 293n159, 323, 333 Hughli, 10 Ḥusayn, 301n183 Ḥusayn Shāh, ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn, 22, 26–27, 272, 365 Husne Jahan, Shahnaj, 6n6, 158n126 hypocrites as munāphik (B)/munāfiq (Ar) in the Islamic understanding, 42, 46, 97–100, 224, 303 as pāṣaṇḍīs in the Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava understanding, 255 Saiyad Sultān’s detractors as, 124, 126 in semiotic square, 142, 143 Iblis (B)/Iblīs (Ar), 109, 124, 165, 180, 239t, 320 as angel, 224n162 Caitanya linked to, 270 charioteer for Kājib, 217, 220 cremation promoted by, 227, 234, 241t described, 229–30 detractors as minions of, 124 disobedience of, 197, 224, 224–25n163, 229 false guru publicized by, 109–10 as guru, 224, 226–27, 234, 241t, 242–43 idol worship taught by, 136, 176, 215, 241t, 247, 262 interpolated tract on, 91n70, 92 Kābil’s descendants deluded by, 262 Kr̥ṣṇa/Hari and, 258, 260, 263–70, 281, 304–05 as mahājana, 197

Muhammad meets in merāj, 317, 319 Muhammad vs., 230–31, 244, 258, 290–91, 303 name of, 183n32, 225 Nārada and, 136, 163, 228, 258, 263–64, 276, 305 in Persian literature, 176, 196, 221n152, 224–25, 227–28 in Qurʾān, 224n162, 225n165 Varasiyā and, 110–12 Vedas rewritten by, 226–27, 234, 241t Iblisnāmā, 91n70, 92 Ibn ʿAbbās, ʿAbd Allāh, 175 Ibn ʿAbbās/Bakrī intertext, 315–18, 320n33, 321, 321n42, 330nn77–78, 331n79, 332, 345. See also Bakrī, Abū al-Ḥasan, Ibn ʿAbbās, ʿAbd Allāh Ibn al-ʿArabī, 29n101, 37, 38, 41–42, 52, 323n49 Ibn al-Farīd, ʿUmar, 64 Ibn Isḥāq, Muḥammad, 23, 36n125, 77, 147, 170, 291, 296n164, 296n166, 301n181, 304, 320n37 Ibn Saʿd, Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad, 120 Ibrāhim (B)/Ibrāhīm (Ar) (Abraham), 37, 80, 222n155, 283, 294n160, 296n166, 320n37, 337 in line of prophets, 80, 174, 211, 294–95 Muhammad meets in heaven, 320 NV omits sacrifice of son by, 178 in Persian literature, 78, 178, 228, 247n208, 285 tale-cycle of, 78, 82, 178, 212, 247, 249, 260 wives of, 206n103, 212, 290 Ibrāhīm Khān, 7 identification, 100, 156, 237, 238t, 240t, 242, 306 in five-fold model, 162–65, 167t identity, 18, 69, 70, 89, 104, 156, 164, 170 idolatry or idol worship: Ābdul Karim condemns, 217–19 by Ābu Jehel, 301–03 angels dislike places of, 226 Iblis-Nārada teaches, 136, 176, 215, 217, 241t, 262


by kāphirs, 98–99, 336n98 origins of, 227 prophets sent to prohibit, 173, 219, 221, 258, 262 Śiś condemns, 215–17, 221, 224, 240t, 242 as theme in NV, 89, 221, 243, 247, 262, 298, 337–38, 350 as theme in other works, 221, 221n152, 246, 247n208 See also hell: idolaters in idols: of Ādam et al., 215, 217 in Kaʿba, 212, 215, 288, 292 Kājib makes or defends, 217, 219–20 Muhammad’s feet as alternative to, 338–39 Muhammad’s hands tainted by, 337–38 of Rādhā and Kr̥ṣṇa, 249, 259, 273, 275, 277–78, 311 sacrifices to, 215, 337 Idris (B)/Idrīs (Enoch): in line of prophets, 80, 174, 283, 295–96 in NV, 82, 244, 295–96), 320, 341 in other texts, 221n152, 222n155, 223, 244, 283 Ilyās Shāhī dynasty, 8, 19 images: defaced or replaced, 309–11 Juwayrī on, 221n152 of lovers in paintings, 203 NV on, 216–17, 242, 248, 259, 277–78, 350 in Vaiṣṇavism, 249, 275, 277–78 imaginaire, 154 Bengali, 43, 215, 261, 309 literary, 144, 261, 309 religious, 282 imagination: Bengali, 48, 349 expanded or enlarged, 246, 349 hinduāni, 18, 349 jinn in Arab, 185 of past, 132, 246 religious, 48, 157, 159 Ricoeur on, 114 translation transforms, 5, 245 imagined community, 100, 144, 156


