Monday, May 25, 2009
There are two senses in which “culture” is defined: culture as the generalized, more or less coherent sociological habits and values of a people; and culture as the higher artistic and intellectual pursuits of a small subset of any given people.
Often these two are interrelated, and the influence of the latter may be reflected in the popularity of some “high culture” work of art or poetry or literature in the realm of the former.
This seems to be more or less the view of a certain scholar of Islamic history in India concerning one particular “best-seller” of Moghul India in the 16th century (if not also in its ensuing two centuries) when Islam ruled the Subcontinent. The article by this scholar is a brief book review, and so I don’t know what larger sociological assumptions she is making by calling a 14th-century book of poetry, then revived in the 16th century, a “best-seller” nor what evidence she has for making them. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to trust the judgment of a reputable scholar in this regard, insofar as such a scholar wouldn’t be tossing off such a term lightly.
The scholar is Joanna Lehman who, from a cursory sampling of her academic production, appears to be an unremarkably solid scholar in the field of south Asian culture with apparently an emphasis on Islam in India, and had furthermore collaborated with her husband, Fritz Lehmann, another scholar of the same subject (before his death in 1994).
Prof. Lehmann’s book review concerns a certain “Persian intellectual” of the 14th century named Nakshabi who, she writes, “emigrated to India to escape the Mongol holocaust” (one assumes this refers to non-Muslim Mongols fighting against Muslims).
Nakshabi’s best-known work was based on a Sanskrit legend called the “Shukasaptati” (Seventy Tales of a Parrot) as well as drawing on a panoply of other Hindu and Muslim literature such as the Panchatantra, the Sindhbad-nama, and the Kalila wa Dimna. Nakshabi used an extant Persian translation of the Shukasaptati, the Jawahir al-Asmar of ‘Imad bin Muhammad, “which,” Prof. Lehmann tells us, “he improved by putting into a more elegant style and adding Persian verse, including some qit’a (four-line stanzas) of his own, and quotations from the Quran.”
Prof. Lehmann continues:
Nakshabi’s work enjoyed a great revival of interest during the Mughal period. The emperor Akbar ordered Abu’l Fazl to make an abridgement of it, and another was produced by Muhammad Qadiri.
Now here is the seemingly banal but highly significant observation made by Prof. Lehmann about this popular piece of Islamic literature:
It is interesting to note that while the frame story is taken over intact from the Sanskrit original, the ending and the tone are changed. The young and beautiful wife of a traveling merchant is tempted to take a lover during her husband’s absence, but is distracted by the marvelous stories told by his talking parrot. In the Shukasaptati, the returning husband forgives his wife. In this work, although the parrot boasts to the husband, “I have saved your honey from the molestations of flies,” the husband beheads his wife and becomes a religious recluse—an ending foreshadowed in several of the stories.
I.e., in the original Hindu version of this popular epic poetry, the theme is one of the husband forgiving his wife even though he suspects that she, in his absence, might have been flirting with another man or even had an affair. In the popular Islamic version, we find a darker more grotesque turn of moral that becomes thematic, where the husband upon his return does not forgive his wife but beheads her—even though the parrot who has been watching her reports to him that she did not succumb to the temptation—and he subsequently becomes even more devoutly Islamic than he was before.
Thus we have a glimpse into the humanity of Hindu culture, and by stark contrast the inhumanity of Islamic culture. This also undermines the typical tendency of the Islam apologist (whether Muslim or PC MC) to exculpate such barbarity on the basis that “well, everybody was that way back in those times”—for here we have the same Hindu literature reflecting a far more humane moral contrasted with the Muslim version of that literature twisted with a grotesque moral, and the Hindu literature is even older than the Muslim version, and centuries older than the Muslim version in its popular revival!
The citation for the Lehmann review article is:
“The Cleveland Museum of Art’s Tuti-nama: Tales of a Parrot, by Ziya’U’D-Din Nakshabi.” In: The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Feb., 1980), pp. 384-385.
On more of a modern pop culture angle to Islam, see my recently polished up essay from almost three years ago:
Aladdin, Disney, Malaysia, and Islam