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Issue Date: Friday , April 4 , 2008


The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the
Auspicious Planetary Conjunction
By Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami,
Random House, Rs 750

Perhaps there is something to be said for the planetary conjunction that has brought about this momentous work. It was a severe persecution complex, set off by British reformism in 19th-century Bengal, which caused the flowering of the Bengal Renaissance — a period of intense intellectual activity that had profound effects on Bengal’s society and its psyche. Does the rediscovery of Amir Hamza mark a similar starting point for the Islamic world, wracked by self-doubt and threats of a rupture from within? Are the elephant-eared lady’s exhortations to the translator, Musharraf Ali Farooqi, in his dream — that “everyone was counting” on him — of more significance than Farooqi is willing to accord them? For, quite obviously, the sniggering horse-headed gent and the lady, coming from the magical world of Hamza, Buzurjmehr and Amar Ayyar, given their unique foresight, seem to know more than we do.

Oblivious of the grand design, however, the responsibility that Farooqi took on at the insistence of the creatures of his dream and in fond remembrance of the friends of his childhood imagination — the devs, jinns, simurghs and peris — is stupendous. This first-ever unabridged rendering in English of the now-forgotten Indo-Islamic epic is a translation of Dastan-e Amir Hamza, written by Ghalib Lakhnavi in 1855, and later amended by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871. Hence the co-authorship in the title of the English translation. The book is a collection of the dastan of the eponymous hero, Amir Hamza. The story moved from Persia, its place of conception sometime in the 9th century, to India and beyond. During the course of this journey and the innumerable retellings in front of campfires and rustic congregations, it picked up, as all epics do, folk tales and indigenous cultural traditions. In the tale, Mughal court habits thus sit as comfortably with rituals of the Sassanid court, just as a fully-developed Islamic rite like chehlum pops up naturally in the pre-Islamic era of Hamza, the uncle of Prophet Mohammad. His life and time provide the seed of the story.

If the writing down of this timeless, ever-changing, dastan proved a difficult task, its translation into English must have been doubly so. The Urdu text Farooqi worked on was unpunctuated, in keeping with the dastan tradition, and ended only at the chapter breaks. It is a major achievement that Farooqi has managed to put in the required pauses and breaks without losing the unique characteristic of the dastan and its flow from one story to another.

At the heart of the tale is the love story of Hamza and his exquisitely beautiful Chinese lover, Mehr-Nigar, typically thwarted by her whimsical father, the Persian Emperor Naushervan, who himself had once been an admirer of the charm and the bravado of the Arab youth. As a condition for Hamza’s marriage to Mehr-Nigar, Naushervan sends him to slay rebellious devs in the mountain of Qaf. The intrigues of the Sassanid court and the overpowering ambitions of the princess of Qaf, whom Hamza reluctantly marries, delay the lovers’ union. But even when this much-awaited event takes place, the swiftly-moving tale cannot stop and catch its breath. A vortex of events takes the lovers, their children and grandchildren to their fates — all known to the wise vizier, Buzurjmehr.

It is not just beauty, heroism, wisdom and bravery that the dastan celebrates. Hamza, in fact, is often made out to be a vulnerable, fallible, bumbling hero, who has to be saved by divine intervention at times. The dastan forces Hamza to share equal space with his friend, Amar Ayyar, his complete opposite and a deliciously amoral trickster, who lays claim to the reverence that is Hamza’s due with his loyalty and commitment to friendship. It is Amar who protects Mehr-Nigar while Hamza goes demon-slaying and fails to keep his promises.

Amar, the underdog, the son of a camelier, provides the fun and the shock element to the grim tale of Hamza’s conquests (of land and women) with his magic and pranks. A top favourite among the pranks is to arrange drugged royal opponents in sexually explicit postures in the nude. The number and the variety of characters that crowd the canvas of the dastan are mind-boggling. Women are pawns in the political game of their fathers and brothers, but they are also strong enough to defy heroes and slay them. The tale, in this context, is as subversive as The Arabian Nights.

What drives the tale is the struggle of the fledgling “True Faith” to hold its own against the established religion of the fire-worshippers, and to conquer new ground. Conversions are an integral part of the tale. They are already a political weapon brandished to subdue adversaries. But there is no shame in acknowledging resistance to the cause. The converted often change sides and re-emerge as rivals. The sacred and the profane are mixed here in equal proportion. Prophets save heroes, but neither they nor the clerics are safe from ridicule.

Farooqi has opened a window to a very different world. Hopefully, it will be opened wider, instead of being closed firmly shut.

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