Imām Vijaya of Daulat Ujīr Bahrām Khān, 147 Imāms, 147–48 Shīʿī theology of, 38–39, 209 Shīth as proto-, 221 imān, 97, 100, 102, 119, 132, 134 incorporation, 141n80, 160–62, 165–66, 167t, 306 infidels, 91n73, 215, 224, 227. See also kāphirs intertextuality: Culler on, 153–54, 235–36 detection of (or not), 166, 169, 235–36 Ganeri on, 94, 149, 149n100 literary theorists on, 145, 153 mnemohistory and, 17 NV and, 24, 77–79, 144–45, 148, 152, 155, 163, 166, 169, 177, 194, 222, 235–41, 261, 350 polemical, 267 self and, 181 semantic stacking and, 237, 350 Sufi authors use of, 357 translation and, 144–46, 153, 236 invocations, 31n105, 74 Ālāol’s, 55 Amīr Khusraw’s, 28n93 in NV, 1–2, 27–28, 30, 33, 81, 86 scribal, 87 See also ḥamd; vandanā ipseity, 141–43 Iran or Iranians, 50, 129, 180. See also Persia Īsā (B)/ʿĪsá (Pers) (Jesus), 37, 80, 82, 86, 174, 231, 320, 329, 341 omission of tale-cycle of, 84, 89 in Persian qiṣaṣ, 176 ʿĪsá Khān, 6, 6n6, 7, 9, 158 Isḥāq, 260 Iskandarnāma of Niẓāmī, 12, 72n5 islām, 97–98, 100, 132 Islām Khān Chishtī, 7 Islamic Bangla literature. See under Bangla literature Islamicization, 11n38, 180, 352

410 I N D E X

Islamization, 156, 165, 168–69, 340, 349, 352, 359, 362–64 of Chittagong, 15 DeWeese on Central Asia’s, 133 Eaton on Bengal’s, 15–17, 67, 104n117 literacy and, 90 NV’s portrayal of, 122, 132–33 Ismāil (B)/Ismāʿīl (Ar) (angel), 319–20 Ismāil (B)/Ismāʿīl (Ar) (prophet), 38n135, 211, 212, 294, 295 Isrāphil, 319–21, 329 Īśvara, 182–83. See also Śiva itihāsa, 151–52 Iusuph (B)/Yūsuf (Ar), 232, 240t, 285, 291, 299–300, 303, 309–10, 320 in Kisāʾī’s Qiṣaṣ, 260, 304–05, 309n199 Kr̥ṣṇa/Hari and, 25, 260–61, 304–05, 309, 310n202 omission of story of, 24–25, 261, 304, 309n199 Iusuph-Jalikhā of Ābdul Hākim, 261, 310n202 Iusuph-Jalikhā of Śāh Muhammad Sagīr, 261 date of, 14n48 expression “purāṇa korān” in, 195, 195n79 Islamic cosmogonical themes in, 55 Saiyad Sultān and, 24–25 Jagannātha, 29n100 Jahāngīr, Emperor, 7 Jāhnavā Devī, 250, 252, 277–78 Jains, 3, 111, 309 Jākāriyā (B) (Zachariah), 80, 206n103 Jalikhā (B)/Zulaykhā (Ar), 25n84, 261. See also Yūsuf u Zulaykhā of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī Jāmī, Nūr al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Aḥmad, 25, 50–51, 261, 309, 310n202, 331n79 jann, 80n39, 182, 188, 238t, 286 Juwayrī on, 196 NV’s terms for, 184, 184n37, 188, 194, 195, 235, 237 prophets murdered by, 185

as asuras, 184, 188, 195, 235 See also Māric; Mārij jārīgāna, 74, 96n82 Javanese, 104, 107n122, 122, 137 Jayadeva, 188n51, 259n37 Jayānanda, 273n75, 276–77 Jaykum Rājāra Laṛāi, 91 Jerusalem, 212, 312–14, 317, 318n24, 319 Jessore (Cāndikāna), 10, 73 Jesuits, 5, 157–58, 160n132, 359 Jesus. See Īsā Jews, 47n160, 170, 179–80, 229, 242, 319 as People of the Book, 298, 336 Jibrāil, 198, 204–05, 213, 217, 289, 296, 300–301, 321, 323, 340–41 in ascension narratives, 317–19 as messenger, 286 al-Jīlī, ʿAbd al-Karīm, 42 jinn, 182–86, 188, 194–96, 224, 235–43, 335 creation of, 42 as suras, 184, 188, 195, 235 jīvas or jīvāttamā, 35, 38, 45–46, 199, 211, 274, 278, 279n93, 325 Jñāna Cautiśā, 55n184, 91, 91n72 Jñāna Pradīpa, 55–56, 64, 200n97, 332, 335 audience of, 102n108 author of, 55n184, 91, 91n72 Jñāna Sāgara of Ālī Rajā, 58n193, 61n204, 63n210, 64n213, 360 Job, 283, 294n160 Juwayrī/Ḥuwayzī, Muḥammad, 77, 146, 150, 174–80, 197 authorities in, 175 on creation, 29, 35n121, 41–42n144, 47n162, 177, 182 on death of Muhammad, 177n15 discourse markers in, 175 on Iblīs, 176, 225, 228 on idol-worship, 221, 221n152 on jān, 196 miʿrāj omitted by, 77, 316–17 NV relies on, 78, 174–75, 177, 178 on prophetic light, 176–77, 209 on Shīs̱, 223


