Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

Print Technology, Colonial Interests, and the Shāh jo Risālo

Adil Mawani

April 11, 2021

What did reading practices look like in early modern South Asia? To address this question, we must explore the processes that enabled the adoption and spread of print technology in South Asia. Interestingly, the innovation of print was established in Europe in the fifteenth century but did not come into use in the Muslim world for another four hundred years. Muslims on the Indian subcontinent, along with communities of other faiths, began producing texts in print in the 1820s. Its swift growth is evidenced by the number of religious texts circulating in the market by the final decades of the nineteenth century, which numbered in the tens of thousands. The issue of how this technology came to be adopted in South Asia is tied to a second question: what effect did European colonialism have on Muslim knowledge production? We can approach this question by asking: to what degree was knowledge production for Muslims the result of a rupture from their earlier traditions and practices, and how much of it remained continuous with their past despite colonial interventions? I examine these questions by exploring the history of the 1866 publication of the Shāh jo Risālo. (Michel Boivin’s recently released volume presents a detailed history of the Risālo’s publication.)

The population of Sindh in South Asia received Muslim newcomers as early as the beginning of the eighth century. This shaped the development of Sindhī arts, such as devotional poetry. One particular work from this tradition of devotional poetry was published during India’s colonial period in, as we shall see, a truly unpredictable way. In 1866, the Shāh jo Risālo (“Shah’s Message”) by Shāh ʿAbdul Laṭīf (d. 1752) appeared in print for the first time. It was published by a press in Germany that was funded by the commissioner of Sindh, Sir Bartle Frere. The text had been compiled and edited by Ernst Trumpp (d. 1885), who held positions with the Church Missionary Society in India and the British Government. The publication benefited from the assistance of Indian translators whose names were not recorded.

Composed by religious luminaries, the Risālo is part of the genre of Sindhī devotional verse written to subvert the outlook of the powerful Hindu and Muslim religious establishment, communicated through Sanskrit and Arabic. While Ḥanafī Sunnism played the role of normative Islam in Sindh, there also existed communities that organized devotion around the figure of a Pir-Saint. The religious fluidity of the Pir-Saints meant that Muslims, Hindus, and members of other faiths contested the exact religious identity of such figures. The tradition was exceptional because of the way that its poetry was attached to a specific sūr (“melodic framework”). This facilitated its use in samāʿ, a practice connected to ecstatic experience with music in mystical traditions of Islam. Shāh ʿAbdul Laṭīf’s Risālo follows this very pattern. Each of its thirty chapters is arranged in a particular sūr and draws upon the narrative of local folktales and themes. By focusing the poetry on spectacular moments from the narrative, the Risālo allows the author to express ideas drawn from the Qurʾān and Sufi thought.

What were the circumstances that led to the production of the Risālo in print form? First, the priority for knowledge production by the colonial administration in Sindh was related to training British bureaucrats, for administrative purposes, in Sindhī. The use of the press for this task is evidenced by the fact that the first printed text in Sindhī was the Bible. Produced in 1820, it was ideal for language instruction since the British civil servant in training would have been conversant with its contents. Furthermore, when a press was established in Karachi in the 1850s, what could be published was strictly regulated by the British administration from Bombay. The Risālo was, therefore, produced to service these objectives. Second, to rule the region more efficiently, Persian was on its way out. A debate ensued, without the input of Indians, about what would take its place as the official state language of Sindh. Sindhī’s prevalence in the region did not immediately settle the question in the hands of higher-level officials. In nineteenth-century Europe, evidence of a written culture, as opposed to a predominantly oral one, was thought to distinguish a “civilized” society from a “barbarous” one. Those in favour of Sindhī needed to make a case for it to be chosen as the state language. Orientalist scholars, however, had not only argued that Sindhī lacked a written tradition but that it was the lowly dialect of another South Asian tongue such as Punjabi, Hindi, or Marwari. So, Trumpp’s Risālo made its way into print because of British officials advocating for an official status for Sindhī. The volume was meant not only to prove that a written tradition existed in Sindhī but also a recognizable literary one. Once the British administration settled upon Sindhī, the operations of statecraft still had to deal with constricting and fixing the language from the numerous, varying Sindhī dialects, and settling upon a script whose options ranged from the Perso-Arabic, Devanagari, and others.

There was something special about a printed and bound text beyond the functional advantages of mass production and circulation. As the only widely available book of its type in print, the Risālo enjoyed a high level of authority and subsequently dwarfed other works of Sindhī poetry. Additional volumes in the Sindhī language would not find their way into print until almost another half century. Publishing facilities were scarce, and a long decade and a half passed before other significant Sindhī works began to be printed. Finally appearing in the 1880s, these texts were biographies narrating Shāh ʿAbdul Laṭīf’s life story. This is remarkable since a Sindhī version of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, in contrast, did not appear in print for another two decades. By then, in other regions of South Asia the publication of vernacular biographies of Muhammad was already widely popular.

Another effect of Trumpp’s Risālo edition was its influence on Sufi thought in the region. In the eighteenth century, Sindhī literature achieved “Persianization” by adopting Persian vocabulary and poetic structures and forms. This afforded it with authority despite its vernacular status. However, Sindhī poetry largely did not depend on dominant Persian sources for its content, aside from the notion of the waḥdat-i wujūd (“unity of being”). The significant sources of Sufi knowledge for Sindhī poetry were drawn instead from the local Naqshbandi community, Shia devotional literature, and the Risālo text. This is further demonstrated by the fact that influential poets, such as Ḥāfez and Rūmī, were not translated into Sindhī until the middle of the twentieth century. In summary, the wide availability of the Risālo in book form made it a primary source of knowledge on Sufism in Sindhī. Trumpp only saw in the Risālo the function of language instruction and failed to recognize other attributes in the poetic masterwork. Uninterested in its ability to transmit knowledge of Islamic mysticism, he did not therefore attend to this aspect when preparing the volume.

The colonial intervention in the publication of the Risālo, therefore, displays ruptures in Sindhi Muslim knowledge production. However, the story of the Risālo took a more encouraging turn. In the earliest print productions of Islamic knowledge in Sindhī, Indians had been relegated to the technical work of translation assistance. In a positive development, Indians had transitioned by the late 1880s to authoring their own works that could reach wide circulation. In 1913, Mirza Qalich Beg (d. 1929) produced the first edition of the Risālo by an Indian author. He, too, drew heavily from Trumpp’s edition. Nonetheless, this was considered the best version until another Sindhī writer produced an updated edition in 1923.

List of Sources

Asani, Ali S. “At the Crossroads of Indic and Iranian Civilizations: Sindhi Literary Culture.” In Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by Sheldon I. Pollock. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Bayly, C. A. Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Boivin, Michel. Sufi Paradigm and the Makings of a Vernacular Knowledge in Colonial India. Electronic resource. 1st ed. S.l.: Springer International Publishing, 2020.

Robinson, Francis. “Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print.” In Islam    and Muslim History in South Asia, 66–104. New Delhi ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Adil Mawani

Adil Mawani is a PhD candidate at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. His primary interests are in religion in early modern South Asia, and South Asian expressions of Islam in the form of religious literature. His doctoral research is on the Sira tradition (sacred biography of Prophet Muhammad). In his dissertation project he focuses on the mid- and late-nineteenth century Urdu writings by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan on Muhammad, and Shibli Numani’s early twentieth century Urdu Sira text. At some point he aims to revisit his MA research on the encoding of religion in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.