Kāʿba, 198, 212, 213, 215, 222n154, 292 Kābil (Cain): Ākimā and, 88n64, 204, 206n103 death of, 215 Hābil and, 198, 214 Hari/Kr̥ṣṇa in lineage of, 80, 234, 241t, 281 idolatrous line of, 215, 221–22, 226–27, 231, 234, 241t, 242–44, 258, 262, 273 Kabīr, 32n113 Kālī, 74n16, 96 kali age or yuga, 244, 289 Caitanya as avatāra of, 246, 269n61, 270, 277, 308 Hari as avatāra in, 234 Muhammad as avatāra of, 149, 153, 156, 234n192, 246, 282, 288–89, 307, 349, 351 saṃkīrtana in, 253, 277 Vedas obsolete in, 234 kalimā, 96, 99, 255, 289, 300, 341 as mahāmantra, 200, 200n97, 291 Kalki, 188n51, 195 Kāma, 111, 207, 259 Kaṃsa, 258, 264, 271, 296–97, 299–302 Kānhāvat of Malik Muḥammad Jāyasī, 32n111, 33n117 kāphirs (B)/kāfirs (Ar) (infidels), 46, 97–100, 142, 336n98, 337 Karbalā, 19–20, 147 Karim Sāhityaviśārada, Ābdul, 31n104, 92n74 collections of, 21n74, 83, 91n73, 367 on Iblisnāmā, 91–92 on “Rasul Carita,” 92n73 karma, 46, 106, 268, 275, 279n93 musalmāni, 99, 133–34 rebirth in Baṅga due to, 96, 116n7 righteous (dharma), 259, 273 Kashmir or Kashmīrī, 12, 117 Kāśīrāmadāsa, 73, 87, 265 Katrābo (Catabro), 6, 6n6, 157–58 Kauravas, 219–20, 265n50 Kaviraj, Sudipta, 95, 125n30 kāyasthas, 72 Khadijā (B)/Khadīja (Ar), 80, 81, 82, 312, 320, 322, 322n46, 326n63, 333n87 Khalidi, Tarif, 170, 334n91


Khāliq Bārī, 32n112 al-Khargūshī, 45n152 Kheturi festival, 25, 250–51, 276, 278 Khijir (B)/Khiz̤r (Pers), 78, 109, 178 Khodā, 22, 163 Khorāsān or Khorāsānīs, 12, 120–21 Khusraw Anūsharavān (Pers)/Naośeroyān (B), 292–93 Khusraw Dihlavī, Amīr, 28n93, 117–18 kīrtana, 73, 249, 253–54, 275–77, 290 al-Kisāʾī, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh, 28n98, 75–76, 183n32, 196, 244, 246 on Adam, 197–98, 200, 200nn95–97, 201n99, 207–09, 210n118, 212–13 on creation, 41n144, 181–82 on earth’s plea, 187, 194, 239t on Iblīs, 224–25 NV’s use of, 77–78, 174–79, 184–85, 197–98, 200, 204, 207, 209, 212, 224–25, 238t, 247n208 on Shīth, 214, 215, 220–21, 223–24 Yūsuf tale-cycle of, 260, 304, 309n199 kitāb al-miʿrāj, 147, 314 Kitāb al-miʿrāj of al-Qushayrī, 314–15 Konkani, 117–18n10, 160n132, 359 Korān (B)/Qurʾān (Ar), 56, 95, 222, 223n155, 224nn161–62, 240–41t, 247, 342, 358 Allāh as creator in, 31 Arabic, 128–29 authority of, 90, 343 in Bengal, 96, 103, 112, 131, 332 bow-lengths in, 51, 61n204, 63, 327 commentaries on, 76 as Criterion (Phorkān/Furqān), 102, 234, 330, 362 durūd in, 290n142 hell or Iblīs in, 97, 225, 244, 280, 332 jinn in, 182n29, 185, 196 law taught by, 233, 280 Meccan sūras of, 284 messengers or prophets in, 118, 126, 173, 213, 233, 273n76, 283–84, 286n131, 287–88, 288n139, 297, 306 miracles in, 55

412 I N D E X

Korān (B)/Qurʾān (Ar) (cont.) Muḥammad in, 50, 55, 297, 314, 324n54, 333 NV and, 17, 100–104, 112, 115, 118–21, 131, 234, 242, 297, 362 paradise in, 332, 336 People of the Book in, 68, 232, 298–99 practices prescribed by, 129–30, 133 recited, 110 Saiyad Sultān’s knowledge of, 347 schools teaching, 16, 365 Sūrat al-Najm in, 43–44n150 Sūrat al-Nūr in, 37, 37n130, 45 translation of, 17, 48, 103, 115, 118–23, 126–32, 159, 175 Kristapurāṇa, 160n132, 359–60 Kr̥ṣṇa: Arjuna and, 271–72, 273n74 ascension of, 272–73, 337 in Bengali avātara lists, 188n51, 265 Bengalis recite tales of, 96 bhakti toward, 33, 254, 255–56, 279–80 birth or conception of, 291, 296–97, 299, 300n178, 360 created, 4, 287–88 displaced by Muhammad, 246, 311, 350 as “ghee in milk,” 32n111 Iblis and, 176, 217, 258, 260, 265–69 idols or images of, 259, 275, 277–78 Iusuph/Yūsuf and, 25, 260–61, 309–10 lineage of, 262 Muhammad and, 291, 299, 300n178, 302, 304, 308 as nāgara, 270 name of, 253, 255, 273, 275 NV as alternative to tales of, 148, 152, 166, 170, 349 NV’s characterization of, 281, 310 nymphs chide, 273–74 overview of NV’s story of, 257–60 parody or polemic of, 25, 241t, 257, 260–61, 280, 305–06, 308, 337 performance genres of, 73–74, 74n16, 96n82, 148 as prophet, 80, 136, 149, 174, 195, 234, 249, 258, 262, 281, 287, 306

Rādhā and (see under Rādhā) as supreme deity, 149, 152, 246, 248, 250, 258–59, 265–67, 269, 270, 275, 279, 280, 296, 306, 350, 351 Kr̥ṣṇa Caitanya (Gauṛīya founder). See Caitanya, Kr̥ṣṇa Kr̥ṣṇacaitanyacaritāmr̥ta of Murāri Gupta, 39 Kr̥ṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, 88, 148, 250, 251, 253n20, 268n57, 269–70, 288n140 kr̥ṣṇamaṅgalas, 257, 264 Kr̥ttivāsa, 72, 73, 193, 292 Kurukṣetra, 217, 271 Lakṣmī, 74, 96, 193 landscape, 203, 233 Laṭāʾif al-miʿrāj of al-Ṣulamī, 108, 314–15, 321n41, 333n89, 338n102, 339n106 Lefevere, André, 353–54 legitimation, 209, 211, 298n172, 341–45 Leider, Jacques, 8, 9–10 letter mysticism. See under mysticism light, 33, 34, 59, 324n54 creation from, 35n121, 41, 54n180, 57n189, 80, 177, 182, 185 in early sources, 37–39, 41–42 in Jñāna Pradīpa, 47 in Persian literature, 176–77, 209, 243 as primordial principle, 33, 36, 38–44, 49, 52, 58, 209–11, 295 prophetic, 36, 38, 176, 221, 295, 296n166 qurʾānic verse on, 37, 37n130, 45 tejas, 40, 294, 297 texts about, 56–57 of truth, 279 veils of, 44–45n152 visualized, 55–56, 59 Zoroastrian and Manichean soteriologies of, 209 See also Nūr Muhammad līlās, 73, 267, 309, 360 lineages, master–disciple (guru-śiṣya or pīr-murīd), 107–08, 110, 112–13, 344 literacy, 14–15, 66, 69, 90, 93, 104


Lord, Albert, 71n3 Lorrea, Carola Erika, 6n6, 158n128 Madhumālatī of Mīr Sayyid Mañjhan Shaṭṭārī Rājgīrī, 33n116, 49n165 maghāzī, 147 maghāzī-maṅgala genre, 148 Magians, 47, 292 Mahābhārata, 152, 217, 240t, 271, 273n75, 294, 310, 354n16 Bangla, 72, 112n138 earth’s plea in, 187–88, 287 Kāśīrāmadāsa’s, 73, 87, 265 Kavīndra Parameśvaradāsa’s, 22, 112n138, 219–20, 272 mythology of, 42, 273 NV mentions, 22, 272n72 recited in Muslim courts, 72, 272 Sañjaya’s, 272 mahājana: avatāras or deities as, 30, 81, 135, 186, 190, 194–97, 288, 298 NV’s auditors called, 262–63 peacock likened to, 197 Rāma as, 30, 192 in Vaiṣṇava understanding, 281n107 Vedas sent with, 186 villains and Iblis as, 197 Maheśa, 187, 239t, 288, 298 Majumdar, Biman Bihari, 148 Maktul Hosen of Muhammad Khān, 54, 74 chronogram of, 24 date of, 23–24 manuscripts of, 24, 104n114 quoted, 18–20, 125n31 script of, 104 Malay, 104, 107n122, 122n23, 137 Mālik, 318, 320n36. See also hell: king of Man Khari/ʿAlī Khān, 8 Man Pa, 9 Man Phalaung, 9 Mān Siṅgh, Rājā, 7 Manasā, 74, 96 maṇḍala, 49, 61, 63 maṅgalācaraṇa, 28 maṅgalakāvya, 147–48, 151t, 236, 238t, 360


maṅgala-vijaya literature, 72, 74 Manrique, Fray Sebastien, 10, 27n91 manuscripts: of Āgama of Ālī Rajā, 60n203 of Caitanyacaritāmr̥ta, 270n66 from Chittagong and Comilla, 53, 83, 84n47 of Daqāʾiq, 46–47 dates of, 83, 83n44 of Ibn Isḥāq’s sīra, 23n79 of Jaykum Rājāra Laṛāi, 91n73 of Jñāna Cautiśā and Jñāna Pradīpa, 91n71 of Kisāʾī’s Qiṣaṣ, 75 of Maktul Hosen, 18n65, 19, 24, 104, 104n114 of NV, 21, 23, 53, 74, 80–81, 83–89, 91–92n73, 92n74, 104–05, 116n9, 124, 321n42, 362, 367–68t NV critical edition and, 69, 83–89 NV sections as independent, 53, 80, 85, 87, 147 of Persian texts, 78, 178 Māric (B)/Mārij (Ar), 80, 81, 182–84, 235–37, 238–39t. See also jann Mārijāt (B)/Mārija (Ar), 80, 81, 182, 235–36, 237, 238–39t Mars̱iya of Mīr Babbar ʿAlī Anīs, 301n183 Mārut, 82 mas̱navīs, 28, 55 maulānās, 336 Mayāil or Mahlāil (B)/Mahlāʾīl (Pers), 82, 222 Mecca, 3, 80–81, 82, 83, 177, 208, 316, 322n46, 337 Ādam’s pilgrimage to, 198, 212 House of God at, 198, 212, 213, 215, 222n154 masjid in, 319, 320, 320n37 night journey from, 312, 314 pilgrimage to, 213 prayer in direction of, 313 in Qurʾān, 185 Saiyad Sultān on Arabs in, 119 Medina, 3, 23n79, 81, 82, 284, 312, 316

414 I N D E X

meditation, 49, 56, 62, 106, 109, 110, 277, 335 on idol, 218, 275 by Muhammad, 326 Sufi practice of, 58–59 merāj (B)/miʿrāj (ascension), 82, 108n125, 273, 316–18, 318n25, 336, 343 Bengali flavor of NV’s, 316, 318, 333, 345 See also miʿrāj; Śab-i merāj messengers, 46, 47n160, 103, 124, 231, 247, 312 avatāras compared to, 2, 29–31 clouds or wind as, 203 created to destroy sin, 173, 262 dūta, 185, 286 faith in, 97, 102 Khodā’s, 22 languages spoken by, 118 Nārada as, 228 number of, 172–73n3 in Qurʾān, 283–84, 288n139 terms used for, 174, 273n76, 284–87 Mikāil, 318, 320, 329 Milstein, Rachel, 78, 176, 178 mīm, 50, 54, 62–64, 325 Mir, Farina, 28n93, 28n95, 31n105 miʿrāj (ascension). See merāj/miʿrāj miʿrāj (genre), 147, 314–19, 321–22, 343, 345 Ibn ʿAbbās/Bakrī traditions of, 315–16, 317–18, 318n24, 320n33, 320n37, 321n42, 322n44, 323n49 paradise and/or hell in, 332, 335n94, 336 Vuckovic on narrative motifs of, 317, 322 miʿrājnāmah, 76–77, 147, 314–15 Miʿrājnāmah of Ḥakīm Ata, 306, 316, 317, 320n33, 320n37, 320n39, 321nn41–42, 340 Mirigāvatī, 48 Mīrkhvānd, 223n155, 315n12 Mirzā Mazhar Jān-i Jānān, 298n174 missionaries: Christian or Jesuit, 5, 66–68, 158n128, 159, 160n132, 162, 359 Portuguese, 10, 157, 158n128 missionary activities or practices: Christian, 84

Gauṛīya Vaiṣṇava, 25, 249, 252, 255; Islamic, 18, 69, 128 missionary translation, 66, 67, 69, 128, 159–60, 160n132, 162, 165n144, 304, 353, 356. See also Nabīvaṃśa: as missionary translation or writing missionizing, 25, 157–58, 362 mnemohistorical discourse, 79, 145, 179, 181, 317, 343, 351, 358 mnemohistory, 16–17, 123 monks, 264n45, 286n128, 291 Buddhist, 3, 252 Jaina, 3, 111 Moses. See Musā/Mūsá mosques: Baṛaliyā (Patiya, Chittagong), 346–48 Eaton on, 16 Flood on, 309–10 Haritalā (Sylhet), 364–66 Hasan on, 364 in Mecca, 319, 320n37 miḥrāb in, 364–65 Rāstī Khān (Jobrā, Hāthahazāri, Chittagong), 19n70 traditional village, 16, 364–66 Mrauk U, 8–12, 14 Mughals, 5–14, 16, 27, 33n118, 158, 356, 365 Muhammad (B)/Muḥammad (Ar): Āllā as pīr or guru for, 108 Āllā meets with, 321–22, 323n49, 324, 326–30, 333–34, 341 Āllā tells tales or kathā to, 90, 103, 108 as Āllā’s beloved or friend, 33, 35–36, 55, 119, 211, 313, 318, 323–31, 341, 344 Arabic texts about, 23, 50, 64, 77n35 authority of, 93, 113, 155 as avatāra or aṃśāvatāra (see under avatāra) baby substitution story about, 299–303 as bhāvinī, 327, 327n65, 328–29 birth of, 3, 80, 82, 86, 212, 230–31, 290–93, 295n160, 299–300, 316 campaigns or conquests of, 3, 81, 82–83, 91n73, 147–48, 177 community of, 112


as cosmic principle, 32–33 death of, 3, 81, 83, 177n15 described in sarāpā, 291n146 early years of, 3, 80, 82, 107 feet or sandals of, 108, 330, 338, 339 as first prophet, 36–37, 166, 293, 326 genealogy or lineage of, 4, 31–32, 80, 108–09, 112, 115, 119, 188, 195, 209, 211, 293, 295, 306, 343–44 hands of, 337–38 Hari/Kr̥ṣṇa and, 80, 107, 152, 246, 282, 306, 308, 337 as intercessor, 290, 313, 339–41, 344 Medina years of, 82 miracles of, 55, 82, 145 moon as metaphor for, 64 Muqāṭil on, 37 as nabī, 283–86, 308 name of, 49–50, 63–64 naturalized to Bengal, 5, 345 Nirañjana takes form of, 2, 29 non-Islamic scriptures extol, 330–31 as Nūr Muhammad, 36–37, 286, 293 pāñcālī about, 71, 73, 170 as paygāmbar, 234n192, 285–86, 288 as perfect man, 52 as phakir, 313, 322, 332, 334–35, 344, 360 as pīr, 108n123, 335, 344 planets greet, 331 primordial creation of, 36, 38–42, 51n175, 327 shepherd, 303–04 sight of, 46–47n160 as “translator,” 119, 121 in Vedas (see under Vedas) in vernacular South Asian literature, 147–48, 177–78, 359–61 vision of God of, 44n150, 326, 328 as yogī, 326 Muḥammadan Reality (al-ḥaqīqa al-muḥammadiyya), 42, 51–52 Muhammad Khān, 18n65, 19–20, 22, 23–24, 26, 54, 74, 86, 104, 125n31, 362n42 Mukhopadhyay, Sukhamay, 23, 276n83, 277n85


Mukhopadhyaya, Satkari, 272n72 Mukīm, Muhammad, 26, 26n88 mumīn (believers), 46, 97–101, 142 munāphik/munāfiq. See hypocrites. Muṇḍa, 188, 188–89n52 Murphy, Tim, 70, 97, 100, 114 on group identity formation, 156 semiotic theory of religion of, 138–39, 305, 307 Musā (B)/Mūsá (Pers) (Moses), 37, 82, 222n155, 231, 290, 317, 320, 322, 329–30 as disciple, 109 in line of prophets, 80, 174, 283 Nīshābūrī on, 178–80 NV’s sources for, 78, 178–79 sharīʿat of, 179 tale-cycle of, 78, 249, 260, 306 Mūsá Khān, 6n6, 7, 158 musalmāni, 136, 159, 222, 224, 227, 234–35, 242–45, 301–02, 306 conduct, 122, 133 hinduāni as, 67 representation of, 131, 133–34 Musalmāns, 64, 132–34, 215, 221, 289, 306 munāphik appears as, 99 nonipseity of, 142–43 NV on, 94, 99–100, 119 Muṣībatnāmah of Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, 50 music, 55, 55n183 Mymensingh, 7, 73 mysticism, 64, 316, 318, 321, 323, 332, 343 annihilation in, 326 letter or word, 50–51, 54n180, 62–65, 91, 325 (see also om̐; mīm) of light, 39 Persianate, 65 nabi (B)/nabī (Ar), 40, 165, 174, 181, 311 avatāra and, 163, 246, 282–83, 286, 287, 294–95, 306–08 created, 173, 184 Hari/Kr̥ṣṇa as, 136, 262, 281 Muhammad as, 71, 152, 246, 283–85, 308 paygāmbar vs., 285n124, 286 rasūl vs., 173n5, 284–86

416 I N D E X

nabi (B)/nabī (Ar) (cont.) in title of NV, 152–53 usage of term in NV, 283–87 words derived from, 287 Nabīvaṃśa: audience or auditors of, 4, 30, 45, 53, 68, 90, 93, 103, 136, 153–56, 164, 166, 169, 206–07, 221, 236–37, 238–40t, 245, 264–65, 294, 355 as biography, 84, 93, 126, 145, 306, 339, 351 chronogram of, 21–23 circulation of, 54, 80, 85–87, 147 colophons of, 24n81, 81, 88, 93, 107–08, 233, 253, 338, 339 conversion and (see under conversion) critical edition of, 2n1, 21n74, 83–85, 87–89, 172n3, 364 Daqāʾiq and, 46–47 date of, 23–25 as dharmaśāstra, 233 divisions in, 80–82, 84, 88 (see also Ophāt-i rasul; Rasul Carita; Śab-i Merāj of Saiyad Sultān) as epic, 71, 73, 148 as exegesis or explanation, 123, 127, 131 genre of, 4, 138, 146–48, 150, 260–61 historiographic process of, 17–18, 69, 143, 164, 246, 343, 358 importance or influence of, 3, 53–54, 64, 83, 360–63 interpolations to, 89–90, 92n74 invocation or hāmd in (see under invocations) Islamic tenets in, 222n154 as kitāb, 23, 93 length of, 2, 84 manuscripts of (see under manuscripts) meters of, 88, 88n64 as mirror, 101–02 as missionary translation or writing, 5, 67, 69, 89, 128, 150, 159–60, 165n146, 180, 304, 351, 353, 356, 362 modern views of, 31, 362–63 Muhammad Khān on, 19, 86 musical modes of, 88, 88n64 omissions in, 17, 24, 261

overview of, 2, 79–83 as pāñcālī (see pāñcālīs: NV as) performative context of, 30, 33, 74, 88, 90–91, 93, 166 as purāṇa or itihāsa, 152, 244 purposes of, 4, 94–95, 105, 112, 115, 166, 313, 339, 349 as pustaka, 101, 104 reception history of, 360–63 rhetorical strategies of, 28 ritual purity and, 103 as salvation history (see under salvation history) script used for, 104 semantic stacking in, 237, 243 as single text (or not), 20, 84–86, 89 sources for, 23, 46–47, 77–79, 174–75, 178, 249, 292, 316, 355 as template for ethical practice, 112–13, 313, 335–36, 344 as template for later works, 54, 360 title of, 20, 150–53, 168, 287, 310, 350 as translation, 115 unnamed groups or people in, 142, 249, 305, 352, 355 vocabulary of, 30, 35, 174, 285–87 Nagas, 65–67 Nagel, Tilman, 212, 213, 247 nairākāra (formless one), 29, 32, 35, 62, 186 Naośeroyān, 292–93. See also Khusraw Anūsharavān Nārada, 163, 244, 258, 263–64, 276, 299 Iblis and, 136 in purāṇas, 228 Nara Mit Lha, 8 Nārāyaṇa, 29, 253, 264n45 Narayanganj, 6, 158 Nāṣir al-Dīn Māḥmūd, 8–9 naʿt, 27–28, 86, 315, 315n11, 331 Nāthas, 32, 33, 42, 57, 68, 74n16, 96, 189, 198n89 Newby, Gordon Darnell, 150n101, 212, 304n190 Nida, Eugene, 159–60


Nirañjana or Prabhu Nirañjana, 68, 94, 98, 216, 218, 230 Ālī Rajā on, 60 Arjuna and, 271 in Avadhi literature, 32 as creator, 1–2, 4, 28, 31, 33, 35, 41, 43, 57n189, 58, 119, 199, 218–19, 274 gods created by or subject to, 185, 188, 274 Hari/Kr̥ṣṇa and, 258, 260 identified with Āllā, 163 meditation on, 56, 106, 109, 335 Muhammad as avatāra of, 2, 29–30, 155 name of, 110, 200 Nūr Muhammad and, 41, 57–58, 81, 210 in NV’s invocatory opening, 1, 2, 4, 27–31 prophets sent by, 184, 258, 287 scriptures sent by, 186–87, 194 singular, 222n154, 271, 350 Sītā appeals to, 192 as supreme deity, 2, 29 Viṣṇu or Dharma and, 2, 29, 43, 60 al-Nīshābūrī, Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Manṣūr ibn Khalaf: on creation, 177 discourse markers of, 175 on Iblīs, 225, 228 on idolatry or fire-worship, 221, 221n152, 228, 292 on kalimā, 291 manuscripts of, 78, 178 on Musā, 178–80 NV and, 77–78, 146, 150, 174–80, 220–21, 223, 228, 292 on payghāmbar, 285 qiṣaṣ of, 77, 150, 316 salvation history of, 179–80 See also Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ of al-Nīshābūrī Niśumbha, 188, 188–89n52 Nityānandadāsa, 250n6, 251nn11–12, 252n14, 255n24, 255nn26–27 Nityānanda Ṭhākura, 250, 277–78 Niẓāmī, 12, 28n93, 33n116, 72n5, 331n79 Noakhali, 7–8, 15 Nūh (Noah), 82, 190, 222n155, 247, 294n160, 337n99


in line of prophets, 37, 80, 174, 190, 295–96 in Qurʾān, 283–84 Nūr Muhammad (B)/Nūr Muḥammad (Ar), 22, 33, 39–49, 93, 172n3, 176, 328 in Ābdullā’s body, 38, 296 Ādam and, 38, 208–11, 213, 295 Āhād, Āhmad, and, 52, 54n180, 60, 61n206 Ālāol on, 55 Ālī Rajā on, 63–64 as aṃśāvatāra, 40, 297 Ānbiyā Vāṇī on, 54, 54nn180–81 anthropomorphized, 35n120, 46, 48, 59 Bangla translation of, 40, 297 beloved, 41, 48, 55, 360 creation from, 40–43, 54, 57, 57n189, 80, 81, 82, 181 early Islamic sources on, 37–39, 294 gazing on, 45–46, 49, 62–63, 325 head-to-foot description of, 59 in lantern, 45, 58 light of, 38, 45 modern views of, 48n163 musical modes originate from, 55 NV’s first mention of, 35–36, 163, 232 as peacock, 44–46, 58 as primordial principle, 37, 41, 343 Shīʿī imāmī ideology and, 209 Sufis on, 33, 45, 55–56, 316 transmission of, 38n135, 211, 213, 295 worships Lord, 44 Nūr Nāmā of Dvija Rāma Tanu, 55n183 Nūr Nāmā of Mīr Muhammad Saphī, 44n151, 45n154, 56, 57–59 date of, 57n192 Nūr Nāmā of Śekh Parāṇa, 56, 56n188, 57n189 om̐, 48–52, 55–56, 60–65, 68, 135, 199 Ophāt-i rasul of Saiyad Sultān’s Nabīvaṃśa, 74–75, 81, 83, 316, 367 Iblisera Kecchā/Iblisnāma and, 92n74 editions and manuscripts of, 87, 92n74, 116n9, 364n50

418 I N D E X

oral traditions, 14–15 Oriya or Orissa, 29n100, 118n10, 148n98, 254 Orsini, Francesca, 33n117, 190n58, 357 Ortiz, Fernando, 123n26 Pabna, 7, 15 padāvalīs, 20, 252–53 Padmāvatī of Saiyad Ālāol, 12–13, 368 Padumāvat of Malik Muḥammad Jāyasī, 12 paigāmbar (B)/payghāmbar (Pers), 2, 29, 30, 31, 174, 234n192, 284–86, 288. See also messengers Pali, 8, 11 pāncālikās, 20, 86 pāñcālīs, 96, 125n31 as genre, 72–74 NV as, 70–74, 90, 101, 126, 148, 170, 204, 353 puppets and, 73 vandanās of, 74, 86 Paṇḍavas, 219 paṇḍitas, 46, 214 paradise, 185, 197, 198, 204, 258, 277, 341 creation of, 35, 43, 181–82, 230 descriptions of, 332–33 fall from, 198, 207, 225, 231 fragrance of, 200 idol worship a bar to, 337–38 martyrs in, 303, 320 motif of ascent to, 272–73 Muhammad’s parents in (or not), 340 Muhammad’s tour of, 318 People of the Book in (or not), 336 Persian traditions about, 41 terms used for, 35, 174 virtuous go to, 222n154, 230, 290, 300, 303, 332–33 writing NV leads to, 90, 103 See also heaven Parāgal Khān, 22, 26 Parāgalpura, 13, 26–27 Parameśvaradāsa, Kavīndra, 22, 112n138, 219n145, 272 Paraśurāma, 188, 191, 193 pāṣaṇḍīs, 255

Paṭhāns, 12, 122 Patiya, 27, 84n47, 251, 346–47. See also Cakraśālā Pauwels, Heidi, 357 payāra, 28, 88n64 payghāmbar. See paigāmbar/payghāmbar peacocks, 44–46, 58, 197, 202, 203 pearls, 41, 42n144, 181, 187n47, 206, 273n74 in Nūr Nāmā of Saphī, 58–59 Pen, the, 35, 177, 181, 320, 325 People of the Book, 68, 155, 232, 298, 331, 336 performance traditions, 30, 33n117 Bangla or Bengali, 72–75, 166 Blackburn and Flueckiger on, 71n4 Islamic, 71, 74–75 Persianate, 72 Persia, 78, 177, 221, 292 Persian, 14, 57n192, 117n10, 121, 143t, 359 Bangla and Sanskrit genres compared to, 151t in Bengal, 169, 363 diplomatic correspondence in, 11 ḥamd in, 27–28, 28n93, 86, 315, 315n11 historical genres in, 76, 315n12 letter mysticism in, 50–51, 65 in literary polysystem, 115 loan-words or vocabulary from, 30, 174, 285, 363 miʿrāj in, 147, 314, 339n106 narrative poems (mas̱navī) in, 28, 55 naʿt in, 27–28, 28n93, 86, 315, 315n11, 331 North Indian “romances” in, 72n5, 359 poetic or literary conventions of, 27–28, 32–33, 54–55, 161, 339n106 qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ genre in, 4, 28, 71, 75–79, 146, 150, 174, 221, 226, 242, 247n208, 284, 316–17, 358 qurʾānic exegesis in, 121, 129–30 as religiolect, 363 Saiyad Sultān mentions, 22–23, 115–16, 120 salvation histories in, 351 Shīʿī authors writing in, 221 status of, 125, 130, 358, 363 stories or storytelling in, 14, 58, 72


Sufi literature in, 32 translations from, 72n5, 115–16, 163, 355, 359 translations into, 76–77, 77n35, 116, 129–31 Persian or Persianate ecumene, 8, 50, 77, 130, 147, 174, 243, 351 Persians, 78, 127 Perso-Arabic literature, 18, 345 Dalāʾil, 178 as discursive arena, 260 genres of, 152 Iblis in, 227 kitāb as reference to, 104n116 NV doesn’t draw on, 317 NV draws on, 179, 345, 350 qiṣaṣ tradition of, 179, 317 script of, 116 translated into Bangla, 4, 14, 165, 235 translated into “hindi,” 116 See also Arabo-Persian literature Perso-Arabic loan-words, 35–36, 153, 174, 237 Perso-Arabic script, 101 Perso-Turkic tradition, 314. See also Turkish phakirs, 313, 322, 332, 334–36, 344, 360 Phātemā (B)/Fāṭima (Ar), 81, 82, 320, 333n87 philosophy: of Nūr Muhammad, 45, 57 ontological and epistemological foundationalism, 155 Sāṃkhya, 2, 53 Sufi, 32, 55, 60 translation of terms from, 52–53 Vaiṣṇava, 60, 249, 279, 325 of the Word, 65 Phukan, Shantanu, 357 pīrs, 22, 346 Āllā as, 108 authority of, 20, 107, 109, 344 Bengali, 154, 339 cross-denominational appeal of, 96